Through the activities of hundreds of its graduates in non‑military fields, the United States Military Academy has made a heavy contribution to civic and industrial progress both in this country and abroad for nearly a century and a half. West Point men have demonstrated, both in and out of the Army, that the sound education and training they received as cadets could be as readily applied to projects of peace as to operations of war.
With the boldness and determination of soldiers they struck out across the plains and mountains, in the early years of the nineteenth century, to map the western wilderness. They threaded these newly explored areas with highways and railroads. They ran boundary surveys. They have built lighthouses and improved harbors and inland waterways. They have developed municipal water and sanitation projects and erected public buildings and monuments. They have served as statesmen and diplomats at home and abroad. They have spoken from the pulpit and the bench and through the press. They have entered the profession of medicine. Many have achieved recognition in the field of education and literature.
West Point graduates were, in fact, the only group to whom the new republic could turn for the engineering skill needed for systematic exploration of the west and scientific mapping of its uncharted expanses. The Military Academy, established in 1802, was the only engineering school in the country until the founding of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute twenty-three years later. Not until 1847 was a third institution established in the same field — the Sheffield Scientific School. Thus, during the first half century of its existence, the Academy was the principal source of trained engineers for the many important projects on which the progress of a young and eager nation depended.
The observations and reports of officers in command of scouting parties on routine military operations contributed a great deal to early knowledge p280 of the West, but systematic exploration got under way with Major Stephen H. Long's expedition in 1819. Several West Point graduates were members of this party, which traced the sources of the Platte, Arkansas, and Canadian rivers in the Rocky Mountains and made the first ascent of Pikes Peak.
The first major exploration led by a graduate of the Military Academy, however, was that of Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville, Class of 1815, who organized an expedition at his own expense, while on leave from the Army, and set out in 1832 on a mission that lasted three years. The purpose of Bonneville's expedition was to study the topography and resources of the Far West. Making his way up the Platte River, he established a rendezvous in what is now Wyoming. From that point he sent out separate parties on different missions. One explored Great Salt Lake and the Green, Snake, and Salmon rivers. Another crossed the Sierra Nevada moved as far west as the Sacramento River, and joined another party on the Santa Fe Trail. Still others explored the headwaters of the Yellowstone, the Big Horn Range, and the Wind River Mountains. Bonneville himself got as far west as the Columbia River.
From these beginnings widespread exploration of the western country was systematically pursued, with Military Academy graduates taking the leading part in operations that yielded surveys and maps, and important data on geological formations, soil, and mineral resources, paving the way for building railroads and extending agriculture and commerce. Among those engaged were many who, like McClellan, Sheridan, and Hood, were later to win greater prominence in war. An important contribution to this work was that of Captain Andrew Talcott, Class of 1818, who, while surveying the northern boundary of Ohio in 1834, invented the zenith telescope and the method of determining latitude from the difference of meridional zenith distances of two stars on opposite sides of the zenith.
West Point men developed and applied the most refined astronomical methods in six surveys which established the northern and southern boundaries of the United States. They performed most of the delicate work of triangulation in the refined geodetic survey of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence between 1841 and 1885, covered 17,000 square miles of territory, and mapped •6,000 miles of shore line. Chiefly responsible for this painstaking operation was Major Cyrus B. Comstock, Class of 1855, who declined President Grant's offer of a brevet to brigadier general on the ground that the honor belonged to a more distinguished senior officer.
A member of the West Point Class of 1825, Alexander Dallas Bache, p281 grandson of Benjamin Franklin, was recommended in 1843 by the principal national scientific societies as the one to undertake reorganization of the Coast and Geodetic Survey. Bache became superintendent of the agency and held the office until his death in 1867.
A systematic and comprehensive topographical survey of the area of the United States watchword the one hundredth meridian was recommended in 1869 by Lieutenant George M. Wheeler, Class of 1866. The project was undertaken by the War Department in 1827 with West Point graduates in charge of most of the detailed observations. The operation covered 350,000 square miles during the six years that it was in progress.
