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Section 1

This webpage reproduces a section of
The History of West Point

William F. H. Godson

Philadelphia, 1934

The text is in the public domain.

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Section 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p18  II
Sources of Data and Methods of Handling

Sources of data were many and may be classified roughly as original, official, personal, and general.

Original material consisted of letters, documents, maps of West Point, photographs, and so on. Most of these are to be found at West Point. Copies are kept in other places but for the purpose of this study the original sources listed in the bibliography were personally examined by the writer at West Point. As most of these are kept for safety in the locked cabinets of the United States Military Academy Library it was necessary to obtain the permission of the Librarian which was kindly given. Under the supervision of Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.E. E. Farman every facility was made available and the material was examined as needed.

Official documents constituted a large part of the papers examined in connection with the research which preceded the writing of this history. Because of the nature of the Military Academy (a government institution from the start) much of its history is of necessity to be found written into the orders, circulars, bulletins, etc., issued from the office of the Adjutant General of the Army in Washington, D. C. or from the Post Headquarters at West Point. Congressional documents, printed by the United States Government Printing Office in Washington, D. C., also constituted an official source of information.

Personal letters, scrap books, handwritten MSS. and other material of this kind were frequently available. In many cases the point of view of the writer, or collector, was so clearly impartial that these documents offered valuable and reliable information as to the general situation at some particular time. This was particularly true where independent writers made the same comment or where official orders contained an impersonal corroboration of the essentials of the matter. Not all of these letters were old ones. The writer entered into correspondence with graduates of the Military Academy and recent letters from them in reply serve to throw light on matters incompletely recorded by  p19 the official record or tend to give a true and personal touch to an account which might otherwise appear dry and uninteresting.

General material was abundant and strict choice was made to limit the bibliography to between one and two hundred significant items rather than to let it assume unwieldy proportions. No restriction was placed upon the type of material consulted however. This included serious texts upon phases of the work at West Point, books of lighter nature, fiction, magazine articles, professional monographs, views of others than those connected with the Military Academy, and even material not related to this thesis but indirectly helpful because of its tendency to illuminate dark places and bring out the general picture of West Point from decade to decade.

The method of handling all of this varied material was uniform. Almost every item in the bibliography was read entirely (except where only a part was applicable). An outline of the material was made. All of the notes were given chronological treatment and the whole mass of material was then reread. A coherent story evolved. The final phase was the writing of the connected narrative which follows and which constitutes the history which was to be written. Conclusions which seemed to arise naturally from the facts were listed.

Naturally there was a need for regulating principles in making selection from the vast quantity of material available. While no preconceived notion existed as to the direction in which the facts might lead there was a very definite list of items which were not included. These were: alleged facts unsupported by good evidence, obvious misstatements of fact, personal interpretations, obviously false conclusions, inaccurate quotations from secondary sources, acceptance of probabilities where facts were wanted, and any acceptance of ready made conclusions.

The essential processes were: collection of data, criticism of the same, presentation of the facts, and a conservative generalization.

Even with the exclusion of items coming under any of the headings listed as undesirable there was a great deal of material which could not be used by reason of the physical limitations of time and space. Certain obvious lines of inquiry prevented the research from going too far afield. These lines of research were: the references  p20 to the growth of the physical plant; references to the changing curriculum; references to important events in National history which made, or might have made, changes at West Point; a list of the Superintendents of the United States Military Academy, men who made, or might have had the chance to make, some particular contribution of lasting significance; and lastly, any event of human interest which might lend color and verisimilitude to an account that might otherwise grow tedious, and even untrue as a history, were all of the facts recorded to be statistical in nature.

A very brief outline of the scope of the research attempted gives further light on the method of handling data. The problem having been definitely selected and a full bibliography made available the problem was outlined, and a group of five ten-year periods found to be convenient. The material in the West Point Library was made available and much of it mailed to me for study at leisure. Some of the valuable records which could not be moved were listed for later study when I visited West Point for the purpose. Every item included (even temporarily) in my study was reduced to writing on sheets of uniform size, catalogued in the proper 10‑year period, and evaluated in the light of interest, timeliness, specific value to the history in hand, and checked against the positive and negative criteria of availability previously discussed.

The matter of the integrity of my sources was carefully considered but comparatively easy of solution. The documents from the Government Printing Office in Washington, or the army headquarters at West Point, were original sources of information and their integrity, indispensable to the validation of the research, was clearly established. Other material was included when it supported these original documents or was supported by them. Unsupported secondary sources which made statements or led to implications contrary to the general facts as authoritatively established were not used.

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