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"My dear Mother," Robert Wirt wrote with amusement in response to her concerned queries about his health just before his first encampment with his class at West Point, "there is as much difference between Robert Wirt the scoolboy [sic] and Cadet R. G. Wirt, as there is between chalk and cheese."(1) The sixteen-year-old spoke truly. Although Robert Wirt did not complete his first two years of cadethood at the U.S. Military Academy, the time he spent there coincided with the onset of an adolescent identity crisis as Robert left home for the first time and attempted to determine what career matched his talents and preferences. In the process, Robert hoped to establish his own independence and demonstrate his manhood. At the same time, however, he yearned to please his affectionate, if demanding, parents, Elizabeth and William Wirt. Increasingly, Robert found it difficult to reconcile his personality and aptitude, the expectations of soldierly conduct at West Point, and his parents' demands. In December 1821, only a little over a year after his arrival, Robert Wirt led a student rebellion against West Point's rigid discipline, directed against the academy's superintendent, Major Sylvanus Thayer. Several unidentified cadets set the mess hall ablaze, and in the confusion that followed, they set up a loaded cannon and aimed it at the superintendent's home. No further damage was done, and although several arrests were made, officially no culprits' names were ever released. Shocked and grieved that their son had "been so much of a ringleader in their Rash follies," the Wirts withdrew their son from West Point. Robert Wirt's first experiment with independence - and his first career - were at an end.(2)
The turn Robert's life had taken in less than two years at West Point was an unexpected shift from dutifulness to rebellion, and it inaugurated a period of sullenness and uncooperativeness together with poor health that his concerned parents feared indicated the onset of mental illness.(3) As he entered his teens, Robert Wirt found himself in a stage of life in which nearly all of his acquaintances were of roughly his own age, and all of them were beset by the similar problem of defining their identity in a changing world. As Joseph Kett and Anthony Rotundo have demonstrated, teenage boys in antebellum America confronted difficulties in marking their attainment of manhood in an era when ideas about masculinity were themselves in transition. This may have been particularly true for Robert Wirt, a southern youth who experienced his coming-of-age in the North, and who thus was exposed to competing ideals of manhood at the very time when he hoped to define and achieve status as a man. Robert's dilemma was further compounded by his parents' inability to understand his difficulties. While their parents still thought of the teens as being only part of an extended period of youth characterized by semidependency on parents, Robert Wirt and his fellow West Pointers were members of a generation that increasingly found that the teen years, which coincided with higher schooling and leaving home for the first time, were a traumatic time for men in the making. Where boys in previous generations assumed they would simply follow in their fathers' footsteps, the Jacksonian era offered new opportunities - for failure as well as success. Forced to find their own - not their fathers' - route to self-sufficiency, middle-class white males who reached their teens in the mid-nineteenth century experienced a turbulent adolescence that was foreign to their parents' experience. For Robert Wirt, cadethood at West Point ushered in these confusing years.(4)
Robert Wirt was the second child - and the first son - of Elizabeth Gamble and William Wirt, prominent members of the upper South's growing professional class. Elizabeth Gamble Wirt, the daughter of a respected Virginia family, linked the Wirts to the Old Dominion's planting regions as well as Richmond's mercantile elite. William Wirt, the Maryland-born orphaned son of immigrant parents, was an upwardly mobile lawyer, occasional author, and politician. He eventually served as U.S. attorney general, taking the family from Virginia, where they resided from 1802 to 1817, to Washington, D.C., where they remained from 1817 to 1828. In all, the Wirts had ten children that survived past infancy, the first, Laura, born in 1803 and the last, Henry, born in 1818. As the Wirts' oldest son, however, Robert Gamble Wirt was a primary focus of their love and concern, and their letters offer an extraordinary amount of information about his struggle to emerge from childhood into manhood.(5)
When Robert was born on January 31, 1805, his parents had high hopes for their first son, who they named after his maternal grandfather, a successful merchant who gained distinction as an officer in the Revolutionary War. Robert, wrote William Wirt to his friend Benjamin Edwards, "is certainly a very handsome child, and if there be any truth in physiognomy, a fellow whose native sheet of intellectual paper, is of as fine a texture and as lustrous a white as the fond heart even of a parent can desire."(6)
Although the Wirts would later indicate that they hoped their son's promise would enable him to achieve self-sufficiency, Robert's childhood was defined by emotional dependence on his parents. William and Elizabeth Wirt were advocates of modern child-rearing methods that relied on a combination of love and guilt. The Wirts offered their infants unreserved love. While this abundantly showered affection never flagged, as the children grew older they were led to associate pleasing their parents through proper behavior more and more closely with earning that love. The emotional dependence fostered by parent-child love thus became the most powerful tool in moving the Wirts' children to learn the lessons of piety, morality, industry, and intellectual development that William and Elizabeth Wirt prized.(7)
Although Elizabeth Wirt was the children's principal caretaker, her husband remained a dominant figure in child-rearing. Letters exchanged by the Wirts suggest that their children were deeply attached to their father and were eager to gain his approval. Elizabeth and William capitalized on these sentiments, forging a connection between parental affection and filial duty. "Kiss my dear children for me six times a piece," William wrote home in 1809, "and tell them if they are good children and learn their books as mamma bids them, father will bring each of them something pretty."(8) Such letters home were an inspiration for the children, according to a letter Elizabeth sent to William that fall. "The children are delighted with your letter & for the moment they are a fine stimulus to their learning," she reported.(9)
