During the middle years of the nineteenth century one great subject engrossed the nation: railroading. In the building and development of our first railroads and, as we shall see, in foreign ones also, West Point-trained engineers took the leading responsibility. The first two steam engines to be built in America were constructed at the West Point Foundry at Cold Spring.a The second one, which was the first really practicable engine built in the United States, was called the West Point. The younger engine child had been named the Best Friend but unfortunately died a violent death in infancy.
This Best Friend was built on a completely original model — too original as the event was to prove. It was finished in 1830 and was supplied with a vertical boiler in the shape of an "old fashioned porter bottle, the furnace at the bottom surrounded with water and filled inside with what we call teats running out from sides and top," as a contemporary description relates.
This contraption was shipped to Charleston, South Carolina, and made its first run on January 15, 1831. The occasion was a hilarious one for the Southern city. Everyone was exceedingly merry. The Best Friend pulled, besides a Negro minstrel band in a car behind the engine, some hastily converted stagecoaches in which rode forty or fifty persons, the gayest spirits in the city. The coaches were frequently jolted violently against the band, which was forced to defend itself with its brass instruments; nevertheless the engine accomplished its run of •something over a mile amid wild cheering, p96 though at a speed by no means comparable to that of a good carriage horse.
The place being Charleston, of course the engineer was a Negro. This man became fond of the Best Friend and came, in time, to enjoy riding her. Only one thing bothered him, and this was a grievous annoyance — the steam safety exhaust blew right into his face. As an engineer he felt himself qualified to remedy this defect. He therefore sealed up the safety valve and further celebrated his triumph by sitting on the seal! The following thunderous explosion put both engine and engineer out of the running.
The sad end of its predecessor had made the merry people of Charleston skeptical when the West Point was delivered in their city. A flatcar filled with bales of cotton was placed between the engine and the car carrying the Negro band, and only a few hardy citizens could be persuaded to ride in the coaches. But the West Point showed itself to be a sober and dependable engine. It was, to begin with, modeled upon Stephenson's famous Rocket, which had proved itself in England. It went over its span of •two and one-quarter miles of track in eight minutes, or in about the same time it would have taken a good trotting horse to accomplish the same distance.
Among those who eagerly read of the performance of this engine was Lieutenant George Washington Whistler, class of 1819, who was at that time engaged with Captain McNeill in constructing the Patterson and Hudson Railroad. He and Captain McNeill, also a graduate, had but recently returned from England, whither they had been sent by the owners of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to observe the work of the inventor George Stephenson and his brother Robert, and to make a report on the general development of English railroading.
Whistler was typical of many West Point-trained engineers p97 who made railroading their lifework and he was perhaps the most eminent of their number. He was the son of Major John Whistler and his family was a very old one, tracing its origin to the fifteenth century in England and later to that Dr. Daniel Whistler who was President of the College of Physicians in London during the reign of Charles II and who as a friend of Samuel Pepys is frequently mentioned in his diary.
George W. Whistler, William Gibbs McNeill, and William H. Swift — who, as we have seen, built the first lighthouse on Minot's Ledge — were the three most important engineers of the time. McNeill and Whistler especially exercised an influence throughout the country for many years. There were few works of importance undertaken at that time in connection with which their names do not appear. McNeill and Whistler were lifelong comrades and their friendship was cemented when Whistler married McNeill's sister, whose portrait painted by her son all the world has loved.
When Lieutenant Whistler had finished his work on the Patterson and Hudson River Railroad, now a part of the Erie system, he was called to Connecticut to plot the course of the projected Providence to Stonington line. The problems of railroading had by this time become an all-absorbing interest to Whistler, who became known as the American authority on the subject. When he began his work, there were no passenger railroads in the country and but few miles of quarry and mining track. Before he left this country he not only had completed the Providence-Stonington line but, at Lowell, Massachusetts, had supervised the construction of most of the practicable engines which pulled the first trains over the growing American railway system.
Whistler, a major now, was one of the first men to realize that American railway problems were sharply different from those of the English, as were the topographical conditions p98 of the two countries. He worked upon the Western Railroad of Massachusetts, the first link between the East and the unexplored West. It was this railroad which first convinced the public that there was a future in railroading other than the moving of traffic in densely populated regions. Intelligent persons began to see that the railroad might be used to open upon unexplored territory, bringing the vast interior regions of continents into communication with the seacoasts and thus making markets accessible to lands which were before that time beyond the reach of commerce. It was seen, too, that in event of war these railroads would be a new and invaluable weapon. Men's minds dwelt on a power in transportation never before dreamed of.