The value of railroads in developing the vast resources of the United States was instantly recognized with the first successful demonstration of rail transportation in England in 1825. Again the nation turned to West Point graduates as virtually the only one with engineering training adequate to develop this new kind of enterprise. The government freely made the services of its Army officers available for this purpose and thus spurred a lively quarter century of railroad building in many parts of the country.
The building of the first important railroad in the United States — the Baltimore and Ohio — brought together for the first time two Military Academy graduates destined to achieve international prominence as civil engineers. They were William Gibbs McNeill, Class of 1817, and George Washington Whistler,1 Class of 1819. McNeill was one of three officers chosen as a board to select a proper route to the Ohio for the projected railroad, and Whistler was one of several West Point graduates engaged in the construction of the line. Both were sent to England in 1828 by the railroad company to study British railroad-building methods. They were associated thereafter in building a number of railroads in the Eastern states.
McNeill, after acting as chief engineer for a number of railroads in the east from New England to Florida, resigned in 1837 and became consulting engineer for various railroad and other enterprises in the United States and Cuba. He built the first large drydocks at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and was president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.
Whistler's consuming interest in railroads led him into designing and constructing locomotives in Lowell, Mass., in 1836. He even invented a locomotive whistle when the need for it developed. Finally, in 1842, he accepted an offer from the Russian government to design and build a railroad p282 connecting St. Petersburg and Moscow. His exhausting attention to detail wore him out on this project, and he died in 1849 before the railroad was completed. The Russians selected another West Point graduate, Thompson S. Brown, Class of 1825, to succeed him.
Many West Point graduates not only built but operated railroads. George B. McClellan was chief engineer of the Illinois Central and president of the St. Louis and Cincinnati, before the Civil War. After the war, Braxton Bragg was chief engineer of the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe. Ambrose E. Burnside was president of several western railroads. Horace Porter was president of the West Shore Railroad as well as ambassador to France.
No less dramatic than railroading is the story of lighthouse building in the United States. Army officers were given a strong voice in the administration of the lighthouse system when it was reorganized in 1851. Graduates of the Military Academy were active, thereafter, in a number of lighthouse location and construction projects, and worked against terrific hazards in some instances to complete structures sound enough in design and strong enough in construction to withstand the pounding and washing effect of heavy seas.
A West Point graduate, William H. Swift, Class of 1819, built the first iron-skeleton lighthouse at the entrance to Black Rock Harbor, Conn. in 1847. Hartman Bache, Class of 1818, used screw piles for the first time in America in the construction of Brandywine Shoal lighthouse in Delaware Bay. George G. Meade, Class of 1835, built Sombrero Key lighthouse, •fifty miles east of Key West, Fla., six years before he defeated Lee's army at Gettysburg.
One of the most difficult lighthouse projects ever undertaken was that of erecting a light on the Cohasset Rocks on the Massachusetts coast south of Boston. It was first undertaken by William H. Swift, following his success with the Black Rock Harbor light. Swift built one of his iron-skeleton structures on Minot's Ledge after taking careful soundings of the whole area. He perched it on a point so thoroughly washed by waves that only a few hours' work a day between tides was possible. The nine legs of the tower were securely embedded in the rock and the light and comprehend's quarters were built •sixty feet above the surface of the rock. Swift's tower was completed in 1848 but three years later a violent storm swept Minot's Ledge clean of the light and its comprehend. Undismayed, the Army tackled the problem again. This time two Academy graduates, Joseph G. Totten, Class of 1805, and Barton S. Alexander, Class of 1842, were assigned to the project. Totten worked p283 on the plans and Alexander supervised the construction work. Working under great difficulties for five years, they finally succeeded in building a masonry tower that has withstood the elements to the present time. Despite the difficult working condition no lives were lost on the project, nor was anyone seriously injured.
