Our Earliest Cadet Letters: Still Relevant After 200 Years

The Special Collections and Archives Division of the USMA Library collects a variety of materials specific to West Point history and interests, but nothing in our collections is more personal than the letters cadets wrote and received while here at West Point.

The earliest cadet letters in the Library’s collection are two written in 1807 by Samuel Newman to his brother Henry, a Boston lawyer. The Newmans seem to have been a well-established Massachusetts family, and Samuel writes with some aplomb; on his initial visit to West Point he stayed with the first graduate, Captain Joseph Swift, and the Superintendent, Colonel Jonathan Williams, knew his grandmother. These letters remind us that early 19th century America was a small and inter-connected place, in which a letter could be confidently addressed: “Mr. Henry Newman Junr, Boston”, and unfailingly find its intended recipient. On 12 December 1808, Cadet Newman became the 42nd graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. A second lieutenant in the Light Artillery, he served in garrison at Atlantic posts until resigning in 1810, at the rank of  first lieutenant.

 

West- Point Sunday July 17, 1807 

Dear Henry

I have rec.d the lines of a lawyer’s pen, as also Peggy’s letter dated a month or two since. I sincerely regret that it has not been in my power to answer them before …. I was very wrong however in not acquainting the family with my safe arrival etc. But it may be truly said that at West Point “time taketh to itself wings.” The duties of study and parades are incessant; & the little time allowed for recreation is beguiled by the unavoidable sociability of the place. I have therefore less time at my disposal than even you have…. I must recite two lessons every day besides parading under arms…. I wish to hear oftener from home. What are you all doing? How do you like your new neighborhood…. You may remember I left home with a bad cold; I had not travelled far before my neck became very stiff & my head inflamed & by the time I [had] arrived within twenty miles of Hartford, the jolting [of the] carriage & cold morning & evening air had made me [a] confirmed invalid. I was obliged to stop & go to bed; and after sweating & suffering etc. for three days, having eat but two meals since leaving home, I was enabled to proceed with a reduced purse. On enquiry I found my shortest route to be through New York; where on my arrival having obtained what was necessary, I proceeded to this place. As to uniforms I could do no more than purchase a pretty shabby second hand one; & on the whole have made myself tolerably comfortable, though not precisely so splendid as most on the Point. As to my prospects they are wholly uncertain. Commissions are scarce. In the fall examination I shall obtain a certificate which will lead me to a commission as soon as there are five or six more vacancies in the Artillery Corps. Let me hear from home soon…. I am your affectionate friend & brother 

Samuel Newman

 On December 2 Samuel wrote again: 

Dear Henry,

Your letter of the 15th Oct.r & my father’s of the 10th ulto have been duly rec.d—I have been very lazy & negligent indeed; but my undetermined fate occasioned such a corresponding effect upon my mind as to deprive me of the resolution to write even a letter of friendship. I desired excessively to hear from home without feeling any right to expect it.… I am truly obliged to you & my father for your successful exertions in my behalf, & beg you will present my best respects to Col.n Bradford & thanks for his letter of introduction. Capt.n Swift of the Corps of Engineers, very recently from this place has by this time arrived in Boston. Col.n Bradford may possibly introduce him to you or my father as being able to give you some information respecting me. If he does, I have no doubt you will treat with polite attention a gentleman & man of merit, to whom I am under obligations for many civilities…. The first visit I made to this place, I lived two or three days, as long as I tarried here, at his house; Col.n Williams at that time not being able to lodge me at his own…. Pray answer this letter soon & let me know how my mother is after her severe cold…. How does my venerable grandmother sustain the bleak assaults of the approaching winter. Give my respectful love & tell her Col.n Williams speaks of her with filial affection & respect…. I have rec.d my warrant as cadet in the Regiment of Artillerists, enclosed in the customary official letter from the Secretary of War. It is dated the 30th Oct.r from which time my pay commences. My acceptance was transmitted the 10th Nov .r. Every thing (though tardily) has succeeded to my wishes; & henceforward my exertions will be directed entirely to qualify myself for the duties of my profession. In pursuance of this object & I believe agreeably to my father’s desire, I have determined to reside for this winter at this place. The Cadets are allowed $10 per month & two rations per day or 17 cents per ration. They are allowed all kinds of Stationary & rooms are found for them to live in. There is no such thing as a boarding house here. The life we lead is very similar to a colledge one, except there are no commons; consequently each one has to buy his own Furniture & provisions— bedding, chairs tables, pots, kettles, pans etc. etc. etc. are all necessary for a cadet. There is one or two messes established upon the point of four or five in a mess not unlike a Batchelors Hall. I have entered one of these & therefore some of the furniture became unnecessary & of course I did not purchase them. There is a Library here containing military books to which the cadets have access. I will write you a particular account of this institution in another letter.

Tell Mary & Peggy to write me. …give my love to all the family. I am, your affectionate brother

Samuel Newman

Reading these letters, even 200 years after they were written, gives us a glimpse into a world not so different from our own – where new cadets are homesick and want to hear from their families, are concerned about their future in the Army, and have to make grown-up decisions about their lives as they move out into the world. This is just a sample of the wonderful historic resources we have available for viewing and research in the Special Collections and Archives  – ask us what we have that can help with your next project!