Cadet Life, 1868. Edward M. Watson Letter
Letter (September 17, 1868) from Cadet Edward M. Watson, Class of 1871, to his father. Watson provides a detailed account of the daily cadet routine at VMI during the post-Civil War years; he describes reveille, roll call, inspections, meals, study and recitation, drill, and parade. It contains one of the early documented examples of the term "rat" as a reference to a new cadet.
V.M.I., Sept. 17th, 1868
As I expected when I wrote to Ma, I reported to Gen. Smith on Monday morning and went into barracks the same day. Now, as I promised to do before I left home, I will give an account of how I spent the next day after my arrival, and in doing that I tell what has passed every day since and will pass every day to come, Saturdays and Sundays excepted, for the next ten months.
I will begin my description just at 5 o'clock when I awakened by a most dreadful noise. I at first thought that the house was falling or that a volcano had burst in about a quarter of a mile from - I hardly knew where, as I found myself lying with nothing between me and floor except a mattress about three feet wide. I was soon enlightened as to the cause of the disturbance by an old cadet who in the dim light of the very early morning, as he stood dressing close by, I had not noticed. He remarked in a tone which seemed anything but motherly, "Rat, get up, Sir, and go to reveille." At this I opened my eyes somewhat wider, and remembering the state of affairs, I thought it best to do as he said. I got up and doing as he did, hurried on my clothes, not tying my shoes or washing my face or combing my hair, and rushed frantically down three flights of steps to the front of the barracks. All the cadets were there before me. We fell in companies and answered to our names as the Or. Sr. called the roll. We were then disbanded and were given ½ hour to make our toilets and clean up our room.
In cleaning up our room we have to take everything from the tables and chairs and put them in their proper place and have to roll up our beds in a bundle about 2 feet in diameter and lay them in a corner. At the end of the half hour the inspector visits and sees that everything is right. Then in a few minutes the drum calls us to the front and we fall in and after our names have been called we march into the breakfast room. Each one having reached the seat assigned assumes the position of a soldier and standing staring the boy on the opposite of the table in the face (who by the way in my case is mighty ugly), we have to wait until everybody has formed in his place. Then at the word "be seated" each head of the three hundred cadets bobs down and we commence eating.
At the end of fifteen minutes we are commanded to rise. We at the door again fall in and march round to the front, there we disband. For fifteen minutes we do what we please. Then the drum calls us to study. We recite until one o'clock when time is given for dinner. We march to dinner and march back as we did at breakfast. At 2 o'clock we are again called to study. At 4 o'clock we are dismissed. At 4 ½ we are called for evening drill. The drill lasts 1 ½ hours. We have then 15 minutes to fix for dress parade. After parade 5 minutes is given to change clothes. We then march to supper and the dinner ceremony is repeated. We have then 15 minutes, when we are called to study. We study until half past nine when we are called to tattoo. Then in five minutes the drum sounds for blowing out lights. The inspector visits immediately to see that everybody is in bed and then nothing is heard but the tread or challenge of the sentinel until five in the morning.
Now, Pa, when you remember that we are compelled to clean our shoes before falling in ranks every time and that it must be done well, for even a speck on the heel is noticed, you must know that I am right busy. Tell Sis Lizzie I have entered the third class and am studying mathematics, Descriptive Geometry. Give everybody my love and write soon. Tell Ma and Sister that I do love them a heap more for their letters which were received just when I was most homesick. Kiss Sister Cora and ask her please to write. Tell Jim to give my love to Miss Vee and fulfill his promise.
Your Affectionate Son,
s/ Eddie Watson, Cadet
Since finishing the last line I have received Jim's letter. Present the old fellow my compliments and tell him to do so some more. Tell Sister Cora please to write quick. I will write to Sis Lis in a few days. I intended to copy this letter but the drum is sounding and I must close. You must answer this soon. s/Eddie