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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
West Point

Elizabeth D. J. Waugh

published by
The Macmillan Company,
New York, 1944

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p33  Chapter III
The Foundling in the Mountains

West Point was actually sold but could not be delivered by Benedict Arnold. The "Palladium of American Liberty," as it was called by the Marquis de Chastellux, who saw it soon after the treason, remained secure in warlike seclusion. However, the traitor escaped. Hamilton missed Arnold at Stony Point. The future general in the British Army was already safe aboard the Vulture, dropping down the river.

Washington, through indirect channels, made known to Sir Henry Clinton that he would be glad to challenge Major André for the traitor. This Clinton refused — thereby making himself clearly a party to the tragic death of André, who was beloved even by his foes. The unfortunate spy was a prisoner at West Point from the twenty-sixth of September, 1780, until the twenty-eighth.

He had described to Colonel Tallmadge, in whose care he remained much of the time he was awaiting his sentence, the part he had expected to play in taking the fortifications. Tallmadge said he could almost see the gallant André, sword unsheathed, dashing up the declivities leading the charge on West Point. The twenty-fifth of September was to have been the glorious day for André. How very differently things had turned out! So must he have thought climbing the rocky road as a prisoner.

Major André suffered the extreme penalty; Benedict Arnold, in spite of Washington's untiring efforts to catch him, went free and as a British general committed military barbarismsº  p34 on his former countrymen. Yet West Point lay serene in autumn sunlight.

This was the October in which Washington had written so despairingly to Congress. Perhaps he foresaw the alarming events which were in the making. These were not brought about by the enemy, nor were they the work of traitors. Once again, in an unexpected way, West Point was to play a decisive part in saving our infant nation.

About noon on the third of January a rider dismounted in front of Washington's headquarters at New Windsor. He was the bearer of the most evil tidings. The whole Pennsylvania line, about thirty-eight hundred troops, encamped at Morristown, had mutinied and was marching toward Philadelphia! This was the thing which Washington had always feared — almost, at times, felt to be inevitable. Now it had happened.

In December, General Anthony Wayne, who commanded these troops, had written to the President of the Council of Pennsylvania:

Our soldiery are not devoid of reasoning faculties, nor are they callous to the feelings of nature. They have now served their country for near five years, poorly clothed, badly fed, and worse paid. Of the last article, trifling as it is, they have not seen a paper dollar in the way of pay for the last twelve months.

Often, too, there was no meat and — even more missed by the shivering men — no grog. They were often forced to drink cold water, that crowning hardship. Not only were the British troops paid well and regularly and in undebased custody; they had plenty to eat, plenty to drink. Moreover, new recruits into the Continental Army were promised as much as two hundred dollars to enlist and sometimes a hundred acres of land to boot. As Anthony Wayne had said, they knew these  p35 things and they were "not devoid of reasoning faculties."

Washington had fought for the restitution of these wrongs as fiercely as he had fought the British. By far the greater part of his correspondence at this time is concerned with the painful privations of the Continentals. Yet the troops continued to be irregularly and badly fed, sharing one ragged blanket among three men; wearing half a shirt or no shirt, ragged overalls in midwinter. Most of the time they saw no pay at all. The wonder was that mutiny had been so long delayed.

The garrison at West Point, usually three to five thousand strong, had suffered with the rest, perhaps more than the rest; they endured the hardest winters of all. Yet it was this garrison on which Washington must depend to quell the mutiny of its companions-in‑arms. Arnold's treason had predisposed Washington to be cautious. He sent to General Heath, commanding at West Point, to inquire as to the state of the morale of the garrison at the post.

Heath replied that he could not be sure; a servant girl sent among the men brought back word that they would never lift their hands against their brothers-in‑arms. A few nights before, the men, it was said, had refused to cook their provisions.

