Plebe Camp – Henry Flipper

“Plebe Camp!” The very words are suggestive. Those who have been cadets know what “plebe camp” is. To a plebe just beginning his military career the first experience of camp is most trying. To him every thing is new. Every one seems determined to impose upon him, and each individual “plebe” fancies at times he s picked out from all the rest as an especially good subject for this abuse (?). It is not indeed a very pleasant prospect before him, nor should he expect it to be. But what must be his feelings when some old cadet paints for his pleasure camp scenes and experiences? Whatever he may have known of camp life before seems as naught to him now. It is a new sort of life he is to lead there, and he feels himself, although curious and anxious to test it, somewhat shy of entering such a place. There is no alternative. He accepts it resignedly and goes ahead. It is not always with smiling countenance that he marches out and surveys the site after reveille. Indeed, those who do have almost certainly received A highly colored sketch of camp life, and are hastening to sad disappointment, and not at all to the joys they’ve been led to expect. He marches into the company streets. He surveys them carefully and recognizes what is meant by “the plebes have to do all the policing,” servants being an unknown luxury. He also sees the sentry boxes and the paths the sentinels tread, and shudders as he recollects the tales of midnight adventure which some wily cadet has narrated to him. Imagination begins her cruel work. Already he sees himself lying at the bottom of Fort Clinton Ditch tied in a blanket, or perhaps fetterless and free, but helpless. Or he may imagine his hands are tied to one, and his feet to the other tent pole, and himself struggling for freedom as he recognizes that the reveille gun has been fired and those merciless fifers and drummers are rapidly finishing the reveille. And, horror of horrors! mayhap his fancies picture him standing tremblingly on post at midnight s solemn hour, his gun just balanced in his hands, while numbers of cadets in hideous sheets and other ghostly garb approach or are already standing around torturing him. And again, perchance, he challenges some approaching person in one direction, and finds to his dismay the officer of the day, the officer of the guard, and a corporal are crossing and recrossing his post, or having already advanced without being challenged, are demanding why it is, and why he has been so negligent.

Just after reveille on the morning of June 22d the companies were marched to their company streets, and the “plebes” assigned to each followed in rear. At the time only the tent floors and cord stays were on the ground. These former the plebes were ordered to align. This we did while the old cadets looked on, occasionally correcting or making some suggestion. It required considerable time to do this, as we were inexperienced and had to await some explanation of what we were to do.

When at last we were done, tents, or rather tent floors, were assigned to us. We thence returned to barracks and to breakfast. Our more bulky effects were carried into camp on wagons before breakfast, while the lighter articles were moved over by our own hands. By, or perhaps before, eleven o clock every thing had been taken to camp. By twelve we were in ranks ready to march in. At the last stroke of the clock the column was put in march, and we marched in with all the “glory of war.” We stacked arms in the company streets, broke ranks, and each repaired to the tent assigned him, which had by this time been brought over and placed folded on the tent floors. They were rapidly prepared for raising, and at a signal made on a drum the tents were raised simultaneously, mid rousing cheers, which told that another “camp” was begun.

After this we had dinner, and then we put our tents in order. At four o clock the police call was sounded, and all the “plebes” were turned out to police the company streets. This new phase of West Point life and its phases rapidly developed themselves was a hard one indeed. The duties are menial, and very few discharge them without some show of displeasure, and often of temper. None are exempt. It is not hard work, and yet every one objects to doing it. The third and fourth classes, by regulations, are required to do the policing. When I was a plebe, the plebes did it all. Many indeed tried to shirk it, but they were invariably “hived.” Every plebe who attempted any such thing was closely watched and made to work. The old cadets generally chose such men for “special dutymen,” and required them to bring water, pile bedding, sweep the floor, and do all sorts of menial services. Of course all this last is prohibited, and therefore risky. Somebody is “hived” and severely punished almost every year for allowing plebes to perform menial duties for him. But what of that? The more dangerous it becomes the more is it practiced. Forbidden things always have an alluring sweetness about them. More caution, however, is observed. If, for instance, a cadet should want a pail of water, he causes a plebe to empty his (the plebe s) into his own (the cadet s). If it should be empty, he sends him to the hydrant to fill it, and, when he returns, gets possession of it as before. An officer seeing a plebe with his own pail recognizable by his own name being on it in huge Roman characters going for water would say nothing to him. If the name, however, should be that of a cadet, the plebe would be fortunate if he escaped an investigation or a reprimand on the spot, and the cadet, too, if he were not put in arrest for allowing a new cadet to perform menial services for him. If he wants a dipper of iced water, he calls out to the first plebe he sees in some such manner as this: “Oh! Mr. , don t you want to borrow my dipper for a little while?” The plebe of course understands this. He may smile possibly, and if not serving some punishment will go for the water.