Army lighthouse builders found that the west coast also held its terrors. George L. Gillespie, Class of 1862, performed an exceptional feat in constructing a light on Tillamook River south of the mouth of the Columbia River on the Oregon coast. Tillamook proved to be a slippery rock frequented only by sea lions and continually washed by waves. The first man to attempt a landing on it to begin the project slipped and was dragged down by the waves. His body was never recovered. Another workman was so terrified by his trip to the rock via breeches buoy that he spent the rest of his life on the site rather than face the return journey. Gillespie completed his project, however, in the short period of sixteen months.
The role of West Point graduates in the advancement of public improvements of many kinds was forecast early in the life of the nation by President John Quincy Adams inhabits first annual message, in which he stated:
"The Military Academy at West Point, under the restrictions of a severe but paternal superintendence, recommends itself more and more to the patronage of the nation, and the number of meritorious officers which it forms and introduces to the public service furnishes the means of multiplying the undertakings of public improvements to which their acquirements at that institution are peculiarly adapted."
Since then engineers with West Point training have designed and built numerous river and harbor improvements, municipal water-supply and sanitation systems, and public buildings. George S. Greene, Class of 1823, whose brigade saved the Union right on the second day at Gettysburg, had resigned in 1836 and become engineer in charge of the Croton waterworks project for the city of New York. Returning from the Civil War as a major general in 1866, he resumed charge of the waterworks project and built the Putnam County reserve reservoir. He later undertook elevated railway designs and also devised a sewerage system as chief engineer of public works for the city of Washington, D. C.
William Ludlow, Class of 1864, reorganized the Philadelphia water department in 1883. Egbert L. Viele, Class of 1847, was chief engineer of Central Park, New York, and Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Montgomery C. p284 Meigs, Class of 1836, designed the water system of the national capital before the Civil War, planning for the city's requirements for a century in the future.
When Congress established a commission form of government for the District of Columbia in 1878, it stipulated that one of the three commissioners be an engineer officer of the Army. The first officer appointed to the post was William J. Twining, Class of 1863.
Several of the largest and most important public buildings in Washington are largely or entirely the work of West Point graduates. Montgomery C. Meigs, Class of 1836, superintended the construction of the wings and dome of the Capitol. Associated with him in the project was the architect, Thomas W. Walter. Meigs devised a method of turning stone columns in a lathe, and proved the practicality of his method to skeptical stonecutters.
One of the most outstanding contributors to civic development of the national capital was Thomas Lincoln Casey, Class of 1852, who finished the Washington Monument and superintended the erection of the State, War, and Navy Building and the Library of Congress. The Washington Monument project presented a great challenge to any engineer. Erection of the shaft had been started in 1848 by the Washington National Monument Association but was suspended in 1856 because of lack of funds. Congress assumed responsibility for completion of the project in 1875, and the work was finally resumed in 1878.
When Casey took charge of the project the shaft stood •156 feet high and weighed 35,000 tons. He discovered that the rubble masonry foundation was hardly adequate to support this load and would certainly never withstand the total weight of the finished monument — more than 90,000 tons. With great care Casey cut away seventy per cent of the original earth bed from the foundation and substituted concrete underpinning. He removed fifty‑one per cent of the rubble footing, and undermined and filled with concrete forty-eight per cent of the bed area of the shaft itself. During these ticklish operations a constant check was kept on level observations by means of brass benches at the four corners of the shaft which, according to the assistant engineer's report, "showed an extreme sensitiveness to the least disturbance of the earth underneath the old foundation."
By 1880 Casey had finished the foundation work and began building the noble shaft skyward. The capstone, 555 feet 5⅛ inches high, was set in December, 1884.
The State, War, and Navy Building project went on concurrently with p285 the Washington Monument work, from 1877 to 1888. The latter years of Casey's life were devoted to construction of the Library of Congress, a building 470 feet long and 340 feet wide, with a central octagonal rotunda •140 feet in diameter. By special act of Congress, Casey was given full responsibility for the success of the project, and his estimates and opinions were accepted without question. He proved worthy of the trust.
