The history of the West Point Reservation properly begins with a corrupt and then with a reform government in New York, a town at that time (1693) still called New Amsterdam by the upriver Dutch. On October the ninth of that year H. M. S. Richmond, Captain John Evans commanding, had arrived off Sandy Hook. This was during the tenure of Royal Governor Fletcher. The Richmond was supposed to be a sort of revenue cutter — a ship on policy business, to prevent piracy and smuggling. In truth, the town — with its stepped-roof Dutch houses, its "boueries" or little city farms, and its taverns full of Englishmen on the make — was thriving on contraband goods smuggled in by "rakish ships" flying the black flag; but it appeared that Captain Evans was unable to spot a pirate ship with his spyglass! It appeared, too, that this was as Governor Fletcher would have it. The Captain was a frequent visitor at the Governor's table.a
During these last years of the seventeenth century the town of New York was growing rich. So was Captain Evans. For a very small sum the Governor permitted him to purchase and to acquire a royal patent on a tract of land stretching from Stony Point to Palse — the present town of New Palse was part of this old settlement. Hence the Captain found himself in possession of eighteen miles of Hudson River water front and he claimed that his lands reached thirty miles inland! He called his estate of five hundred square miles the "Londship and p171 Manor of Fletcherdon," perhaps remembering those congenial dinners in New York.
But the home government was not content with the unsavory report of the state of affairs in the town of New York and its harbor. Royal revenue was being lost. London sent Lord Bellomont to replace Governor Fletcher. The new Governor was not popular in the taverns of the town.
"He says I have ruined the Town by hindering the Privateers (so they call the Pyrats) from bringing in one hundred thousand pounds since my coming." So Lord Bellomont wrote to London.
Nevertheless, by the untiring efforts of Lord Bellomont, the extravagant grant made to Captain Evans was revoked, and when the refugees from the Rhineland, the Palatinates, petitioned Queen Anne for land she permitted them to settle in and about the present town of Newburgh. They were among the first settlers to receive freeholds. Thus the west bank of the Hudson was saved from the vast patents which exacted rent from the farmers on the east bank. Soon we read that most of the good land had been taken up, "besides the Highlands which can be put to no manner of use but furnishing firewood."
On May 17, 1723, a tract of land, •fourteen hundred and sixty-three acres in extent, was granted to Charles Congreve. This tract included the northern portion of West Point and probably dates the first settlement there, since the land grants were given on the express condition that they be settled and that at least three of every fifty acres be cultivated. In 1747 one John Moore was granted •three hundred and thirty-two acres to the southwest of the Congreve patent, but although Moore's patent was so much smaller we see him purchasing both grants and willing them to his heir, Stephen Moore, who was a merchant living p172 in the softer climate of North Carolina and who seldom saw the mountain fastness which he owned.
In any case he was only too glad to sell the two grants to the Federal Government in 1790 because, as he pointed out, the Government by means of libel suits had so long used the land for its own purposes. Stephen Moore was paid eleven thousand and eighty-five dollars for •seventeen hundred and ninety-five acres, the original Congreve and Moore patents. Later, in 1826, another large tract lying to the south along the river — one that apparently had never been accurately surveyed — was deeded to the United States. The Military Reservation, it will be noted, is not a part of New York State but belongs to the Federal Government. In 1839 these lands were properly surveyed and the permanent boundaries of the Reservation were established.
These boundaries were hardly changed until the purchase of the •two‑hundred-and-thirty‑one‑acre Kingsley estate in 1889; another parcel of land was added in 1902. When the war in Europe loomed in 1939, however, this situation changed and we see the West Point Reservation beginning land acquisition with the ultimate goal of owning fifteen thousand acres. As of January 30, 1941, the Reservation comprised •16,714 acres, including Stewart Field with •2900 acres.
The first buildings at West Point were, as we have seen, no more than the rude barracks left by the Revolutionary garrison. In the days of Captain Alden Partridge several good stone buildings were erected, the Captain proving to be a competent construction boss. In 1841 the beautiful library building was erected — foreshadowing West Point's great building period, which was inaugurated by Elihu Root in 1902. As is noted elsewhere the majority of these great buildings which contain our national Military Academy were the work of the architectural firm of Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson. The more p173 recent additions, among which are the new North Barracks and the west wing of the Cadet Gymnasium, were designed by Paul Philippe Cret.
