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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
West Point

John Crane and James F. Kieley

McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.
New York, 1947

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p111  Chapter Four
Combat Training

Military training at West Point is the job of the Academy's Department of tactics. Newly appointed cadets receive a whole summer's basic training in soldiering before their class is fully incorporated into the Corps and they begin their first term as regular plebes in the fall. From then on, through the full four years' course, West Point men receive military instruction in everything from the most fundamental infantry tactics to the newest forms of warfare utilizing the most recently developed weapons.

As was the case with the Academy's educational development, military training under a well-planned and definite program began with the administration of Sylvanus Thayer as superintendent well over a hundred years ago. Thayer established military organization within the Cadet Corps, imposed strict military discipline upon the cadets, and provided systematic military training as an integral part of the whole program at West Point.

Military training of one kind or another has been a part of cadet experience at the Academy, of course, since its establishment in 1802. During the first decade, according to General Cullum's history of the Military Academy, cadets studied from 8 A.M. to 1 P.M., from 2 to 4 P.M., and in the evening, "and [had] drills and practical exercises from 4 P.M. to sunset and occasionally before breakfast." Cullum went on to explain: "The prescribed uniform at this time was a coat and pantaloons of blue clothe, round hat with black-silk cockade and gilt eagle, and Jefferson shoes. The coat was single-breasted, with one row of bullet buttons and a standing collar. The belts were black, and the muskets the same as those used by soldiers, except a lighter one for the small boys. Each Cadet was expected to wear a sword, but few possessed the weapon."

While there was no specially designated instructor in tactics prior to 1818, regulations of July 2, 1816, prescribed, under the head of military instruction, infantry and artillery tactics, practical gunnery and camp duties, and  p112 broad- and small-sword exercises. A sword master, one Pierre Thomas, was appointed in May, 1814, but he gave instruction only to a few selected cadets.

From 1812 until Thayer's appointment as superintendent in 1817, however, the prescribed course in military training was practically ignored except for infantry and artillery drills which were the special delight of "Old Pewter" Partridge. The acting superintendent conducted these drills in person and gave the Corps a good deal of its "spit and polish."

Partridge was virtually preoccupied with marching and drilling his cadets, although his ideas on running a military establishment were otherwise rather questionable, particularly from the standpoint of discipline. He liked to appear himself as quite the soldierly figure and was always seen in uniform. He usually favored a dress coat with embroidered color and cuffs and bright buttons.

He became worried when new cadets began arriving at the tender age of twelve to fourteen and the regulation army musket proved too heavy for them to carry and handle. This problem was overcome by obtaining an issue of 300 "short muskets" from which to supply the small boys, and the Corps went marching on.

Partridge did get results, and the cadets, wearing white belts, which he introduced, presented a smart appearance. In July, 1814, he took them on probably their first trip away from West Point, by sloop down the Hudson River to Governors Island, where they camped for nearly a month. The cadets, in the midst of intensive wartime activity, did credit to themselves on drill and on parade, and performed their share of guard duty as part of the garrison.

When Sylvanus Thayer became superintendent of West Point, his first act in establishing the military organization of the Cadet Corps was to set the Corps up as a battalion Ottawa companies, officered by cadets. At the head of the battalion was a cadet colonel, with an adjutant and sergeant major as his staff. The cadet officers were rotated each week, the changes being effected on Sunday after inspection. The cadet correspond stepped out and the other cadet officers moved up a grade. Later the somewhat complicated system was changed so that the cadet colonel, adjutant, and sergeant major were selected from the first class, lieutenants, sergeants, and corporals from the second class, corporals and other sergeants from the third class.

The battalion was actually commanded by an Army officer who was also instructor in infantry tactics. The appointment of Captain John Bliss of the  p113 Sixth Infantry on Apr. 2, 1818, as the first Army officer regularly in command of the cadet battalion resulted in an issue through which was settled once and for all the question of military discipline as applied to cadets.

