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Bill Thayer

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Section 4

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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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Section 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p38  V

The third decade opened with considerable promise for the Military Academy. General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.U. S. Grant was inaugurated President and the Corps of Cadets went to Washington to parade. Congress appropriated needed funds. Public interest and confidence were clearly felt. The swing of public sentiment was favorable to West Point.


In February Congress set aside $10,000 for the remodeling of Battery Knox.1

A new set of regulations was issued.

The parade of the Corps of Cadets in Washington marked a new tradition. It furnished a pleasant break in the routine at West Point​2 and brought the cadets before large crowds which noted the perfection of their military maneuvers.

The Superintendent recommended that entrance requirements be raised.3

Among the graduates of the class of 1873 was A. S. Cummins,​4 who is still living.

Graduation exercises in June were saddened by the absence of General Thayer who had died September 7, 1872.5

The class of 1873 seems to have led the usual life associated with cadet days of that period.​6 Members entering from June to August, 1869, numbered seventy. Their summer camp was not  p39 particularly event­ful; the following winter so mild that parade was held on the plain December 31st. The class celebrated their "recognition" by moving the reveille gun into the area and firing it. Mlle. Nilsson, famous Swedish singer, visited and entertained the Corps. By 1870 the class numbered but fifty. In 1871 Prince Alexis of Russia visited, and the Corps of Cadets paraded in the snow. The following year another distinguished visitor was received in August: the Duke of Saxe Coburg. The class now numbered forty-four. 1873 was broken by one "surprise" — the parade in Washington of which there was scant warning. Secretary of War W. Belknap issued the order January 13th.


In the published scrap book of a West Pointer in 1874 came one of the few descriptions of West Point's legendary character: Benny Havens.​7 He was born in New Windsor, N. Y.,​8 January 6, 1787 and died May 29, 1877; and is buried in Upon Cemetery between Highland Falls and Fort Montgomery.9

"Benny Havens was a seller of contraband liquors and viands to the cadets. In course of time he was expelled from the vicinity of the post and then opened a regular establishment a mile or two below, which until a few years past was a favourite resort of the cadets on convivial occasions 'sans permission.' "​10

To Benny Havens' memory subsequent graduates owe the popular song of numberless verses which is sung upon occasions of reunion or celebration. Lieutenant Wood records twenty-six verses.11

The Board of Visitors, this year, characterized the discipline  p40 at West Point as "austere, but free from passion, steady, and carefully considered."12


A technical event unnoticed at the Academy dates from 1875. The New York Legislature ceded jurisdiction of the reservation to the United States.13

In June the Association of Graduates had a particularly enthusiastic meeting at graduation time. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Charles Davies of the class of 1815 delivered a lengthy but eloquent address.14

Inspector Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.A. E. Church said: "Candidates are not as thoroughly prepared as they were 20 years ago."15


In March, 1876, a very important change in the method of administering the Military Academy was made. It was announced from the War Department that the new Superintendent was to be under no supervision except​16 that of the General commanding the armies. This at last placed the responsibility for conducting the institution in the hands of one man and led to the correction of many minor imperfections in administration. There were then eight Professors​17 at the Academy, between 290 and 298 cadets, and enlisted detachments numbering 225.

The Corps of Cadets went to Philadelphia for the Centennial Exhibition.18

Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John M. Schofield, Major-General United States Army, reported as Superintendent September 1, 1876.

In the class to graduate in June, 1876, was Herman Dowd.​19 At the graduation ceremonies Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Daniel Tyler,º class of '19, was the oldest graduate present.20

 p41  In the report of the Board of Visitors this year the statement was made, "The qualities which win at West Point are robust health, capacity to work and to endure, and aptitude in mathematics."21


A modification of the system which was to give General Schofield, and future Superintendents, a freer hand in local administrative problems was the order constituting West Point a Department of the Army, placing General Schofield in command, and directing him to report direct to the Adjutant General.​22 One of his first tasks was the preparation and promulgation of a new set of regulations. As before these involved few changes.

The Board of Visitors, this year, rendered a flowery and generally complimentary report.​23 They said that "The Military Academy has rendered a service to the country in giving tone and elevation to education . . . The history of education abounds in illustrations of the indebtedness of the science of pedagogy to the professors at West Point, especially to the illustrious inventor of the blackboard . . . The Academy does not undertake to give a broad general education. The fallow ground of literature, psychology, ethics, and aesthetics it cannot turn . . ."24


The Board of Visitors surpassed most of its predecessors in favorable comment this year. One passage in the report​25 has been widely quoted:

"Finally, in reviewing the reports of previous Boards of Visitors to the United States Military Academy this notable and curious circumstance reveals itself, namely, that every board previously acting and made up of selections of citizens from all sections of the country . . . has gone away from its work unanimously recommending the Academy to the confidence and support of the people of the country."​26

 p42  Further in the same report​27 it was said that the more West Point was investigated the better it was found to be.