Most future cadets arrive at West Point via the West Shore station. From this point of no vantage the vast fortress seems to rear above them with overwhelming majesty. They see a complicated mass of solid granite and battlemented ruins only slightly softened by the green of summer. As a matter of fact, it is almost plebº-Christmas before they have learned much about these great buildings which dominate the Hudson. Nearly one hundred and fifty years have gone into the building of that mighty pile — more than that number if we count the Continental forts which were incorporated into the Military Academy.
But the buildings are not mere fortresses, parts of a vast modern citadel. They have interiors! These interiors soon become packed with significance for the cadet. The one which he will perhaps know first is the Administration Building, the headquarters of West Point. This looks like a true fortress constructed of native granite in the form of a battlemented tower. It is entered through a sally port above which hangs a portcullis that defends the courtyard beyond.
The tower of the Administration Building is •one hundred and sixty feet high and built of solid masonry, making it the tallest all-stone masonry building in the world. One of its most impressive interior features, the Academic Board Room, is a Gothic hall lighted in colors by stained glass windows; the great stone mantel is ornamented by statues of nine of the world's greatest warriors.
The walls of the interior court of the administration Building are decorated by sixty coats of arms cut in stone. There are the arms of the States, territories, and possessions, and of the War Department; the seals of various branches of the army p174 and the personal arms of George Washington. This building houses the Postal Telegraph offices and the offices of the Superintendent and his immediate staff; that is, his executive officer, adjutant general, and aide, and the officers who assist them. Here the executive confers with the Commandant of Cadets, the surgeon, the quartermaster, and other high-ranking officers. Small wonder that its august majesty is a trifle austere to the candidates' first view.
The Administration Building was the central motif of the plan for a new, greatly enlarged West Point which was made by the architects Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson and approved soon after the turn of the century by the then Secretary of War, Elihu Root. The Library, built in 1841, and the old Cadet Barracks were used as a theme from which the military Gothic style of the principal buildings was evolved.
Grant Hall, actually a part of South Barracks, is likely to be familiar to the candidate only after he has become a lowly plebe. Grant Hall proper is merely the reception room in the east wing of South Barracks. South Barracks are sometimes called "Deluxe Hotel" because they were completed in 1931 and contain certain conveniences unknown in buildings even a little older. The granite which faces Grant Hall was quarried from Storm King Mountain; it is trimmed with limestone and decorated with amusing small carved plaques illustrating cadet life.
Inside Grant Hall is the impressive information desk; this is presided over by the Junior Officer of the Guard, who is a First Classman. He looks very handsome in his impressive Gothic setting, for Grant Hall is •one hundred and fifty feet long and fifty feet wide. There are three spacious alcoves, and the windows are high-casemented affairs with leaded glass. While awaiting a cadet for whom he has asked, the visitor — p175 even if he be fairly sure of himself under normal conditions — is likely to be a little conscious of specks of lint on his blue serge suit, and to think of Ring Lardner's plan: he intended, once at least, to buy a suit of lint just to see if blue serge would stick to it!
But — to look around once more — what is that luxurious balcony room at the far end of the hall? That is an important spot, for here the cadet hostess has her headquarters. On Saturdays and Sundays, Grant Hall is thronged with "drags" or "femmes." In peacetime they mix with a crowd of older persons — fathers and mothers mostly, who have come to get a glimpse of their sons and to take them to the Thayer Hotel for dinner; that is, always, if the cadet in question has his D. P. (dining permit) to go on such a party and is not walking the Area or making up some academic work. Now social life has been greatly curtailed by war and few parents are able to travel.
The crowd comes suddenly, and goes as soon as the clock points the time for some hop, or game, or parade. Then the portraits in their brilliant frames look down on the almost-deserted polished floor. Portraits of Grant, Sheridan, Sherman, Winfield Scott, and Washington occupy the main reception room. Lieutenant General Robert Lee Bullard, Major General George O. Squier, and General Charles P. Summerall (of World War fame) dominate the alcoves.
The room is furnished and decorated partly by gifts from parents; such a gift is a large silver punch bowl on the center table, and another is the beautiful tall clock. The massive teakwood table was brought from the Philippines by Major General Alfred E. Bates and presented to the Academy by his daughter.