Bliss proved to be a man of short temper who exhibited little patience in dealing with cadets. During a parade on the morning of Sunday, November 22, 1818, Captain Bliss noticed a cadet whose conduct in ranks displeased him. He laid hands on the cadet, Edward Lloyd Nicholson of Maryland, and yanked him out of ranks for a dressing down. Two days later a committee of five cadets visited Superintendent Thayer in his office to present a petition signed by 179 members of the Corps demanding the removal of Bliss.

They were acting in accordance with a procedure that had been permitted by "Old Pewt" Partridge, who apparently had received and acted on a number of such round-robin communications from cadets. One, presented in 1814 and since preserved, asked for leisure time on Sunday for walking or other recreation within the limits of the Post, then complained about the disrespectful attitude of the soldiers at West Point toward the cadets.

Thayer refused to receive the petition against Bliss, but he did look the committee over. The spokesman was a Partridge favorite, Thomas Ragland, who had organized a cadet petition in defense of Partridge before a court of inquiry in 1816. It was Ragland who necessary had hurled a chair round fare his window at Surgeon Walsh. Also in the group were Charles R. Vining, Charles R. Holmes, Nathaniel W. Loring, and Wilson M. C. Fairfax. Fairfax, with Ragland, had recently been appointed an assistant professor.

The superintendent did not even reach for the paper which Ragland moved to thrust into his hands. Instead he gave the cadets a sharp word about the unmilitary manner of such a procedure, and dismissed them. To his surprise, they returned the next day and made a second attempt to present the petition, this time accompanied by an elaborate brief of charges against Bliss which had been drafted during the night.

The brief covered not only the Nicholson incident of November 22 but others as well. It charged that Bliss had exhibited "unofficerlike conduct" on four specific occasions and enumerated instances on which he had thrown stones at cadets, hurled one cadet bodily off the railings of the South Barracks, and pitched another out of his room.

Thayer acted promptly and decisively on this second vision. He ordered the five cadets on the committee to get off the post within six hours and to repair "to the places of their respective guardians" to await further  p114 orders. When he learned later that they had merely adjourned to North's Tavern just off the reservation, he sent them warning to move out of there within an hour. The cadets got out and rowed across the Hudson to Peekskill. Thayer issued an order giving notice to the Cadet Corps that round-robin petitions instituted in opposition to constituted authority were unmilitary and would not be tolerated.

The superintendent's next step was to make a report of the affair to the Chief Engineer and request an investigation by an inspector of the Corps of Engineers. After describing what had taken place between Bliss and the cadets, and how he had finally ordered the cadet committee off zzzzzzzzzzz seven, Thayer offered his own analysis of the situation:

"The pretty general dislike of the young gentlemen to Capt. Bliss arises in part from his strict discipline, forming as it does a complete contrast to that of Frenchman times & is in part incident to the unpleasant situation which he fills, he being the person charged to watch over & report their conduct & to inflict the punishments for minor delinquencies, but the radical cause of the disturbance to which the Mil. Acad'y. is liable is the erroneous & unmilitary impressions of the Cadets imbibed at an inauspicious period of the institution when they were allowed to act as tho they had rights to defend as a corps of the Army & to intrude their views and opinions with respect to the conduct of the Acad'y. So long as these impressions shall remain the Acad'y. will be liable to combinations & convulsions & the reputation of the institution & of the officers connected with it will be put in jeopardy. Notwithstanding these proceedings which I have been compelled to describe in great haste I am happy in being able to assure you that there has been no positive act of mutiny or disorder & that the operations of the Institution have not been interrupted for a moment. But as reports may be spread calculated to injure all concerned I hope the Secretary of War will think proper to direct one of the principal officers of the corps of Engineers to repair to this place as soon as practicable in the capacity of inspector with orders to examine into the state and management of the Institution and authorized to take such measures as circumstances may require."

The inspection was made as requested, and the report favored the superintendent's side of the argument. On Jan. 15, 1819, Thayer received a cheering letter from Secretary of War Calhoun, who wrote: "I have the pleasure to state that your conduct . . . has been satisfactory and approved. . . . The course pursued by the cadets is highly reprehensible throughout the  p115 whole transaction, and particularly objectionable on the part of the young gentlemen who composed the committee."

