- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

In every class, someone graduates at the top and someone is at the bottom. West Point is no different, but those ranked last in their class are given the dubious title of class goat.

Rank at “the Point” always has been, and still is, determined by a combination of test scores and demerits for rules infractions. Just a select few class goats went on to become Civil War generals. These less-than-stellar students were George Pickett, Henry Heth and George Custer.

Pickett graduated from West Point in 1846 with a firm hold on last place. Out of 59 students, Pickett was ranked 59th in artillery, 58th in engineering and ethics, 55th in mineralogy and 52nd in infantry tactics. To ensure his class goat honors, he accumulated 195 demerits.

Although Pickett was a major general in the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee was underwhelmed with his performance. In fact, Pickett may have been the last man personally booted out of the army by Lee. Pickett’s debacles at Five Forks on April 1, 1865, and a week later at Sayler’s Creek, where he managed to get everyone in his command except himself captured, made the decision a no-brainer for Lee.

When told of Pickett’s repeat disasters, Lee became incensed and issued orders relieving him of command. Lee was surprised the next day, when he surrendered at Appomattox, to see Pickett still in the ranks. He reportedly turned to an aide and remarked, “I thought that man was no longer with the army.”

Continuing the tradition of future Confederate generals bringing up the rear, Henry Heth was the class goat the year after Pickett, in 1847. He made it a family tradition; he was Pickett’s cousin.

Although never accused of having favorites, Lee is known to have been fond of Heth. In fact, Heth was the only officer Lee called by his given name instead of a nickname. However, as a former superintendent of West Point, Lee couldn’t have been impressed with Heth’s academic record — or Pickett’s, for that matter.

There were only two class goats in the entire Confederacy, and both were major generals in his Army of Northern Virginia.

The Battle of Gettysburg saw the two class goats play significant roles. Heth’s division opened the battle on July 1, 1863, by clashing with elements of the Army of the Potomac’s 1st Corp. Two days later, Pickett’s division effectively ended the battle with its famous but disastrous charge.

Then there’s George Armstrong Custer, class goat of 1861. To say Custer was a wild cadet is an extreme understatement. In fact, Custer’s stay at the Point almost lasted less than a day.

Upon arrival, Custer ignored a direct command from a superior. His insubordination brought court-martial charges. However, a miraculous technicality was discovered in that Custer had not yet been sworn into the Army. He couldn’t be booted out if he wasn’t in.

Custer may have narrowly escaped court-martial, but he couldn’t avoid a long list of infractions. He accumulated an astounding total of more than 700 demerits during his career at West Point — including 192 in his senior year.

However, Custer’s class rank gave zero indication of his soldiering ability. He compiled a solid record during the Civil War and proved to be a brave, competent and inspiring leader. The postwar Battle of Little Big Horn is another story.

Pickett, Heth and Custer went on to varying degrees of success and failure during the Civil War, but they shared a unique camaraderie. They were all class goats.

Mark McKenna lives in Lake Charles, La.

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