But here comes the cadet for whom we have been waiting and with him we shall go to the "boodler's," or refreshment p176 shop. Here the cadet's "boodle checks" are honored — here and almost nowhere else. But let not the visitor, even if she be a "drag," think that the cadet enjoys spending them; he has a pitifully small allowance even of these. Here, as everywhere at West Point, it is the woman who pays. Cadets never touch money — and they cling pretty grimly to their "boodle checks."
In the "boodler's" cadets may smoke, and order several things to eat and drink: soda, hot coffee, chocolate, ice cream, some candies and crackers. Not the most extensive menu in the world? No — but this, young lady, is West Point! You are fortunate to be here at all, able as you are to look at your immaculate upstanding escort in his smartest of all uniforms.
No one supposes, however, that the Corps goes hungry. In fact, few men on earth are better fed. Three times a day West Point streets, which were but a moment before deserted, are alive with three long columns of gray-clad cadets marching to the sound of drums. By three different entrances these columns enter Washington Hall — to eat. Washington Hall looks somewhat like the new chapel and somewhat like the Administration Building; in other words, its clerical-military aspect would lead the unidentified to think it anything but the cadet mess hall. As a matter of fact, it is many other things. On the top floor, for example, is the elaborately equipped drawing department; there is a spacious studio-classroom, the office of the Professor of Drawing, photographic laboratories, etc. Here again we must look at pictures or, rather, drawings. It is a surprise to note that the excellent drawing from the antique was done in 1838 by Cadet William T. Sherman, at the age of eighteen. Almost in his final technique is the wash-drawing by James McNeill Whistler, the son of the railroad engineer. It is startling to note the artistic talent of U. S. Grant and of Jefferson Davis. As to George W. Goethals — it is not at all surprising to find him a competent draftsman.
p177 Washington Hall, built in the shape of a V, provides dormitories for visiting athletic teams and space for the cadet store, the only place except the "boodler's" where "boodle checks" are accepted as money. It also houses a tailoring department. But, after all, the cadet dining hall and kitchen are its dominant features. The kitchen is a modern miracle — or, rather, the kitchens, for there is a series of bakeries, refrigerating rooms, storerooms, and rooms which seem to be devoted to the more familiar kind of K. P.: just peeling vegetables.
Almost every process in this kitchen is impressively mechanical. Bread is made by machine from yeast to slicing, and doughnuts also are mechanically conceived. Ice cream is produced in volume. Were it not for a few vast copper pots the whole place might remind the awed visitor of an operating room. Certainly it is surgically clean.
It is a startling contrast to the vast dining hall which, like other places on the Reservation, is either so full or so utterly empty. The ceiling is •fifty feet high and the hall can seat over two thousand men at tables. One cannot look at those tables, empty though they be, without seeing plebes painfully at attention on the first three inches of their chairs — unable to lift their eyes to the huge mural by Tom Loftin Johnson which covers the south wall and commemorates the "Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World."
At the north end of the hall some magnificent stained glass windows depict scenes from the life of Washington. The east and west walls are given over to the portraits of the Superintendents of U. S. M. A. from Jonathan Williams forward. The whole effect is so overwhelming that perhaps it is well for the plebe that he is not permitted to look at the walls of the mess hall until his first Christmas on the Hudson.
The chapel is the Gothic pinnacle of West Point's modern citadel, yet not austere. Within, its dignity and beauty soothe p178 the soul. The chapel invites peace and happiness. It seems in some way removed from the unrelenting competition, the utter exuberant gaiety, the young but unbending dignity, and the occasional heartbreak that prevail without its walls. The stained glass windows, mostly memorials, are of surprising beauty, the blues recalling the clear tones of the windows in the Cathedral of Chartres. The rose chancel window is inscribed "To the Glory of the God of Battle and in Memory of the Departed Graduates of the United States Military Academy, by the Living Alumni." This window contains twenty-seven panels, while the other vast window of the chapel, dedicated to graduates who gave their lives in the first World War, contains twenty-one. Historic regimental flags, also for the most part blue, hang above the nave in soft contrast to the buff tile which blends with the gray stone Gothic pillars.
