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Bill Thayer

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[image ALT: A photograph of an old man with a handlebar mustache and an air of commanding elegance, wearing a university doctoral robe. He is Charles W. Larned, a West Point graduate whose career is detailed on this webpage.]

Colonel Charles W. Larned.

The preceding image, and the text that follows, are reproduced from (the report of the) Forty-Third Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 11th, 1912.

 p31  Charles W. Larned
No. 2339. Class of 1870.
Died, June 19, 1911, at Dansville Sanitarium, New York, aged 61.

Charles William Larned was born in New York, March 9th, 1850. His ancestors had lived in New England since 1630, and before that in England. His father served in the Civil War as an officer of Volunteers, and died in 1864 of fever contracted in active service.

When Larned came to West Point in 1866, he was but a few months above the minimum age for admission, then sixteen years. His career as a Cadet was in no way remarkable. He was studious — but only after his own fashion. He gave more thought to the books he got from the library than to those in the prescribed course. It was evident that his tastes inclined to literature and art more than to mathematics and the science of war. He was never a Cadet officer. Football, baseball, tennis, golf and polo, all of which now flourish among the Cadets, were then unknown at West Point; and the unsuccessful attempt which was made during his time to introduce the sport of rowing, did not interest him. In later life he was a keen advocate of athletic sports for the Cadets under proper regulation, but when he was in the Corps he gave no thought to such pursuits. His principal diversion, apart from reading books which had no relation to the prescribed course of studies, was in long walks. He  p32 loved to climb Cro' Nest, to ramble among the trees at Fort Put, to sit on the rocks at Gee's Point; and, if he had a sympathetic companion, to talk poetry. He was, however, no recluse; he was popular with his classmates who sometimes chaffed him on his artistic pose, but were none the less fond of him; he seldom missed the stag dances on the long winter afternoons, in the old gymnasium at the north end of the ground floor of the Academic Building of that day.

In his first class year the rigid discipline — of which later he was so ardent an advocate — grew irksome to him and he became somewhat careless. He had 198 demerits in that year, which was perilously close to the limit of 200, which, under the regulations then in force, meant dismissal. His predilection for outside reading to the detriment of the official studies, combined with the large number of his demerits, prevented him from taking the class rank to which his unquestioned talents entitled him. He was always No. 1 in drawing, but in general standing at graduation he was 28 in a class of 58 members.

On graduation he was assigned to the 3d Cavalry, but at the end of his furlough was transferred to the 7th Cavalry, which he joined at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In the spring of 1871 his regiment was sent to the South, as were many others during the reconstruction period; and for two years he was in garrison at Louisville. In the spring of 1873 the regiment, at Sheridan's urgent request, was sent back to the Indian country and stationed in Dakota. In June of that year, an expedition was fitted out to protect the engineers and surveying parties of the Northern Pacific Railway, and the 7th Cavalry formed part of it. On August 11th, under Custer's command, the regiment had a sharp fight with the Sioux on the Yellowstone River nearly opposite the mouth of the Big Horn. Larned was in this combat, being at that time detailed as Engineer Officer on Custer's staff. Custer, in his official report, says, "I desire to bear testimony to the good conduct of every man connected with my command, including officers, men and scouts. Where all did so well no special mention can be made."

The expedition returned to Fort Lincoln in September. Larned obtained leave of absence until December, was then on special duty in the War Department until the following summer, and on August 30, 1874, was assigned to duty at the Military Academy as Assistant Professor of Drawing.

When Larned entered West Point as a Cadet, he was an immature boy of sixteen. He died at sixty-one; and of the intervening forty-five years, forty-one were passed at West Point — four years as a Cadet, two years as Assistant Professor, thirty-five years as Professor of Drawing. For the last ten years he was Senior Member of the Faculty. In length of service on the Academic Board, he was exceeded only by Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Mahan, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Church, Weir and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Bartlett.