Among those persons who saw these possibilities was Czar Nicholas I, Emperor of Russia. He sent a representative abroad, to go not only to England but to America also; for he realized that American conditions were much nearer to those of the Russias than were conditions in the smaller and more civilized country. Nicholas' representative, the Chevalier de Gerstner, advised that all locomotive engines be purchased in America and that the roads, especially the one between St. Petersburg and Moscow, be planned on American lines.
At that time Russian engineers had the highest international standing; they were selected for ability and brains, not merely for their aristocratic birth, and were trained in the best technical schools in Europe. Therefore when Colonels Menlikoff and Krofft, with De Gerstner, selected Major Whistler — who, in order to devote all his time to railroading, had resigned from the Army — as the foremost American railroad engineer and tendered him the Czar's invitation to come to Russia, they paid him and his country a very sincere compliment. It meant, first, that they considered American railroading achievement the greatest in the world and, second, that they considered p99 Major Whistler the foremost American railroad engineer.
Under the escort of a Russian Engineer Corps officer, Major Whistler and his family sailed for parts unknown to most of his countrymen because, at that time, few had ever visited the vast Empire of the Czars. In Russia the American engineer was well received and lost no time in presenting the Czar with a plan for a double-track railroad •four hundred and twenty miles long to be complete in all its parts and fully equipped to the last necessary detail, including provision for snow removal.
In a paper which is still considered a model engineering report Whistler fought the wide gauge which some Russian engineers strongly advocated. Finally he had the standard •five-foot road accepted. He arranged that all parts on passenger and freight engines be interchangeable and set up a complete and elaborate American factory to construct the rolling stock at Alexandrovsk. In 1849 the American firm of Winans, Harrison, and Eastwick had already furnished the Czar with 162 locomotives, 72 passenger cars, and 2580 freight cars. As a result Major Whistler not only was the favorite of Czar Nicholas but was regarded with respect in his native land, to which he had opened an avenue of trade as vast as it was untrodden.
Major Whistler was more than a creative engineer; he was a polished man of the world, speaking French fluently — always a great advantage in Russia, where educated persons spoke that language almost as often as their native tongue. Nevertheless he was at times snubbed by some Russian engineers who were forced to look up to him professionally but who felt it their privilege to put him in his place socially; this was especially true of the nobles among them. In his own country the Major had not been in the habit of feeling himself inferior to anyone. This little situation came to the ears of Czar Nicholas.
The Czar one day invited all the members of his Engineer p100 Corps to an exhibition of pictures which was held in a palace splendid with gilding and mirrors. When the Czar formally entered the magnificent room he paused, asked only for Major Whistler, and when that gentleman was presented walked slowly about the enormous gallery with his arm through the American's. After that there were no more snubs.
But life in Russia, or the life of an active engineer, was an overstrenuous one for the American. He was forced to go out in the severest cold to supervise the work on his railroad. A baby was born to the Whistlers in St. Petersburg and to its parents' grief died there when only one years old. Asiatic cholera broke out and, as the Major would not stay away from his work though he sent his family abroad, he fell a victim to the disease. He recovered, but once more insisted upon resuming his work when he was still very weak. In the spring of the year — the cold, rainy, muddy Russian spring — Major Whistler died, when he was only forty-nine years old.
It is said that up to that time no American had made so favorable an impression in Russia except possibly John Quincy Adams. Major Whistler had been loved by the peasants who had been the common laborers on his railroad, and had been honored by the Czar. Everything possible was done to comfort his widow, and the Czar sent her to the mouth of the Baltic in his private barge. Perhaps it is this memory which saddens the eyes of "Whistler's Mother."
Major Whistler's career was not the only one which proved that the technical training at West Point fitted its graduates to enter the new field of railroading. More than fifty West Pointers became chief engineers of railroads and more than twenty became railroad presidents. Railways were built by U. S. M. A. graduates in Cuba, Panama, and Mexico, not to mention all those constructed within our borders. Strangely enough, in view of his name, Major Whistler invented the p101 locomotive whistle, which has been little changed since his day, and we may recall his work every time we hear its shrill warning.
When George Whistler's son, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, entered West Point he not only was the second of his name to be admitted but was received as the son of an honored father. However, unlike his father, this Whistler failed to graduate.
Perhaps the artist told no more than the truth when he once astonished a dinner table in London by saying, "Had silicon been a gas, I, Madame, might have been a Major General."
