ALBANY, N.Y. — Years before leading his vastly outnumbered troops to their doom at Little Bighorn, a young George Armstrong Custer was described as accurate in math.
Nearly 30 years before his March to the Sea laid waste to a large swath of Georgia, William Tecumseh Sherman was deemed a "fine energetic boy."
And two decades before he would earn the nickname "Stonewall," Thomas J. Jackson's dreams of a military career got a boost from a man who would help start the Civil War.
Those are some of the tidbits gleaned from more than 115,000 U.S. Military Academy application documents being posted online for the first time by Ancestry.com. The Provo, Utah-based genealogy website said Tuesday that the information can be viewed for free starting Thursday – Veterans Day – through Sunday.
After Sunday, it will cost $12.95 a month for unlimited access to the West Point records and the website's more than 100 million military documents, company officials said.
The oldest West Point documents being posted online date to 1805, three years after the academy's founding, and run through 1866, a year after the Civil War ended. The records and other related documents from that period were culled from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., said Quinton Atkinson, director of content acquisition for Ancestry.com.
The documents represent some 16,000 individuals accepted into the Corps of Cadets, he said. Missing from the collection are the application records of notables such as Edgar Allen Poe, who briefly attended West Point, and Robert E. Lee, who graduated in 1829, Atkinson said.
"These are the rich aspects of the research that you can add to the more fundamental tree-building that family historians do," Atkinson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "You can understand who these people were."
Back then, as it is now, the process for applying for admission to West Point included being nominated by a member of Congress. Lawmakers, governors, guardians, businessmen and other prominent citizens in a prospective cadet's home state would write recommendation letters. Although the handwritten letters are often hard to decipher, they can offer insights on how others viewed the budding military leaders, Atkinson said.
Ohio Congressman John Bingham, in his 1856 nomination letter for Custer, described the then-17-year-old as being a shade under 5-foot-10, with "no deformity." Custer, Bingham wrote, "reads well, spells correctly, writes a fair and legible hand, able to perform with facility and accuracy the ground rules of arithmetic ..."
A letter written in 1835 by Sherman's guardian referred to the future Union general, then 16, as "a good scholar and a fine energetic boy."
Thomas J. Jackson was seeking acceptance to West Point in 1842 when a South Carolina politician wrote a letter to the academy on Jackson's behalf. Jackson graduated four years later. In April 1861, that politician – Francis W. Pickens – was governor of South Carolina when he approved the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, the opening salvos of the Civil War.
Three months later in Manassas, Va., Jackson earned the nickname "Stonewall" when his Virginia brigade repulsed a Union assault during the First Battle of Bull Run.
And George Pickett, the Confederate officer who would find immortality leading what became known as Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, gave an early hint of his vanity in a letter he wrote to President James Polk in 1845, seeking admission to West Point.
"I am a young man, nineteen years old, six feet tall and moderately good-looking (as I am told)," Pickett wrote.
Atkinson said, "I guess you could surmise that he was moderately modest."
The National Archives doesn't have West Point's application records beyond 1866, Atkinson said. West Point is believed to have those records, he said.
Calls to West Point's public information office for comment on the project weren't immediately returned.