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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a section of
The History of West Point

William F. H. Godson

Philadelphia, 1934

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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Section 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p9  Historical Review of Previous Research

As has been stated in the introduction, there is just one history of West Point, that written by Captain E. C. Boynton in 1863.​a Search has been made in the large public libraries of Detroit, New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore. The list of books in the Congressional Library, Washington, D. C., has been examined. The highly specialized library of the United States Military Academy at West Point was examined (December, 1933). No other history than that of Captain Boynton was found. This history covers the first fifty years fairly and impartially. It is considered authoritative at the Military Academy. In it, however, the author covered ten additional years which were very close to his own time and interests. It is unlikely that the account of these years will be accorded the same reception as the account of the first fifty years. This was a factor in the selection of the date at which to begin the present account, and similar considerations led the present writer to stop short of his own times (as cadet and instructor) at the Military Academy.

While no history of West Point exists beyond the dates of the one mentioned the general bibliography is very large. Books are to be found upon almost every phase of the growth and interests of the Academy and future writers will find a wealth of material with which to construct additional units in the growing narrative of the Academy's development.

History of West Point

and its
Military Importance During the American Revolution:
and the
Origin and Progress
of the
United States Military Academy

 p10  By
Captain Edward C. Boynton, A. M.,
Adjutant of the Military Academy.

New York:
D. Van Nostrand, 192 Broadway.
London: Sampson Low, Son, & Co.

There is only one "History of West Point," that written by Captain Edward C. Boynton, U. S. A., in 1863. He drew upon most of the available sources of material and as his position as Adjutant of the Academy made him custodian of the official records he had access to original source materials and official government documents. His work has been accepted as authoritative down to the present time but no one has carried it on and brought it up to date.

In summarizing Captain Boynton's book two thoughts were kept in mind. First, it was considered appropriate to list the highlights of the first fifty years of the Academy's existence as Boynton describes them. Second, it was considered desirable to present a general picture of West Point at the end of the same period.

Although Boynton's history was written in 1863 it was thought wiser to accept it as an account of the period 1802‑1852 only and not to confine the present study to his account of the years so close to him, and so full of important events, as the following eleven years. This decision accords with generally accepted practice.

The same considerations which were influential in causing Boynton's history to be dropped, except where independently supported, caused the present study to be terminated with the year 1902. The writer was a cadet 1915‑1919,​b and an instructor at the Academy 1919‑1920. An additional reason for stopping short of the World War is the tremendous amount of statistical study necessary to a proper treatment of that period.

The time 1903‑to date still remains as a likely field for some future historian. Frequent references in this account will show  p11 that the needs of this future writer have been kept in mind. Material not strictly necessary to the present thesis is included, or made the subject of note, or relegated to the appendix, from time to time.

Captain Boynton's purpose was to supply a long felt want for a history of West Point. He claimed no literary merit and pretended no originality, as his own preface indicates.

Chapter I

The United States secured the land at West Point by purchase. Boundary disputes were frequent and new tracts were added upon different occasions. Captain Boynton traced these transactions in detail. The site had a strategic importance in the Revolutionary War which the Congress recognized.

Chapter II

Constitution Island, formerly known as Martelaer's Rock, lies just across the Hudson River from West Point and was included in the military surveys made. General George Washington finally sent a Board of Officers to West Point and they reported the fortifications which they deemed necessary.

Chapter III

One of the first of many romantic stories associated with the site of the Military Academy was that of the Great Chain. A Secret Committee was appointed to devise means of obstructing the Hudson River should it be necessary to check the British there.

Chapter IV

As a result of the secret deliberations a great iron chain was made and an advantageous spot for it located opposite West Point. The situation was under the supervision of the Polish General, Kosciuszko,º whose name is still revered at West Point.

Chapter V

In April, 1778, the chain was put in place, connecting West Point with Constitution Island. Pieces of the chain are still exhibited as military relics on Trophy Point.

 p12  Chapter VI

The next feature of Boynton's narrative is story of Benedict Arnold's treason, and the tragic fate of Major Andre of the British Army. General Arnold took command at West Point in August, 1780 and began, almost at once, to correspond secretly with the enemy.

Chapter VII

Major Andre was captured, September 23rd, within the American lines and was brought to West Point; thence to Tappan. A board of very high ranking officers was appointed to try him in accordance with the laws of war.

Chapter VIII

Captain Boynton tells in detail the proceedings of the Board and the desperate attempts made by Sir Henry Clinton to save the life of his Staff Officer. Appeal was even made to General Washington.