Plebes are also required to clean the equipments of the older cadets. They do it cheerfully, and, strange to say, are as careful not to be “hived” as the cadet whose accoutrements they are cleaning. I say “required.” I do not mean that regulations or orders require this of the new cadets, but that the cadets by way of hazing do. From the heartrending tales of hazing at West Point, which citizens sometimes read of, one would think the plebes would offer some resistance or would complain to the authorities. These tales are for the most part untrue. In earlier days perhaps hazing was practiced in a more inhuman manner than now. It may be impossible, and indeed is, for a plebe to cross a company street without having some one yell out to him: “Get your hands around, mister. Hold your head up;” but all that is required by tactics. Perhaps the frequency and unnecessary repetition of these cautions give them the appearance of hazing. However that may be, there seems to be no way to impress upon a plebe the necessity of carrying his “palms to the front,” or his “head up.” To report him and give him demerits merely causes him to laugh and joke over the number of them that have been recorded against him.

I do not mean to defend hazing in any sense of the word; but I do believe that it is indispensable as practised at the Academy. It would simply be impossible to mould and polish the social amalgamation at West Point without it. Some of the rough specimens annually admitted care nothing for regulations. It is fun to them to be punished. Nothing so effectually makes a plebe submissive as hazing. That contemptuous look and imperious bearing lowers a plebe, I sometimes think, in his own estimation. He is in a manner cowed and made to feel that he must obey, and not disobey; to feel that he is a plebe, and must expect a plebe s portion. He is taught by it to stay in his place, and not to “bone popularity” with the older cadets.

It is frequently said that “plebe camp” and “plebe life” are the severest parts of life at West Point. To some they are, and to others they are not. With my own self I was almost entirely free from hazing, and while there were features in “plebe life” which I disliked, I did nevertheless have a far easier and better time than my own white classmates. Even white plebes often go through their camp pleasantly and profitably. Only those who shirk duty have to suffer any unusual punishment or hazing.

I have known plebes to be permitted to do any thing they chose while off duty. I have known others to have been kept working on their guns or other equipments whole days for several days at a time. It mattered not how clean they were, or how soon the work was done. I’ve known them to be many times interrupted for the mere sake of hazing, and perhaps to be sent somewhere or to do something which was unnecessary and would have been as well undone. Plebes who tent with first classmen keep their own tents in order, and are never permitted by their tentmates to do any thing of the kind for others unless when wanted, are entirely unoccupied, and then usually their services are asked for. A classmate of mine, when a plebe, tented with a first classman. He was doing something for himself one day in a free and easy manner, and had no thought of disturbing any one. A yearling corporal, who was passing, saw him, thought he was having too good and soft a time of it, and ordered him out to tighten cords, an act then highly uncalled for, save as a means of hazing. The first classman happened to come up just as the plebe began to interfere with the cords, and asked him who told him to do that. He told him, and was at once directed to leave them and return to whatever he was doing before being interrupted. The yearling, confident in his red tape and his mightiness, ordered the plebe out again. His corporalship soon discovered his mistake, for the first classman gave the plebe full information as to what could be required of him, and told him to disobey any improper order of the corporal s which was plainly given to haze him. The affair was made personal. A fight ensued. The corporal was worsted, to the delight, I imagine, of the plebes.

