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Section 2

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 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p21  III

The sixth decade in the life of West Point opened without change. Superintendents and inspectors frequently recommended improvements but "the Congress of those days apparently was like our own and needed to have a matter brought to its attention many times before any definite action was taken."​1 The result was that the physical plant needed improvements, the administrative jurisdiction needed clarifying, the rules for admission needed revision, and the curriculum needed changes and improvement. Legal residence had been made a requisite for appointment in 1843​2 but rules for admission were still unsatisfactory. Cadets were often wholly unsuited to the life they had selected. James McNeillº Whistler, for example, was a cadet in 1851, 1852, and 1853. He led his classes in Drawing but was "found" deficient in Chemistry.​3 The Corps of Cadets must have looked much as it does today, particularly in winter for the grey overcoat was changed in 1851 to the double-breasted style and the very buttons now in use were placed on it.4

West Pointers whose names were to be well known because of the Civil War were cadets at this time, or a few years previously. Among those generally conceded to be eminent later were Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant, '43,​5 Sheridan, '53, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sherman, '40, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Thomas, '40, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Meade, '35, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hooker, '37, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sedgwick, '37, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McClellan, '46, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Halleck, '39, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McPherson, '53, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Rosecrans, '42, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Warren, '50, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pleasonton, '44, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Gregg, '55 to mention only a few​6 on the Union side. Among their  p22 distinguished opponents were Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Lee, '29, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Early, '37, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson, '46, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.A. S. Johnston, '26, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.A. P. Hill, '47, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet, '42, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell, '40 and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stuart, '54.


This was the period of whale oil lamps and candles.​7 It was a period of real isolation, without railroad or telephone. Diversions were few. There was little to distract the cadet from his studies. Perhaps this background had been a factor a few years earlier when "from ten to twelve cadets of those whose hearts were affected under the preaching of Bishop McIlvaine, entered the sacred office."8

Fencing, which had been confined to the First Class​9 for the last twenty years, was changed, in 1852, to a place in the gymnastic program of the Fourth Class where it remained. Cadets of the three upper classes who care to fence do so voluntarily.


Robert E. Lee, Captain of Engineers, reported as Superintendent September 1, 1852 and his energy was soon felt. Early next year (January 25th) the Battalion was "sized" for the first time.​10 Companies A and D were the tall ones and B and C contained the smaller cadets. Cadets in the same company were assigned to the same division of barracks. A new set of regulations was issued.​11 Dancing instruction was started during the summer and has been compulsory ever since.​12 That the uniform was essentially what it is today is shown by photographs in the U. S. M. A. Library. A woodcut, for example, shows a cadet officer with white sword belt, sword and sash.

 p23  1854

An experiment was made with the curriculum when it was lengthened to cover five years instead of four. The Secretary of War approved this change August 28th. Another change that fall was the addition of a course in Spanish.13

In 1854 the Ordnance Museum was founded.​14 It later became the repository of Civil War and other military relics.

Distinguished later among the members of the class to graduate this year was G. W. Custis Lee, who became President of Washington and Lee University in 1871.


John C. Barnard, Captain of Engineers, reported as Superintendent March 31, 1855. He was an energetic builder and supervised the erection of the riding hall (at a cost of $22,000).​15 It was in this year also that the State of Kentucky​a wished to move the Military Academy from West Point to the Hermitage.​16 Congress would not do so.

Captain Barnard issued orders against molesting sentinels​17 which must bring up pictures of "plebe camp" before the eyes of anyone who has walked post there.

A. S. Webb, who graduated in 1855, became President of the College of the City of New York in 1869.


Fort Clinton was repaired and restored.18

Richard Delafield,​19 Major of Engineers, reported as Superintendent September 6, 1856. He took rank as a Colonel of Engineers under the provisions of an Act of Congress​20 which also  p24 provided that the Commandant of Cadets should rank as a Lieutenant-Colonel of Engineers during his tour of duty.

The Board of Visitors (in June) had reported the matter of "turn backs"​21 and found the elocution of the cadets to be poor.


In 1857 a new set of regulations was published incorporating changes made since the last issue. On January 31st the Academic and Military staffs were assembled to witness the ceremony on the incoming class taking the oath of allegiance.​22 Future classes have taken the oath the first summer of their arrival for duty.

An Act of Congress made the pay of a cadet $30 per month.23

In 1857 the Department of Tactics took over the administration of discipline, an important function which it has handled ever since.​24 It was in this year also that some of the oldest class rings to be preserved were used by the graduating class.​25 The Board of Visitors was very critical this year. They felt that the institution was too severe.​26 Another innovation by the class of '57 was the making of a class album, the earliest on record. In it is found valuable photographic evidence of the type of uniform worn (the dress hat, for example, was the same used up to 1899).