Chapter IX

Andre was executed, of course, and goes down in history as a victim of Arnold's treachery. An important military post was then established at West Point, first under General McDougal, then under General Greene, then under General Knox. A military school was established in 1794 but was destroyed by fire in 1796 and was suspended until 1801.

Chapter X

The authority for the beginning of the Military Academy is traced from September, 1776, when such an institution was recommended to Congress by a Congressional Committee. Next, General Knox (now Secretary of War) recommended, in 1790, the establishment of an Academy.

In 1793 General Washington (now President) included the matter in his annual message to Congress. In 1794 an Act of Congress provided for the grade of cadet and made provision for the instruction of cadets.

 p13  In 1796 Washington urged the matter upon the attention of Congress again. In 1798 Congress provided definitely for fifty-six cadets instead of eight as before. In 1800 Secretary of War McHenry made a report to President Adams which he in turn presented to Congress. As a result a bill was passed March 16, 1802, creating the Military Academy. West Point celebrates this as its birthday. Its infancy followed.

Colonel Jonathan Williams, Corps of Engineers, U. S. Army, was the first Superintendent (1802‑3; 1805‑12). The school was small, poorly provided for in equipment and instructors. Discipline was poor. Organization was not perfected.

Chapter XI

In 1808 the number of cadets was increased to 212. In 1812 the number was made 266. The two Acts of Congress of 1802 and 1812 constitute the basis of the institution in law. Prior to 1818 the cadets were admitted without examination and without much regard for age or other qualifications. They were naturally more or less unfit for their situations. They were not regarded as amenable to courts martial; no class rank was established; no register of the corps was published. Many left without completing the course.

Chapter XII

July 28, 1817, Brevet-Major Sylvanus Thayer, Corps of Engineers, U. S. Army, assumed command as Superintendent. This was the turning point in the development of the Academy. Its reputation for strictness, impartiality, and excellence, dates from that time.

Major Thayer organized the cadets as an Infantry Battalion. He divided the classes into sections; provided for weekly transfers between sections on a basis of work accomplished; established the weekly reports of progress in all subjects; and required daily recitations from every cadet in every subject. He caused the publication of relative class rank and began the publication of an Annual Register. He started the custom of an annual Board of Visitors. He devised the "check-book" system of financial accounting for individuals. He brought in the preponderating  p14 use of the blackboard in recitations. He drew up a code of regulations for cadets which still exists with few changes.

Major Thayer also strengthened the faculty, particularly in mathematics.

In November 1818 a test case established the amenability of cadets to martial law.

In July 1818 the Secretary of War established regulations for:

(a) Two general examinations (January and June).

(b) New cadets to report in June.

(c) An annual encampment in lieu of summer vacation.

(d) Every cadet to have one free summer (furlough).

Major (now Colonel) Thayer was relieved from duty as Superintendent July 1, 1833, at his own request.

July 5, 1838, an Act of Congress (Section 28) made the term of service eight years thus insuring to the government four years of service in return for the four years of education given.

Chapter XIII

Major Richard Delafield relieved Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.De Russy (Colonel Thayer's successor) as Superintendent in September, 1838. Under him new buildings were erected; equipment was added; roads were improved; and Cavalry instruction was established.

Chapter XIV

In 1843 (March 1st) Congress passed the law providing for one cadet from each congressional district. The President was to appoint ten cadets from "at large." The monthly pay of cadets, not definitely set, but about twenty-eight dollars per month since 1802 was fixed at a flat rate of twenty-four dollars per month in 1845.

The administration of the next Superintendent, Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Henry Brewerton, Corps of Engineers, U. S. Army, saw spacious barracks and mess hall erected; the plain graded; roads extended and improved; and several new buildings added as home for instructors.

The Board of Visitors, abolished in 1843, was reestablished 1846.

 p15  The brilliant success of the American Army in Mexico reflected credit upon West Point. (See Appendix P, Par. 2)

New barracks were built 1845‑1851. The old mess hall was replaced in 1852.

The course of study was changed (August 28, 1854) from four to five years. This was during the Superintendency of Colonel R. E. Lee. The method of starting the new regime was to divide the class which entered in June 1854 into two parts according to age. The younger portion was the first group to follow the five-year curriculum.

The new riding hall was completed in 1855.

Major Delafield returned to the Academy a second time as Superintendent. His energy and initiative were felt again. The bell and clock tower was erected; the gas works were completed; Fort Clinton was restored; and more houses for instructors were built.

