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Bill Thayer

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 [decorative delimiter] Class of 1808

Vol. I

(Born Mas.)

Sylvanus Thayer

(Ap'd Mas.)

Sylvanus Thayer: Born June 9, 1785, Braintree, MA.

Military History. — Cadet of the Military Academy, Mar. 20, 1807, to Feb. 23, 1808, when he was graduated and promoted in the Army to

Second Lieut., Corps of Engineers, Feb. 23, 1808.

 p82  Served: in surveying sites and projecting plans for batteries at New Haven and Stonington harbors, Ct., and inspecting Ft. Trumbull, Ct., 1808; as Asst. Engineer in the construction of the defenses of the Massachusetts Coast, 1808‑9; at the Military Academy, 1809‑11; as Asst. Engineer, at the fortifications of New York harbor, and Asst. Ordnance

(First Lieut., Corps of Engineers, July 1, 1812)

Officer, New York city, 1811‑12; in the War of 1812‑15 with Great Britain, as Chief Engineer of the Northern Army, under command of

(Captain, Staff — Dep. Commissary of Ordnance, Sep. 22, 1812)

Major-General Dearborn, in the Campaign of 1812, — of the Right Division of the same Army, under command of Major-General Hampton, to whom he was also Aide-de‑Camp, in the Campaign of 1813, being engaged

(Captain, Corps of Engineers, Oct. 13, 1813)

in the Combat of Chateaugay River, Oct. 26, 1813, — of the forces under command of Bvt. Brig.‑General Porter, in the Defense of Norfolk, Va., in 1814,​b — and Brigade Major to Bvt. Brig.‑General Porter,

(Bvt. Major, Feb. 20, 1815, for Distinguished and Meritorious Services)

1814‑15; on professional duty in Europe, examining fortifications, military schools and establishments, and the operations of the Allied armies, then occupying France, on the fall of Napoleon, 1815‑17; as Superintendent of the Military Academy, July 28, 1817, to July 1, 1833; as

(Bvt. Lieut.‑Colonel, Mar. 3, 1823, for Distinguished and Meritorious Services)

(Major, Corps of Engineers, May 24, 1828)

Superintending Engineer of the construction of Fts. Warren and Independence,

(Bvt Colonel, Mar. 3, 1833, For Faithful Service Ten Years in one Grade)

Boston harbor, Mas., 1833‑43, continuing the direction of those works while on professional duty in Europe, till 1846; in general supervision of Harbor Improvements in Maine and Massachusetts, 1836‑43, and of the Coast Defenses east of Boston, Mas., 1833‑43; as Superintending

(Lieut.‑Colonel, Corps of Engineers, July 7, 1838)

Engineer of the construction of Ft. Warren, Mas., 1846‑57, Ft. Independence. Mas., 1847‑48, — of Ft. Winthrop, Mas., 1847‑48, — and of the Sea Walls in Boston harbor, 1846‑57; as Member of the Board of Engineers for Coast Defenses, Apr. 2, 1833, to Dec. 21, 1857, being President of the Board from Dec. 7, 1838; in command of the Corps of Engineers, Dec. 21, 1857, to Dec. 22, 1858; as Member of various special Engineer, Ordnance, and Artillery Boards, 1825‑58; and

(Colonel, Corps of Engineers, Mar. 3, 1863)

(Bvt. Brig.‑General, U. S. Army, May 31, 1863, for Long and Faithful Service)

on sick leave of absence, 1858‑63.

Retired from Active Service, June 1, 1863, under the Law of July 17, 1862,
"having been borne on the Army Register more than 45 Years."

Civil History. — Degree of A. M. conferred by Dartmouth College, N. H., 1810, from which he was graduated in 1807, — and by Harvard University, Mas., 1825; of LL. D., by St. John's College, Md., 1830, — by Kenyon College, O., 1846, — by Dartmouth College, N. H., 1846, — and by Harvard University, Mas., 1857. Member of American Academy  p83 of Arts and Sciences, 1834, — of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, Pa., 1838, — and of various scientific associations, 1834‑67.

Died, Sep. 7, 1872, at Braintree, Mas.: Aged 87.

Buried, West Point Cemetery, West Point, NY.

