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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 4

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.
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Chapter 6

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

p58 Chapter V
Brevet Major Sylvanus Thayer

The trip proposed by the Government for the young officers was pure pleasure in prospect. What young and ambitious officer would not welcome the opportunity to go abroad thus sponsored for the express purpose of improving the military science of his country? McRee and Thayer were prepared for the hard work and study involved, but to any man, soldier or civilian, there is no dearer task than the assignment which advances him in his chosen profession.

It appeared, too, that the young officers were to be accorded very special privileges. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Swift wrote to Thayer:

Our Gov't must introduce you to our ministers in Fr., Holland & England & give you power to draw on the U. S. War Dept. for 6 or 8000 dollars, to pay for your collections. I will in a short time have a Catalogue of such works as we have some knowledge of & that are wanted. You must have a Brevet both for Rank and means of travel, you must have pay & have Double rations, you must have the means of traveling as gentlemen & of seeing the best Company — in Uniform — Military Dress is acceptable in all companies. . . .

This must have made exciting reading for the young men. They could not yet foresee that, up to the very minute of sailing, funds were not to arrive; that, in fact, they were to sail on the Congress on the tenth of June, 1815, without even the advance in pay, let alone the "6 or 8000 dollars" mentioned by General Swift.

p59 "It is not . . . altogether impossible that we shall be placed in the awkward situation of being penniless in a foreign country," Thayer wrote to Swift on the eve of his departure. But as the figurehead of the Congress rose above the sparkling summer waves it was useless to worry over the troubles of the land. In the pleasant salty sunshine the color came back to Major Thayer's cheeks; and the fevers of Norfolk were forgotten, as were the defeats around Plattsburg. McRee was the most charming companion imaginable; and even the presence of Dr. William Eustis, who was the passenger of honor — the Congress having been detailed especially to carry him to Holland, where he was to be American minister — could not spoil the pleasure of the voyage. It was William Eustis, it will be remembered, who had done as much as he could, while Secretary of State under Madison, to throttle West Point.

Both Thayer and McRee worshiped a common military hero. We cannot expect them to have seen the sinister side of this hero's career; they were not perhaps social-minded. They were men-at‑arms and as such they revered a great name: Napoleon. Before leaving home there had come the most exciting news. The Little Corporal had escaped from the Island of Elba to lead his armies. (Once more the eagles were on the march.) The Americans supposed it would be to victory.

It was Napoleon's methods which they especially wished to study. He had brought the French Army to a state of perfection hitherto undreamed of. They wanted to visit the famous schools he had started, to see the fortifications which this Emperor of the French had built.

Now the Congress was standing up the English Channel; she had run up her signal for a pilot.

A tan-barked sail approached, and as the men made fast they shouted their news: "Boney's done! The Duke of Wellington, 'e done 'im in in Belgium, at Waterloo that was!"

p60 Did these cockneys expect Americans who had seen the sack of Hampton to cheer? It was bitter news, more bitter than they at first expected.

They found Paris — gay Paris — a conquered city, controlled by secret police. Fouché, who invented secret police, had turned his stripes to serve the Bourbon king, Louis XVIII. No one had time for two young Americans interested in a banished and defeated emperor.

"Insurmountable obstacles to the pursuit of the principal objects of our tour" resulted, as Thayer sadly wrote to Swift. Many of the schools they had come to inspect were closed; many of the fortifications were inaccessible. They were worried about money from first to last and yet, in spite of everything, the tour was one of the most successful any military men have ever made. Its far-reaching results can never be measured.

Meanwhile, in America, General Swift, in his capacity of Chief of the Engineer Corps, had many things to worry him besides the superintendency of West Point. For one thing, the Government decided to import foreign talent into our army in the person of Simon Bernard, graduate of the École Polytechnique, engineer to Napoleon, and constructor of the fortifications at Antwerp. Bernard had a rank equal to that of Swift in the Corps of Engineers. Swift was probably jealous in spite of his honest respect for the Frenchman. McRee wrote to him at this time recommending Bernard and saying that perhaps, since some foreigner had to be appointed, Bernard was the best choice. It is doubtful if this letter was very pleasing to Swift.

Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Partridge violated many of the provisions of the Act of 1812. No admittance examinations were held. The cadets were admitted at any age. There was said to be one cadet thirty-two years old who was married; another was admitted at the age of eleven!

p61 Cadet Thomas Ragland threw a heavy chair round from his window at Dr Walsh, the post surgeon, and Partridge was said to have been amused at the unofficerly way in which the doctor received the missile. Ragland went unpunished, though the chair round was seen to have come from his window. Throwing things out of windows was, in fact, very common with the cadets, as future testimony was to make clear.

At last a limit was probably reached, as a limit so often is reached in the army, over the cadet mess. Partridge had made the fatal mistake of installing an uncle of his, one Isaac Partridge, to attend to this detail. This gentleman imported a flock of sheep that became the ridicule of Orange County. Only those members of this poor flock who were diseased ever found their way to the mess — or so the cadets alleged. These unkempt animals — and this much, at least, is historical — wandered all over the barracks area and Academy yards and befouled the paths.

Meanwhile the academic staff, overriding General Swift, addressed itself directly to the Secretary of War through Andrew Ellicott, a distinguished geographer. Ellicott pointed out that no account whatever of the cadets' scholastic standing was taken, when they were graduated, for commission in the army. He said that the academic staff did not even know which cadets were to be graduated!

The most accomplished scholars [he continues] have either not been taken notice of, or placed in so low a grade in the Ordnance Department that their continuance in the service would have been a degradation.

Even Swift, visiting the Academy for a brief moment, found it "run down" and without funds. The latter he with enterprise arranged. General Swift found he could not borrow money in New York City on a government security; but he did p62manage to borrow $65,000 at 7 per cent from a private merchant of the city, Mr. Jacob Baker.

With this money some fine stone buildings were constructed, Captain Partridge turning out to be an excellent construction superintendent. At long last the cadets were removed from the ancient Long Barrack of the Revolutionary period into the South Barracks, a fine stone building three stories high. A new mess hall was also among the buildings constructed at this time.

President Madison visited West Point in February, 1816, and recommended the removal of Partridge. With difficulty Swift was able to plead for him.

At last the War Department took a tardy hand in the management of the Academy and ordered Swift, to his great annoyance, to take up his residence at West Point. This was in September.

October, 1816, is remembered at West Point as the month in which the Corps first went into cadet gray. Scholastic standing or no scholastic standing, cadets looked very smart indeed. In effect it greatly resembled the uniform of the present, which is certainly one of the most flattering in our services.

In 1816 the coat was of grey cloth with three rows of yellow gilt buttons, the collar touching the tips of the ear and with a black silk stock; the cockade worn on the helmet was ornamented with a yellow gilt eagle. The color of the uniform is referred to as gray, not gray-blue — which would have been a more accurate description, as indigo was one of the chief components of the dye used on the wool. In the general effect of this uniform, or at least in the coat, there was a suggestion of Old Pewter's "coat of ceremony."

The uniform and the buildings which we have mentioned were perhaps the chief constructive advances made at West Point during the nominal superintendency of General Swift, p63for we find him again persuading President Madison, on the eve of his retirement from office, to let him resume his duties as Chief of the Corps of Engineers — duties which, of course, took Swift away from West Point.

But the new President, Monroe, was no stranger to the true state of affairs on the Hudson. When, during the President's tour of inspection, the professor of mathematics, Mansfield, handed him a sealed communication, the chief executive read it with great attention.

The letter, which mentioned no names, was an indictment of conditions prevailing at U. S. M. A. In fact, it was a double indictment. The first document was signed by five members of the academic staff — by all, in fact, except Partridge and his friends. The second document was more personal and contained a burning denunciation of flagrant misrule. This envelope handed to the President contained the match which set the smoke into flame. Monroe flared with just anger. This was on June the fifteenth, a month and a day after Major Thayer and Colonel McRee had returned to New York.

It was on July 17, 1817, that Major Sylvanus Thayer received his formal orders to assume the superintendency of the United States Military Academy.