The organ in the chapel is the largest in the Western Hemisphere. It is authoritatively considered "the most remarkable organ ever designed and installed in a church." It was installed in 1911, but since then memorials and gifts have enlarged it until it now contains two hundred and five ranks of pipes and boasts the remarkable number of thirteen thousand four hundred and twenty individual pipes! Many of the more unusual stops have been donated as memorials. Some of the pipes are no longer than a lead pencil and some of them are huge. It follows that it is an instrument of singular flexibility and power. One of the chief privileges of a visitor to West Point is attendance at an organ recital. Nowhere else in America is so fine an instrument so impressively placed, yet the effect of the organ is not merely impressive; it is beautiful.
The chapel and the Administration Building have been officially judged to be among the twenty most beautiful buildings in America. Around the cornice of the chapel are a series of carvings representing the "Quest of the Holy Grail," and p179 over the door we see in stone the great two-handed sword of King Arthur, "Excalibur" — the sword which Sir Bedivere was so loath to throw into the lake.
From the porch of the chapel there is perhaps the finest of all West Point's views of the Hudson. On an autumn day the red and mauve mountains rear up and cut the gaudy sky as the river flows beneath, a cold strip of turquoise.
But this chapel is only one of three. There is the Catholic chapel, which is an almost exact replica of a fine Norman Gothic church built in England by the Carthusians and converted by Queen Elizabeth into a Protestant church; it is located on the road to the north gate not far from the old chapel, which was reerected in the West Point cemetery.
The old chapel was built in 1837 and within its walls Washington's stirring words were read aloud to the cadets after the fall of Fort Sumter. It stood on the site of the present East Academic Building until 1911. Within it West Pointers were married: within it they said everlasting farewell to their illustrious dead. Within it diplomas were awarded at graduation. No wonder it was so carefully resurrected; no other building on the Reservation could house so many illustrious ghosts. It is fittingly placed in the cemetery amid West Point's and this nation's heroic dead.
As we have noted, it was the Library — built in 1841 by Major Robert Delafield, then Superintendent — which served as inspiration for Ralph Adams Cram and his associates when the present physical structure of U. S. M. A. was planned in 1902. It is an ageless building; because of the innate rightness of its architecture it looked venerable when new, and now that it has passed the century mark it looks quite as young as the comparatively new buildings which surround it.
At the north entrance to the Library two guns mount guard. From the bronze tablet on one we read: "This gun fired the p180 first shot of the Civil War, in the West, at Vicksburg, several days before the attack on Fort Sumter in April, 1861." Nevertheless, authorities usually agree that the hostilities at Fort Sumter, being in an action hotly contested, did in reality begin the Civil War. The cannon in front of the West Point Library barked alone. On the other gun is inscribed: "This gun was the left piece of Captain Elder's Battery B, 1st U. S. Artillery, and it fired the last shot at Appomattox, April 9, 1865."
Thus we enter the West Point Library between Alpha and Omega. We are shown the window in the East Room where General Winfield Scott, as an aging warrior, used to sit and read, and glance up from his book at the changing lights over the Hudson and at the central tower which once housed the observatory. But a library is a house of books and it is these in which we are most interested.
The West Point Library was born when in 1778 a small but valuable collection of textbooks, most of them in French, were kept in a log structure. It became a library worthy of the name when Thayer's collections were added in 1817. At present the library contains approximately one hundred and twenty thousand volumes on military and allied subjects. The military section is considered one of the most complete in the world. There are, besides, prints, maps, and manuscripts that are beyond price. On the walls of the entrance hall we can see those maps which, through the cold winters and hot summers, guided the earliest engineers in making their fortifications during the Revolution. Among other even earlier maps is one made by a Dutch surveyor in 1650.
Here within the Library we may study West Point, in its manifold aspects, in the clear and peculiarly beautiful colors of the old aquatints and colored engravings which always present historical scenes with a mixture of romance and fidelity p181 that cannot fail to charm. Almost every print known to have been made of West Point can be see here; in fact, it is said that there is only one exception — a mezzotint by John Bornet.
The Library fittingly exhibits the portraits of West Point's great academicians. Perhaps the first of these, since he was more the engineer than the Superintendent, was Jonathan Williams. His full-length portrait by Thomas Sully is one of the finest paintings ever executed in America by an American. Here, too, we can look into the very eyes of Thayer, Mahan, and Michie and into those of Joseph Gardner Swift, the first graduate of U. S. M. A. and one, by the way, who would stand for no nonsense.
