West Point exists because of war, terrain and Gen. George Washington’s cunning: The military leader of America’s revolution realized that the wooded plateau commanding a tight S-bend in the Hudson River was the place to stop British warships sailing north to crush their upstart colonies’ revolt.
The general’s Continental Army set up camp there in January 1778, 50 miles north of Manhattan, and Washington chose a noted Polish military engineer, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, to design its forts, batteries and redoubts. His soldiers also strung a 150-ton chain, “The Great Chain,” across the river to block enemy vessels long enough for them to be shelled and sunk from above.
By 1780, the emplacement had thwarted British hopes to the point that they sought to suborn its commander, Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold, to surrender it for a lump sum, a pension and a commission in the British Army. Arnold was an honored American patriot but not honored nearly enough, in his opinion. He was in the final stages of betrayal when three militiamen captured a British spy carrying papers that exposed the plot. Arnold fled to serve the British openly and confirm his name forever as a synonym for “traitor.”
Though the fledgling nation had defeated the mother kingdom, Washington saw the continuing need for American-educated civil and military engineers, and now he joined other high U.S. officials to push for a domestic school of military strategy and engineering. But lawmakers didn’t like the idea. They were afraid such an institution would be a step on the way to an elitist class system, and it wasn’t until President Thomas Jefferson received assurances that the student body would be egalitarian that he signed legislation setting up the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1802.
Initially, the Academy was loose. The first class, in 1802, had two cadets, and standards were fluid over the next few years, with students ranging in age from 10 to 37 and staying between six months and six years. They did, however, adopt the gray cadet uniforms of today, inspired by the military garb of the War of 1812.
By 1817, the Academy had become so lax that the superintendent was replaced by a West Point graduate, Col. Sylvanus Thayer, “Father of the Military Academy” from 1817 to 1833. Thayer wasted no time: He elevated academic standards, focused the curriculum on modern in-depth engineering and officer training; imposed self-study and daily homework; and instilled military discipline and an honor code. Only top scholars had any hope of admission to the Academy’s engineering program, and West Point was the first university with a class ring, emblematic of its esprit de corps.
Most of the new nation’s lands were Great Unknowns, and it was the West Point engineers, surveyors and mappers, the topographers, who deployed westward in what the Smithsonian National Museum of American History calls “part military reconnaissance, part scientific exploration, part treasure hunt.” They brought back accurate maps, specimens, records and observations that shaped scientific thought and national policy, as well as having a hand in building most of the new railroads, highways, harbors and bridges, and modernizing industrial practices.
Most Army officers were West Point graduates. Both Ulysses S. Grant (1843) and Robert E. Lee (1829) served in the Mexican War of 1846-48, and others worked to keep peace on the frontier as settlers pushing west seized land from Native Americans. Lee returned to West Point as superintendent, Col. Thayer’s old post, from 1852 to 1857.
Then came the Civil War. West Point supplied 151 Confederate and 294 Union generals; in 55 of the war’s 60 biggest battles, West Pointers commanded both sides, and commanded one side in each of the other five engagements, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Among others, the Union Army had Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman (1840), and rebel forces had Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (1846). As then-secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, Confederate President Jefferson Davis (1828) signed Grant’s commission as a captain in the U.S. Army. In a touch of irony, Grant commanded the Union armies that overthrew the Confederacy and Davis.
Many battles were inconclusive and ended with such great loss of life on both sides that many believe it was superior West Point logisticians that ultimately gave the North the edge. Civil and railroad engineer Herman Haupt (1835), for instance, created the Union Army’s railroad transportation corps as the war began, to such effect that May 23, 1862, Abraham Lincoln noted: “That man Haupt has built a bridge across Potomac Creek, about 400 feet long and nearly 100 feet high, over which loaded trains are running every hour, and upon my word, gentlemen, there is nothing in it but beanpoles and corn stalks.” (Fact: Haupt spanned the creek in nine days using more than 2 million feet of lumber. His bridge carried 10 to 20 military trains every day loaded with ammunition, weapons and supplies for the Army of the Potomac.)
