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    Follow the Stories | Eugene, OR (2012)

    The West Point Class of 1861


    Posted: 1.23.2012

    photo of Carter

    A photograph of Orinda's great-grandfather, Eugene Carter, in his West Point cadet's uniform, from the 1861 class book.

    photo of Custer

    A photograph of George Armstrong Custer from the same 1861 West Point class book.

    At the June 2011 ROADSHOW event in Eugene, Oregon, a guest named Orinda, from Portland, brought in an archive of family materials relating to her great-grandfather Eugene Carter's years as a cadet at West Point, including an 1861 class book and his appointment as a 1st lieutenant in the U.S. Army 8th Infantry, signed by President Lincoln, all of which appraiser Martin Gammon valued at between $16,000 and $23,000. In the course of the appraisal, Gammon mentions that the West Point class of 1861 graduated in two groups. But why was that?

    How the West Point class of 1862 became the class of 1861

    The United States Military Academy at West Point was formally established by act of Congress in 1802. Over the first several years of its existence the Academy struggled to find its footing, but eventually it began to thrive under reforms instituted by Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, who was appointed superintendent in 1817. By the outbreak of war in 1861, with scores of academy alumni seasoned from service in both the Mexican and Indian Wars, West Point had ensured that a bounty of well-trained and experienced senior officers were available to lead both the Union and Confederate causes — Ulysses S. Grant ('43) and Robert E. Lee ('29) among them.

    Given the nature of the conflict just beginning to erupt with the Firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, the young West Point cadets were gripped by a fervor to join the Union war effort. That year's 45-member class was graduated in May to begin their commissions a few weeks ahead of schedule. The 34 members of the upcoming class of 1862 in turn petitioned the academy's administration for permission to graduate a whole year early. The final phase of their training was intensified and condensed into a period of less than two months, and that class of cadets — including Orinda's ancestor, Eugene Carter, and George Armstrong Custer — graduated in June.

    The website Gettysburg Daily has produced a multi-part series about the West Point Class of 1861, featuring Christina Moon, a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg National Military Park. Find out more »

    And for more on George Armstrong Custer, see American Experience's website "Custer's Last Stand" at

    See the Eugene, OR (2012) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.

    Luke Crafton is the senior interactive producer for Antiques Roadshow.

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