Execution Hollow

A place for odd or rarely told stories about pre-WWI West Point & the Hudson Valley. 

Tales of Ninny

Tales of Ninny

Here's an account of a poor lieutenant named Ninny (real name Nathaniel Sayre Harris, USMA Class of 1825) and a few cadets that harassed him so much that he left the Army. Obviously, this would not stand today, but the story gives insight into cadet shenanigans in the early 1800s. The story involves Cadets Arnold Harris and Forbes Britton of the Class of 1834, as well as Cadet Benjamin (Benny) Roberts of the Class of 1835. Ninny was an Assistant Instructor of Infantry Tactics known as a disciplinarian fond of writing cadets up for violations (called "skinning" in the old days). What follows was published in a September 1878 issue of the Army and Navy Journal, complete with 19th-century words and grammar. The language is so fun that I thought it would be best to publish it word-for-word. When you're done, please share and consider joining our growing mailing list. 

"Our three worthies hated Ninny with a hatred unspeakable, and they made his life a torment to him. One winter morning, when the reveille roll call was long before day light, Ninny was officer in charge, and he took his stand near the old North Barrack door and near the coal pile to see that everything went on properly. Benny Roberta spied him, and pretending to take him for a post he walked deliberately up to him, and he had commenced to put a serious indignity upon him when Ninny attempted to seize him. Benny had short legs, but he could run like a scared wolf, and he "lit out " with Ninny after him. He took down to the end of South Barracks, then around It and up through the Sally-port and over towards the North Barracks hall door. Ninny was gaining on him, when Benny threw his arm around a post near the coal pile fence and swung himself quickly around. Ninny was close after him, but in turning the post his sword got foul in some way and he fell. Benny was in the barracks in an instant and the chase was given up. Of course all made a great deal of fun, but it was very dark, and it is very doubtful whether any one in the corps knew at the time who it was that Ninny was after.

The barracks mentioned in the story were located on the Plain near the corner of the Library and Eisenhower Barracks. The North Barracks stuck out into the Plain towards what is now the baseball field. Ninny's quarters were located close to road in front of the West Point Club. Map by T.B. Brown, 1826. Annotations by the author. 

The barracks mentioned in the story were located on the Plain near the corner of the Library and Eisenhower Barracks. The North Barracks stuck out into the Plain towards what is now the baseball field. Ninny's quarters were located close to road in front of the West Point Club. Map by T.B. Brown, 1826. Annotations by the author. 

Troublemaker  Benny Roberts  later in life. His highest rank was Brevet Major General (1865). 

Troublemaker Benny Roberts later in life. His highest rank was Brevet Major General (1865). 

"Now Ninny knew that there were only three c1dets lo the corps that could be guilty of such a piece of impudence. But these fellows were all about the same height —and it was too dark to discover any features. Major Fowler was the commandant or cadets, and when the office hour arrived each of the three was sent for in turn to come to the commandant’s office. Ninny was then trying with all his might to see something that could enable him to say positively which was the culprit. But each one of the boys kept a countenance as serene as that of a mummy, and Ninny gave It up. I rather think that affair had something to do with his leaving the Army, which he did soon after this event. He took refuge in holy orders lo the Protestant Episcopal Church. In after years Ninny would come occasionally to officiate in the cadets’ chapel, and his appearance would always revive the old story of his foot race with Benny Roberts.

"Ninny occupied as his quarters a small building lo the eastward and about eighty yards from the old North Barracks [Note: sometimes called "Castle Harris"]. This building had previously been used for baser purposes, and some years afterwards It was used as the barber shop and boot black room, and still later it was used by Jo Simpson as an ice cream and refreshment room. It was a circular or octagonal shaped building with a cupola. Between this building and the North Barracks was a high stone wall which prevented a view of the windows of the lower floor of the barrack. Now, our worthies had transformed their brass candle sticks into small mortars, and by charging their old bell buttons they made of them miniature shells, which they could fire from the windows behind the wall, and they had struck the range so accurately that they could burst a button shell over Ninny's quarters any time. Occasionally a bombardment would commence along the whole line of windows, and Ninny's life was made so uncomfortable that he was obliged to change his quarters. But the event that immediately brought about the change was this: One morning at reveille the whole corps of cadets were astonished to see Ninny, in full tog, standing on the top of his quarters, leaning very composedly against the cupola, quietly surveying the surrounding scenery. Those who were not lo the secret of the affair suspected that he had taken his stand there in a fit or insanity. It was soon observed, however, that the figure did not move and that it was not Ninny, but at a little distance it was his vera effigies. Some one whom no fellow could find out had gotten into the quarters and stuffed a suit of uniform so cleverly that the resemblance was perfect, and placed it on the top of the building. This was too much for human nature to stand and the building had to be vacated."

Poor Ninny! I feel bad for him. Arnold got out of the Army after three years. Britton served sixteen years before becoming a state senator in Texas (Blutarski-esque). Benny Roberts served four years, got out, then entered service again. He earned the rank of Brevet Major General. Ninny's Cullum entry is here.

Primary Source: "Two Army Characters," Army and Navy Journal, September 14, 1878. 

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