Robert E. Lee, Clara Barton, and the Forgotten West Point Highest Ranking Graduate

Charles Mason, class of 1829, still holds the record for the most points of any graduate of West Point. The point system, based on a variety of factors, including academics and discipline, determined that Robert E. Lee would be second ranked in that class behind Mason.

After graduation, Lee stayed in the army, and the rest of his life is well known. Mason, a native of New York state, resigned from the army in 1831 and moved to Iowa. There he became a lawyer and, from 1838 to 1847, was Chief Justice of Iowa’s territorial and state courts. In 1839 he ruled that a slave who had been brought to the Iowa territory was free because slavery was illegal there.

Mason, a Democrat, would take another politically-enlightened step in 1853 after President Franklin Pierce appointed him as U.S. Commissioner of Patents. In a first for the federal government, he decided to hire female clerks at the same salaries and under the same conditions as men.

One of those clerks hired in 1854 was Clara Barton. She had been a teacher in New Jersey. When she interviewed for the job, Mason was so impressed that he hired her the same day. She and Mason would stay at the Patent Office until 1857, when she was fired by the Buchanan administration. Mason returned to Iowa, where he resumed his legal career and ran unsuccessfully for Governor in 1861 and 1867. Barton returned to the Patent Office as a clerk in late 1860, after Lincoln’s election.

During the Civil War, Mason, a Unionist Democrat, perhaps looked back with a bit of remorse about leaving behind a military career. He once observed in his diary, “General Lee is winning great renown as a great captain. Some of the English writers place him next to Napoleon and Wellington. I once excelled him and might have been his equal yet perhaps if I had remained in the army as he did.”

As for Barton, the serendipity of Lee’s academic superior having an enlightened approach to civil service employment would lead to her becoming perhaps the most famous woman of the Civil War era. On April 19, 1861, having heard that wounded soldiers from the Baltimore riots were arriving at a Washington, DC train station, she left her government office to help care for the men. That action was the springboard for her career, which ultimately led to her leadership of the American Red Cross.

Below are pictures of Barton and Mason.

Author: geneofva

Author of "Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era," and of seven more Civil War books -- with more to come!!

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