Officers who received their engineering training at West Point were largely responsible for the clean‑up of Cuba after the Spanish-American War. William Ludlow, Class of 1864, was in immediate charge of operations for building sewers, paving streets, building waterworks, constructing bridges and public buildings, installing sanitary facilities and many other public-improvement projects. He was assisted by a keep of other Military Academy graduates. Such officers also carried out similar operations in Puerto Rico and the Philippines after the war.
The greatest engineering project entrusted to an Army officer was the construction of the Panama Canal. Work on the canal had been started in January, 1880, by Ferdinand de Lesseps. The French gave up the project in 1899. The United States immediately set up a Canal Commission to investigate the feasibility of various routes through Central America. The Panama project was authorized by Congress in 1902, and ratification of a treaty with the Republic of Panama in 1904 cleared the way for the beginning of construction operations. With the retirement of the second civilian engineer in charge of the project, in March, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed George Washington Goethals, Class of 1880, as engineer in charge.
Goethals was a lieutenant colonel serving on the general staff. He found himself in complete authority over the canal project and soon discovered that he faced a difficult situation. The commission form of the Canal Zone government was abolished, and all responsibility for success or failure of the project rested on him alone. Canal employees, he found, were inclined to distrust him as a military man. He had to gain the confidence of those 30,000 employees in addition to housing them, founding them, providing them with recreation, and looking after their health. Labor troubles over hours and wages were a pressing problem. Goethals took direct measures to gain the good will of the workers. He set aside a part of each day to receive them personally and hear their complaints. He was always available, even on Sundays. He visited them on the job, in all parts of the project. Gradually he gained not only the confidence of the workers but an intimate p286 knowledge of detailed operations on the project. Before long morale and efficiency were at a high peak in the Canal Zone.
After completion of the canal Goethals remained as governor of the Canal Zone from 1914 until the latter part of 1916. He was made a major general and given the "Thanks of Congress." Retiring from the Army in 1916, he served a short term as state engineer in New Jersey and was general manager of the Emergency Fleet Corporation from April to July, 1917. In December, 1917, he was recalled to active duty in the Army as acting quartermaster general. In January, 1918, he was given additional duty as director of purchase, storage, and traffic and directed the movement of all troops both in the United States and overseas. Retiring again in March, 1919, he later became consulting engineer on such important works as the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal at New Orleans, the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, the East Bay Municipal Utility District of Oakland, Calif., and the Lake Worth Inlet District in Florida. At the time of his death in 1928 he was chief consulting engineer of the Port of New York Authority.
A distinguished list of Military Academy graduates have become teachers, clergymen, physicians, attorneys, and scientists. Many have served in public office and others have followed successful business careers. Aside from Sylvanus Thayer himself, perhaps the most notable achievements of graduates in the academic field were those of Dennis Hart Mahan and Peter Smith Michie. Mahan, who was graduated first of the Class of 1824, remained at the Academy for a year as assistant professor of mathematics, after which he was promoted to the position of principal assistant professor of engineering. In 1828 he requested a furlough abroad to repair his health. The request was granted, but Mahan was instructed by the War Department to take the opportunity during his travel in Europe to gather information about roads, canals, bridges, the improvement of rivers and harbors, no other public facilities. In 1832 he was appointed a full professor of civil and military engineering at West Point. During his long career of more than 40 years at the Academy he developed an exceptional understanding of the problems of warfare and contributed numerous texts on mathematics, engineering, fortifications, and various detailed studies on the general subject of what he liked to term the "art of war."