It will be noted that McRee ranked Thayer and that they had shared equally in the trip abroad. Why, then, did Monroe pick the junior officer for a post the importance of which he fully understood? McRee's record as an officer and engineer was both honorable and glorious; he had been in one successful action after another during the War of 1812, while Thayer, as we have seen, except for his service at Norfolk had been unfortunately placed. Perhaps it was simply because the President concluded that Thayer would be the better man for the post. Thayer was said to have taken a more active part in the p64work abroad, to have become the dominant personality of the two. What McRee would have done with West Point we shall never know; what Thayer did is a matter of history.

In Swift's letter to Thayer in which he acquaints him with the great news that he has been chosen Superintendent, he also states that Partridge is to face a court-martial. The formal order was enclosed:

You will repair to West Point and deliver the enclosed order to Captain Partridge, and you will take command of the Post and the Superintendence of the Military Academy. Captain Partridge will deliver to you all internal regulations and standing orders.

But matters did not turn out as planned. The sun beat mercilessly on the glassy waters of the Hudson; the winds were exasperatingly light, hardly moving the broad-bowed heavy river sloop. Major Thayer thought of that other day ten years before when, newly graduated from Dartmouth, he had landed below the mountains in the icy March wind. The hot sun was setting and the too gentle wind dying with it as the sloop made her last slow tack across the river and settled her stern against the landing at West Point. Major Thayer had managed to keep his uniform fresh in spite of the heat. He sprang ashore as if it were March once again. There was youth in his jaunty step, but there was authority also. This American Military Academy, this West Point, he meant to make superior to anything old Europe had to offer; he meant to create through it an elite corps which would lead the American Army. But, as with Washington when he had crossed over the same watery path years before in quest of General Arnold, there was no welcome for the young Major come upon a mighty mission. Arriving at the plain, he found that evening parade was over: a few cadets were sauntering about the post at liberty.

p65 Brevet Major Thayer wandered over to the building he supposed to be headquarters; then he saw a tall figure approach. Recognizing the acting Superintendent, he thought for the first time that, technically, this figure of a soldier, Alden Partridge, ranked him. Thayer's rank of Major was a brevet only and, as a captain, Alden Partridge was his senior. Quite evidently Captain Partridge at least was well aware of this. Thayer saluted, then held out his hand.

Partridge did not take it. "You are reporting to me, Brevet Major Thayer?" he asked. Then he reminded the newcomer of his station. "This, sir, you will remember is an engineer post, and rank within the Corps is substantive."

Thayer made no other reply than to deliver the orders which he carried.

Captain Partridge tore them open. While he read, the younger officer was aware of the attention of several cadets. He was glad now of that foreign training which had given him perfect poise; glad that his uniform was in faultless condition; glad that he was slender, straight, and young. He knew the contents of the letter Captain Partridge was taking so long to read:

Captain Alden Partridge, West Point. On receipt of this you will deliver to Major Sylvanus Thayer, U. S. Engineers, the command of the Post of West Point and the superintendence of the Military Academy. J. G. Swift, Brig. General.

If Major Thayer — Brevet Major Thayer — had been expecting Captain Partridge to comment on the orders he had read, he was disappointed. With only an incoherent growl Old Pewter turned on his heel. Thayer was left to shift as best he could and was shown a small mean room by the post adjutant. Old Pewter was never hospitable in the best of times and contemporaries said that he was never known to extend the p66hospitality of the post, not even by offering a guest a glass of cold water. The present occasion proved no exception.

In the heat of the small room Major Thayer took council with himself during the long night. The post adjutant had been far from communicative, but he had learned one startling fact. Members of the faculty were under arrest. Probably Thayer wondered how real his authority was to be. How would Partridge's impending court-martial affect matters? And what was to happen meanwhile to the West Point which had been the object of his dreams for so long?

Major Thayer decided to depart for New York again, to gather his effects but also to write to Washington to sound out the true intention of President Monroe. His command must be supreme, absolute, or it would be worse than useless. This was the time for contacting the President — while the Academy remained hushed in the inactivity of vacation. Or was it vacation? The seasons of the academic year remained vaguely unmarked. There were still about a hundred cadets lounging around; possibly as many more had gone home. Nor could anyone tell him when these future soldiers intended to return. When they were altogether ready, surmised Major Thayer.