Biographical Sketch.​a

Bvt. Brig.‑General Sylvanus Thayer was born June 9, 1785, at Braintree, Mass.; received a classical education at Dartmouth College, N. H.; was graduated from the Military Academy, and promoted to the Corps of Engineers, Feb. 23, 1808; served on various engineer and ordnance duties, 1808‑12; was engaged in the War of 1812‑15 against Great Britain, receiving for his "distinguished and meritorious services" the brevet of Major, Feb. 20, 1815; soon after went abroad on professional duty; and July 28, 1817, at the age of thirty-two, assumed the responsible trust of Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy, which he found in a deplorably chaotic condition.

Major Thayer's military experience in the field, his foreign travel and associations, his familiarity with the polite usages of society, his dignified bearing and refined mode of life, and, above all, his scientific acquirements, enlarged professional reading, and familiarity with the French and dead languages, gave him immense vantage ground for success. Almost by intuition he discovered the virulent ulcers destroying the vital parts of the Academy and such as he could not cauterize into healing action, like a bold surgeon, he promptly amputated. Examinations were at once held, the incompetent and vicious dismissed, and the indolent, who had lingered for many years without progress, quickly discovered that a like fate awaited a continuance of their dereliction. He promptly organized the Cadets into a battalion of two companies, officered by members of their own body, with a colonel at its head and an adjutant and sergeant-major for his staff; appointed an officer of the army as "Commandant of Cadets," responsible for their tactical instruction and soldierly discipline; transacted business with members of his command only at stated office hours; classified all Cadets according to their proficiency in studies; divided classes into small sections for more thorough instruction by the teachers in charge; required weekly class reports showing the daily progress of students according to a scale of marks; directed more thorough recitations and a freer use of the blackboard; greatly improved the curriculum of studies, according to a well-digested programme; organized a proper Academic Board, with the Superintendent at its head; introduced the check-book system, to curtail the prevailing extravagance of Cadets then deeply in debt; reduced the expenses of educating pupils to less than one half the cost at the Woolwich Military Academy in England; had the Officer of the Day daily to dine with him, enabling himself thereby to learn all that was transpiring in camp or barracks; required Cadets to obtain a permit from him for almost everything, even to a letter from the post office, thus maintaining such constant intercourse as enabled him to call all by name, and understand their characters and habits; and made many other salutary provisions to secure thorough discipline, a high standard of honor, complete physical and mental development, and a generous rivalry for conspicuous soldier­ship and eminent class rank. The more thoroughly to guarantee the latter, the Secretary of War directed, Feb. 14, 1818, the publishing in the Army Register of the names of the five Cadets of each class most distinguished for attainments and meritorious conduct. Soon after, Apr. 14, 1818, the Professorship of Geography, History, and Ethics was established, thus adding new and important elements in the education of Cadets.

These successive advances, which so marvelously elevated the tone and character of the Military Academy in less than a year, are best exemplified  p84 by the first regulations under Major Thayer's Superintendency, approved, July 23, 1818, by that enlightened Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun. These regulations provided for a January and a June examination in each year; required new Cadets to report at West Point before the 25th of June, and prohibited examinations for admissions after September 1st, unless candidates were prevented by sickness from reporting sooner; established an annual encampment in July and August in lieu of vacations, which were abolished; granted furloughs for two months after the June examination, provided that not more than one fourth of the Corps of Cadets were absent at one time; allowed only those to be graduated who had gone through the exercises of two entire encampments; stopped the pay of all failing to return at the expiration of their furloughs, and dismissed them from the service; made a diploma the evidence of having completed the full course of studies; attached to the Army Register the names of the five most distinguished of each class reported at the preceding June examination; secured promotion to the grade of commissioned officer according to "general merit," as established upon graduation; admitted aptitude for the several arms of service to be considered, provided it did not interfere with the order of class rank; declared a Cadet suspended for any cause from the Academy ineligible to a commission in the Army till his entire class had been promoted; and, finally, forbade that any deficient or dismissed Cadets be appointed "to any office or post in the Army of the United States until at least five years after the promotion of the class to which he had belonged."

The day after the adoption of these salutary safeguards for the discipline, instruction, honor, and rights of the military service, the first class in the order of scholar­ly attainments and meritorious conduct was graduated from the Academy.

With each revolving year of Colonel Thayer's Superintendency, class after class was graduated, adding to our army 570 officers, of whom the nation may be justly proud, for in that galaxy are many bright particular stars which have given lustre to our arms, illuminated the paths of science, brightened halls of learning, and adorned various vocations of usefulness.

