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John Millis correspondence, 1877-1881

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The 22 letters home of West Point Cadet John Millis are concentrated in his first two years at the United States Military Academy. To his mother and father, living on a farm in Wheatland Township, Michigan, Millis writes detailed accounts of his classes, his struggles to improve his academic standing, army drills and procedures, and events on campus, including the suicide of a classmate suffering from syphilis.

The 22 letters written by John Millis to his mother and father are rich with details of cadet life at West Point. He describes artillery drills, fencing lessons, horseback riding, meals, and his class schedule. John Millis is academically ambitious; a recurrent theme in the letters is his struggle to improve his class standing. He also discusses campus activities – a mild hazing incident (30 July 1877); "color-line entertainment" put on by first-class cadets (21 August 1878); an amateur theatrical (9 March 1879); and the graduation ceremony of 1878: "The graduates came down to dinner in citizens clothes, and most of them took leave of the Corps at the Mess Hall. Each one would call out 'attention!' swing his hat or cane, cry 'good bye boys!' 'God bless you!' or something of that kind, and go out of the great door and down the broad stone steps for the last time. And then every man would cheer and yell to the best of his ability….when a man who was well-liked went out, it seemed as though they would tear the roof off….Soldiers are not supposed to be very sentimental, but if you had been at the Mess Hall yesterday, you would have seen many eyes that were far from being dry." (14 June 1878)

In a letter of 21 August 1878, Millis relates the case of James Todd, a popular cadet who committed suicide. "He was without doubt the smartest man in the class, but he has suddenly come to a terrible end. He went to the Hospital just before examination last June, having sore was discovered that he had the most horrible and loathsome disease that is known, the Syphilis. He was kept in a small room by himself and no one was allowed to see him. The man who treated him could barely endure the sight and the smell. Fish was the last man of our class who saw him...He said that the man could hardly speak, and was 'just rotten.'" Todd left letters for his family and fellow cadets, and his clothes were found on the banks of the Hudson, but his body was never recovered.

Millis also mentions attending the trial of Fitz-John Porter, a Civil War general whose court-martial for disobeying orders at the Second Battle of Bull Run was overturned in 1879. (11 January 1879)