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Before the turn of the century U. S. M. A. had grown into the West Point we know today; its martial silhouette already foreshadowed its final form. The dedication of the Thayer Monument in 1883 had made the country conscious of its Military Academy. The Corps itself, perhaps for the first time, was fully aware of its heritage when the Battle Monument was dedicated. This memorial was first dreamed of before a Union campfire near the field of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Through the years contributions were made, not by political groups or by the public, but from the slender means of soldiers themselves. When in 1897 the shaft was finally dedicated not a man was present who did not relive the agony and the triumph of the twenty-two hundred and forty Union soldiers whose names were engraved below it.
During the last quarter of the century, United States history records among its minor wars ten with Indians alone. The sacrifices of General Custer and of General George Crook — the greatest Indian fighter of them all — were not forgotten, within the Reservation at least. The rush for gold in the Black Hills; the huge cattle ranches which covered the Great Plains; the exploration of the farmlands of the Middle West, where between the years 1860 and 1870 •two hundred thousand square miles were settled (almost as large a terrain as all of France); the unprecedented accumulation of money — all these things, with the troubles which followed them, left the nation little time to think of war. Peace had brought its own kind of p142 strife in recurring and devastating financial panics, in bitter labor troubles which culminated in bloody strikes such as the one at Homestead, Pennsylvania, among the steelworkers. The nation all but forgot its professional soldiers. This had happened before, and has happened since.
The Spanish-American War found us, as all wars have always found us, completely unprepared — this in spite of the historical fact that the war was one we did not seek to avoid. War was declared on April 25, 1898, and the West Point class of that year graduated in haste next day. Each newly commissioned shavetail became a precious asset to his government as the pitifully small Regular Army of 26,000 was expanded with all speed to 278,000, including volunteers of various classes, in less than two months. From West Point came three hundred and twenty-five general and staff officers, not counting the graduates who worked in all other branches of the war effort.
The Spanish War proper lasted only one hundred and nine days, but the reorganization of Cuba and the liberation of the Philippines took nearly three years. General Leonard Wood changed the island of Cuba from a yellow-fever-breeding pest spot into a country ready to become a free and self-respecting nation. In this he was assisted by many other West Pointers. In the Philippines the insurrection was put down after two years when the traitor Aguinaldo was finally captured. Major Peyton C. March, class of 1888, afterward to become one of our few full generals, for two years had led an expedition through the wildest parts of the islands among the Igorots and the Moro head-hunters in a vain but brave search for Aguinaldo, who was finally captured by a clever ruse of General Funston.a
Among the general officers and also down the line, the war with Spain saw former Union and Confederate officers fighting side by side. Now everyone was wearing blue.
p143 Few Americans know enough of our splendid record in the Philippines. This is clearer to the Filipinos themselves, many of whom have sacrificed their lives for the love of our country.
In the early part of the twentieth century, war and rumors of war seemed far away. The Boxer troubles had been subdued in China with American aid, and a bugler, Calvin P. Titus, had won appointment to U. S. M. A. by scaling — all by himself — the Great Wall of China.b At that time Americans valued West Point not so much as a military school — when in times of peace has America ever valued anything military? — but as a college for engineers. The graduate on whom all eyes were fixed was Major General George W. Goethals, class of 1880.
When the object of the voyages of Columbus, a western passage from Europe to Cathay, was at last understood to be blocked by two continents, another means of sailing to the East Indies suggested itself to men's minds: a canal to pierce the slender strand which connected the Northern with the Southern American continent. In 1550 the Portuguese navigator Antonio Galvão planned a canal to cross the Isthmus of Panama. The Spanish historian De Gómara wrote a monograph on the subject and submitted it to Philip II of Spain, but that monarch did not then wish to communicate with Cathay. He desired, rather, that the route of his gold- and silver-laden galleons be left undisturbed. The first project for a Panama canal was therefore stillborn. Through the centuries during, Belgians, Spaniards, and Frenchmen labored on the same project, which had always a dreamlike character; and yet, as with expeditions for buried treasure, there were always found investors to risk and to lose money on the varying schemes advanced for the greatest of all canals.