In this brief sketch it would be impossible to record each prominent event in Thayer's management, and to descant upon the multiform meliorations introduced by him during the sixteen years of his masterly administration, wherein he built up the Military Academy from an elementary school to a model seminary of science and soldier­ship worthy of a great people. In these sixteen years mathematics, from Hutton's Elements, had advanced to a complete course of algebra, geometry, plane and spherical trigonometry, descriptive geometry (including shades, shadows, and perspective), surveying and the use of instruments in the field, analytical geometry, and differential and integral calculus; from a little smattering of French, taught to a few in 1817, some in 1833 became sufficiently proficient to speak the language, most to read it fluently, and all to translate readily scientific text-books and professional works; drawing, confined mostly to copying a few traces of fortifications and a slight use of the brush, had progressed to the delineation of the human figure, pen and pencil landscapes, and topography in all styles of representation; natural and experimental philosophy, from what is to be found in Enfield, had grown to an extended course in physics, dynamics, hydrostatics, hydrodynamics, magnetism, electro-magnetism, optics, and astronomy, embracing their principles, phenomena, and use of the various instruments; chemistry, mineralogy, and geology, in all their branches, had been introduced in 1820; artillery, from a few elements given in a small treatise, with a little target practice and the manual of the piece, had expanded to  p85 the theory and practice of gunnery, the fabrication of pyrotechnics required for all the purposes of war, and the manoeuvre of pieces and foot batteries; grammar, rhetoric, geography, history, moral philosophy, and constitutional and international law had been added in 1818 to the duties of the Chaplain; engineering, just beginning to be taught as in the Polytechnic School of France, had been enlarged to the broad basis upon which was built subsequently the admirable course of field and permanent fortifications, the science of war, architecture, stereotomy, and civil engineering in all of its branches; infantry tactics, confined chiefly to elementary drills in 1817, comprised in 1833 the theory and practice of all movements from the school of the soldier to evolutions of the line, including the exercises of light infantry and rifle­men; military police in camp and barracks was carried out to the full extent required by army regulations; numerous summer marches had been made, extending even as far as Boston, but were abolished after 1822, that hospitable city having proved a Capua to the Cadet Hannibals; the hours for study, recitation, exercises, recreation, and sleep had been judiciously adjusted to produce the maximum instruction and minimum injury to health; rigorous and just discipline and healthy moral tone had been firmly established; cheerful obedience to orders and harmonious and goodwill prevailed; the power of courts-martial to try Cadets had been affirmed in 1819 by the Attorney-General and President; all degrading punishments had been abolished, and those of a strictly military type substituted; the dissipated, idle, vicious, and incompetent were eliminated from the institution; effete professors had been replaced by the brightest instructors who had been graduated at the Academy; a new hospital had been erected for the accommodation of the sick, and malingering was checked; the library, from a few miscellaneous volumes, had grown to embrace a large and valuable collection of scientific, military, and standard works; models, instruments, and apparatus had been supplied for instruction in the various departments; a Board of Visitors annually attended the June examination, and reported upon the condition of the Academy; Cadet appointments were distributed according to population; the hotel had been erected for the accommodation of official visitors and relatives of Cadets, but not to subserve the purposes of a fashionable watering-place; many buildings for the accommodation of officers and for the other uses of the Academy had been built; adjacent land had been purchased of the enlarge the post, and remove the "Gridley Tavern" nuisance; a military band of great excellence had been created, led by Willis's famous Kent bugle; shade trees had been planted and many embellishments made to the grounds of West Point; and above all, there had been inculcated sentiments of high honor, strict integrity, ardent patriotism, obedience to command, fidelity to duty, laudable ambition, professional pride, refined courtesy, kindness to juniors, reverence for seniors, and the various accessories which make up the true gentleman and chivalric soldier.

Colonel Thayer, in the sixteen years of his success­ful administration, had gathered round him an able body of skilled officers, who materially aided him in his herculean task, — Professors Douglass, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Davies, and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Courtenay, who had developed the analytical sciences, the true groundwork of military education; Torrey, Hopkins, and Mather, who had made the course of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology; Crozet and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Mahan, who had skillfully applied all these branches to military and civil engineering and the science of war; McIlvaine and Warner, who had given their culture and eminent abilities to the teaching of ethics and law; the haughty Worth and the scholar­ly Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hitchcock, who had impressed discipline and tone in their daily control of Cadets; an able body of assistant professors, selected from the fittest of their classes, who efficiently aided their chiefs; and the soldierly members of his military staff, who had essentially lessened  p86 his burden of endless details. But the directing mind was the great Superintendent himself, a ripe scholar, acquainted with every science taught, passionately fond of military literature, and singularly gifted for his elevated command. To the discharge of his important functions he brought eminent personal qualifications, uniting decision with courtesy, authority with kindness, knowledge with consideration for ignorance, strict discipline with paternal admonition, unfaltering integrity to unflinching firmness, fidelity to his trust, and loyalty to his country, and with a restless energy and an untiring industry that never left anything unfinished or to chance. With such qualities and accomplishments it is not surprising that the Academy, which he found weak, imperfectly organized, low in prerequisites, and inferior in its course of training, should be raised by his knowledge of its wants and devotion to its interests, to be the paragon of educational institutions in this country; and, judged by its fruits, not surpassed in the nations of the Old World.

