Colonel Jonathan Williams, as head of the U. S. Corps of Engineers, was doing a notable job on the fortifications of New York harbor. In his report on the lamentable condition of the Military Academy at West Point he does not mention as a contributing cause his own almost complete preoccupation elsewhere. He was a corpulent man used to the good things of life, at home on both sides of the Atlantic; the fortifications at New York were surely important enough to justify his neglect of an institution which he regarded with little real concern. Also the city was not a wilderness. Yet the very pessimism of the final sentence of his report is — although certainly Colonel Williams did not know it — a kind of prophecy.
Had the members of Congress, he wrote, become West Point's generous guardians and powerful protectors and "Had it been so attached to the government (its real and only parent), as to be always with it, always in sight, and always in the way of its fostering care, it would probably have flourished, and have become an honorable and interesting appendage to the national family."
Even through the centuries this obituary sounds officious; there are signs that it was so regarded at the time Colonel Williams' report was read to Congress. Williams had never worn a uniform in his life until President Jefferson appointed him a major in the Engineer Corps. Yet, in spite of this and his preoccupation with what seemed to him vastly more important p48work, he had improved West Point. When he had first visited the mountain fortress that December day in 1801 he found twelve "gentlemen cadets" and some straggling subaltern officers sitting on green-painted benches in a building as large as a country schoolhouse. How small these were before 1810 is well known. The school, except for the new green paint, was in complete disorder. John Lillie, a cadet who had entered at the age of ten and a half and who remained there many long years without graduating, wrote in his journal at this time:
All order and regulation, either moral or religious, gave way to idleness, dissipation and irreligion . . . well that I left that place of ruin.
Williams did elevate the school somewhat.
The Act of Congress of March 16, 1802, in which President Jefferson had appointed Williams the first Superintendent of the Corps of Engineers to be stationed at West Point, provided that Corps should include ten cadets, and that "The said Corps, when so organised . . . shall constitute a Military Academy." Though this is considered the basic act which marked the real beginning of U. S. M. A., we have already seen how feeble was the infant thus created. In the first ten years of its existence only seventy-one cadets were graduated.
In 1812, at the urgent recommendation of President Madison, Congress passed another act, far more comprehensive than the first. It provided for a maximum of two hundred and fifty cadets, who were to be appointed to the service of the United States, and for Professors of the French language, of drawing, of "Natural and Experimental Philosophy," of mathematics, of engineering; each of these professors was to be provided with an assistant.
The cadets were to be attached as students to the Military Academy and were recognized as part of the United States p49Army, subject to the orders of its commander in chief, the President of the United States; they were to be arranged into companies of noncommissioned officers and privates, officered by the Corps of Engineers for the purpose of military instruction; they were to be encamped for three months each year, to be not under fourteen or over twenty-one, and to be versed in "reading, writing, and arithmetic." The bill provided that the cadets receive pay and sign articles of enlistment covering five years, with the consent of parent or guardian. Upon receiving his degree from the academic staff the cadet was to be considered a candidate for a commission in the United States Army. Finally the sum of twenty-five thousand dollars was appropriated for buildings, texts, and apparatus.
With the passage of this bill the military academy at West Point became in fact the institution we know today or, to speak with greater accuracy, it might have become that institution. That it did not even yet grow normally was due to the war which had been declared upon England on June 18, 1812, and also in no small part to the personality of Alden Partridge, who became the de facto Superintendent in the continual absence of the acting Superintendent, Captain Joseph G. Swift, who, serving first under Williams, had also the distinction of being the first graduate of West Point.
We must remember that West Point probably was still a "place of ruin" when Swift took over the superintendency from Colonel Williams in 1812. As Williams delegated authority to Swift, so Swift was to delegate authority to Partridge — that wooden soldier.
Yet back of the Acts of Congress, back of the personalities of those in charge, we must not forget that the U. S. M. A. already existed, that it had existed since 1802. It seemed real enough and cold enough to a twenty‑one-year‑old cadet who climbed the declivity from the river landing on March 20, p501807. Captain Swift, who happened to be at the post, did not seem impressed that the newcomer had been graduated from Dartmouth. The cadet was shocked by the rudeness of his quarters. He was shown a place on the rough floor of the old Revolutionary Long Barrack, the narrow mattress not too clean. The textbooks did not impress this cadet. Hutton's Mathematics — he had taught school in New Hampshire from that book — and Enfield's Philosophy were not new to him, but he looked with respect at Vauban's Fortification and Scheel's Artillery.
Yet this cadet, whose name was Sylvanus Thayer, was awed when he was issued his uniform. It was as smart as his mattress was rude. In putting it on he realized that he was actually in the army. His uniform had been made by a New York tailor. The long-tailed coat of blue was single-breasted with eight eagle-stamped buttons, gold-plated. Its high collar touched his ears; it seemed to Thayer that it pushed them up a little. The very tight trousers were of gray cloth; the hat was a handsome beaver with a golden eagle in its cockade.
