The Man who Graduated First to Robert E. Lee at West Point
By John T. Marck
Charles Mason was born in 1804, and was the one man who graduated ahead of Robert E. Lee in the West Point class of 1829. Charles graduated first; Lee was second. But, interestingly Mason did not serve in the military during the Civil War, but instead was a Copperhead.
In 1860 the Democratic Party had broken apart, and during the secession crisis, Democrats in the North were more flexible toward the South than were the Republicans. This group called themselves the Peace Democrats, and their opponents called them Copperheads, because they wore copper pennies as identifying badges.
Prior to the Civil War, Mason, a native of New York, resigned his commission in the engineers after serving for two years, to become a patent lawyer, and moved to Wisconsin. He served as a member of the Iowa Territory supreme court until Iowa became a state on December 28, 1846. He further was active in Democratic politics.
After contemplating whether to obtain a commission, he continued his law practice in Washington, while writing letters about the Washington scene for the Dubuque Herald. Signing his name as "X," he was against just about every war measure enacted by Lincoln and his administration. With this position in mind, he also did not regret the defeat of Stephen Douglas in 1860, as he believed Douglas was responsible for the division in the Democratic Party, and his loss was just retribution.
In private, Mason wrote, favored and envisioned a new reunion between the North and the South, but in doing so the Confederacy could return to the Union without shame or humiliation. He continued to favor a period whereby the South may remain independent, after which a renewed unity could be achieved. He further feared that the measures that were being taken to ensure a Union victory would lead to absolutism, and thus was sad upon each Northern victory.
Mason was also an opponent of slavery, believing that the individual states possessed the right to maintain this institution if they chose. As he opposed the war effort, while appearing to favor the Confederacy, he nonetheless was loyal to the Union, and had no contact with the Confederates.
When the war ended, Mason helped drive a wedge between Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans. Charles Mason died in 1882.
Copyright © 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.