It is impossible in this article to refer, except in the briefest terms, to the valuable services which Larned rendered during his long career at West Point.

The improvement of the Department of Drawing was his first care. Hitherto the instruction had consisted chiefly in copying from the flat. Larned believed that the proper method of instruction was to train the mental faculties rather than to burden the memory. This principle had been thoroughly established in the mathematical departments by Mahan, Bartlett, and Church, and he sought to apply it in the department of Drawing by training the eye to see properly and the hand to execute accurately. This training can be successfully imparted to any youth of ordinary intelligence; but in Larned's own words, "further than this with the average man it is not possible to go. Artistic power can not be taught; it must be innate, in the same way as are poetical, rhetorical or dramatic gifts."

 p34  In order thus to train the eye and the hand, the copying from the flat was discarded and the Cadet was set to draw from the object itself, whether it was a landscape, a gun, a statue, a house, a vehicle or a machine; he was given a model accurately made to scale of a piece of field artillery and its caisson and instructed how to make a drawing of it; and he was shown how to make a plan, section, and elevation of a barracks to accommodate a given number of men.

The practical value in the military profession of training such as this is self-evident. In 1880, four years after he had become Professor, he made a report recommending substantially all the changes which he subsequently accomplished, and in successive years his recommendations were approved by the Academic Board until finally they were all adopted. The change is shown in the official Cadet Register which annually publishes the "Course of Study and Books used at the Military Academy." In 1876 the course in drawing was thus described:

"Second Year, Third Class, Topography, etc.

"Third Year, Second Class, Landscape, Pencil and Colors."

In 1900 the Cadet Register enumerates — in addition to the problems in Plane and Descriptive Geometry, Shades and Shadows, Linear Perspective and Isometrical Projections, which had been transferred from the Department of Mathematics — the following, which were new:

"Topography and Plotting of Surveys.

"Field Reconnaissance, Contouring and Sketching with and without instruments.

"History of Cartography and Topography.

"Triangulation and Large Surveys.

"Free Hand Drawing and Landscape.

"Mechanical and Architectural Drawing.

"Military Landscape, Sketching in the Field.

"Memory Drawing.

"Free Hand Mechanical Drawing without instruments.

 p35  "Building Construction, working Drawings and Isometric Sections.

"Engineering and Ordnance Drawings.

"Lectures on all the foregoing subjects with stereopticon."

And as a text book:

"Reed's Topographical Drawing and Sketching, including "Photography applied to Surveying."

The teaching of Drawing is a minor part of the course of instruction at West Point. The relative weight given to it by the Academic Board is, approximately, as one to eight for the mathematical studies, and one to twenty for the entire course. But if minor, it is not unimportant. It has a positive and distinct military value. Larned clearly saw this and he placed this department on its proper footing. The scheme of instruction which he introduced was firmly established before he died. It is universally acknowledged to be the proper and suitable scheme of instruction.

Next to the development of the Department of Drawing, Larned's most valuable service was in connection with various building projects. During his time the beauty of West Point was enhanced and its usefulness increased by the construction of the Battle Monument, the Gymnasium and New Academic Building authorized in 1899, the Memorial Hall, and finally, the great enlargement and new buildings which were provided for by the Act of Congress passed in 1902. As Secretary or Chairman of the successive Building Committees and Advisory Boards, Larned took a conspicuous part in all these projects.

The Committee on the Battle Monument, of which Larned was Secretary, introduced at West Point the principle which had been successfully adopted elsewhere of a limited competition among selected architects of the highest reputation; and the decision of the competition by a jury of award similarly chosen. In this manner some of the foremost architects and sculptors of their day were brought into the problem  p36 — Richard M. Hunt, Augustus St. Gaudens, Frederick McMonnies, McKim, Mead and White, Carrere and Hastings, Babb, Cook and Willard, and R. W. Emerson. The result of their competition and co-operation is the beautiful monolith of red granite surmounted by McMonnies' figure of fame, which stands out against the sky on the northern edge of the infantry plain.