Washington hardly dared to leave the Hudson. Yet, feeling that he must, he had even started on the way to New Jersey and then had prudently turned back. He himself felt that he must never desert the Hudson; it was almost a superstition with him. And yet each day brought worse news. General Wayne's valiant efforts — and they had been valiant — could not stem the mutiny, which, like a forest fire, threatened the whole American Army. Now the New Jersey line had joined with the men of Pennsylvania. What would happen if all these troops listened to the soft words of the British?

It was General Robert Howe who became the hero of that  p36 most trying hour — the same General Howe who had surrendered his command of West Point to Benedict Arnold, of whom Arnold had implied that he had not sufficient force to command the respect of the militia.

Howe stated that he had complete faith in the morale of the New England troops who were then the backbone of the garrison at West Point. He traced down the information obtained by General Heath and found that it was not representative of the general feeling: loyalty to the cause of freedom and to the commander in chief.

It was not a minute for hesitation. Washington wrote:

I thought it indispensable to bring the matter to an issue and risk all extremities. Unless this dangerous spirit can be suppressed by force there is an end to all subordination in the army and indeed to the army itself.

At West Point the troops were ordered to march. It had been a painful and difficult matter to equip them. The season — it was the last week in January — made matters no easier. They started on the twenty-third of January — supplied with entrenching tools and wagons; three cannons from the military park at New Windsor were to follow.

A body of snow about two feet deep, without any track, rendered the march extremely difficult. Having no horse I experienced inexpressible fatigue and was obliged several times to sit down on the snow.

So writes Dr. James Thatcher, who made the march.

Washington had written General Howe's orders at West Point. They follow:

You are to take command of the detachment which has been ordered to march from this post against the mutineers  p37 of the Jersey Line. . . . The object of your detachment is to compel the mutineers to unconditional submission, and I am to desire you will grant no terms while they are with arms in their hands in a state of resistance. . . . If you succeed in compelling the revolted troops to a surrender, you will instantly execute a few of the most active and incendiary leaders.

By this time the mutineers from Pennsylvania had been more or less satisfactorily dealt with. The men from New Jersey had had less grievance; but should their insurrection succeed, the temporizing arrangements with the Pennsylvania line would not hold. The situation was big with crisis. The Jersey mutineers were in camp at Pompton — not far from Ringwood, where the great chain had been forged.

On the way to Pompton, through the woods, General Howe must have remembered the petition filed by the sergeants of the Massachusetts line only two weeks before at West Point. There had been nothing of mutiny about it, but it had been a strong complaint. In it the sergeants had pointed to many wrongs and hardships — among other things that they had lived in tents throughout December, miserably clad, forced to bring all wood for themselves and for their officers on their backs from a place a mile distant; they had been kept on half allowance of bread and "entirely without rum"; their pay was twelve to fourteen months in arrears. These were the troops on whom Howe must rely to subdue the New Jersey troops, who were on the whole much better off.

After the hard march through the snow and through the forests the troops from West Point arrived at Pompton just before dawn. In the cold dimness they saw the huts of the mutineers. As yet no man was stirring; no smoke came from the mud chimneys. General Howe halted his force.

Many of his own officers had been free with their predictions  p38 that face to face with other Continentals, his troops would lay down their arms. Such rumors had even circulated among the men. The moment in which they would be tested had come.

Howe's orders were barked with confidence: "Load your pieces!"

The order was obeyed with military alacrity.

Once more the American Revolution was saved. "In the hard conflict between sympathy for their comrades and duty to their country the troops from West Point neither complained nor held back."1 Yet the men knew that the task before them was to compel the New Jersey troops to their duty if it meant killing them.

Taking advantage of his surprise march, Howe placed his force so as to surround the camp. When the mutineers awoke they saw that they were outnumbered and completely encamped. The black cannons from the military park in New Windsor looked threatening enough against the virgin snow.

Colonel Sprout led his Massachusetts men to the attack. The mutineers had been ordered to lay down their arms and march to a spot shown to them. A few had already done so when Sprout's men charged. Now all complied.

