In this chapter I shall describe only those
phases of cadet life which are experienced by "yearlings" in
their "yearling camp."
Beginning July 5th, or as soon after as practicable, the third class receive practical instruction in the nomenclature and manual of the field piece. This drill continues till August 1st, when they begin the "School of the Battery."
The class attend dancing daily. Attendance at dancing is optional with that part of the third class called "yearlings," and compulsory for the "Seps," who of course do not become yearlings till the following September. The third class also receive instruction in the duties of a military laboratory, and "target practice." These instructions are not always given during camp. They may be given in the autumn or spring.
Another delight of the yearling is to "bone colors." Immediately in front of camp proper is a narrow path extending entirely across the ground, and known as the "color line." On the 1st of August sometimes before the "color line" is established, this name being applied also to the purpose of the color line. This ceremony consists in stacking arms just in rear of the color line, and placing the colors on the two stacks nearest the centre of the line.
>From the privates of the guard three are chosen to guard the stacks and to require every one who crosses the color line or passes within fifteen paces of the colors to salute them. These three sentinels are known as the "colors," or "color men," and are numbered "first," "second," and "third."
Those are chosen who are neatest and most soldier like in their appearance. Cadets prepare themselves specially for this, and they toss up their guns to the adjutant at guard mounting. This signifies that they intend competing for "colors." The adjutant falls them out after the guard has marched to its post, and inspects them. Absolute cleanliness is necessary. Any spot of dirt, dust, or any thing unclean will often defeat one. Yearlings "bone" their guns and accoutrements for "colors," and sometimes get them every time they toss up.
A "color man" must use only those equipments issued to him. He cannot borrow those of a man who has "boned them up" and expect to get colors. Sometimes but rarely plebes compete and win.
The inducement for this extra labor is simply this: Instead of being on duty twenty-four hours, color men are relieved from 4 P. M. till 8 A. M. the next day, when they march off. They of course enjoy all other privileges given the "Old Guard."
"Sentinels for the Color Line. The sentinels for the color line will be permitted to go to their tents from the time the stacks are broken till 8 A.M. the following morning, when they will rejoin the guard. They will be excused from marching to meals, but will report to the officer of the guard at the roll call for each meal, and also at tattoo and reveille." (From Résumé of Existing Orders, U. S. C. C.)
It is the yearling who does most of the hazing. Just emerged from his chrysalis state, having the year before received similar treatment at the hands of other yearlings, he retaliates, so to speak, upon the now plebe, and finds in such retaliation his share of enjoyment.
The practice, however, is losing ground. The cadets are more generous, and, with few exceptions, never interfere with a plebe. This is certainly an advance in the right direction; for although hazing does comprise some good, it is, notwithstanding, a low practice, one which manliness alone should condemn. None need information and assistance more than plebes, and it is unkind to refuse it ; nay, it is even not humane to refuse it and also to haze the asker. Such conduct, more than any thing else, discourages and disheartens him. It takes from him all desire to do and earn, to study or strive for success. At best it can be defended only as being effective where regulations are not, viz., in the cases of rough specimens who now not infrequently manage to win their appointments.
Formerly in yearling camp the corporals were all "acting sergeants." They were so acting in the absence of the de facto sergeants. These corporals got the idea into their heads that to retain their appointments they had to do a certain amount of "skinning," and often "skins" were more fancied than real. This was a rather sad condition of affairs. Plebes would find their demerits accumulating and become disheartened. It was all due to this unnecessary rigor, and "being military," which some of the yearling corporals affected. No one bears, or rather did bear, such a reputation as the yearling corporal. As such he was disliked by everybody, and plebes have frequently fought them for their unmanly treatment. This, however, was. It is no more. We have no yearling corporals, and plebes fare better generally than ever before. Not because all yearling corporals thus subserved their ambition by reporting men for little things that might as well have been overlooked, did they get this bad reputation, but rather because with it they coupled the severest hazing, and sometimes even insults. That was unmanly as well as mean. Hazing could be endured, but not always insults.
Whether for this reason or not I cannot say, the authorities now appoint the corporals from the second class, men who are more dignified and courteous in their conduct toward all, and especially toward plebes. The advantages of this system are evident.
One scarcely appreciates cadet life if such appreciation is possible till he becomes a yearling. It is not till in yearling camp that a cadet begins to "spoon." Not till then is he permitted to attend the hops, and of course he has but little opportunity to cultivate female society, nor is he expected to do so till then, for to assume any familiarity with the upper classes would be considered rather in advance of his "plebeship's" rights. How then can he he is little more than a stranger become acquainted with the fair ones who either dwell at or are visiting West Point. Indeed, knowing "femmes" are quite as prone to haze as the cadets, and most unmercifully cut the unfortunate plebe. Some are also so very haughty: they will admit only first-classmen to their acquaintance and favor.
But Mr. Plebe, having become a yearling finds that the "Mr." is dropped, and that he is allowed all necessary familiarity. He then begins to enjoy his cadetship, a position which for pleasure and happiness has untold advantages, for what woman can resist those glorious buttons? A yearling has another advantage. The furlough class is absent, and the plebes well, they are "plebes." Sufficient, isn't it? The spooneying must all be done, then, by the first and third classes. Often a great number of the first class are bachelors, or not inclined to be spooney; and that duty then of course devolves on the more gallant part of that class and the yearlings.
The hop managers of the third class have been mentioned elsewhere. They enjoy peculiar facilities for pleasure, and, where a good selection has been made, do much to dispel the monotony of academic military life. Indeed, they do very much toward inducing others to cultivate a high sense of gallantry and respect for women. The refining influence of female society has greater play, and its good results are inevitable.
But what a wretched existence was mine when all this was denied me! One would be unwilling to believe I had not, from October, 1875, till May, 1876, spoken to a female of any age, and yet it was so. There was no society for me to enjoy no friends, male or female, for me to visit, or with whom I could have any social intercourse, so absolute was my isolation.* Indeed, I had friends who often visited me, but they did so only when the weather was favorable. In the winter season, when nature, usually so attractive, presented nothing to amuse or dispel one s gloom, and when, therefore, something or some one suited for that purpose was so desirable, no one of course visited me. But I will not murmur. I suppose this was but another constituent of that mechanical mixture of ills and anxieties and suspense that characterized my cadet life. At any rate I can console myself in my victory over prejudice, whether that victory be admitted or not. I know I have so lived that they could find in me no fault different from those at least common to themselves, and have thus forced upon their consciences a just and merited recognition whether or not they are disposed to follow conscience and openly accept my claim to their brotherly love.
I could and did have a pleasant chat every day, more or less, with "Bentz the bugler," the tailor, barber, commissary clerk, the policeman who scrubbed out my room and brought around the mail, the treasurer s clerk, cadets occasionally, and others. The statement made in some of the newspapers, that from one year s end to another I never heard the sound of my own voice, except in the recitation room, is thus seen to be untrue.
Henry Ossian Flipper, The Colored Cadet at West Point, 1878