In 1807 the cadets were not required to sleep in the rigorous Long Barrack unless they chose to or could not afford other accommodation. They were also allowed to mess wherever they could find place. But the choice here was limited. There was the "Commons," the table of the widow Thompson, whose husband had been a Revolutionary officer, and there was the heavy fare of the Irishman Clog Hamilton, who served little else but corned beef.
The buildings on the reservation were for the most part Revolutionary relics; in one, a long yellow house always kept closed, there were the trophies taken from Burgoyne's army. Cadets needed special permission to inspect these relics. A small building called the Salt Box served as headquarters, while Colonel Williams and his family lived in the old Rochefontaine p51quarters. Captain Swift liked to go down nearer the river and putter in the beautiful garden which the Polish engineer Kosciuszko had made among the rocks. The new cadet may have spent much time here himself, as the academic season did not open until April first and the early days at a new school are always long, even for a Dartmouth graduate.
In 1807 Sylvanus Thayer was one of forty-seven cadets. The routine was lax enough even for these few. The hours were long on paper only. The schedule was: Drill, 5 to 6 A.M.; Mathematics, 8 to 11 A.M.; French or drawing, 11 A.M. to 1 P.M. There was supposed to be a study period from 2 to 4 P.M., but that was in case a man felt like study. After that came practical field work, gunnery or surveying or the practice of military engineering.
Young Thayer found himself, before the summer was over, invited to join the United States Military Philosophical Society, founded by Colonel Williams, the first scientific group to be recorded in American history.a This was no empty honor. President Jefferson was the "patron" of this society, and when it met the following year among the members present were De Witt Clinton; Chief Justice John Marshall; Robert Fulton; and Captain Thomas Truxton, U. S. N. The next year Stephen Decatur and Isaac Hull were present.
At the first meeting he attended, Cadet Thayer heard the instructor of mathematics, Hassler, discuss his plan for the first general map of the United States. The true significance of West Point as the only School of Engineering in the country was beginning to emerge. Hassler was later to direct the United States Coast Survey, thus making history.b
Sylvanus Thayer was graduated the next year, 1808, and commissioned a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers on February the twenty-third. Evidently his Dartmouth degree had not been wasted. He was assigned to construction work p52near Boston but in 1809 was ordered back to West Point as junior instructor.
He found that Colonel Williams was spending more and more time in New York and that Alden Partridge, a lieutenant who after he was graduated had never left West Point, was throwing his weight about as next senior to the absent Superintendent. Partridge was already well on his way to becoming practical master of the Academy. Young Thayer left West Point in 1810.
Partridge, now a captain, had everything his own way. His great advantage was that he never left the post. But now once again the very life of U. S. M. A. was jeopardized.
Strange tales, many fantastic legends, come to us from the days of Old Pewter, the cadets' name for Partridge. The bombardiers stationed at West Point were grizzled soldiers who loved nothing more than to torment the "gentlemen Cadets," some of whom were so "young and small" — the description is Partridge's — that they could not hold an ordinary rifle in drill and special smaller ones had to be made for them at Springfield. There is little doubt that the cadets were unmercifully teased, hazed, and tormented by the soldiers they ranked.
In a letter sent to Captain Partridge they put it this way:
We have now sir to complain of the insolence of the soldiers, this sir we consider a grievance . . . they insult us both by action and words. The respect due us as superiors is entirely obliterated. Should you wish confirmation of this we can state numerous instances.
The cadets had to sharpen their wits to use against fists much bigger than their own. It is said that once the Cadet Corps disguised itself as a party of lovely maidens. These pretty girls lost themselves in the forest and called pitifully for help. The p53gallant bombardiers responded to the soprano cries coming from the woods; but when they reached out to catch at a bit of white petticoat, barely visible in the dim moonlight, they received a sharp blow with a cudgel for their pains. When they had been lured far from their posts of duty, other cadets saw to it that the authorities were informed of the absence of certain sentries.
The cadets were used to applying for, and to obtaining, extraordinary privileges through round robins sent unsigned to Captain Partridge. His severe punishments were alternated with most unmilitary laxness. Partridge never consistently upheld the authority of the other instructors; he hated to delegate authority of any kind. Soon the other members of the faculty formed a cabal against him. Yet Alden Partridge was an excellent drillmaster; he took great pride and joy in the band which was detailed to the post at this time. The cadets on parade were smart and soldierly. Even Colonel Williams was favorably impressed with them when, on one occasion, they were sent down the river to execute a few maneuvers before his newly constructed fort on Governor's Island.
Old Pewter himself was never seen out of uniform. His dress uniform was a triple-breasted coat decorated with thirty-six gleaming buttons in three long rows and with four buttons spaced wide apart on each sleeve; the trousers were tight-fitting and white. But in the year 1812 he seldom donned this formal attire. In that year Williams resigned the superintendency, and in that year, too, the cadet Charles G. Merchant arrived at West Point in September to find himself the only student and Captain Partridge the only instructor!