Two ringleaders were shot on the spot. The firing squad was composed of other mutineers, those judged most guilty after the leaders. The mutiny was quelled.

Yet it was not without result. The French ambassador, De la Luzerne, had seen the peril; had seen, too, that Congress, arguing this way and that, was incapable or unwilling to help the troops which were defending the nation as well as its Congress. France now lent ten million francs to the American cause and gave, freely, six million. Coats, which unfortunately were red, arrived from Spain and ten thousand more coats, not red, from France. Further, as an indirect result, the Articles  p39 of Confederation were signed on March 1, 1781, and Paul Jones, in honor of the event, fired a feu de joie from his frigate Ariel which was dressed with all the flags and streamers that enterprising seamen could lay hands upon.

For West Point a moment of happiness, even of gaiety, lay ahead. The post was to provide the scenery and the stage for one of the most picturesque festivities of Revolutionary times. We see Washington so often in his stern moods — showing that resolution in adversity which won his cause or watching his barefooted troops with a pity he could not show — that it is a keen pleasure to see him plan a party with the same careful strategy which won his battles.a He had decided to celebrate the birth of the Dauphin of France, and even in Versailles it was not honored more heartily.

May had come to the mountains. General Winter had fallen back before the bright sun and the gentle rain commanded by victorious Spring. Not only was it the baby Dauphin of France whom Washington honored; it was each of his gallant soldiers who had endured the bitter cold of adversity as well as of winter and who now, with the battle of Yorktown behind them, had cause to rejoice. In privation they had created a nation.

Washington planned to keep open house at West Point for a glorious day and a night. The invitations were sent out from headquarters in Newburgh. Or were they orders?

Head-Quarters, Newburgh,
Tuesday May 28th, 1782


The Commander in Chief is happy in the opportunity of announcing to the Army, the birth of the Dauphin of France; and desirous of giving a general occasion of testifying the satisfaction which he is convinced will pervade the breast of every  p40 American officer and soldier on the communication of an event so highly interesting to a monarch and nation who have given such distinguishing proofs of their attachment, is pleased to order a feu de joie on Thursday next; and requests the company of all the General, Regimental and Staff Officers of the Army who are not necessarily detained by duty at West Point on that day at four o'clock. Commanding Officers of Brigades and Corps will receive particular instructions for their government.

The memorandums attached to this order give more the spirit of the whole thing. They follow:

The troops are to be supplied with an extra gill of rum tomorrow. [And]

The Commander in Chief desires his compliments may be presented to the Officers' Ladies with and in the neighborhood of the Army, together with a request that they will favor him with their company at dinner on Thursday next, at West Point. The General will be happy to see any other Ladies of his own or his friends' acquaintance, on the occasion without the formality of a particular invitation.

Vast preparation had been on foot for this event for some weeks, and when the last day of May dawned clear and warm it was as if the clouds of war had been chased away forever. The ladies and gentlemen who lived in freeholds over the mountains in New Jersey and up and down the river were seen to disembark from their sailboats at the wharf at West Point a little after noon. The officers were as spruce as their rather worn uniforms would permit, and colors faded by wear and weather were brightened by flowers worn in cockaded hats. The ladies were gay in wide hats, brocaded panniers, and powdered hair. Mrs. Livingston of the Lower Manor walked  p41 with Mrs. Montgomery, widow of the hero of Quebec; Governor Clinton and his lady walked with Major General Knox. The Washingtons led the procession to the grand colonnade — which had been erected by Major Villefranche, the young French engineer who served under Du Portail at West Point.