It is said that this opinion on the nature of silicon, which Cadet Whistler had given in chemistry class, set the seal on his military career.b In any case he left U. S. M. A. during his third term. At West Point he was distinguished in only one subject, drawing. Undoubtedly Professor Robert Weir, who was himself an able artist, did much to form the future painter's style, but it would not be in character had Whistler, the painter, ever acknowledged as much.
We have been considering the effect of mid-nineteenth-century West Point on the outside world. We shall now consider the effect of the outside world upon West Point. Perhaps the most significant and lasting contribution to the course of study to be put in effect at U. S. M. A. was to be made by a small and frail candidate who was painfully winded by his steep climb from the wharf to Gridley's Hotel. The name of this young Irish-American was Dennis Hart Mahan.
Mahan saw a banquet going on under the elms, for the day was the Fourth of July. Timidly he asked a waiter for a glass of water.
"Water!" said the man. "There isn't any. This is the Fourth of July; nobody drinks anything but champagne!"
Next day the timid boy was ushered into that basement office in the Superintendent's house which Sylvanus Thayer had p102 made so much his own. He confided to Thayer that his chief interest in entering the Military Academy was his desire to improve his drawing. Perhaps Major Thayer was a little disappointed in the new candidate, who had been so warmly recommended by his friend Dr. Robert Archer. If so, his disappointment was short-lived. In his yearling term young Mahan became acting assistant professor in mathematics, a detail he retained until his graduation — at the head of his class, 1824.
Mahan remained at West Point to become, two years after graduation, assistant professor of engineering. But the tiny Irishman, who had been brought up in Virginia, shivered painfully in winter; overcoats under the stern regime of Thayer were still unheard of at the post and the living quarters were cold, damp, and drafty. Then in January, 1826, with the thermometer showing two degrees below zero, an epidemic broke out among the cadets which was probably influenza. Only about ten cadets in each class were able to report for duty. Mahan barely escaped with his life. It is possible that his forced idleness, as he lay under blankets trying to keep warm, stimulated his brain. Or perhaps Sylvanus Thayer evolved a plan. We know that the Superintendent felt the need of keeping U. S. M. A. in touch with the latest developments in Europe; we know that he felt that in young Mahan he had the man to bring to West Point the military science which had changed and expanded since so fruitful travels. There is evidence that the plan to send Mahan abroad dates from this period.
Mahan remained very frail for two years after he recovered from his illness, and in his letter to the Secretary of War written on St. Patrick's Day, 1828, we see almost the touch of a hypochondriac. He speaks in the most affecting and Victorian terms of the "imminent danger in which my health, I may almost say my life, is placed." The danger referred to, however, p103 is merely that of continuing to live at West Point! "Naturally of a frail frame, connected with a constitution of that delicate texture which requires continued watching and nursing" is his description of himself in this somewhat unusual official letter. He ends after much more of the same affecting language by requesting that he be sent to a warmer climate — that of Paris in winter, as it turned out!
Inasmuch as Mahan's observations in his travels were to have almost incalculable results for it was he who more than anyone else taught the art of war to the Generals of both Confederate and Union armies and as, even at this time, he must have been burning with the desire to enlarge the scope of his knowledge, it is the more remarkable that he should have requested, and received, his permission to travel on the grounds of frail health alone.
Health remains the subject for the first ponderous paragraphs of the Secretary of War's communication regarding Mahan's traveling orders. It is suggested only in a tentative manner that he make observations of bridges, roads, canals, harbor and river improvements, construction and labor-saving machinery; but even this is qualified as follows:
The fulfillment of these instructions at the risk of defeating the main object of your visit to Europe — the restoration of your health — is by no means intended or desired — on the contrary it is considered incidental and subservient to that object.
When we consider that almost the whole foundation of modern military education in this country was to be laid by young Mahan, who was probably in almost as poor health as he imagined, these orders seem somewhat inadequate, however flattering they were to the recipient. The little professor "who had never seen a battle and who never went for a walk p104 without an umbrella" was to crystallize the art of war so that reading his Outpost today we might suppose it was written by General Sir Bernard Montgomery.
During his years in Europe, Mahan traveled in the footsteps of McRee and Thayer, met the best society, and informed himself, as well as future generations of cadets and American soldiers, concerning military theory and practice. In 1832 we find him back at West Point a full "Professor of Civil and Military Engineering and of the Art of War."
It was indeed as an art that war appeared to Mahan, but it was not an art beyond his comprehension.