Again, I’ve known plebes to be stopped from work if they were doing something for a cadet to transfer it to some other one who was accustomed to shirk all the duty he could, or who did things slowly and slovenly. Indeed I may assert generally that plebes who are willing to work have little to do outside of their regular duty, and fare in plebe camp quite as well as yearlings; while those who are stubborn and careless are required to do most all the work. Cadets purposely select them and make them work. They, too, are very frequently objects of hazing in its severest form. At best, though, plebe camp is rather hard, its Numerous drills, together with guard and police duty, make it the severest and most undesirable portion of the four years a cadet spends at the Academy.

To get up at five o clock and be present at reveille roll call, to police for half an hour, to have squad drill during the next hour, to put one s tent in order after that, and then to prepare one s self for breakfast at seven, make up a rather trying round of duties. To discharge them all and that must certainly be done keeps one busy; but who would not prefer little extra work and not hard work at that in the cooler part of the day to an equal amount in the heated portion of it? I am sure the plebes do. I know the corporals and other officers who drill them do, although they lose their after reveille sleep.

After breakfast comes troop parade at eight o clock, guard mounting immediately after, and the establishment of the “color line.” Arms and accoutrements must be in perfect order. The plebes clean them during the afternoon, so that before parade it is seldom necessary to do more than wipe off dust, or adjust a belt, or something of the kind.

After establishing the “color line,” which is done about 8.30 A.M., all cadets, save those on guard and those marching on, have time to do whatever they choose. The cadets generally repair to the guard tents to see lady friends and other acquaintances, while the plebes either interest themselves in the inspection of “color men,” or make ready for artillery drill at nine. The latter drill, commencing at 9 A.M., continues for one hour. The yearlings and plebes receive instruction in the manual and nomenclature of the piece. The drill is not very trying unless the heavy guns are used I mean unless they are drilled at the battery of twelve pounders. Of late both classes have been drilled at batteries of three inch rifles. These are light and easily maneuvered, and unless the heat be intense the drill is a very pleasant one.

The first class, during this same hour, are drilled at the siege or seacoast battery. The work here is sometimes hard and sometimes not. When firing, the drill is pleasant and interesting, but when we have mechanical maneuvers all this pleasantness vanishes. Then we have hard work. Dismounting and mounting is not a very pleasant recreation.

At eleven o clock, every day for a week or ten days, the plebes have manual drill. This is entirely in the shade, and when “In place, rest,” is frequently given, is not at all displeasing, except when some yearling corporal evinces a disposition to haze. At five o clock this drill is repeated Then comes parade, supper, tattoo, and best of all a long night s rest. The last two drills continue for a few days only, and sometimes do not take place at all.

The third class, or the yearlings, have dancing from eleven to twelve, and the plebes from then till one. In the afternoon the plebes have nothing to do in the way of duty till four o clock. The camp is then policed, and when that is done there may or may not be any further duty to discharge till retreat parade. After the plebes are put in the battalion that is, after they begin drilling, etc., with their companies all cadets attend company drill at five o clock. After attending a few of these drills the first class is excused from further attendance during the encampment. One officer and the requisite number of privates, however, are detailed from the class each day to act as officers at these drills.

I omitted to say that the first class received in the forenoon instruction in practical military engineering and ordnance.

What most tries plebes, and yearlings, too, is guard duty. If their classes are small, each member of them is put on guard every third or fourth day. To the plebes, being something entirely new, guard duty is very, very obnoxious.

During the day they fare well enough, but as soon as night comes “well enough” disappears. They are liable at any moment to be visited by cadets on a hazing tour from the body of the camp, or by the officers and non commissioned officers of the guard. The latter generally leave the post of the guard in groups of three or four. After getting into camp they separate, and manage to come upon a sentinel simultaneously and from all points of the compass. If the sentinel isn’t cool, he will challenge and Advance one, and possibly let the others come upon him unchallenged and unseen even. Then woe be to him! He’ll be “crawled over” for a certainty, and to make his crimes appear as bad as possible, will be reported for “neglect of duty while a sentinel, allowing the officers and non commissioned officers of the guard to advance upon him, and to cross his post repeatedly without being challenged.” He knows the report to be true, and if he submits an explanation for the offence his inexperience will be considered, and he will probably get no demerits for his neglect of duty.