Michie was graduated in 1863 as second in his class, but in recognition of his outstanding ability was committed a first lieutenant, Corps of Engineers, while the number one man of the class, John R. Meigs, received the usual commission as second lieutenant. Michie departed immediately for p287 duty in the Civil War and in six months was made chief engineer of the Northern District, Department of the South. He subsequently was breveted captain and major in the Regular Army and on Jan. 1, 1865, was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers for his brilliant work. In 1867, after a year's leave, he was appointed as Mahan's principal assistant. He remained at West Point until his death in 1901 and contributed much to academic literature and the curriculum of the Academy. He also won honors from other educational institutions, including Dartmouth and Princeton, for his scholastic attainments.
Alexander Dallas Bache, Class of 1825, who headed the Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1843 to 1867, was president of Girard College from 1836 to 1841. Richard S. Smith, Class of 1834, was president of the same institution from 1863 to 1867. Henry Coppee, Class of 1845, was president of Lehigh University from 1866 to 1875. G. W. Custis Lee, Class of 1854, was appointed president of Washington and Lee University in 1871. Alexander S. Webb, Class of 1855, became president of the College of the City of New York in 1869, succeeding Horace Webster, Class of 1818. Benjamin S. Ewell, Class of 1832, became president of the College of William and Mary. Many other West Point graduates have held important posts on the faculties of numerous colleges and universities here and abroad.
Several Military Academy graduates have also achieved prominence as clergymen. Leonidas Polk, Class of 1827, became a bishop in the Protestant Episcopal Church. George Deshon, Class of 1843, became a Roman Catholic priest and Superior-General of the Paulist Order.
The highest position of public service ever attained by a graduate of the military was, of course, that of President of the United States, to which Ulysses Simpson Grant of the Class of 1843 was elected in 1868. Several others have served as ambassadors and ministers, and a number have been governors of states. Some have served in Congress and in the Cabinet. Jefferson Davis, Class of 1828, had served in Congress and as Secretary of War before his election to the presidency of the Confederacy.
In more recent times several important jobs have been done for the government by Military Academy graduates in a civilian capacity. General Hugh S. Johnson, Class of 1903, was called upon by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 to organize and head the National Recovery Administration. General Johnson had resigned from the Army in 1919 when he became assistant general manager and general counsel of the Moline Plow Company. From 1925 to 1929 he had been chairman of the board of the p288 Moline Implement Company and had also served as special assistant attorney general of the state of Illinois from 1926 to 1929. He was associated with B. M. Baruch from 1927 to 1930. In a vacant room on the second floor of the State Department General Johnson went to work on a plan of administration of the National Recovery Act program for which the President had sent a proposed bill to Congress. Before the measure was passed on Capitol Hill the administrator was already at work on some of the industrial codes, and when the legislation was signed he plunged ahead with the program. Handling one of the most difficult jobs under the New Deal national-recovery plan, General Johnson forged ahead with firmness and energy as hundreds of industries were signed up in agreement to emergency wage-and‑hour regulations under the symbol of the Blue Eagle.
Lieutenant General Brehon B. Somervell, Class of 1914, was granted leave of absence in 1925 to work on a survey of navigation conditions on the Rhine and Danube rivers for the League of Nations. In 1933 he assisted Walter D. Hines, director of railways during World War I, in a comprehensive survey of Turkey at the request of Kemal Ataturk, who planned to use the findings as the basis for a five-year plan of industrialization. On the death of Mr. Hines General Somervell completed the job himself, dictating eight hours a day for three months to compile his report of seven volumes. Following that assignment he was in charge of projects operations for the National Emergency Council for a year and a half, then was made district engineer in charge of Florida Church Canal construction. When funds for that work were cut off by Congress, he became head of the Works Progress Administration in the City of New York. As commander of the Army Service Forces, including the Quartermaster Corps, Corps of Engineers, Medical, Signal and Chaplain Corps, and Chemical Warfare Service, General Somervell continually spurred American industry on to victory in World War II. With the watchword, "Anything less than total war is not enough," he called on the American people to "double and redouble" their efforts to produce. A system of vertical allocation of raw materials, evolved by General Somervell and Ferdinand Eberstadt, was adopted in November, 1942, to solve the critical problem of material shortages.