This colonnade was a work of art and wonder. Villefranche had employed one thousand men for ten days to create it, and when we consider the result we marvel that they wrought it so quickly. It was made from the primeval forest itself. The colonnade was two hundred and twenty feet long and eighty feet wide. It was supported by one hundred and eighteen pillars made from the trunks of virgin trees. The roof was constructed with the boughs of these trees woven together basket-fashion, while a long pediment or running frieze of green was surmounted by single symmetrical hemlocks. This frieze was ornamented by garlands and by fleurs-de‑lis made of vivid flowers. Ropes of twisted green vines were festooned among the columns. Within, each column was circled with bayonets and muskets, all arms polished and gleaming. Decorative bouquets were everywhere displayed. Long ropes of flowers stretched from one pillar to the next. Appropriate mottoes were framed by more ornamental greenery and flowers.

When the gay company was standing before this vast bower, which was situated on the hill in the rear of Fort Clinton overlooking the plain, the whole American Army was reviewed. Bugles were blown; military bands stirred the souls of the patriots. The army was paraded on both sides of the river so that for a circle several miles in diameter nothing might be seen but men marching amid the famous scenery of the Highlands, green in the joy of early summer.

The firing of three cannons announced dinner. A special band played while the commander in chief and his lady led  p42 the way to a dinner table which seated five hundred guests under the magnificent arbor. At this point grog was served to all, from the lowest to the highest.

Only when the vast feast had been concluded and the cloth removed was it time for the toasts to begin. There were to be thirteen of these, one for each state — each one announced by a salute of thirteen cannons and accompanied by music! "Never was honor more commanding or more majestic, every gun was, after being fired, echoed back from the opposite bank with a noise nearly equal to the discharge itself."

It was about seven o'clock in the evening when the guests retired from the table, but the most spectacular part of the fete was before them. The arbor, which had been beautiful by day, was even more interesting at night lighted by a thousand candles and flares. And now again thirteen cannons were discharged to announce the feu de joie itself. Thousands of firearms were discharged into the night, each flintlock belching flame. There were then three mighty cheers from the throats of the Continental Army for the Dauphin of France.

There was a minuet under the arbor, danced on the greensward. Washington led the dancers with Mrs. Knox as his partner, and twenty couples followed his Excellency's lead. Many persons there had never seen the commander so gay and cheerful.

The final event of the great evening was a display of fireworks. There were stars and fleurs-de‑lis, rockets, wheels, fountains, and beehives. The gaiety continued through the night.

We like to think of Washington's highly original feu de joie as a fitting finale for the events of the American Revolution which took place in the Highlands of the Hudson. The post had withstood treachery; had been occupied by the enemy; its garrison had gone hungry and cold. These ill-clad  p43 troops — who, in the eyes of the Marquis de Chastellux, who saw them in 1780, "looked like men of noble blood, even the privates looking and carrying themselves like officers, had held the great line of the Hudson, and the day of victory had dawned. New events were shaping.

The fortifications fell into disrepair; the mighty chain was sold in part for scrap iron; the garrison was reduced to a handful of "Invalids," poor disabled soldiers who had hardly rags to cover them. But the men who had seen its glory did not forget West Point. Knox thought of it, and Washington's last letter concerned it. He wrote the letter on one of those sad last days when he felt too ill to take his morning ride.

For many years Washington had worked and hoped for an American military school.

On December 12, 1799, he wrote to Hamilton, who had made detailed plans for a military academy, that "its establishment has ever been considered by me an object of primary importance to this country." He ends this letter with the hope that Hamilton will be able to "prevail upon the Legislature to place it upon a permanent and respectable footing," and George Washington wrote his bold signature for the last time.

The first man to speak strongly for a military academy had been Henry Knox, who — writing to a Congressional Committee in 1776 — had recommended "An Academy established on a liberal plan . . . where the whole theory and practice of fortifications and gunnery should be taught; to be nearly on the same plan as that of Woolwich." A month later John Adams was at work on a plan for a military academy which would compose a Corps of Invalids — by which we understand veterans too old for the most active service or those incapacitated, though not seriously, by wounds. These veterans were to act as a garrison and at the same time teach military science  p44 to young gentlemen. They were to contribute one day's pay a month toward the necessary textbooks.

