The Cape Fear Civil War Round Table


Soldier, Author, Scholar, and Captain of Industry

Cadet E. Porter Alexander
West Point Class of 1857,
ranked third in his class.

By Colonel Jack 'Black Jack' Travis

Edward Porter Alexander was born May 26, 1835, in Wilkes County, Washington, Georgia. He was one of eight children born to Adam Leopold Alexander and Sara Hillhouse Gilbert. His father Adam Leopold, a Yale graduate of of the class of 1821, could read and write three languages--English, Greek, and Latin. Adam Leopold met Sara H. Gilbert in New Haven, Connecticut, where she was attending a woman's finishing school. Sara was from Washington, Georgia, and raised in the high country. Adam, from the low country, had a plantation named 'Hopedwell' near Riceboro, Georgia, south of Savannah. After their marriage, they lived in Washington, Georgia, at the old Gilbert house (Fairfield Plantation) that was built in 1808.

Alexander had a great childhood at Fairfield. He knew many of his father's plantation slaves, called them by name, and ate and played with their children. However, he also found himself preoccupied with hunting and fishing. This preoccupation stayed with him throughout his life, and played an important part in his destiny.

At about the age of 13, Edward got into a quarrel over secession, and was bullied by two of his peers. Told that they had pistols and were going to whip him, he armed himself with a 'pepper box' revolver. When they met, he and the two boys came to a collision. One boy hit him over the head with a light stick. Alexander drew his pistol and pulled the trigger. It misfired and the boy pulled his pistol, too. He fired a second time, and again the pistol misfired. By this time, older boys who were present stepped in, stopped the fight, and took the pistols away. One of the older boys then fired Alexander's pistol, and this time it discharged. He realized he could have ruined his life with this single event. It made such an impact on him that he never forgot this lesson, and always tried to keep a cool head and stay out of politics.

From childhood on, Alexander desired to attend West Point; however, his father wanted him to become an engineer and not a soldier. When he was 14 years old, his two oldest sisters were about to marry West Point graduates. The fiance of Louisa Frederika Alexander, Jeremy Gilmer of Guilford County, North Carolina (later to become Maj. General Gilmer of the Confederate Army, Engineer Corps), convinced the elder Alexander that E. Porter could go to West Point and become an engineer if he stayed in the top of his class. Adam Leopold was so impressed by Gilmer that he gave his consent for E. Porter to attend West Point. Subsequently, Jeremy Gilmer and E. Porter Alexander were to remain the best of friends throughout their lives.

Now, the preparation for E. Porter's entrance to West Point began. Several years before, Adam Leopold had employed a Miss Brackett of Massachusetts to provide tutoring for all of the Alexander children. Because of this, he was very well prepared. In the winter of 1852-1853, he was sent to Savannah, Georgia to take lessons in French and drawing by the Lawton's of South Broad Street. Adam Leopold went to see the Honorable Robert Toombs (later Brigadier General Toombs of the 20th GA), one of their neighbors, to seek his help in obtaining an appointment for E. Porter to West Point. Toombs was delighted and honored, and consented to do this for the Alexander family.


E. Porter Alexander entered West Point in June of 1853, and was assigned Dick Meade of Petersburg, Virginia as his roommate. At the time, he weighed 150 pounds and was 5 feet 9-1/2 inches tall. He had to study hard to maintain his 3rd place ranking in his class in order that he might graduate as an engineer, as he had he promised his father---only the top ranked cadets were assigned as engineers. This required him to stay up very late at night and study by candlelight and to keep his behavior in excellent form so that he would avoid demerits.

While attending West Point, a tragedy struck the Alexander family. His mother, Sara Alexander, was addicted to morphine due to an illness that caused her to be in severe pain. She traveled to Philadelphia for special care and treatment. On her way to Philadelphia, she visited E. Porter at West Point. He was shocked by her loss of weight and appearance. When she returned to Washington, Georgia, her physical condition had deteriorated to the extent that she appeared as only skin and bones. She passed away in February of 1855, and was buried in the family cemetery at Fairfield Plantation. This was a great blow to the family and E. Porter. However, this personal tragedy brought him and his father, Leopold, closer together than they had ever been. In 1857, E. Porter graduated third in his class at West Point and was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant of engineers. He had fulfilled his promise to his father. His roommate, Dick Meade was first in his class, and later, during the War Between the States, he died of typhoid fever during the period of the Seven Days Battle, while serving as an engineer for the Confederacy; John Palfrey of Massachusetts was second in the class of 1857.

Very rare photograph of E.Porter Alexander's wife.
Betty Mason (Miss Teen), of King George County, Virginia.


Following graduation, E. Porter was given three months furlough and then ordered back to West Point as assistant instructor of Military Engineering and Fencing. In the fall of 1857, he was assigned to General Albert Sydney Johnston for the Utah Expedition. The expedition consisted of six columns, 500 men in each column. He was assigned to the 1st column and commanded by Colonel Andrews, West Point Class of 1823, who was a veteran of the Seminole Wars.

The expedition was sent by order of President James Buchanan. He wanted to replace Brigham Young as Territorial Governor with Alfred Cummings of Georgia. The Mormon leader and his followers were adamantly against this and were committed to resistance. The Utah Expedition was sent to use force to install territorial governor Cummings. However, during the winter encampment on the way to Utah, representatives of both parties were able to resolve the matter and install Cummings without any military action. Thus, the columns returned to the east.

E. Porter was in his absolute delight on the Utah Expedition. He loved the west--wide-open spaces, beautiful scenery, pristine rivers, streams, and forests. Best of all, the hunting was great. This was one of his true loves--the thrill of the hunt. Alexander while on horseback and on foot, personally killed twenty-five buffalo, and shot many quail, pheasants, turkeys and other game. He was also delighted to meet a variety of Plains Indians, such as the Sioux, Pawnees, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Utes. Also, during this time, he met two gentlemen who later become associated with him in history, at the 3rd day of Gettysburg, 1863--Captain Lewis A. Armistead and Captain Richard B. Garnett.

At the end of this expedition, E. Porter was ordered back to West Point to resume his duties as instructor of engineering and fencing. He met two Virginia belles, Gussie and Betty Mason. He took a strong liking to Betty Mason (Miss Teen) who was 24 years old. After a short courtship, they were married in King George County, Virginia on April 3, 1860. During their marriage, they had five children-three boys and two girls.

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