When the Suez Canal was completed in 1869, just when the migration to our West coast was at its height, the various schemes for a canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific began to p144 be examined with new interest. During the 1880's France, under the guidance of the engineer of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, attempted to construct a canal in Panama; this failed because of the unparalleled corruption of its management and because of tropical diseases, especially yellow fever, which, unchecked, rendered work on the canal more hazardous than ever. France's second attempt, which corrected in some measure the abuses of the first, fared no better; for one reason, a foreign power seeking to make a canal on the American continent was not pleasing to the United States. Again the white man retreated from the mosquitoes and the stagnant heat of the Isthmus. Rank tropical growth covered the French excavations and the graves of the workmen who had given their lives to a moribund project.
It was the energy of President Theodore Roosevelt which made possible the reopening of the project. He managed to buy out the French, and when the opposition of Colombia — the country which then controlled the Isthmus — became insuperable he all but created the independent Republic of Panama, from which the United States bought the necessary concessions to construct the canal. But it was the West Pointer Major George W. Goethals and the U. S. Corps of Engineers to whom the work was entrusted.
When Goethals started work on the Panama Canal he was undertaking a project considered impossible by many, unlucky by all. The ghosts of the French workmen who had perished in such numbers haunted the hot malarial jungles and morasses of Panama. The laborers who were willing to engage in the work were of the toughest. It was evident that the engineering problems, gigantic as these were, would constitute perhaps only a third of the total job. There were, besides, the personnel problem and the health problem.
Walter Reed had isolated the cause of yellow fever, but it p145 was the unprecedented use of this discovery by the Army Medical Corps, headed in Panama by Colonel Gorgas, and its rigidly enforced regime of sanitation which made the building of the canal possible.
The personnel problem was solved because Goethals was able to instill a fiery ardor into his hard-bitten workmen so that in the face of breakdowns in the gigantic machinery, which threatened floods greater than Noah's, they carried on to victory. Percy MacKaye has written:
For a poet wrought in Panama,
With a continent for his theme,
And he wrote with flood and fire
To forge a planet's dream,
And the derricks rang his dithyrambs
And his stanzas roared in steam.
Major Goethals became chief engineer of the Panama Canal in 1907 and in three years the continents had been cut in two.
Many years had passed since U. S. M. A. was the only school of engineering in the United States; in 1904 it was not the largest or the best equipped, but tradition held: it had trained the man who accomplished the greatest feat of engineering the world had ever seen.
Meanwhile the silhouette of the fortress school was changing. The Officers' Mess Building had been completed in 1903. In 1910 North Barracks rose and a year later the Great Riding Hall. The East Academic Building was completed in 1913. The new gymnasium and the crowning Chapel gave the post the aspect we know today. Did Washington ever dream of so martial a silhouette as he crossed the Hudson in his barge enjoying the reverberations of the saluting cannon?
During these years cadets looked for inspiration to the Philippines — and to Mexico, where graduates were living out adventure stories. That tall, straight West Pointer John J. p146 Pershing, not long ago a captain, had been made a brigadier general because of his good work in the Philippine province of Mindanao. Another graduate, Captain Frank R. McCoy, had killed the bad man of the bad Moros, Datu Ali, in hand-to‑hand combat. Even then the wild Moros remained as a threat to Filipinos and Americans alike. Lieutenant General Arthur MacArthur, the last Military Governor of the Philippines, was concluding the Army's task in the Islands. Trouble with Mexico loomed. Villa made his raid on Columbus, New Mexico. General Pershing was selected to pursue him into Mexico. Vera Cruz was occupied in 1914, and an archduke of whom few cadets had ever heard was assassinated in Sarajevo, Servia. Before the week was out Germany was marching into war.