The position of the Academic Board was strengthened and this group, which had consisted of the Superintendent and the heads of departments​27 since 1818 received its last addition, the head of the Department of Ordnance and Gunnery.

 p25  1858

In 1858 Company A Engineer Battalion arrived at West Point from Fort Bridger, having marched 1,100 miles in 58 days.​28 Evidently these were worthy troops to use in practical training of the cadets. Since then Cavalry, Artillery and other detachments have been brought to the post in increasing numbers for the same purpose.

October 11th the course of study (5 years) was brought back to the normal four-year duration.​29 Swimming, through the interest of one of the instructors (Lieutenant J. C. Kelton) was taught for two years​30 but interest lapsed again and it was not permanently revived until 1885.


April 5, 1859, the course of study was once more made five years.31


For instruction purposes a light battery of four pieces was organized from the Military Academy detachments of dragoons and artillery.​32 An interesting study of the use of time by cadets was made.​33 Comparison between West Point and St. Cyr (France) and other military schools showed West Point to be suited to our National needs.34

December 13, 1860, a Senatorial Commission, of which the Honorable Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jefferson Davis was Chairman, made a special report on West Point to the President. The 36th Congress​35 was particularly interested in the Military Academy and the length and nature of the course of study was given careful attention. Mathematics was found to receive considerable time and History and Literature suffered by comparison with courses elsewhere. The  p26 cadets were proficient in tactics, maneuvers, riding and military exercises, comparing favorably with the students of St. Cyr, the French School of Staff, and the School at Metz. West Point taught two languages while other military schools taught one or two. West Point was found to resemble the Polytechnic of France in its democracy.

The class of 1860 seems to have gone through many of the experiences typical of West Point training as late as fifty years thereafter. As new cadets they had an active plebe camp.​36 The demerit system controlled their conduct records. Riding instructors were (even at that early date) asking them to "carry back their legs" as they tried to master their Cavalry steeds.37


The gathering war clouds had not passed unnoticed at West Point. Feeling there ran high, as elsewhere, and changes followed each other rapidly. Peterº G. T. Beauregard, Captain of Engineers, reported as Superintendent January 23, 1861, but was relieved from duty five days later by the new Secretary of War, Joseph Holt, who had just replaced John B. Floyd. Colonel Delafield thus resumed command until March 1st when Alexander H. Bowman, Major of Engineers, reported as his regular successor.​38 (As a General Officer of the Confederacy Captain Beauregard was to win the Battle of Bull Run later.)

In July the course of study was made four years again. When it is realized that these changes were not the result of local recommendations but were imposed upon the instruction staff from higher authority something of their feelings of dismay and confusion can be imagined.39

The First Class was ordered to Washington without formal  p27 graduation​40 and soon after three classes were graduated in rapid succession.41

Naturally the war brought West Point and its graduates before the Nation. J. P. Farley (previously quoted) said:42

"The West Point part of the army has been by far the most loyal branch of the public service; . . . nearly 4‑5 of its graduate officers remained faithful; . . . ½ of those from the South stood firm by the Stars and Stripes . . ."

War influenced the uniform at the Military Academy (as it was to do again during the World War) and photographs show the shape of the forage cap to have been changed to conform to army style.​43 An unaccountable change at this time was the abolition of gymnastic instruction.44

The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher praised West Point in an address to the Army of the Potomac.45

A critical note appears in the Report of the Board of Visitors, June 21, 1861. Discipline was reported as low, and the reason was believed to be the return of discharged cadets by the Secretary of War. This in effect overruled the Superintendent and Academic Board and would naturally cause or contribute to indifferent academic work. The President of the United States called the attention of Congress to this matter.46


The country as a whole probably took more interest in West  p28 Point than ever before​47 and the institution was carefully compared with others of similar nature elsewhere.48

Thus West Point rounded out the first decade of the second fifty years of its history, reaching a high point in the confidence and affection of the Nation as its graduates sustained the burden of the Civil War.49

The Author's Notes:

1 Richardson, R. C., Jr., West Point, p20.

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2 Centennial of the U. S. M. A., p3.

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3 Richardson, R. C., Jr., West Point, p31. It is believed at the Academy and frequently repeated as a traditional anecdote that Whistler referred to his failure in Chemistry by saying "If silicon had been a gas I might have been a General."

Thayer's Note: Apparently a true story, attested by an eyewitness; see Freeman's R. E. Lee, Vol. I, p335.

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4 Centennial of the U. S. M. A., p517.

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5 The framed diploma of U. S. Grant, dated June 23, 1843, hangs in the U. S. M. A. Library. It differs in only a few details from the diploma still awarded.

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6 Richardson, R. C., Jr., West Point, p34.

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7 Bailey, W. W., My Boyhood at West Point, pp10 and 11.

