"The Single Discharge of a Cannon": The Cadet Monument
In honor of Memorial Day, this week’s focus is on the Cadet Monument, one of the Academy’s oldest memorials. It stands in the northeast corner of the West Point Cemetery overlooking the Hudson. Today, I'll detail the sad origins of the Monument. Later this week, I’ll explore its importance later in the 19th century.
On New Year’s Day, 1817, Cadet Vincent M. Lowe enjoyed an early lunch of cider and cakes with his friend Charles Davies, a new Assistant Professor of Mathematics and two years Lowe’s junior. It was an unusually warm winter's day, so the friends sat on the veranda of the military storekeeper’s quarters (later known as the Thompson House and roughly on the site of Mac Short Barracks). Lowe had been born on Navy Island near Niagara Falls where his father, Cornelius Lowe, had been granted land after the Revolution. Cornelius later died at or after the Battle of Queenston Heights during the War of 1812. Davies would go on to be a giant in early American mathematics education, a professor at several colleges, and the author of widely used textbooks.
After their lunch, Lowe had to report to a detail responsible for firing off a 24-gun salute at noon to usher in the New Year. Lowe left Davies near the Academy building (close to where the Superintendent’s house now stands) and set off to his duty location. Not long after, Davies heard a lone cannon discharge, which he deemed unusual, and ran to the cannons where he found his friend dead. Without even a bruise on his body, Lowe had been killed from the percussive force of a round igniting prematurely.
Because of the limited staffing and isolation of the Post in those days, there was no one to prepare the body for burial, so Davies and another man rowed the body all the way to Newburgh without even wearing overcoats, a distance of about seven miles! The Academy’s first graduate, Joseph Gardner Swift (Class of 1802) described the funeral as “one of the most impressive scenes in its march across the plain to the burial ground on the extremity of the German flat, in a gusty snow storm, which alternately concealed and exposed the party in its route.”
Days later, New York’s The Evening Post (January 6, 1817) reported the incident:
Suddenly, at West-Point, on the 1st instant, Cadet VINCENT M. LOWE, aged 18 years. He was killed by the accidental explosion of a charge of powder in a cannon, while ramming the cartridge; the accident is supposed to have occurred in the consequence of an imperfect spunging (sic) of the piece after a previous discharge. Cadet Lowe was an amiable and intelligent youth. His death has deprived the Military Academy of one of its ornaments, and the nation of a promising young soldier.
The Corps of Cadets, moved by Lowe’s death, donated money to erect a monument in his name. Unveiled in 1818, the Cadet Monument reads on one side,
Vincent M. Lowe of New York. This stone feebly testifies the respect and regret of his Brother Cadets. He was accidentally killed by the discharge of a cannon at West Point on 1st. Jan. 1817, aged 19 years.
On the reverse,
This Monument Sacred to the memory of the deceased Officers and Cadets of the Military Academy. Erected by the members of the Institution, Oct. 1818.
It is this reverse message that represents the importance of the Monument over time because for decades it became a tradition to inscribe on the Monument the names of cadets or professors who died while at the Academy.
In a later post, we’ll explore the Cadet Monument beyond Cadet Lowe’s untimely death.
Note: The Monument states that Lowe was 19 years old when he died, but Lowe genealogies record a birth date of January 7, 1796. This would make Lowe 20 years (and almost 21) at the time of his death.
Berard, Augusta B. Reminiscences of West Point in the Olden Time: Derived from Various Sources, and Register of Graduates of the United States Military Academy. East Saginaw, MI: Evening News Printing & Binding House, 1886.
"Died." The Evening Post (New York, NY), January 6, 1817.
Swift, Joseph G. The Memoirs of Gen. Joseph Gardner Swift, LL.D., U.S.A., First Graduate of the United States Military Academy, West Point, Chief Engineer U.S.A. from 1812-to 1818. Worcester, MA: F. S. Blanchard & Co., 1890.
"Vincent M. LOWE (7 Jan 1796 - 1 Jan 1817)." Accessed May 29, 2016. https://jrm.phys.ksu.edu/genealogy/needham/d0005/I462.html.