Cadet Swift, the future ranking officer of the U. S. Engineer Corps, when at West Point did not like the Professor of Mathematics, Mr. Barron. He engaged him in a technical dispute on a matter of military etiquette, which quite soon led to a less technical difference — to be settled with blows. The cadet chased his preceptor all the way across the parade ground and upstairs in one of the academic buildings of that time (about 1802). From this vantage the professor ordered the arrest of Swift, "addressing him discourteously and applying to him approbriousº epithets." But no arrest took place; on the contrary, Mr. Barron was dismissed from the service after a court investigation.
A chaste white marble doorway within the Library is a memorial to a cadet who did not graduate: Edgar Allen Poe. Over it we read the words of Sir Francis Bacon: "There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in proportion." Yet the career of Cadet Poe was not so very strange. He was, to begin with, already a professional soldier, been a sergeant major before entering U. S. M. A. Before his two years in the army, in which he served under the assumed name of p182 Perry, Poe had received a classical education in England and had graduated from the University of Virginia with the highest honors in his class. Now he entered U. S. M. A.
Poe was twenty-one when he entered the Academy, but as he was ashamed of this ripe old age he stated that he was nineteen. He looked "old" to the other cadets, who are said to have inquired rudely if he were not filling in for his son who had suddenly died. Poe according to his own testimony had no friends among his fellow cadets, nor any pleasant contact with any member of the faculty. He resorted to the tavern of Benny Havens, whose company he liked as well as his famous flip.
While at West Point, Poe was the victim of a sorrow which he kept secret — except perhaps from Benny Havens. The poet, who was descended from distinguished Revolutionary ancestors, was born while his mother, an actress, took a short leave of the theater upon which she depended for support. Soon afterward his father deserted her and Poe was adopted, but not legally, by the Allans, a Southern family of some importance. Mrs. Allan seems to have really loved Edgar, but Mr. Allan, who was himself by turns rich and poor, tormented him with financial uncertainty until, brought up as a gentleman and deprived of gentleman's means, he went almost mad from financial anxiety. Before coming to West Point he had been obliged to pay seventy-five dollars to rid himself of his sergeant-majorship. Only twenty-five was paid in cash. The fifty was demanded while Poe was at West Point, at which time it is supposed that Mr. Allan finally disinherited the nervous young soldier. The best evidence seems not to show that Poe, while at West Point, was any more given to liquor than the average cadet of his time. That he was worried and unhappy and unsocial there can be no doubt.
Poe — who was already, as we have seen, an "old man" of twenty-one, completely adult, and already the author of some p183 of his most enduring poems — was full of despair. He must have felt that he was not cut out to be a professional soldier, and he may well have had some foreboding or presentiment of the terrible poverty in which his forty brilliant years were to be spent. It is quite evident that he wished to resign from U. S. M. A., because he pleaded guilty to certain charges which he might have evaded. Superintendent Thayer was also well content to part with Cadet Poe.
Before Poe left he solicited subscriptions of seventy-five cents each for a book of verse which he proposed to publish. Thayer had kindly sanctioned this expedient. The cadets thought that it would be a jolly volume full of lampoons against less popular members of the Academic Board. But what came of it? Nothing for a long time, and then a book of what the Corps of that day considered "sentimental rubbish": poems with such titles as "Tamerlane," "Leonore," "Israfel," "The Sleeper," and "To Helen." How could they know that years later a copy of this volume would bring eleven thousand dollars? Or how could the "old soldier" of twenty-one foresee this future?
Poe's letter to Sylvanus Thayer requesting the Superintendent's good offices to obtain for him a commission in the Polish Army is among West Point's and the nation's most valuable manuscripts. It is hard to forget the touching first lines: "Having no longer any ties which bind me to my country . . . no prospects . . . nor any friends . . ." Did the uncongenial atmosphere of West Point seem good in retrospect? Better perhaps than the utter loneliness of the grimy maritime city which sprawled at the base of the river?
Another cadet remembered in the Library also failed to graduate, but this one came from a well-to‑do and most-distinguished family and was cheerful and gay — too gay and too saucy. He was Cadet James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Cadet p184 Whistler, as we have seen, was not passable in chemistry. But he enjoyed his almost three years at West Point. Undoubtedly both Cadet Whistler and his artist-instructor, Robert W. Weir, knew that he was destined to be an artist, not a soldier.