After Gen. Lee’s 1865 surrender to Gen. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, West Point held off admitting cadets from the secessionist South until 1868. The first African-American cadet was admitted in 1870 because Congress ordered it; Henry Ossian Flipper was the first African-American to graduate in 1877, one of only three such graduates between 1870 and 1900.
The war had changed the nation, and West Point. From 1870 to the turn of the century, the curriculum shed its narrow emphasis on engineering for broader coursework, particularly military strategy and proficiency, and it was West Point graduates who supervised construction of the Washington Monument (1888), the Library of Congress (1897) and the Panama Canal (1913). Sports were added. The first Army-Navy game was at West Point in 1890 (Navy won, 24-0), but Army beat Navy at Annapolis the next year, and the grudge was on.
The Spanish-American War (1898), “a splendid little war,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Hay, prompted Congress to increase the Corps of Cadets and authorize new campus buildings between 1900 and 1915. So many of the corps’ most famous leaders graduated in 1915, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, that it became known as “the Class the Stars Fell Upon.”
Europe then was at war, World War I, and despite President Woodrow Wilson’s reluctance, the United States also declared war on Germany in 1917, mostly because German U-boats were sinking merchant and passenger ships in unrestricted submarine warfare and Americans were dying. West Point officers were in almost all the top command and staff posts. With a global front, problems posed by mobilization of personnel, weapons, ammunition and supplies to and across Europe had to be solved fast, and West Pointers headed all three agencies supplying the Army: the Quartermaster Corps, the Ordnance Corps and the Signal Corps. Three other West Pointers helped draw up and administer the 1917 Selective Service Act that provided four-fifths of the Army.
The Academy’s broad educational mission had nearly buckled during World War I, but its post-war superintendent, Douglas MacArthur (1903), restored and strengthened its academics during his tenure from 1919 to 1922, made “Every cadet an athlete” into a fitness mantra, and codified the Honor System — “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do” — under a Cadet Honor Committee.
In 1925, West Point was accredited by the Association of American Universities, and the Academy began awarding Bachelor of Science degrees to all graduates in 1933.
Facing a return to war and a demand for more officers, West Point absorbed additional land to embrace a reservation of almost 16,000 acres, initiated another building program just before World War II, and started a flight school that graduated more than 1,000 cadets as commissioned pilots between 1943 and 1946. Maxwell Taylor (1922) took over as superintendent in 1945 and began shaping the modern military academy by replacing such subjects as fencing and horsemanship with physics, electronics and applied psychology.
Academy graduates coming home to a grateful nation after the war included MacArthur, Eisenhower and Bradley, George S. Patton (1909), Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell (1904) and Jonathan M. Wainwright (1906).
Superintendent Garrison Hold Davidson (1927) added electives and promoted athletics for all students, and transformed and modernized the Academy’s curriculum after he took over in 1956. Eight years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed a bill raising the size of the Corps from 2,529 to 4,417, though at present the Corps is capped at 4,400 cadets who represent every state and several foreign
In 1976, America’s Bicentennial Year, Congress for the first time allowed women to enroll at the federal service academies, and West Point immediately began recruiting; by the late 1980s all cadet companies included women, and women had led in every position across the Corps of Cadets.
Today, West Point academics extend to 37 arts and science majors, though graduates still receive a Bachelor of Science degree. Though West Pointers have contributed immeasurably to the U.S. military, graduates also have served as teachers, astronauts, business leaders, engineers, presidents, governors, lawmakers, mayors, intelligence directors, Cabinet members, ambassadors, judges, authors, actors, Medal of Honor recipients, scientists, inventors, physicians and sports figures.
The history of West Point is the history of the cadets it has formed under its motto, “Duty. Honor. Country.” Their history is the history of America.