These "young gentlemen" of the committee had taken their case to the highest authority. After the inspector's report, Ragland was haled before a court-martial which, however, refused to try him and declared that since cadets were not governed by military law the court had no jurisdiction in the case. With this initial victory, the five cadets went to the Secretary of War in an attempt to press their complaint. Getting no satisfaction, they took the matter to the President but met with equal disappointment. The five then resigned from the Cadet Corps and made a report of the whole matter to Congress. A committee of Congress concurred in the War Department's action, and the case was closed.

Unpleasant as the entire episode was, it served to resolve two important issues bearing on the position of the Academy and the Cadet Corps as a part of the national military establishment. First, it established the military authority of the superintendent and did away forever with unmilitary procedures which up to that time had been tolerated under the easy-going tempest of administration that Thayer had ruled out. Second, it brought about the important opinion of August 21, 1819, by Attorney General William Wirt that the cadets at West Point constituted "part of the land forces of the United States and that they have been constitutionally subjected to the Rules and Articles of War and to trials by courts-martial."

In the process Captain Bliss went out as commanding officer of the Battalion of Cadets and Thayer undertook to reestablish his tactical department. In getting a fresh start he reasoned that there should be closer contact between the tactical instructors and the cadets. He designated two young lieutenants, recent graduates, as assistant tactical instructors and assigned each to a cadet company to live in the barracks with the cadets. Then he looked about for an officer well qualified both professionally and temperamentally for commanding the Cadet Battalion and instructing them in infantry tactics. He found that officer in brevet Major William J. Worth of the Twenty-Third Infantry, a nongraduate who had rendered heroic service at Chippawa and Niagara and who later distinguished himself at Monterey and Chapultepec.

Worth proved to be everything to the Academy that Bliss had not been, and more. A splendid figure of a man, tall and handsome, he was the perfect soldier and inspired the Cadet Corps to follow his example in every detail. Worth gave the Corps the kind of military leadership that it had  p116 always lacked. The cadets admiringly nicknamed him "Haughty Bill" and entered with spirit into his program for putting snap into cadet drills and parades. He taught them how to march proudly with precision and how to execute their movements with just enough flair to make them appear finished but not fancy. In short, he achieved the polish which to this day has made the West Point Cadet Corps the finest of its kind.

"Haughty Bill" led his cadets on their famous excursion to Boston in 1821 — a move which did much to advertise the Academy and the Corps to large numbers of people. Leaving West Point on July 20, the cadets traveled by steamer to Albany and marched from Albany to Boston, passing through half a dozen New England towns. They were received with ceremony and presented with a stand of colors by the city during their stay of two weeks in Boston. Then they marched on to Providence, R. I., and to New London, Conn. They took a steamer from New London to New Haven, and a few days later, on Sept. 25, completed the trip by steamer from New Haven to West Point. The portion of the trip covered on foot totaled 310 miles.

Several shorter trips had been taken previously, including a march to Philadelphia, and a trip up the Hudson River with stops at Poughkeepsie and Hudson, where the cadets received official greetings and returned the favors by giving exhibition drills and parades.

Regulations of 1821 stipulated that a captain or field officer should be detailed as instructor of infantry tactics, and provided for the following instruction to be given by the tactical department: Regular United States Army infantry tactics, including instruction in the school of the soldier, school of the company, school of the battalion, and evolutions of the line, the exercises and maneuvers of light infantry and riflemen; the duties in camp and garrison of privates, noncommissioned officers, and officers, including those of guard and police. The study of infantry tactics was introduced that year as a regular course, with recitations scheduled between 2 and 4 P.M. As a text the cadets used the rules and regulations prescribed for the infantry branch of the service.