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8 "F. H. S." An article in the Southern Messenger for November, 1843, p665. West Point.

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9 Centennial of the U. S. M. A., p903. (First Class refers to the Senior Class, Fourth Class to Freshmen, etc. These designations have not changed. G.)

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10 Order Book, U. S. Corps of Cadets, pp49‑59.

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11 Regulations had been issued previously in 1802, 1810, 1814, 1821, 1825, 1829, 1832, and 1839. In U. S. M. A. Library. G.

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12 Centennial of the U. S. M. A., p908.

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13 Report, Superintendent U. S. M. A., 1896, pp139‑141.

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14 Boynton, E. C., History of West Point, p297.

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15 Ibid., p263.

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16 House Misc. Docs., Vol. 2, p151.

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17 Order Book U. S. C. C., July 7, 1855, pp49‑59.

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18 Quartermaster Letter Book, U. S. M. A., Nov., 1889, p85.

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19 Delafield Lake is named after this officer. Wherever military men live together in barracks or camp a grim sort of humor seems to grow into a tradition. This at West Point was early called the "cadet grind." The writer well recalls an example in which he, as the victim, was tossed into Delafield Lake. Other examples are mentioned in this account. G.

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20 Act of Congress, June 12, 1856.

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21 A "turn back" is a cadet who is found deficient in studies or who by reason of sickness or other cause is unable to continue with his class, but, instead of being honorably discharged, is turned back to the following class and continues his studies with them. The practice was abused at this time and caused a lowering of discipline and standards of work. G.

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22 Post Orders, Vol. 5, p19.

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23 Act of Congress, March 3, 1857.

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24 Congressional Document No. 1089, p263.

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25 There is a display of class rings in the U. S. M. A. Library with a descriptive placard. (See also Appendix A).

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26 Report of Board of Visitors, U. S. M. A., June, 1857, Ac. No. 167297, U. S. M. A. Library, p29. "The class graduating 38 members this year, entered the Academy four years ago numbering 98 . . . This great disparity occurs in almost every graduating class . . . might not the system be modified without injury . . ."

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27 Centennial of the U. S. M. A., p235.

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28 Papers, Essayons Club, VIII, p3.

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29 Post Orders, Vol. 5, p221.

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30 Centennial of the U. S. M. A., p907.

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31 Post Orders, Vol. 5, p229.

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32 Orders U. S. M. A., Series 1860.

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33 Congressional Document No. 1089, p55.

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34 Ibid., p55.

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35 Misc. Document No. 3, December 13, 1860.

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36 Farley, J. P., West Point in the Early Sixties, pp39, 50, 59 and 73. (An interesting account is given of the incidents of plebe camp in which they learned a strict interpretation of the report "All right, Sir.")

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37 Ibid.

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38 Post Orders, Vol. 5, p407. Official Register U. S. M. A., 1933, p7, Footnote.

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39 Boynton, E. C., History of West Point, pp250‑252.

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40 Post Orders, Vol. 6, p14.

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41 Ibid.

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42 Farley, J. P., West Point in the Early Sixties, p10.

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43 Centennial of the U. S. M. A., p519.

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44 Ibid., p898.

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45 MSS. relating to U. S. M. A., collected and copied under the direction of Edward S. Holden, 1901‑2. From Beecher's address:

"This nation is indebted to the West Point Military Academy for as noble a band of graduates as the world can produce. The standard of honor is nowhere higher. Respect and reverence for law and liberty are nowhere more profound. Scrupulous fidelity to duty is nowhere more clearly a religion and the honor of honesty, the honor of honesty, the honor of honesty, is nowhere more signally illustrated as in the graduates of the West Point Military Academy."

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46 Message of the President, 37th Congress, 1st Session. Exec. Document No. 1, Senate, 1861, pp29 and 33.

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47 Are the West Point Graduates Loyal? M. E. C. (Pamphlet.)

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48 "West Point, the Best of Such Schools." Wolseley, G. J. W., in Story of a Soldier's Life, Vol. 2, p140, Note.

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49 MS. relating to U. S. M. A. 1776‑1902, Edward S. Holden. We see the corps of cadets, a little larger than ten years before, still wearing a uniform of the general style set in 1808 (page 108) its color now grey as changed in 1816 (page 108) and adorned with chevrons of the original style (but inverted subsequent to 1825). We see them instructed in small classes, using the blackboard daily, marked and re‑ranked weekly, and following the general manner of training set by the Father of the Academy (Colonel Thayer).

Thayer's Note:

a The Hermitage, the home of one of Tennessee's war heroes, Andrew Jackson, is in Tennessee; and it was Tennessee of course, not Kentucky, that wanted to move the Academy there. One can only smile at human nature: only 22 years before, Tennessee had sought to abolish the Academy altogether (Waugh, p83).

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