When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917 West Pointers were already in high places, just as they had been during the Civil War. General Pershing, as everyone knows, was Commander in Chief of the A. E. F., and General Peyton C. March became Chief of Staff in this country. Equal in rank, both were to become full generals. Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur became Chief of Staff in his own Rainbow (42nd) Division. This was a post brilliantly spotlighted. These are merely the names at the heights — the names everyone remembers, even the so‑called "lost generation."
Other West Pointers in high key spots were: Generals Hunter Liggett, commanding the First Army; Robert L. Bullard, the Second; and Joseph T. Dickman, who was promoted to the command of the Third. There were, besides, Brigadier General (A. E. F.) Dennis E. Nolan, who headed Military Intelligence, and Brigadier General Frank R. McCoy (the Moro fighter), Director of Army Transportation in 1918, then Director General of Transport in 1919. In World War I thirty-four hundred and forty-five graduates of West Point p147 saw service. When the war ended, thirty-four of the thirty-eight American corps and divisions in active service were commanded by U. S. M. A. graduates. After the Armistice the Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, paid a tribute to West Point. It recalls that other tribute made after the Mexican War by General Winfield Scott.
West Point [said the Secretary of War] again demonstrated its supreme value to the country in the hour of need. Our great overseas army was made and led by West Point men and the incredible swiftness with which it was trained for its great task is a tribute to the fitness of the raw material and also to the leadership generated in West Point. West Point does many things for its men, but the highest quality it gives them is character, and in the emergency of the World War, our success rested on the character of our leaders. It therefore finally rested on West Point.
Our war effort of 1917‑18 has been surprisingly forgotten. Few before the present conflict started would have cared to know that, although the most militaristic minds on the War Board during the years between 1914 and 1917 could not believe that we would ever mobilize more than five hundred thousand men, we did, in fact, actually raise, almost overnight, an army of four million eight hundred thousand men, two million of whom we sent overseas in a year and a half. Before the war was over, twenty-nine American divisions were spread over a battle line •one hundred and one miles long; in all there were forty-two divisions in France and England.
Within West Point speed‑up followed speed‑up. It goes without saying that the class of 1917 graduated early. But the second class, which would have become the class of 1918, was graduated in its military infancy on August 30, 1917. The Academic Board (faculty) recommended the graduation of p148 the other two classes after two years. Thus West Point would have been reduced from the U. S. M. A. we know to a rather superior training school for junior officers. But the wise Newton D. Baker, Wisconsin's never-to‑be-forgotten Secretary of War, referred the proposal to three men — the Chief of Staff, the Chief of U. S. Corps of Engineers and the Chief of Field Artillery — who disapproved of the plan on the grounds that
early induction of a few hundred partly trained West Pointers into the Army would not compensate for the certain dilution of a product which was being trained for a life time career rather than the immediate emergency.
These as it has turned out were prophetic words, even though they were written during the "war to end war."
It was to be expected that the Academic Board — composed, as always, of this nation's elite officers — would be drained away from the Academy on the Hudson. Fortunately when Superintendent Biddle was ordered to other duty Colonel Samuel E. Tillman was recalled for the key post. Colonel Tillman had been the friend of Mahan and of Michie and although he had been retired in 1911 after forty-six years' service — thirty-six at the Military Academy — he was still a warrior and one trained in the peculiar tradition of U. S. M. A. This tradition was never more strongly assailed than during the war years.
Colonel Tillman was the only man in the history of U. S. M. A. to have been cadet, instructor, assistant professor, professor, and Superintendent. Yet even one so unusually grounded in West Point tradition was all but swept away by the tidal wave of war.
The newly appointed Superintendent commenced the academic year 1918 expecting to graduate the second class in June and the two lower classes in the two following years. But on October the third all this was most violently reversed p149 by an order from the War Department announcing that eight hundred appointees were to enter the Academy after a very lax entrance examination and that these also were to be graduated in June, 1919! Colonel Tillman writes in a note of soldierly despair under the date of November 15, 1918, that "under these requirements up to the present writing 263 cadets have been admitted; the number still to arrive is not known."c
When the War Department order, cited above, announcing the early graduation of the two senior classes was read from the "poop deck" in the Mess Hall, five minutes of silence was enjoined after the reading to be followed by five minutes of liberty. Of course an inferno broke loose. It was as if the Corps was making a war all its own. Then the bitter business of trying to "cram a plebe year in a quarter of an hour" began. Like Macbeth the Corps had "heard a voice cry, sleep no more."
