5: Plebe Camp
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"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 practised. 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 practised 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 manoeuvred, 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 manoeuvres 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
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-l-l," 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
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
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
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.
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