Commendations, official and unofficial, of Thayer's Superintendency came from all quarters: he was made, Mar. 3, 1823, a Bvt. Lieut.‑Colonel "for distinguished and meritorious services;" and, in 1826, was strongly recommended by General Scott to be brevetted a Colonel, "for the highest development and effect" given to the Military Academy, to which "for more than eight years he had devoted his great attainments, and the most unwearied zeal and application to its duties."

For twelve years Colonel Thayer had held a sway at West Point which had never been disputed even by the Executive, when, in 1829, General Andrew Jackson, a man of iron, became President of the United States, and John H. Eaton, a man of putty in the hands of his moulder, his Secretary of War. Though the existing relations between Jackson and Thayer were amicable, it was inevitable that there would soon be a collision between these two positive men respecting the control of the Military Academy.

The history of the subsequent differences between the President and the Superintendent is too long to be given here, but its details are to be found in my address upon the unveiling of the Thayer statue at West Point, June 11, 1883.

Thayer, worn out by the irrepressible conflict of authority, saw that he had become a mere automaton of power at West Point, and felt that he could no longer, under the existing régime, be of service to the institution which he had raised to its present excellence, and that he could not continue to be a target for the shafts which were daily destroying his prerogative. He accordingly asked to be placed upon other duty.

The peerless Superintendent was relieved, July 1, 1833, from command of the Military Academy, which, in the sixteen years of his devoted administration, had grown from a badly conducted rudimentary school to become a preëminent seminary of science, an enduring monument of his fame, a fostering mother to the whole army, the cynosure of all educational instructions throughout the land, and a priceless possession for the nation's security and glory. Such laurels had Thayer won by his masterly skill and efficiency that, five years later, when his successor was relieved from duty at West Point, he was invited by Mr. Poinsett, then Secretary of War under President Van Buren, to resume with almost absolute powers the charge of the Military Academy. The unfortunate appointment at the time of a Chaplain little suited to secure the moral discipline of Cadets frustrated the whole scheme.

Upon leaving West Point, Thayer was made a member of the Board of Engineers, and was also charged with the planning and building of the fortifications and other public works in and about Boston harbor, which, as erected by him, will endure for ages as models of engineering skill and standards of economy and stability of construction. These arduous  p87 labors, to which he gave his whole time, except while absent sick in Europe, occupied him for thirty years, when, June 1, 1863, age and feeble health terminated his active military career of more than half a century of unsurpassed usefulness and faithful service. The day before his retirement he was brevetted Brigadier-General for "long and faithful service."

After his retirement from active service, he lived a humble and almost hermit life at Braintree, Mas., where he died Sep. 7, 1872, at the advanced age of eighty-seven. His remains were removed and re-interred, with military honors, at West Point, Nov. 8, 1877, and to the "Father of the Military Academy" was erected upon the plain at West Point, on the semi-centennial of the retirement of the great Superintendent from command of the Academy, a striking statue of him who had achieved so much for military science and the glory of his country; who was always true to himself and to his trust; and who with pride could point to the graduates of this Academy as the jewels and adornments of his administration, as did the noble Cornelia to her Gracchi sons.

Thayer's Notes:

a Sylvanus Thayer's superintendency is the subject of two chapters in Waugh's West Point: Chapter 5 covers the difficult transition from the previous régime, of which Cullum breathes not a word; Chapter 6 retells his reshaping of the Academy, covering the same ground as the sketch on this page but with added details and color.

Character portraits of him are given by Francis H. Smith ("West Point Fifty Years Ago") and, passim, by J. H. B. Latrobe (Reminiscences of West Point); an assessment of him, given by Ganoe in The History of the United States Army, pp151‑152, may also be useful.

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b Capt. Thayer laid out the emplacement of the guns at Craney Island Fort, which would be effective against the British landing party seeking to capture Norfolk. (Elizabeth Waugh, West Point, p56).

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Page updated: 7 Apr 16