The Religious Divide

In Ireland, the Protestants and Catholics did not get along. The Irish Catholics felt with good reason that the Ascendant Protestants sought to convert every Catholic to the Anglican faith. So, in Ireland, when some Protestant school would attempt to teach the Protestant bible at school, the Catholics would rebel. How did that play out in the new world?

In Savannah, Georgia, the Irish Catholic community and the Irish Protestant community worked out a compromise. In 1824, the president of the Savannah Hibernian Society, John Hunter, a Protestant, brokered an agreement between the Catholics and the Savannah Free School regarding compulsory reading of the Protestant Bible. This was a time when the Bible was considered required reading. Mr. Hunter essentially helped bring an end to the required reading of a Bible at the Free School. By 1870, the Savannah population in this majority Protestant city accepted the “Savannah plan,” in which the Catholic church accepted city funds to operate a religious school. In situations like this, the Irish protestants sometimes acted as a bridge between the majority Protestant population and the new Irish Catholic immigrants.

Yet, at the same time, back in 1820’s era Ireland, if a free school had required reading from a Protestant Bible, violence would have resulted.

In America, the laity had more influence over the church than they would have back in Ireland. In Charleston, South Carolina, the esteemed Catholic Bishop England, Irish born, allowed the creation of a church constitution which provided power to lay members. Bishop John England was a great admirer of George Washington and the founding of the United States.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 88-89.

Robert E. Lee, Superintendent

Robert E. Lee was a field soldier. So, he avoided the post as Superintendent at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He declined it when the post was first offered. But, in 1852, he was not given a choice. He considered the place to be a “snake pit” of politics from which he could not emerge unscathed. It was a high profile post, to which politicians and stray generals would drop by. Too, his oldest son was then a cadet and Lee feared being accused of favoritism. The son of Light Horse Harry Lee always felt the need to prove he was not his father.

Superintendent is equivalent to the President of a university in today’s time. Some aspects of the job, then Col. Lee enjoyed.

Supervisjng some 50 cadre and 2450 cadets, there were aspects that challenged Col. Lee. One was discipline and dealing with difficult students. One such difficult cadet was James M. Whistler. He was the son of George Washington Whistler, a graduate of West Point. George W. Whistler was a career officer who did in Russia in 1849. The young Whistler accumulated 116 demerits by the end of his first ear in 1852. That was more than the limit which required his dismissal. The Superintendent and the Commandant of Cadets could review such expulsions and consider less punitive measures. Lee chose to delete 59 of his demerits. In 1853, Whistler became very ill. Col. Lee wrote his mother and suggested he go home to recuperate. Col. Lee told his mother that James Whistler had successfully passed an overdue exam. He stood 32nd in his class, but first in drawing.

In his third year, Whistler had to sit for an exam in chemistry. The verbal exam asked Whistler to discuss silicon. The young Whistler responded, “I am required to discuss the subject of silicon. … Silicon is a gas.” It may have been the shortest exam in West Point history. In thirteen words, Whistler failed the exam and flunked out of West Point. Later in his life, Whistler would say that had silicon been a gas, he would have been a major general. Col. Lee then had to perform a duty he considered “the most unpleasant office” he was called on to perform. He had to direct Whistler and eight other young cadets to take a wagon to the dock and eventually home.

Within a week, James Whistler submitted a petition to Lee to take a second exam. Col. Lee once more had to decide a young cadets future. But, again, his demerits were just too high. Lee rued that one so capable of doing well had let himself fail. But, Jimmy Whistler would later paint a picture of his mother and become one of the great masters.

Col. Lee’s most difficult cadet was probably his nephew, Fitzhugh. In the end, Fitzhugh graduated 45th in a class of 49. But, he graduated only because his classmates supported him and agreed to take a pledge of good behavior in Fitz’s behalf. At one point, Fitz had 197 demerits when he was again caught bringing alcohol on campus.

Every Saturday afternoon, Col. Lee invited the cadets to his home at West Point for dinner. There were aspects which he did enjoy. Col. Lee left his post in 1854. But, he took a good deal of gray hair with him. For the man who avoided confrontation, it was unavoidable at West Point.

See article here about the Father of West Point, Sylvanus Thayer, the first prominent Superintendent.

Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1995), p. 152, 154-162