How different [he writes] is almost every military problem, except in the bare mechanism of tactics. In almost every case the data on which the solution depends are lacking. . . . Too often the General has only conjectures to go on, and these based upon false premises. . . . These considerations explain why history produces so few great Generals.
In another place he describes the Blitzkrieg:
Speed is one of the characteristics of strategic marches . . . in this one quality lie all the advantages that a fortunate initiative may have possessed . . . by rapidity of movement we can, like the Romans, make war feed war.c . . . Even the very elements of nature seem to array themselves against the slow and over prudent General . . . in the presence of an enemy who, having lost his communications, is entirely disorganized and demoralized we have only to throw our forces into the midst of these broken up fractions to determine them to fly. We may here attempt any blow; no movement can fail to turn out well except those which are too slow and methodical.
It was Mahan who taught the four hundred and fifty-six future Generals and General officers — both Union and Confederate — p105 who graduated from West Point how to fight the Civil War. It was still Mahan who taught Custer and others of his generation to fight the Indians and, in the sense that machines and not men change in war, it is Mahan who is teaching our present Army.
Dennis Hart Mahan, like Major Whistler, had a son who was to become more famous than his father. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan needs no mention here; this Admiral is known to all as the man who rebuilt the United States Navy.
His father was an abstracted man living with his competent and charming wife, happily smiling at his children's play, yet saying hardly a word for days. Yet he could be practical enough in the affairs of men and boys. Alfred while a midshipman at Annapolis fell into the extreme bad graces of his classmates. He had reported a dereliction of duty, a West Point not an Annapolis procedure. Not to report would at West Point have been considered a violation of the honor system. He was for a time ostracized.
His father comforted him by writing:
As to what your crew may think or do, so long as you pursue a consistent line of conduct and a courteous and gentlemanly bearing, do not let it trouble you for a moment. Call no man friend who expects your friendship is to be shown by violating your duty in respect to him.
Professor Mahan felt very deeply about the issues involved in the War between the States and, departing from his usual quiet, argued hotly at Mr. Kemble's hospitable house across the river at Cold Spring. He writes to him apologizing for:
making your parlor the arena of political discussion last Saturday night. . . . The truth is that my Irish blood naturally impels me into a row; and my American feeling into resenting p106 imputations upon the good name of my Country. . . . I cannot sit still and be silent when I hear men accusing our government and armies of every atrocity . . . by their words giving all the aid and comfort they dare to the rebels.
Is this our frail and silent professor?
In spite of the fact that most of the Generals in the Civil War, as we have seen, had learned military science from Mahan, his Outpost was in tremendous demand, wanted by almost every officer in the two armies. The publishers, who were New Yorkers, tried to prevent the book from falling into Southern hands; but, as might have been expected, a pirated edition was circulated south of the Mason-Dixon line. The ponderous subtitled of Outpost provides almost a summary of its author's scope of military knowledge, or at least the main headings of the divisions of his studies. It reads: Advance-Outpost and Detachment Service of Troops, with the Essential Principles of Strategy, and Grand Tactics for the Use of Officers of the Militia and Volunteers.
Among the other titles which Mahan brought out in lithographic form while at West Point are: Notes on Permanent Fortifications, Notes on Mines and Other Accessories, Notes on Composition of Armies and Strategy, Course in Civil Engineering, Notes on Architecture and Stone Cutting, and Notes on Mechanics. The richness of the courses Mahan conducted may be judged from these titles.
The three men who did most for West Point, who perhaps helped most to make it the power behind so much of nineteenth-century American accomplishment and the institution we know today, were Sylvanus Thayer, Dennis Hart Mahan, and Peter Smith Michie. It was Michie who inherited the mantle of Mahan.
Michie's story is as pleasant and satisfying as was his infectious p107 laugh. It was Custer, then an upper classman, who also came from Ohio, who was said to have collected a little crowd around Michie the plebe "to hear my fellow Buckeye laugh."
Peter Smith Michie was the son of a traveling Scotch watchmaker and was born in the land of his fathers. In 1843, when Peter was four years old, the Michie family took passage for America in the steerage of an emigrant sailing ship. With only modest success the father plied his trade in Cincinnati, but Peter graduated from high school a gold-medal man. Nothing better offered, however, than to apprentice the boy to a machine shop. Yet everyone liked Peter Michie. Somehow Peter began to think of West Point, so far away, so apparently unattainable. One day he heard that there was a West Point vacancy in his own Congressional district.