In the morning he found that Captain Partridge had departed, taking his few belongings with him and leaving the door of his quarters swinging open. In New York he received a letter from the Secretary of War which crossed the one he had himself just posted.

"As Superintendent of the Military Academy," wrote the Secretary, "you are amenable to, and subject only to, the orders of the President." This was what Sylvanus wanted. Evidently no one would block the way to reform. In his letter to the President he had requested that the absent cadets be ordered back before September the first. When he once more ascended p67the rocky road to the plain, Sylvanus Thayer knew that he was to be in command at West Point.

Everything was to be done, everything to be undone. Only a methodical military mind could bravely put first things first. Thayer realized that recriminations would not construct a military academy. Constructive planning, perfect discipline in a military pattern which Sandhurst itself might envy — these were the stones with which the new institution was to be built. Gradually he was winning the respect of the faculty, most of whom were men of brains and character. Gradually, though here he proceeded more boldly, he was commanding the implicit obedience of inferior officers at the post. He saw to it they knew who commanded.

Most of August passed and then one day, sitting at his desk, Sylvanus heard wild cheering. Many cadets had just returned, obedient to the orders of the War Department that they report before September the first. Though the demonstration grew noisier and more rowdy, Major Thayer did not leave his seat. We may imagine Sylvanus Thayer laying down his quill pen, sitting very erect and still. He hardly needed to be informed of what had happened. Old Pewter had returned!

Bursting in upon Major Thayer, he demanded the return of his quarters — saying that he had been in conference with General Swift. Major Thayer firmly refused the request. But we do not know the events of the night which followed.

In the morning the Corps was paraded by Partridge. Calling a halt, the worthy Captain read an order, which must have been written by himself, reinstating himself in the superintendency of West Point. Was the loyal Corps prepared to fight for Old Pewter? We do not know. Major Thayer wrote the following letter to the Secretary of War:

p68 I have the honor to inform you that Captain A. Partridge of the Corps of Engineers has returned to this post and has this day forcibly assumed the command and the superintendence of the Academy. I shall therefore proceed to New York to await your orders.

After he had mailed his letter, Major Thayer departed for the city.

Only in retrospect can we appreciate the true wisdom and bravery of Thayer's behavior. The cadets who had been cheering Old Pewter most vociferously were all but unknown to Thayer; many had just returned to the post. Others undoubtedly did not relish restriction after unbridled liberty, or justice where they had before basked in favoritism. But the real issue was whether Thayer would allow the Cadet Corps to disgrace itself by mutiny, which would be the construction put upon the armed defense of Partridge. Once again U. S. M. A. was saved by a hair. Once again one man's courageous decision had preserved West Point from probable ruin. At this stage, with all reform ahead, lax rule still present, a public scandal would most probably have wrecked the Academy.

But Sylvanus Thayer could not know how matters would eventuate. As he left he must have burned under the gaze of cadets who thought that he was running away from a post of duty. It could not have been easy to walk down the rocky road to the Hudson. Perhaps one of the savage thunderstorms broke over his head. He may have seen the celestial pink cumulus clouds of his dreams turn black before his eyes as the river was pierced with blue lightning and lashed by steel whips of rain.

In any case the sun rose again. When Partridge's coup d'état was just forty-eight hours old came one Lieutenant Blaney, aide-de‑camp to General Swift, with his side arms clanking. p69Once again Old Pewter was forced to read orders under curious eyes. This time he read in General Swift's handwriting:

On receipt of this you will deliver your sword to the bearer, Lieut. Blaney, my aide-de‑camp, and consider yourself under arrest. The charges against you will be furnished in due season.

Beside Lieutenant Blaney stood Sylvanus Thayer, who was secure in orders, from Swift also, commanding him to reassume the superintendency of West Point. Old Pewter would never again command in the Highlands.

Alden Partridge's court martial followed in October of the same year, 1817. Partridge was sentenced to be cashiered, but the court added a unanimous recommendation for clemency. Once more Swift pleaded with the President for Alden Partridge, once more won his point. His only thanks were that Partridge, not content to savagely attack Sylvanus Thayer, turned on General Swift also, accusing him of waste and peculation in the construction work which he had undertaken at West Point! Yet within the Academy a new hand was forging new things.

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