In the construction of a new Academic Building and a suitable Gymnasium in 1890, Larned served as a member of the successive committees. The two Committees of 1888 (of one of which he was Chairman) prepared the reports which, after being approved by the Academic Board, were forwarded to Washington. With these documents before them, Congress granted the necessary appropriations in March, 1889. Richard M. Hunt was selected as the architect. He elaborated and improved the architectural design for the Academic Building, but he adopted, without substantial change, Larned's design for the Gymnasium.

The construction of Memorial Hall was entrusted to the Trustees named in Cullum's will, but the rules regulating the size and character of tablets, busts and inscriptions, the selection and arrangement of portraits and the disposition of battle flags, were adopted on recommendation of the "Committee on Memorial Hall," of which Larned was always a member, and for the last ten years of his life its Chairman.

In July, 1899, the Superintendent called upon Larned to prepare a report on the enlargement of the Academy. This idea had been much discussed for several years, but had not taken definite form. Under date of August 10, 1899, Larned made this report. It was printed by the Board of Visitors as part of their own report, and was considered at the next session of Congress, in which a law was passed authorizing the appointment of two cadets from each State at large. This, together with the increase due to the apportionment  p37 under the Census of 1900, increased the number of Cadets from 377 to 511. This enlargement made imperative a reorganization of the entire educational plant at the Military Academy; and Larned was called upon for a second report. It was made on December 21, 1901; it contained eighteen printed pages of text, five pages of detailed estimates of cost, and fifteen sheets of drawings. The essential features of the project which Larned presented were: a colossal riding hall on the rocks overhanging the river east of the infantry plain; adjacent to this a central station for steam heat and electric light; a second academic building connecting with the one built in 1892 by a monumental archway; administration building for the Superintendent and the Military Staff; headquarters building for the Corps of Cadets; cadet barracks; a new and enlarged gymnasium; cavalry and artillery stables; five sets of barracks for enlisted men; forty sets of quarters for officers, together with new laundry, store houses, and various auxiliary buildings. It is seldom that a preliminary report on so complicated a subject approximates so closely to the final result as does this 1901 report of Larned's to what is now seen at West Point.

This report was duly considered in Congress at the next session. At the hearing before the Military Committee on April 9th, 1902, the Superintendent introduced Larned as the one who "has prepared the plans which are before the Committee." In a hearing lasting the entire day, Larned explained these plans, with such success that the initial appropriation was made in June, and Congress was committed to the project.

The next step was the appointment of an Advisory Board, consisting of six of the Professors, to advise the Superintendent in all matters relating to this large undertaking. Larned was President of this Board from its organization until his death, nine years later.

 p38  The last piece of building in which Larned was individually concerned was the Memorial Window in the new Chapel. Before this beautiful building began to rise on the hills, Colonel J. M. Carson, Jr., proposed (at the meeting of the Graduates' Association in 1907) that the Association raise a fund of $10,000 to purchase an organ for the Chapel. Larned advised that instead of an organ a memorial window be placed over the altar. His views were adopted and he was appointed Chairman of a Committee to raise the funds by subscription among the graduates and to carry out the project. Although the window was not completed until just after Larned's death, the competition had been closed, the award made and the contract signed, so that just before his fatal illness, Larned was able to write an adequate description of it. There were eleven competing designs, four of which came from abroad. It was "the most memorable competition ever held in this country for such a work; and the selected design is of the highest order." It is described by a competent architect as "the most wonderful window of modern times and one of the finest in the world."​a

In addition to the improvement of his department and to taking an important part in the building operations, Larned found time for numerous lectures and magazine articles, in which he endeavored, with conspicuous success, to bring before the public the aims and purposes of the Military Academy, the standards which it had set up, and the extent to which these had been realized or lived up to, as shown by the records of its graduates. Space does not permit here to quote more than one pregnant sentence: "The purpose of West Point is to make a soldier who shall be an honorable, courageous, self-reliant, clear thinking man, having a broad grasp of all the essentials of his profession."