Major General Frank Ross McCoy, Class of 1897, who became Director General of Transportation of the American Expeditionary Forces in France in 1919, served as assistant to the governor general of the Philippine Islands from 1921 to 1925. During that period he was also director general of the Red Cross and commander of the American Relief Mission to Japan in 1923. p289 General McCoy was appointed by President Coolidge to supervise the presidential election in Nicaragua in 1928. He was chairman of the Commission of Inquiry and Conciliation (Bolivia-Paraguay) from Jan. to September, 1929, at Washington, D. C., and was appointed an zzz member of the Commission of Inquiry (Manchuria) of the League of Nations (the Lytton Commission) in 1932. He became president of the Foreign Policy Association in 1938 and in 1945 was appointed United States representative on the Far Eastern Commission, with headquarters in the State Department, Washington, D. C.
Many graduates have made major contributions in the field of science and have been accorded membership in the National Academy of Science. Mahan was one of these. Another was George Owen Squier, Class of 1887, whose research in the field of electronics contributed heavily to advancements in both military and civilian communication. Early in the present century General Squier, while synagogue various methods of cable and radio communication, discovered that vegetation-covered areas absorbed some of the electromagnetic waves passing over them and that growing trees could therefore be utilized as antennas for radio reception. As Chief Signal Officer of the Army, the post to which he was appointed in 1917 with the rank of brigadier general, he organized the cable and radio communications between military headquarters in the United States and the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. In 1920 General Squier represented the War Department and acted as technical adviser to the American delegation at the International Conference of Electrical Communications in Washington. The next year he represented the State Department in meetings of the provisional technical committee at the International Conference on Electrical Communications in Paris. In the fall of 1921 he served as an expert assistant to the American commission at the Washington arms-limitation conference. He also served as an ex‑officio member representing the War Department on the national committee of the International Electro-technical Commission. General Squier was elected a fellow of Johns Hopkins University as well as a member of the National Academy of Scii. His researches earned him the Elliott Cresson Gold Medal in 1912 and the Franklin Medal of the Franklin Institute in 1919. He also received the John Scott Legacy Medal of the City of Philadelphia in 1896. He was inventor of the monophone for broadcasting over telephone wires but is probably best known for his "wired wireless," which includes multiple telephony, wireless telephony, long-distance telephony, and practical telephony.
p290 Among graduates achieving prominence in the field of business were Henry Du Pont, Class of 1833, powder manufacturing; Horace Porter, Class of , president of the West Shore Railroad and vice-president of the pullman Car Company; Henry A. Du Pont, Class of 1861, powder manufacturing; Francis V. Green, Class of 1870, president of the Barber Asphalt Paving Company; Eugene Griffin, Class of 1875, vice-president of the General Electric Company; Robert E. Wood, Class of 1900, chairman of the board, Sears, Roebuck and Company. Porter, while ambassador to France, traced the long-lost burial place of John Paul Jones in Paris in 1905, had the body exhumed, and was responsible for shipping it to America, where it was placed in a crypt in our Chapel of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.
The following table compiled in 1941 shows the wide scope of activities in nonmilitary fields to which West Point graduates have contributed their knowledge and energies during the life of the Academy:
|President of the United States||1|
|President of the Confederate States||1|
|Ministers to foreign courts||15|
|Members of Congress||26|
|Governors of states and territories||19|
|Members of state legislatures||90|
|Mayors of cities||19|
|Presidents of colleges and universities||53|
|Principals of academies and schools||53|
|Regents of educational institutions||17|
|Presidents of corporations||178|
|Chief engineers of railroads and other corporations||93|
|Superintendents of railroads and other corporations||84|
|Treasurers of railroads and other corporations||58|
|Superior-General, Paulist Order||1|
|Engineers, civil, mechanical, etc.||352|
|Merchants, bankers, businessmen||380|
|Farmers and planters||301|
1 Father of James A. McNeill Whistler, the painter, who was also a cadet at West Point but was not graduated.
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