R Day 1862

Dear reader, today we have a guest Gray Matter, written by Brian McEnany ’62, describing what approximated R Day for a member of the Class of 1862.


R-day in the mid-19th Century was not limited to a single day. The Post Adjutant’s arrival book documents quite a spread of time between the 1st of June, the first day candidates could arrive, and around the 20th of June when the medical examinations began. Our country was so large geographically that lengthy travel times were accepted. After all, the faster clipper ship from the West Coast still took 100 days. There was no transcontinental rail, and only the east bank of the Hudson River had a rail line. Stage coaches served the Academy from Suffern and Newburgh through Buttermilk Falls (now Highland Falls) and Canterbury (now Cornwall) for those arriving from the east. Steamers and sloops came up river from New York City or down from Albany daily to deposit new candidates at the South Dock for the long uphill climb to the level of the Plain.

On 10 June 1848, around mid-morning, Tully McCrea from Ohio and five other new candidates walked off the gangplank of a steamer from New York City. A sentry at the end of the dock recorded their names and directed them to Post Headquarters. They walk behind a cart loaded with their baggage up the dirt and gravel road to the level of the Plain above them. Three-quarters of the way up, the road branched to the left toward the Post hospital and the Mess Hall and to the right past a large, stone riding hall, the largest building of its kind at the time.

Within a few minutes, the group halted in front of a Gothic building that served as the Post Headquarters and Library. Just in front of them, the stirring sounds of martial music could be heard. For the first time, the new candidates saw the precisely aligned ranks of the United States Corps of Cadets on parade as it marched and counter-marched in the summer sun. Crowds of tourists lined the grassy Plain to watch.

Tully and the other candidates opened the heavy doors to Post Headquarters and entered, while their baggage continued on to the cadet barracks. Inside, Tully entered the Post Adjutant’s office, where 1LT James B. Fry stood waiting behind a desk. LT Fry asked each of them to produce their conditional appointments and checked off their names. Tully signed his name in a large, red ledger book and filled in information about his family, their occupation, and his birth date, birth place, state and county. Next, Fry asked him to turn over all the money he brought with him. Candidates were not allowed to have any money other than the $30 per month that they received as pay, but they had to have at least $60.95 to cover the rent of a room and the purchase of any clothing needed. In return, they were given a small account book listing the amounts of their deposits. All their expenses were to be written in the book each month, as well as charges for some furniture items for their rooms, uniforms and books.

After all six candidates completed their processing, a soldier led them out the door and toward the Chapel, the Academy where they would take most of their classes, and the cadet barracks. As they passed through a sally port into the cadet area, a shower of gold buttons rained down from the loft above as the upperclassmen welcomed the new candidates. In the cadet area, the soldier led them to the 8th Division (Old Central Area) where an upperclassman awaited. The small group was herded into a room on the right of the doorway and immediately several upperclassmen – corporals and sergeants – began calling attention to their unsuitable posture, appearance and behavior.
“Stand attention, Sir! Where do you think you are! Take off your cap! Put your heels together on the same line! Little finger along the seam of your pantaloons! [This exaggerated position of attention required that the palms face forward.] Button your coat! Draw in your chin! Throw out your chest! Keep your eyes 15 paces to the front and on that nail over there! Don’t let me see you wearing a standing collar again — and stand steady, Sir!”

After answering what seemed to be a thousand questions, Tully and two others were sent to their assigned room. Tully looked around the virtually bare, right hand room in the 7th Division, and then back at the other candidates – Cliff Comly from Ohio and Joseph Alexander from Georgia – all scared and over-awed by their introduction to life as a cadet.
A loud bang and the door slammed open. A cadet Corporal from the 3rd Class entered. He handed Tully a printed piece of paper detailing the room arrangement and began explaining that the room was to be organized at all times. Minutes later, drums echoed in the sally port, and the stairwell rang with the thunder of new candidates rushing out the door to the cadet area. There they were formed up to march to lunch at the Mess Hall (current site of Grant Hall).

The column of gawky boys, clothed in civilian attire, had their eyes fixed on the collar of the boy in front of them. Several cadet Corporals circled and berated them – “Keep your toes pointed outward, Sir!” The drums and bugles played a bouncy martial air and the group lurched forward with a cadet Sergeant calling out “Hep, Hep, Hep!” Every once in awhile, one of them lost the step and trod on the heels of the boy in front. “Halt!” said the Sergeant, and immediately the Corporals descended upon them. Finally, they reached the front steps of the Mess Hall. Inside they stood in front of one of the twelve long tables until told to sit by the First Captain. Their meal was roast beef with potatoes, rice and beets, bread and gravy plus a bit of mince pie for dessert with coffee or milk, but the new candidates did not get to eat much of the meal. Within 30 minutes, the First Captain called them to attention and then commanded “Rise.” They rushed from the Mess Hall to line up to march back to the barracks.

Upon their return, a cadet Corporal led them to the Commissary storehouse, where they were issued bedding (pillow, blankets, comforter), a water bucket, soap, a dipper, tin candle box, candles, candlestick holder, washbowl, broom, waste bucket, and a small looking glass. The clerk then handed them a slate, two slate pencils, ink, 12 sheets of paper and an arithmetic text. The clerk told Tully to tie all of them together in one of the blankets, push the broom handle through the loop, and hoist it on his shoulder for the return trip to the barracks. Many of the items issued to them that day were charged against their accounts, but the candidates would not be issued a uniform until after successful completion of the entrance examinations. In the interim, upper class cadets would tutor them in arithmetic and English grammar.

The cadet Corporal returned to their room and informed them they were assigned to his squad. He explained how each of the items they brought back to the room were to be displayed and impressed upon them that when the drums began, they only had five minutes to be outside in the cadet area near the guardhouse.

Evening meal was a repeat of lunch. Their marching was now getting more attention from upper class cadets as more new candidates joined the formation. More bugle calls were heard, and other cadets moved quickly into various parts of the cadet area. The evening meal was mostly leftovers from lunch. After returning to their room, Tully and his roommates were exhausted. Bugle calls and drums now controlled their entire day. Outside, a bugle played something called Call to Quarters. Tully opened his trunk and began to fold his clothing and place it in a wooden locker. He would have to purchase some new clothing soon, as today’s clothes were already stained and dirty. There was little time to write a note home – perhaps tomorrow there would be time to do that.
At 10 o’clock, drummer boys tapped on their drum heads in the cadet area, and the bugler played Extinguish Lights. The upper class cadets yelled, “Lights out and get to bed!” Candidate Tully McCrea collapsed into his bed and quickly fell asleep. R-Day was officially over, but more excitement awaited him tomorrow.

Thanks to Brian for this excellent reconstruction; for a future Gray Matter, he will describe the testing that Tully and his classmates endured.

Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire

Please forward guest articles, comments and suggestions for future topics to JPhoenix@wpaog.org.

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