It is easy to get lost in the Library at West Point. Emerging from it, one is dazzled by the sunlight. Or is it by the unaccustomed whiteness of the marble of Cullum Hall, in front of which we have now wandered? This building was designed by Stanford White, who used the Erechtheum as a model. The Erechtheum, it will be remembered, is a Greek temple which stands on the Acropolis in Athens and is considered one of the purest examples of Ionic architecture in existence. Cullum Hall is, therefore, in contrast with the military Gothic style which characterizes most of the other important buildings on the Reservation.
Brigadier General G. W. Cullum, class of 1833, left two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for this memorial hall and provided an investment fund of twenty thousand dollars for the purchase of busts, portraits, and memorial tablets which would commemorate the Academy's illustrious dead. He intended the Hall to be "a receptacle of statues, busts, mural tablets and portraits of deceased officers and graduates of the Military Academy, of paintings of battle scenes, trophies of war, and such other objects as may tend to give elevation to the military profession." Congress generously augmented the original bequest, so that the glory of Cullum Hall was assured.
Strangely, though it richly fulfills the intention of General Cullum, the second floor of the impressive Hall is more often than not the scene of formal festivity, for it is in this almost regal setting that the larger hops and the graduation balls take piece. (At present these are held in the gymnasium.) They are brilliant spectacles — with the Corps in dress uniforms, slender young ladies in formal evening gowns, and the receiving p185 line greeting each wide-eyed girl by name. Some persons have said that at the height of its formality — perhaps at the graduation ball — Cullum Hall with its great marble staircase looked more European than American. But it seems to this author that these persons, used perhaps to the excessive informality of the average American college, have forgotten that we in America have a proud and aristocratic tradition too, one of which none need be ashamed. It is probably a healthy sign that in one or two places in this country youth is taught that formality is possible — even a new and quite delicious thrill. At least that is how it seems to affect the average "femme."
The Corps usually dances to the music of its own band, but on great occasions the most famous bands in America — that is to say, in the world — are engaged. Whoever is playing it, the music floats all around Cullum Hall — no other stimulant is needed to make the heart flutter painfully — there is that perfect unforgettable moment.
In the morning light no one should fail to notice Kosciuszko's garden, now a little plateau, built by the beloved Polish engineer in Revolutionary days, when the forts in the Highlands offered few amenities. Out of the forest the noble Pole brought little plants and set them, with his own hands, among the rocks, in the crevices which he filled with rich soil. This work of art which he helped nature paint — Kosciuszko's wild garden, where he used to sit and watch the Hudson — is on its way to becoming immortal. Even the magnificence of Cullum Hall has not overshadowed it completely.
Now we shall return again to headquarters and visit the Ordnance Museum. Here in the Artillery Room, a Gothic hall hung with battle flags, are more weapons than the average boy can dream of. And where is the young man of twelve who is not an expert on weapons? The vast collections of various p186 arms which are collected in the Ordnance Museum are unique in many ways. For one thing, most of the exhibits are veterans — they have seen service; some are bloodstained. Cadets usually leave West Point regretful that they could not spend more time in the Ordnance Museum among the historic exhibits. Here is displayed the actual ball which former Cadet Wade Hampton Gibbs fired at Fort Sumter; here, too, is the shot returned to him by Major Robert Anderson, the West Pointer who defended the Union fort so stanchly. Here are the weapons of the ragged soldiers who held West Point during the Revolution; there are shells of first World War days, and the gleaming projectiles of the second World War.
Even more forbidding is Machine Gun Hall, where one may inspect every type of rapid-fire gun known on this continent and most of the types known elsewhere.
But perhaps the Flag Room is the soul of the Museum. Now we can inspect that rarest of all exhibits — a captured British flag. Only in the Argentine may another be seen anywhere on earth; through history British flags have seldom fallen to the enemy. This one is a "British King's Color," the regimental flag of the Seventh Royal Fusiliers, which may have been captured at Fort Chambly in 1775; it was presented by Congress to George Washington. In a glass case there is a "forest of flags" which have been unfurled in our one hundred and one wars.