No moss grew on Peter. He went at once to the house of his Congressman, George H. Pendleton, who was yet in bed. He waited on the doorstep enduring the scornful looks of the servants. When finally Mr. Pendleton came out on the porch, where the boy was sitting, Peter was ready with his arguments. Somehow he made the Congressman like him, and as he went home he was sure that he had set his foot on the first rung of the ladder which led to the great school on the Hudson. But Pendleton did not take the young man at his word alone; he made many inquiries concerning him from his teachers, from persons who were frequent visitors to the schools. Everyone spoke well of Peter Michie — he was not only a good student; he was a popular boy, loyal and even-tempered. So, with a very cordial letter, Pendleton recommended Peter Smith Michie as a candidate for West Point. Peter, his heart's desire fulfilled, became a happy, laughing plebe.
But the times were grim. Michie, from the first dominating force in his class, competed for first place with Cadet Meigs, a veteran who during his yearling furlough had fought at Bull p108 Run. The end of the competition saw Cadet Meigs in first place, Michie in second; but the Scotch-American was made a first lieutenant while the honor man was commissioned second lieutenant, the usual procedure.
Lieutenant Michie almost ran from his graduation to his home — to be married. It was a war wedding; the bridegroom after eating his wedding supper dashed for Hilton Head and active duty. Soon we see him on lovely Folly Island off Charleston constructing batteries, and before six months were out he had become "Chief Engineer of the Northern District, Department of the South."
In the siege of Charleston it was Michie who laid the parallels and approaches which led to the surrender of Fort Sumter. This work was hazardous; yet Michie was able to carry it out with technical ingenuity under continual fire.
Before the war was over he had proved that he had the qualities of a soldier as well as those of an engineer. His brevet rank was that of Brigadier General and he had the good will of all the men he had served under, including the cordial support of Grant.
Michie spent the year after the war as a superintendent of mines, but in 1867 he was detailed to West Point as Professor Mahan's assistant. His fine brain and his cheerful, balanced disposition helped to maintain the U. S. M. A. as it had been built by Thayer and Mahan. In his thirty-four years of service he was to add much that was his own. Among his texts two became famous: his Wave Motion and his Practical Astronomy. He also produced the Life and Letters of Emory Upton, a work on General McClellan, and a volume entitled The Personnel of Sea Coast Defenses.
Michie himself describes his scholastic career, which strangely parallels that of the typical West Point cadet today. He was twenty when he entered the Academy, and feels that this comparatively p109 advanced age was an asset. Many students who for one reason or another are held back for a year or so from the higher education on which they have set their hearts may care to notice this opinion. Then he was graduated into a war, as we have seen, thus at once testing his ability as an engineer and as a commander; he could never again be merely an academician. In the actual conduct of war he found, he says, that he had been well grounded in self-reliance and that his technical and academic training "were sufficient to solve his problems to the satisfaction of his superior officers." The graduate of U. S. M. A., he concludes, ought to find himself
equipped with a satisfactory knowledge of the principles . . . of science, to which he may add by individual study without feeling the necessity of reconstructing his foundation.
In Mahan, Michie felt the spirit of Sylvanus Thayer and, in his more modern way, he himself was able to influence the tone of U. S. M. A. Though he was never Superintendent, Peter Smith Michie was loved by all; his mind, his cheerful, buoyant nature, and his record as a soldier made him a power.
a Not that there wasn't a learning curve. After the two locomotives mentioned here, a third was ordered by the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad in New York State and was still not so good either, but the fourth, also delivered to the latter line, was already much better: see Harlow, The Road of the Century, p12 and p18 respectively.
Cato stayed there a few days; and during the entire time that he was scouting out where the enemy was and how many of them there were, he drilled his troops, that none of them might become slack because of the delay. It happened to be the time of the year when Spaniards still have grain on the threshing floors — so he forbade the army contractors to supply any grain, and sent them back to Rome, saying "Let the war feed itself." ("Bellum," inquit, "se ipsum alet.")
but now usually seen formalized as bellum bellum alit. It seems to have gained its most recent spurt of popularity from Jacques de Guibert's Essai général de tactique (1770), after which French, then Italian, and finally German authors pick up the tag and its attribution. We also see the saying attributed to the great German commander Albrecht Wallenstein († 1634) and to Napoleon; but the principle of living off the land is a very ancient and obvious one. Mahan's extension, or readaptation, of the principle is not.
d The subtitle of the book you are reading is only four words shorter!
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
History of West Point
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
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: 6 Mar 13