An address was given before the Association of Graduates by Joshua Baker, class of 1819, oldest graduate present, in the course of which he named Professor Charles Davies ('15) as being second only to General Thayer as influential in the development of the Academy.28

The class of 1878 graduated in June after a typical four years at West Point.​29 They had reported for duty June, 1874, gone into summer camp, chased away the "eagles"​30 and removed single matches in a wheelbarrow, lost by resignation one classmate who would not conform, seen their number augmented by the arrival of "Septs," and returned to barracks in the Fall. A year of study was followed by "yearling" camp. An event occurred more celebrated in fiction than in fact, i.e., the "cutting" of a cadet by his fellow cadets. The Corps had considered him as over-zealous in the performance of duty. An official fight also took place. This class also enjoyed the trip to Philadelphia previously mentioned.

The custom of calling molasses "Sammy" dates from January, 1877, when new molasses cups were introduced while Lieutenant Samuel Mills was in charge of the Mess Hall. 1878 enjoyed the customary furlough, and the following summer participated in First Class camp.


Events moved on slowly and smoothly for another year. No change of importance occurred. In June there were two old alumni among the returning graduates: General D. Tyler and  p43 J. Baker, both of the class of 1819.​31 The Board of Visitors upon that occasion​32 reported:

"The arrangements for instruction are in many respects admirable. The division of classes into small sections . . . (10 to 12 students), . . . weekly publication of . . . relative standing, the gradation of the sections, (etc.) make the intellectual discipline as efficient as can easily be imagined."


In 1880 it was known that General O. O. Howard was to be the new Superintendent.​33 General Schofield was rounding out a success­ful tour of duty. One flaw in the discipline still remained. The custom of cadet "fights" had not been abolished.​34 Civil War veterans who died in this period were frequently brought to the Military Academy for burial and the little post cemetery began to expand.35

General Sherman paid the Military Academy a sincere compliment this Fall​36 when he said:

"The education and manly training imparted to young men at West Point has repaid the United States a thousand times . . . a more democratic body of men never existed on earth than is the Corps of Cadets."

The Board of Visitors in June recommended that admission standards should be made higher.37


Oliver O. Howard, Brigadier-General United States Army reported as Superintendent January 21, 1881. It is from 1881 that the practice of cadets shaving themselves dates. Going to the barber for this purpose was forbidden.38

 p44  The Board of Visitors this year (in a minority report signed by General Buell) sought to meet the recommendation of the previous board and help raise admission standards. They suggested​39 that an academy be formed to give young men one preparatory year as candidates for West Point. This idea has been examined frequently since then but never found practicable.​a

In an address​40 in June Judge J. K. Findlay, class of '24, said:

"I have since held a commission under the broad seal of the United States, and several appointments, military and civil, under the broad seal of the State of Pennsylvania but none of these gave me half the conceit of myself which this appointment of first corporal did . . ."​41

It was in June, 1881, that the mathematics examinations were written. They had been oral previously as has been mentioned.42


General Howard's final report mentions "hazing" and "fights" once more. They continued to be problems.43

Regular gymnastic instruction was resumed in this year.44

Wesley Merritt, Colonel, 5th Cavalry, reported as Superintendent September 1, 1882.

A particularly enthusiastic reunion of graduates occurred at which​45 W. E. Rogers sang "March to the Sea" to which General Sherman responded.

So the third decade ended upon a note of Civil War memories. Veterans of that war were now high in the service of the Nation elsewhere, and at West Point they controlled policy and directed the training of future commanders.

The Author's Notes:

1 Act of Congress, February 28, 1873.

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2 The trip was no doubt welcome to the Corps, as were subsequent ones, but the march itself was a physical ordeal. Difficult enough for other military units with less celebrated reputations to maintain, it was a long hard strain for the cadets who displayed straight lines and rigid attention for the duration of the parade. My personal recollections include such a parade — when President Wilson was inaugurated. G.

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3 Annual Report of the Superintendent, October 5, 1872, p789.

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4 See Appendix E.

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5 General Orders No. 83, War Department, Sept. 10, 1872.

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6 Bixby, W. H., Record of the Class of 1873.