In the Small Arms Room we are a little startled to note that even the grim weapons of the executioner are considered "small." But we turn away to look at the magnificent collection of swords, some of them handed over by the armorer to the jeweler to finish. Despairing of seeing everything or even many more exhibits, we gaze with proper awe at a hound-handled flip pitcher from Benny Havens' tavern. Here are p187 also various knives and forks and mugs from the same celebrated hostelry, and here is the very desk on which Benedict Arnold probably wrote those fatal letters to "Mr. Anderson." Generals Knox and Wayne and Heath made better use of this desk. In wartime the Ordnance Museum is closed.
These buildings are perhaps the characteristic ones — those which, with the vast Riding Hall and Gymnasium, give U. S. M. A. its individuality — but they are not the buildings which the Corps sees most. Like other soldiers, cadets live in barracks. The main Central Barracks face north and look out upon the parade ground. Each "division" or section of the barracks is a separate entity, though to outward appearances part of the same severely plain granite building. The only communications between divisions is in the basement under the stoop of the barracks. These barracks have four floors of rooms, four rooms around a central hallway. There are eighteen divisions of sixteen rooms each, housing in peacetime two cadets in a room or a battalion of about six hundred cadets. Central Barracks face the Clock Tower, where long ago there was a faucet from which cadets drew their water and, as we have seen, sometimes came to ungentlemanly blows about it. South Barracks houses Grant Hall, and North Barracks houses the Tactical Department in its tower.
The academic buildings, where the cadets go to classes, are also in the military Gothic style. These buildings have been enlarged from time to time, and Thayer Road is overshadowed by their granite walls. Thayer Road is, however, known as Tenth Avenue, because the battle for points goes on in the buildings which flank it.
It is impossible to walk about West Point Reservation without recalling the elevated language in which it has been so frequently described since the beginning of American history. It is quite impossible, also, not to have a lively sense of purely p188 personal enjoyment. Those who in peacetime have looked on the finest display of close-order drill in the world, the Corps parading on the plain, are not likely to forget the sight. This Field of the Cloth of Green is probably the most beautiful parade ground in the world.
When the Cadet Adjutant gives the command "Sound Off!" and the band strikes its three impressive flourishes, a ceremony has begun which is unrivaled in martial beauty. The evening dress parades in June week are further enhanced — on the day of the Superintendent's Garden Party especially — by the lovely long dresses and wide hats of the "femmes." It is a pity that England is allowed to be the only specialist in garden parties; here at West Point in June, however, we Americans can a little more than hold our own.
The Superintendent's house, which overlooks the plain and, obliquely, Trophy Point, is the dwelling once occupied by Sylvanus Thayer and outwardly has been only slightly changed since his time. It gives an effect of simplicity, though in reality it is a large house and might well be the ideal American home because of its dignity and functional comfort. The garden is especially well planned and placed.
Flirtation Walk, as everyone knows, girdles the West Point itself and is strengthened by a hanging boulder called, not without reason, Kissing Rock. If a "femme" refuses to kiss her cadet escort — look out; the rock will fall! At Delafield Pond a "drag" may put on a bathing suit and swim — not bathe, for the water is really deep. Delafield Pond has on one side a real beach made with carefully imported sand, but the opposite bank is wooded and romantic; here a cadet and his visitor may sit in beach chairs and by picnic tables, and enjoy one of the most glorified swimming holes in existence.
Sports are magnificently housed at West Point. There is, for example, an indoor skating rink where hockey games can be p189 played. For five months of the year the ice is artificially frozen and cadets may skate over an area of •two hundred and thirty-two feet by ninety feet.
Riding at a military school could hardly be called sport, but in any case most cadets find it fun. The vast riding hall has stable facilities for one hundred horses, and the tan-bark area is •five hundred and sixty-five feet by one hundred and thirty-five feet. In this truly vast space, indoor polo is often played.
Making these great buildings seem small are the mountains which surround them; now, as in the War of the Revolution, they remain a fortress built by God. We are reminded that West Point is the oldest fort in the United States. From old Fort Put one may see the sunset reflected in Lusk Reservoir. Perhaps a perfect day has ended?
a For piracy under Governor Fletcher, see Fiske, The Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America, II, pp207‑210, especially from the last paragraph of p209 on to the following page.
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the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 25 Oct 13