The commanding officer of the cadet battalion and instructor in infantry tactics was officially designated "Commandant of Cadets" by regulations of 1825. These regulations also established the practical arrangement of dividing the Cadet Corps into squads corresponding to the number of tables in the mess hall, and directed that cadets assemble for meals on signal under the direction of the first or second carvera and march to mess led by the superintendent of the mess hall.

 p117  The first instructor in cavalry tactics was appointed in 1837, and two years later a sergeant and five dragoons were ordered to the Academy from Carlisle Barracks to assist in cavalry exercises and teach the cadets to ride. The Quartermaster's Department supplied twelve horses for this training, and the sergeant was later discharged from the Army and given a civilian appointment as riding master. About the same time horses and harness were provided for light artillery pieces which had previously been hauled about by the cadets themselves.

Regulations of 1839 also prescribed that the program for summer encampment of the first class include study of the evolutions of the line in the Army's system of infantry tactics. Study of certain portions of the General Regulations of the Army was also made a part of the course.

The title of "Commandant of Cadets" was first recognized by Congress on June 12, 1858, when a law was passed providing that "the Commandant of Cadets shall have the local rank and the pay and allowances of a lieutenant-colonel of engineers, and besides his other duties shall be charged with the duties of instructor in the tactics of the three arms of the service." It had earlier been provided by law that the commander of the Cadet Corps should be either the instructor of infantry tactics, of cavalry and artillery, or of practical military engineering.

By 1860 military training at West Point included strategy, grand tactics, outpost duty, army organization and administration, equitation and veterinary science, as well as infantry, cavalry, and artillery tactics.

Such training took on real meaning for the cadets at the Academy in 1863 when West Point was threatened during the New York City draft riots. Reports were heard that some of the mob that had caused the deaths of a thousand possess and brought about the destruction of property valued at $2,000,000 in New York were planning an expedition up the Hudson. Their intention, it was rumored, was to destroy the Cold Spring Foundry, which at that time was the largest foundry in the country manufacturing guns, and then to attack and burn the military establishment at West Point.

All the military resources of the post were immediately mobilized for the defense. Ball cartridges were issued to the cadets. Civilians, including emends of the Academy, were armed and posted on guard duty to augment the military forces. Cadet pickets were established and field guns placed at the north and south docks and at Gees Point. Armed sentinels were placed along the river and back roads at challenging intervals.

For several days and nights the Academy remained in this alerted condition,  p118 but the promised attack failed to materialize. From then on, however, armed guards continued to walk their posts at West Point.

Military training is now organized for all classes at the Academy on a comprehensive schedule around the calendar, introducing every cadet to the rudiments of soldiering and taking him through the most advanced types of military operations as developed and tested in actual combat on the far‑flung battlefronts of World War II.

The Department of Tactics is responsible both for the routine administration and discipline of the Cadet Corps, and for the conduct of basic military training to provide a balanced military and physical education for the Regular Ayr's future officers. It accomplishes the first objective, and contributes to the Academy's primary purpose of building character, by exercising continuous and strict supervision over the daily life of the cadet and by demanding prompt, precise, and thorough performance of all duties, no matter how small. It accomplishes the second objective by providing instruction pertinent to the separate and combined arms, with subcourses in organization, administration, staff functioning, leadership, weapons and materiel, and tactics and technique.

The guiding principle in the selection of courses in military training is that these courses shall furnish training of value to all line officers of the Regular Army. Since specialized training is a function of unit training and the various service and staff schools conducted by the War Department, overemphasis on specialties is avoided at West Point.

A new and important type of military training introduced under the new curriculum adopted at the close of World War II gives the cadets instruction and demonstration in the techniques of amphibious operations. This part of the program will be conducted by joint and combined instruction of second classmen of the Military Academy and the United States Naval Academy at a naval amphibious training base. It is regarded as of great value from a professional standpoint in that it associates in training the cadets and midshipmen who will later be called upon to cooperate in such operations as officers of their respective services.