In recognition of his services as educator, author and artist, the Yale Corporation, at a meeting held on April 11,  p39 1911, unanimously voted to confer upon Larned at the ensuing Commencement the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. Illness prevented his being present at that Commencement, and he thus failed to receive this well deserved honor. All that the Corporation could do was to adopt a Minute expressing their regret at his detention and their hope of his recovery. This hope was not realized.

Of Larned's private life it is impossible to speak without admiration. It was clean, pure, and wholesome. He was a dutiful son, a devoted husband, an affectionate father. He married in 1884 Louise Hoffman Alexander, daughter of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.E. B. Alexander, a graduate in the class of 1823, who passed his life in the army, serving in the Mexican and Civil Wars and on the frontier. It was in every way a most happy marriage. There were four children, two of whom were boys who are both now graduates of the Military Academy and officers of the army.

During the latter half of Larned's life there was in his character an unobtrusive but deep religious trait. He came to West Point at sixteen — the youngest, with one or two exceptions, in his class. He became a Professor at twenty-six, the earliest age at which anyone (except Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Courtenay) has ever received an appointment on the Academic Board. He matured slowly; but between his thirtieth and fortieth year he began to appreciate the realities of life. He saw that the discipline which had been irksome to him as a Cadet was an essential feature of an admirable course of instruction; and, more important, he made a serious effort to resolve the doubts which had come to cloud his religious faith, as they did with so many others of his age at that period. As part of that effort he classified for his own instruction the spoken words of Jesus Christ, as given in the translation of the Bible commonly known as King James' version. The classification was made according to subjects or topics, selected or chosen by  p40 himself, one hundred and eighteen in number. This arrangement of Christ's teachings, separated from all extraneous or collateral matter, conveyed to him a revelation of the philosophy of the Christian religion of which he had hitherto no conception. It so satisfied his soul that he decided to publish this classification, with the thought that it might possibly give to others some measure of the spiritual comfort it had brought to him. The first edition was published anonymously in 1890 under the title of "The Great Discourse." Several editions have been published, the recent ones with an introduction by Bishop Huntington, of Central New York.

In one of his articles, speaking of the exacting labor forced upon the heads of departments at West Point, Larned says:

"The strain is very severe and unrelenting, and the writer has seen during his service of thirty years, six of his associates break down under it — all in the prime of their faculties; two forced into premature retirement with shattered health, and four dying in harness, after heroic struggles against disease. The story of their devoted lives is but little known beyond the scene of their activities; and the members of their families, forced to leave their homes in the majority of cases in straitened circumstances, have only the heritage of honor bequeathed by lives of unpretentious devotion to a high ideal of duty."

Larned met the same fate; he died in harness, from overwork. He was apparently in good health at the reunion of his class on the 40th anniversary of its graduation. In the following winter he was taken ill of a variety of internal disorders — in layman's language, a general break‑up. He was removed to the Sanitarium at Dansville, N. Y., and everything that skilled surgeons, trained nurses and a loving wife  p41 could do was done for him. But it was in vain; the human vitality had been used up in the strenuous endeavor to maintain the West Point ideals and carry forward its traditions. He died after an illness of a few months. He was buried in the cemetery at West Point on the grounds of the Military Academy to which he had gladly devoted his life.

Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Francis V. Greene.

Thayer's Note:

a A contemporary description of the window and an account of the competition to design and execute it, are given in Gustav Kobbé, "The Willet Chancel Window in the West Point Chapel", The Lotus Magazine, 2:199‑209; and in 1953 the Cadet Chapel Board published an official booklet, The Cadet Chapel, in which pp48‑52 of the chapter titled "The Stained Glass Windows" provide a somewhat more detailed treatment. I suspect both are based on Prof. Larned's own description.

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Page updated: 13 Nov 13