But the best joke of all is in their manner of calling off the half hours at night, and of challenging. Sometimes we hear No. 2 call off, “No. 2, ten o clock, and all is well,” in a most natural and unconcerned tone of voice, while No. 3 may sing out, “No. 3, ten o clock and all is well ll,” changing his tone only on the last word. Then No. 4, with another variation, may call off, “No. 4, ten o clock, and all l l l s well,” changing his tone on “all l l l s,” and speaking the rest, especially the last word, in a low and natural manner of voice, and sometimes abruptly. And so on along the entire chain of sentinels, each one calls off in a manner different from that of the rest. Sometimes the calling off is scarcely to be heard, sometimes it is loud and full, and again it is distinct but squeakish. It is indeed most delightful to be in one s tent and here the plebes call off in the still quiet hours of the night. One can t well help laughing, and yet all plebes, more or less, call off in the same manner.

Plebe sentinels are very troublesome sometimes to the non-commissioned officers of the guard. They receive their orders time after time, and when inspected for them most frequently spit them out with ease and readiness; but just as soon as night comes, and there is a chance to apply them, they “fess utterly cold,” and in the simplest things at that. Nine plebes out of ten almost invariably challenge thus, “Who comes here?” “Who stands here?” “Who goes here?” as the case may be, notwithstanding they have been repeatedly instructed orally, and have seen the words, as they should be, in the regulations. If a person is going, and is a hundred yards or so off, it is still, “Who goes here?” Everything is “here.”

One night the officer of the day concealed himself near a sentinel s post, and suddenly appeared on it. The plebe threw his gun down to the proper position and yelled out, “Who comes here?” The officer of the day stopped short, whereupon the plebe jumped at him and shouted, “Who stands here?” Immediately the officer started off, saying as he did so, “I’m not standing; I’m going.” Then of course the challenge was again changed to, “Who goes here? “I’m not going; I’m coming,” said the officer, facing about and approaching the sentinel. This was kept up for a considerable time, till the officer of the day got near a sentry box and suddenly disappeared. The plebe knew he was there, and yelled in a louder tone than before, “Who stands here? “Sentry box,” was the solemn and ghostly response.

It is hardly reasonable, I think, to say the plebe was frightened; but he actually stood there motionless, repeating his challenge over and over again, “Who stands here?”

There was a light battery in park near by, and through this, aided by the gloom, the officer of the day managed to pass unobserved along, but not on the sentinel s post. He then got upon it and advanced on him, making the while much noise with his sword and his heavy tread. He walked directly up to the sentinel unchallenged, and startled him by asking, “What are you standing here yelling for?”

The plebe told him that the officer of the day had been upon his post, and he had seen him go behind the sentry box. And all this to the officer of the day, standing there before him, “Well, sir, whom do you take me to be?”

The plebe looks, and for the first time brought to full consciousness, recognizes the officer of the day. Of course he is surprised, and the more so when the officer of the day inspects for his the plebe s satisfaction the sentry box, and finds no one there. He “eats” that plebe up entirely, and then sends a corporal around to instruct him in his orders. When the corporal comes it may be just as difficult to advance him. He may, when challenged, advance without replying, or, if he replies, he may say, “Steamboat,” “Captain Jack, Queen of the Modocs,” as one did say to me, or something or somebody else not entitled to the countersign. Possibly the plebe remembers this, and he may command “Halt!” and call another corporal. This latter may come on a run at “charge bayonets,” and may not stop till within a foot or so of the sentinel. He then gets another “cursing out.” By this time the corporal who first came and was halted has advanced unchallenged and unnoticed since the arrival of the second. And then another cursing out. Thus it is that plebe camp is made so hard.