For several weeks after November 2d, members of a new Fourth Class straggled in to report for duty. Whether these members of "Fourth Class B," so designated to distinguish them from the "Fourth Class A" which had entered in June, 1918, were to be "recognized" by their older "classmates" was an issue creating discord until a decision was reached to grant recognition only after the full plebe year had been completed, in June, 1919. The distinction between the two groups received emphasis from the fact that for some months "Fourth Class B" could not be uniformed in cadet gray. Wearing the olive drab of enlisted men, with an orange hat band as a sole mark of distinction, these cadets became "the Orioles."d The confusion grew worse when the junior of the two classes which had been graduated November 1st was ordered by the War Department to return to West Point for a further six months of training beginning December 3rd. Uniformed as officers, these members p150 of the "S. O. Class" [student officers] found themselves in an anomalous situation. To the cadets they were officers; to the other officers of the Post they were cadets. Quartered separately in South Barracks, isolated similarly at meals and at ceremonies, but denied the social privileges of officers on the Post, they developed a certain bitterness of spirit which has never quite vanished. Graduation of the Class, June 11, 1919, relieved the Academy of that problem.1
After the Armistice, Colonel Tillman endeavored, though without any definite directive from the War Department, to resume the normal academic procedure, but he was relieved before anything like normal conditions obtained. His valiant fight was, however, appreciated; he was made Brigadier General and awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
The new Superintendent, like Thayer, found a disorganized national military academy. Like Thayer he left a proud institution, secure in the orderly and dignified performance of its high duty. This Superintendent was Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur.
1 The United States Military Academy and Its Foreign Contemporaries, issued by the Department of Economics, Government, and History.
a In 1901: General Frederick Funston — not a West Pointer — infiltrated President Aguinaldo's headquarters with a team of American soldiers posing as prisoners of war. A few years later he would be in charge of the relief and protection of the city of San Francisco, under a régime something very much like martial law (San Francisco Horror, Chapter 12).
Emilio Aguinaldo, on the other hand, should almost certainly not be characterized as a "traitor": he was the first President of the Philippines, having led the revolt against the Spanish before the United States had won the Spanish-American War and established firm control over the Islands. That he fought the Americans after that seems only fair enough; he had no allegiance to the United States. After his capture, with a fine sense of realism, he coöperated with the Americans, but lived to see his own full vindication as an early Philippine patriot in an independent nation, recognized as such by the United States only two years after Elizabeth Waugh wrote.
b This is not quite accurate: the wall was not the famous Great Wall of China, but the city wall of Peking many hundreds of miles away. As every West Pointer knows — being required to learn it from Bugle Notes within days of their acceptance as a new cadet — Calvin Titus is, to date, the only cadet to be awarded the Medal of Honor before graduating from the Academy. This lively and interesting page at the American Legion gives full details, and a photograph of the man.
c The seriousness of these sudden changes is better explained in a little book of reminiscences of Douglas MacArthur's superintendency by William Ganoe, who at the time, was the Academy's Adjutant: MacArthur Close‑Up, pp14‑20.
d A wonderfully appropriate nickname, requiring no annotation for the American reader, familiar with the Atlantic coast bird — very likely via the baseball team of the great city of Baltimore. If you are not American, though, this little bit of arcana will be cleared up by gazing on the Baltimore oriole or the Baltimore Orioles, who in 1919 were celebrating their first quarter-century, and by June were well on their way to a truly spectacular year. Cadets were obviously following baseball, and the nickname came of its own.
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History of West Point
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Page updated: 10 Apr 20