Three months later five more cadets had arrived. Had Merchant not stayed all alone, or had these five not come, the "foundling in the mountains" would have died, an unlamented casualty during the War of 1812 — yet not quite unlamented p54and certainly not altogether unhonored, for the cadets who had been graduated, inadequate though their training must have been, were conspicuous on the field of battle.
Ensign George Ronan, class of 1811, was the first West Pointer to die in battle. He fell at Fort Chicago, at a place which is now in the heart of the great city. He was killed in hand-to‑hand combat, fighting an overwhelming fort of Indians and British. Alexander J. Williams, son of the Superintendent, died gloriously on the ramparts of Fort Erie. Lieutenant William Partridge, when his commander, Hull, wished to surrender to Brock at Detroit, broke his sword and threw it at his timorous commander, though Partridge at the time was hardly able to stand with fever. Young Partridge died six weeks later, a prisoner. About one hundred and six graduates served in the War of 1812. Of these, ninety were in the less active branches of the service; the remaining sixteen were divided between the fifty-five regiments of infantry, rifles, rangers, sea fencibles, and dragoons.
Colonel Swift was an active and distinguished soldier throughout the War of 1812 and helped to defend New York, where the excellent fortifications built by Colonel Williams undoubtedly kept the British from attacking the harbor. Swift worked hard on the defenses of the city itself and was voted by the city fathers a "benefactor to the city"; his portrait was placed in City Hall and Mrs. Swift was presented with a handsome service of silver, while the Colonel was given a small but handsome yacht and a box of silver drawing tools.
Eleazer D. Wood, class of 1806, won great distinction as Chief Engineer to General Harrison in the Northwest, and for his successful resistance to the British at Fort Erie. He and James Gibson, class of 1808, fell at the head of their victorious columns when they saved Fort Erie. Napier says of this action, p55in which the two West Pointers were accompanied by Major General Davis of the New York Militia:
This is the only instance in history where a besieging army was entirely broken up and routed by a single sortie.
William McRee, son of a Revolutionary War officer, also covered himself in glory at Fort Erie, both as an engineer and as a commander of artillery. Winfield Scott said of him:
In my opinion, and perhaps in that of all the army, he combined more genius and military science with a high degree of courage than any other officer who participated in the War of 1812.
At this time Sylvanus Thayer found himself a staff captain, but he was destined to witness one humiliating American defeat after another. Perhaps it was during this campaign — when jealousy among officers, lack of efficient scouting work, and almost every conceivable military blunder, combined with lack of morale, resulted quite naturally in defeat that Thayer resolved to dedicate himself to the improvement of the American Army. It fell to his lot to see the seamy side of the War of 1812.
The defeat which Thayer witnessed in its various stages was to have been the American "conquest of Canada." The campaign began at Plattsburg, New York. Before the recruits had become soldiers there came the news of Hull's surrender to the British at Detroit. This had a bad effect on the morale of the raw troops. Later Thayer was to see these troops in the wilderness near Lake Champlain fire on one another, because of a mistake of their officers, and to see them march back to winter quarters, a beaten army. He had seen the Secretary of War come all the way from Washington to try to make peace p56between his contentious generals — without success. In the future course of the Northern campaign, though the generals were frequently changed, the fate of American arms could only recall to his mind the defeat of Burgoyne by American patriots many years before. Even the device of felling giants of the forests over the trails which the Americans had used against Burgoyne was now employed by the Canadians. Undoubtedly he had learned some practical military science; Captain Sylvanus Thayer had learned what not to do.
Almost at once young Captain Thayer got his chance to prove it. He was ordered to Norfolk, where he began at once to work on the fortifications of Craney Island, and was promoted to Brigade Major. In Virginia, Thayer had a fair chance to display his military talents — and his work was rewarded, for the Craney Island guns, whose emplacement he had planned, raked the enemy's landing party and saved the day for Norfolk.
But at Hampton the British landed and took revenge on the civil population; this makes a black page in history. During the next few years young Brevet Major Thayer was overworked and overanxious. And what American officer who had seen or heard of the British burning of Washington was not? He finally took to his bed. Perhaps some months of forced inactivity brought to fruition certain plans, certain cherished hopes, which hitherto had not been quite formulated. At least, during his convalescence we see him bringing about, or helping to bring about, a project which was, throughout generations to come, to teach American soldiers the art of victory.
Through the influence of Swift, who was now a Brevet Brigadier General, and of James Monroe, Secretary of State, President Madison, always the friend of West Point, was easily persuaded to send Colonel McRee and Brevet Major Thayer to Europe to study military establishments, schools, and workshops. Their studies had only one main purpose: the improvement p57and, as it turned out, almost the establishment of the United States Military Academy as Americans reverence it today.
Meanwhile Captain Partridge was the unchallenged authority at West Point.
b For Prof. Hassler and the early history of the Coast Survey, see Adm. L. O. Colbert, "Hitching Our Country to the Stars" (SciM 65:372 f.).
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