‘Barricades’ and ‘Entering the Day’: A little-known chapter of West Point history, and a new collection of poems

  • “Barricades” looks at how the first African-American cadets at West Point fared in the late 19th century.

  • “Entering the Day” is the 10th collection of poetry from Amherst poet Michael Miller.

Staff Writer
Published: 8/20/2020 8:47:26 AM
Modified: 8/20/2020 8:47:15 AM

At a time when much national attention has been focused on race, Northampton writer Tom Carhart, a Vietnam veteran who’s written a number of books on the U.S. Civil War and the Vietnam War, explores a chapter of U.S. history likely unknown to most: the struggles of the earliest African-American cadets at West Point.

In “Barricades: The First African-American West Point Cadets and Their Constant Fight for Survival,” Carhart, himself a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy as well as a former history professor, tells the story of a handful of young African-American men who entered West Point in the first two decades after the Civil War — the first non-white candidates ever at the academy, at a time when the end of slavery and the years of Reconstruction first gave Blacks some opportunity to make headway in American society.

But it was a difficult experience for those cadets, Carhart notes, as they faced various degrees of racism from white cadets — “the most cruel and callous treatment,” as Carhart puts it — and from the institution as a whole. Their tenure at West Point was generally marked by severe isolation, he says, as more often than not, only one Black cadet was at the academy at a time and white cadets shunned them.

Between 1870 and 1887, Carhart notes, 27 men who identified as African American were nominated for appointment to West Point. Only 12 would actually be admitted there, and only six of them lasted more than one semester; three would eventually graduate, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that the next African American cadet would graduate.

And, Carhart points out, not until after World War II would the country’s armed forces be desegregated — a measure of the overall barriers African Americans faced in military service.

In “Barricades,” he offers a basic history of West Point and describes some of the history of Blacks serving in the military through the Civil War; some 186,000 African Americans fought or served with Union forces in that conflict. Winning an appointment to West Point from members of Congress, however, was a much bigger challenge for them.

Carhart focuses much of the narrative on the three African-American cadets who graduated, while also profiling the stories of others who did not last at the academy. For many of the latter, a limited previous education, plus the abuse and isolation they endured at West Point, likely contributed to their failure to complete their four-year term.

A New York Times article from 1880 summarized the downfall of one of the earliest Black cadets, Johnson Chestnut Whitaker: “He has been looked upon as an inferior. Everybody appears to have avoided all associations with him and endeavored to make him feel that he was socially degraded and unfit.”

The ill treatment by white cadets took all manner of form, Carhart writes: refusing to sit at the same table with African Americans, racial epithets, assaults and threats of violence, and in one case pouring a bucket of slops over a Black cadet’s head.  

But his book celebrates the handful of early African-American cadets who persevered to become Army officers: “[T]hese few valiant Americans laid the groundwork for the success of later generations in the more open military of today.”

‘Entering the Day: Poems By Michael Miller’

In several previous collections of poetry, Michael Miller, who lives in Amherst, has plumbed a number of key subjects: aging and death, the beauty of the natural world, the psychological and physical toll war takes on soldiers, and the long arc of memory.

Miller, a Marine Corps veteran born in 1940, has been a very productive late bloomer, publishing 10 collections of poetry in about the last 10 years. His latest, “Entering the Day,” offers more of his lean, free-verse poems, meditations that are models of clarity and phrasing as they examine love, fear and hope.

In “A Different Time,” one of the longer poems in a collection that tends toward shorter work, the aged narrator dreams of Jack, a treasured figure from his past — “The man I wanted to call Father” — who survived landing in the first wave at Iwo Jima and then reappears in memory to ask about the poet’s wife, son and grandchildren.

“He put his right hand/ On my left shoulder/ As I awakened/ And that was everything.”

In another reflection on aging, “Prescription,” an elderly man watches a young woman doing T’ai Chi on a town common, wishing he could join her, knowing his body is too stiff to bend like that. But he follows in his mind: “[H]is unrestricted spirit/ Moved with her arms and her legs/ Through each precise gesture/ Almost rising with her.”

Miller also writes about three literary masters — Virginia Woolf, Herman Melville and Leo Tolstoy — imagining Woolf as she considers suicide, the obsessed Ahab of “Moby Dick” and Tolstoy in his old age: “Facing his four children in the orchard,/ the shadows of branches upon them,/ He moves from one to the next,/ His crooked fingers reaching out/ To stroke their peach smooth skin.”

The poet examines war and its horrors, too — the veteran narrating “Killing” tries to numb his memories at night with whiskey as “he listens for his dead” — but Miller offers celebrations as well of long-term love, as when he contemplates his sleeping partner, calling her “the peacefulness/ in the sunlight” of an early morning.

As one critic says of Miller’s new collection, “Here is a true voice devoid of mawkishness in the delivery of difficult experiences — poems without cloying lamentations about the ravages of war and an uncertain future.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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