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I was watching Grant on The History Channel last night, and it was mentioned that Robert E. Lee graduated second in his class, while Grant was in the middle*. They also made a point of pointing out how Grant came from humble circumstances (his father was a tanner), while of course many if not most West Pointers were from prominent families. Lee of course came from one of the First Families of Virginia.

This reminded me of something. I've read (somewhere - memory fails) that until relatively recently, Yale took family into account when determining class ranking. If that were a factor at West Point back then, a middling ranking for a tanner's son might actually be considered rather impressive. Likewise coming in second when your family is very prominent might not be a huge accomplishment.

So what exactly were the criteria for class rankings at West Point during the era Grant and Lee attended? Is there any record of that?


* - Note that they were not in the same class, which this factoid often mistakenly implies.

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    I'm really really sorry about posting a question with the phrase "I read somewhere". IIRC, I read it in an article many years ago talking about the class ranking of one of the Bush clan at Yale. It could be total BS, but I think the question is answerable without it. – T.E.D. May 26 at 16:33
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    When I read this my thought was "If this is even true, I wonder when they switched over to purely academic ranking"... But even today this is not the case! Wikipedia says "A cadet's class rank, which determines his or her Army branch and assignment upon graduation, is calculated as a combination of academic performance (55%), military leadership performance (30%), and physical fitness and athletic performance (15%)." Of course, no mention of "family" there, but still was surprised at the multiple signals considered on the score today. – AllInOne May 26 at 17:15
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    @AllInOne - why the surprise? The institution wants to emphasize three different aspects of ‘performance’ that they believe have a bearing on the performance of an officer in their service branch. And they have lots of data on said performance. – Jon Custer May 26 at 17:27
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    @AllInOne - "Military leadership and performance", without knowing what exactly that means, sounds fairly subjective to me. But I'm not here to criticize modern (or past) practice, just to try to understand what it was. – T.E.D. May 26 at 18:09
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    Perhaps trivial, but I remember that in the Shaara Mexican-American War novel, it described how the recently-graduated officers were thought to be lower grade because their training had been formalized (and academized) as opposed to the rough-and-ready style which governed before that period. Shaara's historical research has impressed me in general, though I may be mis-remembering... – gktscrk May 26 at 18:54
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In Volume I of his four volume biography of Robert E. Lee, Douglas Southall Freeman outlines (Chapter 4, pp 81-82 (html page)) the calculation of Lee's graduating score of 1966.5 out of a maximum 2000; an average of 98.3%.

enter image description here

N.B. The line General Merit is the total of the preceding lines (thus in modern terminology the overall Cadet Performance Score).

It also outlines the examination process, more akin to the Royal Navy examination process from Forester's Hornblower than a modern examination.

Beginning June 1 the visitors and the academic board met jointly every day for a fortnight. It was a ceremonious test. In the examination room, at the head of one table, sat Colonel Thayer in full uniform, with the professors around the board. At the other table were General Van Cortlandt and the visitors. In front of this awesome group, three large blackboards were placed on easels. Six cadets were called in at a time, two for each board. While one demonstrated orally, the others prepared their problems. In this setting, Robert made his appearance when his name was called, and for five separate grillings of an hour each he explained what he knew of engineering, of strategy, and of the other subjects of the year's work.

It appears to be 85% academic and 15% character/conduct, similar to the modern CPS calculation:

enter image description here

The Wikipedia page for Charles Mason, the cadet who surpassed Lee that year and became a prominent Iowa judge, claims Mason outscored Lee by just 29 points out of 2000, at a total of 1995.5.

Freeman's phrasing below suggests a strong negative correlation (at least) between number of accumulated demerits and the Conduct score.

... and gave him equal place in Conduct with Barnes, Burbank, Harford, Kennedy, and Mason, who had received no demerits during the whole of their four years at the academy.

That over 10% of the graduating class survived 4 years with no demerits indicates a challenging, but by no means insurmountable, hurdle for a determined cadet.

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    Just wanted to congratulate you on a great (and upvoted by me) answer. Both the content and the links. After reading the military handbooks, I had a greater appreciation o what your son went through. – Tom Au May 27 at 5:27
  • Why is "Geography" with "Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy"? Seems like two different kind of subjects to me – Kepotx May 27 at 14:16
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    @Kepotx: I believe that the "geography" referred to "rhetoric and moral philosophy" in different parts of the world.In learning the latter, you'd learn the former in the same "package." – Tom Au May 27 at 15:19
  • Great answer! Given there were ten subjects and five were answered in one year (based on the description included), do you know which ones were for the first year's examinations and which ones for the second's? – gktscrk May 27 at 19:23
  • @gktscrk: The final fourth year examination was on everything learned over the 4 year curriculum, not the merely the current year work. – Pieter Geerkens May 27 at 22:33
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According to the book Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point By Stephen E. Ambrose, the ranking system at West Point was established early on, c. 1819. Following a proposal by the War Department:

[Sylvanus Thayer] so constructed the merit roll that it eliminated practically all subjective feelings, while it took into account nearly everything a cadet did for four years, both in and out of the classroom.

There is no mention of anything about a cadet's prior background influencing this ranking system. While I can't say for certain that family background had no direct impact on ranking, the above makes me tend to doubt it. (As an aside, this system apparently had wider influence in the business world.)

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  • Interesting. That does certainly imply that before 1819 there was a lot of subjective stuff in there. And both before and after it was more than just grades. – T.E.D. May 26 at 17:50
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    It's not clear to me that they necessarily had any formal ranking system at all during the few years before that. – Brian Z May 26 at 17:58
  • @T.E.D.: Lee was a great "book" general, as was McClellan. That' s probably why Lee respected McClellan more than other Union commanders. Grant wasn't nearly as "bookish" as the other two, but had more "street smarts" where tire hit the road. This reminds me of the matchup between Truman and MacArthur. Now the "class" angle may have explained why Lee was so book smart and Grant so street smart. But I believe that West Point measured these traits (at least the book smarts) "objectively," without the additional benefit of class background. – Tom Au May 27 at 0:05
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    @TomAu: My take would just be that, like MacArthur, Lee was simply vain - and building up McLellan was merely a backhanded means of building up his own reputation. "I learned everything I know about acting from MacArthur" - Dwight D. Eisenhower. – Pieter Geerkens May 27 at 2:03
  • The theme I'm getting from watching the show (by the producer's design of course) was that it was Grant's "hardscrabble" background that allowed him to be so much better than the sons of privilege. You take someone who's never had to fight through a setback in their life, never had to come back from failure, perhaps lives in terror of failing, and then throw them into combat, and of course they tend to fall apart at the first setback. As Tyson said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." – T.E.D. May 27 at 17:36

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