March 3, 1857, the monthly pay of cadets was raised to thirty dollars. October 11, 1858, the course of study was returned to four years. April 5, 1859, it was returned to five years. Both these changes were made abruptly by the Secretary of War and resulted in confusion at the Academy. June 21, 1860, a Congressional Commission was appointed to investigate the situation. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jefferson Davis was the Chairman. As a result the course of study was made four years once more (July, 1861).

The effects of the Civil War were naturally felt at West Point. Brevet-Major Peterº G. T. Beauregard, Corps of Engineers, U. S. Army, was appointed Superintendent on January 23, 1861. Five days after assuming command he was relieved.

When war broke out many Southern cadets resigned from the Military Academy and returned to their homes.

Total number of cadets, November 1, 1860


Appointed from the South


Those of the 86 who left the Academy


Southern cadets who did not leave


Obviously the Corps of Cadets was not seriously affected.

Boynton's list of buildings on the Post helps complete the physical picture of the Academy at this time (1863).

Of Revolutionary origin: (site known: not standing)

"Gridley's Tavern" (once called "North's").

Long Barracks, destroyed by fire in 1827.

Later origin: (site known: not standing)

South Barracks, completed 1815, demolished 1849.

North Barracks, completed 1817, demolished 1851.

The Academy, erected 1815, destroyed by fire 1838.

Mess Hall, erected 1815, demolished 1852.

Actually standing:

Hospital, built 1830.

Band Barracks, built 1829.

Hotel, built 1829, enlarged 1850.

Chapel, built 1836.

The Academy, erected 1838.

Observatory and Laboratory, erected 1841.

Ordnance Laboratory, erected 1840.

Cadet Barracks, completed 1851.

Mess Hall, built 1852.

Cavalry Stables, built 1854.

Riding Hall, built 1855.

Cavalry Barracks, built 1857.

Artillery Barracks, built 1858.

Engineer Barracks, built 1858.

Soldiers Hospital, built 1851.

And many small brick dwellings as residences for instructors, and other small buildings for purposes mentioned.

Chapter XV

The methods of appointing cadets; necessary qualifications; details as to examinations and instruction (as of 1863) are described in full.

A statistical study is presented with ten-year periods as a basis. The proportion of cadets to graduate when compared the number admitted is shown for these periods.

Chapter XVI

West Point is described in 1863. Among the objects of interest  p17 mentioned are: Fort Clinton, Kosciuszko's Monument, Dade's Monument, Chain Battery Walk (Later "Flirtation Walk"), the Museum, Fort Putnam (still affectionately called "Fort Put"), the Cemetery, the Mexican trophies, and the Great Chain.


Lists of amounts appropriated for the Academy 1802‑1863.

Lists of Secretaries of War 1789‑1862.

List of Inspectors U. S. M. A.

List of Superintendents 1802‑1861.

Lists of Instructors by Department 1802‑1862.

Number of cadets admitted 1802‑1863, showing State from which admitted.

Same statistics for cadets who graduated.

Statement showing condition in life of parents of cadets 1802‑1863.

List of distinguished (in studies) cadets 1818‑1863.

Description of Band and Field Music.

Abstracts of Acts of Congress relating to the Academy 1794‑1863.

A study of military education in Europe (1863).

Thayer's Notes:

a This is a glaring, inexcusable blunder — quite unambiguously affirmed, then repeated later — and casts doubt on the rest of Godson's research. (It is also not what Godson states in his introduction!) There is at least one earlier complete history of West Point, by Roswell Park, published in 1840, and recorded as that author's accomplishment in the 1891 edition of Cullum's Register, which Godson lists in his bibliography; according to that entry (q.v.), it seems to have been rather popular, too: one wonders how he could have missed it. Furthermore, I have been assured by the Curator of Manuscripts at the USMA Library, Susan Lintelmann, in kind response to my query, that Park's book appears in the 1859 catalog of the Library and "[g]iven the subject matter and the author's status as a graduate, it seems unlikely that there would not have been a copy on the shelves continuously at least since then." Maybe Godson was misled by an uninvestigated quick scan of the modest title, A Sketch . . . .

Park's book is onsite.

[decorative delimiter]

b Cullum's Register lists him as #5976, Class of June 12, 1918. That wartime class was graduated early, after only 3 years. Some wartime classes of that period came back after the Armistice to complete their studies — causing a certain amount of dislocation at the Academy, see Waugh, pp147‑150 — but I don't know that Godson's (which, under normal circumstances, should have been the Class of 1919) was among them. If you have certain knowledge either way, please drop me a line, of course.

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