William Wirt was an enthusiastic advocate of early childhood education for both his sons and his daughters. In December 1809, when Laura was six and her brother was four, he boasted to his friend Dabney Carr, "My son is beginning to read, and my daughter writes her name very smartly; and it gives me I can tell you, no small consequence in my own eyes, to be the parent of two such children."(10) Early signs of intelligence inspired William to hope for more rapid advancement. In 1809, he expressed concern that "without great exertion neither Laura nor Robert will acquire all, I wish to have them taught: No more time ought, if possible, to be lost."(11) William's worry was understandable, for he had conceived of a demanding program of intellectual attainments. William imagined a future in which the Wirts' children would be the talk of the town for their superior education. Writing to Elizabeth, he predicted that in a few years the neighbors would all be buzzing "'Do you know little Laura Wirt . . . why she has learnt more things than all the girls in town put together' - and every body will admire & love her - and her mother and father will be so happy. . . . Our dear little Robert, too, I hope will out-learn all the boys in town," William mused.(12)
While the Wirts had high expectations for all their children, as William's references to the "girls" and "boys" in town suggest, their plans for their sons differed from those for their daughters. While the Wirts anticipated that their daughters would marry and devote themselves to domestic responsibilities, they expected their sons to seek success as planters or professionals. William Wirt himself devoted most of his life to hard work in the law and to dreams of a genteel retirement to a planting life, and he probably expected his sons - especially his oldest son - to follow his example. Thus, although the Wirts valued education for all their children, boys' learning was more essential for the futures that they envisioned for their offspring.
Unfortunately for Robert, his precocious older sister soon outdistanced him in lessons.(13) In 1812, seven-year-old Robert's failure to write to his parents, who had left the children with relatives while they traveled together to the restorative hot springs, became a matter of concern for his father. In the same missive in which he offered Laura praise for her "very pretty and very amusing" letter, William reminded Robert that he should write his parents a letter each week, commenting that "your mother has received but one letter from you" during her sojourn at the springs. William's postscript, perhaps inadvertently, unfavorably contrasted Robert's slow intellectual progress with his sister's more rapid advancement. "I suppose you will be through your grammar by the time I see you," he remarked hopefully. "Tell Laura there was a gentleman here to-day with a pretty little boy nine years old who was only learning to read english and tell her how proud I felt to be able to boast that I had a daughter not yet nine years old, that was reading Erasmus." While other southern parents also made invidious comparisons between the learning rates of their children, William's contrasting description of his daughter's intellectual development - which rivaled that of older boys - and his son's poor performance surely reflected the family's disappointment with their oldest son's slow learning. Although he demanded performance, William made parental love the dominant theme of his letter. "I hope," he closed, "you continue to be a good boy. . . . Your mother joins in love to you and your sister with your affectionate father[.]"(14)
Robert's sluggish advancement continued to be troublesome, however. In 1813, Leroy Anderson, the teacher of a day school both Laura and Robert attended, contrasted Laura's "capacity and readiness" for both English and Latin grammar with Robert's "laziness." Lack of application was not the end of Robert's problems in Anderson's school; soon thereafter, Mr. Anderson admitted that "it is reduced to certainty that I have not influence to control him." Robert, unable to match his older sister's superlative performance or to live up to his father's expectations, apparently directed his energies away from study and became the class clown. "You cannot conceive how singular, diverting, and unintermitted his little maneuvres are among the young people by whom we are surrounded. All this is very innocent, and frequently very entertaining," wrote Mr. Anderson placatingly, assuring William that Robert was "truly a charming child." Nonetheless, the teacher found Robert's behavior a disruption in the classroom. "You know our object is a very important and serious one," he appealed to William's reverence for education, "and it [Robert's inattention] interferes fatally with the application necessary to its attainment . . . if you do not find some means to temper and regulate his vivacity, he will occasion his teachers immense trouble."(15) Robert must have already created "immense trouble" in Anderson's school, which closed a month later, leaving Robert and Laura to their parents for instruction.(16)
Robert's antics in Anderson's school were just one aspect of an attraction to high jinks associated with what Anthony Rotundo has labeled "boy culture."(17) Like northern preteen boys of his class and race, Robert displayed an attraction to a world of outdoor roughhousing defined in contrast to the gentle but persistent restraints of the home. The Wirts were anxious to limit their son's contact with this world. During Robert's time at Anderson's school, Elizabeth, who was on a visit to her sister's home, sent instructions to William to ensure that Robert would remain under close parental supervision. "He must be mighty good, and stay at home constantly when he is not in school," she directed. In particular, Robert should "not . . . loiter in the way with idle school Boys" on the way to and from school. Competition and feats of physical strength, rather than the attempt to please one's parents, were the hallmarks of boys' social space. Elizabeth indicated her knowledge and disapproval of this aspect of boy culture when she worried that …