As President, Washington was as much convinced of the importance of West Point strategically as he had been as commander in chief of the Continental Army. The fortifications were rebuilt and in 1781 the Corps of Invalids was established at the post. There is no record, however, of what became of the veterans' pay, nor was any formal instruction started at this time. It was a time of plans and preparation.

In 1783 Hamilton, who was chairman of the Congressional Committee on Peace Arrangements, submitted a plan to Washington, who referred it to his general officers encamped at West Point and at Newburgh. Baron von Steuben was strongly in favor of a military school and himself formulated something which would have pleased Frederick, King of Prussia. Du Portail, Chief Engineer at the post, wanted the academy to be a nursery of engineering and gunnery, while Benjamin Lincoln, then Secretary of War, wanted five schools — one of them to be at West Point. President Washington further debated the matter of a military school at West Point with his cabinet in 1793; but although Randolph, Knox, and Hamilton were in favor of it, Jefferson doubted its constitutionality. It is hard now to understand on what grounds. The President left the question for Congress to decide.

Nothing very certain resulted, though Pickering, then Secretary of War, selected several foreign officers to instruct in the school. The post was garrisoned by a Corps of Artillerists and Engineers and to these were attached those young gentlemen who wished to learn the military art. There were to be thirty-two of the latter divided among sixteen companies of Artillerists and Engineers. In May, 1794, the grade of Cadet was authorized to distinguish these young gentlemen.

The next year some actual schooling commenced at West  p45 Point and in 1796 three Frenchmen, Lieutenant Colonel Rochefontaine and Majors Tousardb and Rivardi, were giving instruction. The Artillerists and Engineers, who were, we read, somewhat hard-bitten, attended classes along with the Cadets. The arrangement was not considered satisfactory even then, nor was it supposed that this sort of thing constituted a national military academy. Hamilton never forgot Henry Knox's original plan and was tireless through many years in bringing it to fruition.

On May 15, 1801, a letter came from the Secretary of War to General Wilkinson.

The President [it read] has decided on the immediate establishment of a military school at West Point . . . Major Jonathan Williams is to be inspector of fortifications . . . he is to be at West Point to direct the necessary arrangements for the commencement of the school.

On March 16, 1802, the United States Military Academy at West Point was established as a permanent institution. Yet this formal legislation seems to have had little immediate effect, for U. S. M. A. continued to be little more than an officers' training school for candidates for the Corps of Engineers.

Jonathan Williams was a nephew of Dr. Franklin. He had learned much from his uncle, with whom he lived in England in 1770. Later, when Franklin was ambassador to France, Williams had been an official member of his household. He had studied mathematics, medicine, law, and the science of fortification as taught in France. He knew most persons of importance on both sides of the Atlantic. Now he had become the first Superintendent of the U. S. M. A. at West Point. Possibly he lacked imagination or enthusiasm or did not like the romantic seclusion of West Point — he first saw it on December 12, 1801 — or perhaps he was too busy to pay it much attention;  p46 however, it happened to be during his superintendency that, in his own words, the Academy became "A foundling barely existing among the mountains and nurtured at a distance and out of sight, and almost unknown to its legitimate parents."

The Author's Note:

1 Carl Van Doren, Mutiny in January.

Thayer's Notes:

a The idea is a very old one; the great Roman general Scipio Africanus, a wealthy patrician as well, is reported to have said (Polybius, XXX.14) — and see the further ancient testimony to the idea linked there — that a man with a mind capable of making good arrangements for games, and managing properly a sumptuous entertainment and banquet, is likewise capable of marshalling his troops to meet the enemy with the skill of a general.

[decorative delimiter]

b French military engineer Louis de Tousard has half a claim to being the founder of the Military Academy. His background and his proposal (1798) for a military school are examined in some detail in "The Forgotten 'Founder' of West Point", Military Affairs 24:177‑188.

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