Late spring had come at last to western Virginia in 1842, the trees were green again on the mountains, and Gibson Butcher was going to West Point. But Thomas J. Jackson couldn't generate much enthusiasm for his friend's good fortune. He wished he were going instead. He had wanted that appointment himself.
Earlier in the spring, four of them had taken an informal examination at the Bailey House in Weston. It had seemed the only fair way to see who was best qualified. Jackson had done all right, considering his education, but not good enough. Butcher was better at arithmetic, and everybody knew mathematics was the most important subject taught at West Point. So it was Butcher's name that Samuel L. Hays, the district's first-term Democratic congressman, sent to the secretary of war. It was Hay's first appointment to the military academy, and he wanted it to be right.
Butcher left in late May and arrived at the steamboat landing on the Hudson River on June 3. He was a young man of good character, well thought of and well connected in the district. He had a quick mind, and he was ambitious. It was believed he would do well at West Point.
But the academy wasn't what Butcher thought it would be--not at all. When he saw what awaited him on the plain above the landing, he paled. When he learned of all of the duties, the discipline, the marching and studying he would have to do, he started back toward the landing. He was soon gone, telling nobody he was leaving.
At home again and glad to be back, he stopped at Jackson's Mill on the West Fork River between Weston and Clarksburg, where Tom lived with his uncle Cummins, one of the district's numerous and prominent Jackson's. Tom's father had died when he was only two years old, and he had come eventually under the care of this strapping, good-hearted uncle. Butcher knew how badly Tom had wanted that appointment. He could have it now if he still wanted it, because Butcher could never consent to live that kind of life.
Jackson's blue-gray eyes must have glowed as Butcher explained what had happened. Here was a second chance. He might not be as good as Butcher at arithmetic, but the examination at the Bailey House hadn't tested for doggedness. Nobody could outdo Tom Jackson for doggedness. In Butcher's place he never would have left West Point voluntarily once he arrived, no matter how much it distressed him. They would have had to throw him out. That's the way he was.
Jackson was a constable in Lewis county, one of the youngest, at eighteen, in that part of the country. But his prospects were not promising. He was as ambitious as Butcher, perhaps more so. He wanted to make something of himself in the world, and that required a better education than he had or was likely to get there in the mountains. He didn't necessarily want to be a soldier. Soldiers were as rare in those parts as educations. Tom had perhaps never seen a soldier in his life.
But at the military academy educations were free, and the best you could get. Nearly twenty years before, President Andrew Jackson had called West Point "the best school in the world." The academy still set the standard among institutions of higher learning in the country for engineering and science. West Point graduates were not only going on to become soldiers, but also engineers--among the finest in the world. Its graduates were designing and building the nations's most dramatic new internal improvements--its major roads, dams, canals, harbors, and railroads. An education like that was worth having, and now he might have it after all.
Excerpted from The Class of 1846 by John Waugh. Copyright © 1999 by John Waugh. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.