While during World War II the Military Academy gave full pilot training under its three-year course and graduated 825 cadets with their wings, that system was found to be impractical for a peacetime operation. Aviation training under the four-year course is designed not to produce pilots but to give every cadet a knowledge of flight and its practical application, thus insuring that every graduate will have a firsthand knowledge of the capabilities  p119 and limitations of the basic airplane. This is accomplished through a screening course in flying given to all cadets regardless of their desire or intent to become Air Force officers. The course lasts one month during the second-class summer and amounts to twenty-five hours of actual flight instruction, including solo flight should the cadet possess physical requirements and the flight aptitude necessary to solo. If solo requirements are not met, he simply continues dual instruction. The instruction period is of sufficient duration to allow cadets to determine their own aptitude and desire for future flight training after graduation. In addition to this month's training during the second-class summer, a period of two weeks during the first-class summer is allotted for visits to Air Force tactical schools for a broader view of the combat functions of the Air Forces.

A highly important element of military training at West Point is the physical-training program conducted by the section of the Department of Tactics headed by the Master of the Sword. Designed to equip cadets with a strong, well-rounded physical and mental adjustment suitable to a military career, it gives attention initially to basic physical skills, coordination and condition (fitness), then provides progressive instruction in military skills and sports of a kind that officers carry over into professional life after graduation.

Before a man can become a full-fledged West Point cadet, he must be a good soldier. Consequently, new candidates reporting for duty at the Academy in July are maintained as a body separate and distinct from the Cadet Corps until they have finished their six weeks of basic training. Through the hot summer days they are gradually hardened up as they make their way through a formidable schedule of training, which includes military discipline and customs, dismounted and extended-order drill, interior guard duty, care of clothing and equipment, tent pitching, military sanitation and first aid, rifle marksmanship, the technique of fire, the bayonet and grenade, field fortifications, camouflage, unarmed combat, defense against chemical, air, and mechanized attack; tactics of the individual soldier, marches, bivouacs, and night operations. In the process they undergo intensive physical conditioning including corrective and hardening training, group games, and mass athletics. Basic training also includes instruction in the regulations, customs, and traditions of the Military Academy.

The proud day when the new cadets finish basic training and join the Corps for maneuvers comes in the second week of August. they are immediately assigned to provisional tactical organizations, and participate in the  p120 annual cadet field exercises. Subsequently they are permanently assigned to companies of the cadet brigade and thus become fully incorporated into the Corps.

Summer camp ends with the beginning of the academic year in September, but military training goes right on. There are 2,368 hours — 45 per cent of the total of 5,241 hours of instruction during the four-year course at the Academy — available for scheduled instruction under the Department of Tactics. The schedule of military training covers the following general subjects: air training; basic military, tactics and weapons training, including riding; ceremonies, maneuvers, or annual field exercises; physical training, including intramural sports; and practical training as instructors of underclassmen. The Schedule allocates a certain amount of time to inspections and allows for summer furloughs in the third-, second-, and first-class years. Provision also is made for training trips to other stations.

The test of the adequacy of military training at West Point has been the performance of our armies in the field. The soundness of American military tactics has been demonstrated on many a field of battle in half a dozen wars. The fate of the union itself rested largely with Military Academy graduates who commanded the Armies of the North and South during the Civil War. Although Academy graduates comprised but a small percentage of the officers in command of t huge citizen army which fought in World War II, the West Point influence was felt both in training and in battle, as it has been since the Mexican War.

From the early years when Sylvanus Thayer improved discipline and military instruction at West Point, the Academy has faithfully fulfilled its primary mission of producing good officers. The events of a century have proved that it continues to merit the magnificent tribute of General Winfield Scott:

"I give it as my fixed opinion, that but for our graduated Cadets, the war between the United States and Mexico might, and probably would, have lasted some four or five years, with, in its first half, more defeats than victories falling to our share; whereas, in less than two campaigns we conquered a great country and a peace, without the loss of a single battle or skirmish."

Thayer's Note:

a A cadet charged with carving meat and dealing with the waiters; see for example D. S. Freeman, Robert E. Lee, I.56.

Page updated: 5 Sep 13