Surely the officers and non-commissioned officers are right in testing by all manner of ruses the ability of the sentinels. It is their duty to instruct them, to see that they know their orders, and are not afraid to apply them.

Sometimes plebes enjoy it, and like to be cursed out. Sometimes they purposely advance toward a party improperly, to see what will be said to them. It is fun to some, and to others most serious. At best it gives a plebe a poor opinion of West Point, and while he may bear it meekly he nevertheless sighs for the ” touch of a vanished hand,” the caressing hand of a loving mother or sister. I know I used to hate the very name of camp, and I had an easier time, too, than the other plebes.

Of course the plebes, being inexperienced for the most part, are “high privates in the rear rank.” For another reason, also, this is the case. The first and second classes have the right established by immemorial custom of marching in the front rank, which right necessarily keeps the plebes in the rear rank, and the yearlings too, except so many as are required in the front rank for the proper formation of the company. Another reason, perhaps, may be given to the same end. We have what we call class rank, or, in other words, class standing. Every class has certain privileges and immunities, which the junior classes do not enjoy; for example, first classmen, and second-classmen too by General Orders of September, 1876 are excused from guard duty in the capacity of privates, and are detailed first-classmen for officers of the day and officers of the guard, and second-classmen for non-commissioned officers of the guard. All members of the third and fourth classes are privates, and from them the privates of the guard are detailed. All officers, commissioned and non-commissioned, are exempt from “Saturday punishment.” I mean they do not walk extra tours of guard for punishment. The non-commissioned officers are sometimes required to serve such punishments by discharging the duties of corporal or sergeant in connection with the punishment squad. Third and fourth classmen enjoy no such immunities. Plebes, then, having no rank whatever, being in fact conditional cadets until they shall have received their warrants in the following January, must give way to those who have. One half or more of the privates of the company must be in the front rank. This half is made up of those who rank highest, first-classmen and second-classmen, and also, if necessary, a number of third-classmen. Plebes must then, except in rare cases, march in the rear rank, and from the time they are put in the battalion till the close of the summer encampment, they are required to carry their hands with palms to the front as prescribed in the tactics.

All this is kept up till the close of camp, and makes, I think, plebe camp the most trying part of one s cadet life.

On the 28th of August the furloughmen return, and report to the commandant at two o clock for duty.

In the afternoon the battalion is sized and quarters are assigned under the supervision of the assistant instructors of tactics.

At parade the appointment of officers and non-commissioned officers for the ensuing year is published, and also orders for the discontinuance of the encampment.

In the evening the “twenty-eighth hop” takes place, and is the last of the season. On the 29th and beginning at reveille the cadets move their effects into winter quarters in barracks. All heavy articles are moved in on wagons, while all lighter ones are carried over by cadets themselves. By seven o clock every thing is moved away from camp, save each cadet s accoutrements.

Breakfast is served at 7 A.M., and immediately afterward comes “troop” and guard mounting, after which the entire camp is thoroughly policed. This requires an hour or more, and when all is done the “general” is sounded. At this the companies are formed under arm in their respective company streets. The arms are then stacked and ranks broken. At least two cadets repair to each tent, and at the first tap of the drum remove and roll up all the cords save the corner ones. At the second tap, while one cadet steadies the tent the other removes and rolls the corner cords nearest him. The tents in the body of the encampment are moved. Back two feet, more or less, from the color line, while the guard tents and those of the company officers are moved in a northerly direction. At the third tap the tents fall simultaneously toward the color line and the south cardinal point, amid rousing cheers. The tents being neatly rolled up and placed on the floors, the companies are reformed and on the centre. The battalion then marches out to take up its winter quarters in barracks.

When camp is over the plebes are no longer required to depress their toes or to carry their hands with palms to the front. They are, in fact, “cadets and gentlemen,” and must take care of themselves.



Flipper, Henry Ossian. The Colored Cadet at West Point: Autobiography of Lieut. Henry Ossian Flipper, first graduate of color from the U. S. Military Academy.

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