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7 Wood, O. E., Lieut., U. S. A., West Point Scrap Book.

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8 Photograph and Inscription, West Point Army Mess.

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9 In an address to the U. S. Military Service Institute, West Point, N. Y., March 28, 1878, Professor A. E. Church referred to Benny Havens as follows: ". . . (Gridley family moved Spring of 1875) . . . I cannot learn that previous to this Spring "Benny" (Havens) had ever done enough to render him worthy of having his name sung . . . from this time he became an institution . . ." p136.

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10 Wood, O. E., Lieut. U. S. A., West Point Scrap Book, p59.

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11 Ibid., pp60‑64.

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12 Report, Board of Visitors, 1874, p3.

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13 Act of May 15, 1875, N. Y. State Legislature.

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14 Report, Association of Graduates, 1875.

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15 Report, Superintendent U. S. M. A., 1875.

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16 MS. Adjutant General's Office, O. M. A., March 28, 1876.

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17 Document Illustrating Organization of the Army, 1789‑1896.

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18 Post Orders, Vol. 9, p147.

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19 See Appendix F.

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20 Annual Report, Asso. Graduates, June 15, 1876.

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21 Report, Board of Visitors, 1876, p8.

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22 General Orders No. 15, Adjutant General's Office, Washington, D. C.

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23 Report of the Board of Visitors, 1877, p96.

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24 Ibid., p10.

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25 Report, Board of Visitors, 1878.

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26 Ibid., p37.

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27 Ibid., p455.

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28 Annual Reunion, Association of Graduates, June 13, 1878.

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29 Howe, E. W., History of the Class of 1878, U. S. M. A.

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30 Less serious aspects of plebe (freshman) camp were two famous bits of cadet humor. Freshmen were posted to keep sparrows from alighting. The birds, called "eagles," were dispersed with an exaggerated display of mock terror. The other "cadet grind" was used when any freshman designated to clean up the Company street left a pin or match stick on the ground. The culprit and two classmates were required to assemble with pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow, and to remove the offending article after elaborate serio-comic preparations. (These practices still obtained in 1915‑18. G.)

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31 Annual Report, Association of Graduates, June 12, 1879.

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32 Report of Board of Visitors, 1879, p8.

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33 General Orders No. 84, Adjutant General's Office, Washington, D. C.

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34 Report of Superintendent, 1880, pp225‑230.

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35 As an example: Remains of General George Sykes, U. S. A. per Act of Congress, February 17, 1880.

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36 Report, of Secretary of War, November 10, 1880, p318.

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37 Report, Board of Visitors, 1880 (of which the Hon. William McKinley was a member from Ohio).

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38 Post Orders, Vol. 10, p66.

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39 Report, Board of Visitors, 1881, pp18‑19.

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40 Address before Association of Graduates, June 9, 1881.

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41 The writer well recalls the thrill with which he put on his own first pair of Corporal's chevrons. It was July 4th and the National Holiday for once took on secondary importance. G.

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42 Report of Superintendent U. S. M. A., 1881, p83.

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43 Ibid., 1882, pp157‑8.

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44 Centennial, U. S. Military Academy, Vol. 1, p898.

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45 Annual Report, Association of Graduates, June 12, 1882.

Thayer's Note:

a This deficiency had in fact already been partly repaired by the time our author wrote; and a full-fledged preparatory school has existed since 1946: the U. S. M. A. Preparatory School (USMAPS, which as of July 2011 has moved to West Point itself, after a long exodus at Fort Belvoir, VA and Fort Monmouth, NJ), grooming candidates for West Point, although they are restricted to members of the U. S. Army. According to the school's website, "The U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School, known as USMAPS, the Prep School, or West Point Prep, was formally established in 1946, but the 'history' of 'prepping' of soldiers for West Point has been done since Congress enacted legislation in 1916 authorizing appointments for soldiers to West Point." A good 14‑minute video on the same site tells the story of USMAPS in detail, including that of the World War I battlefield preparatory schools under General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing and a number of dispersed preparatory schools in the 1920s and 30s — before Godson wrote — and in particular one at the Presidio in San Francisco, with a strong curriculum emphasizing mathematics, that foreshadowed today's Army unit.

An important point not explicitly stated in the video, and not as explicitly as it could be on the website, is that if you are a Soldier whose high school achievements were patchy but want to get into West Point, you can use USMAPS as an expertly conducted free cram course to enable you to meet the academic requirements for admission.

Not stated at all: if, as a civilian, for some odd reason you can't get a Congressional appointment — in my own case, I was living in France and had no American residence — by enlisting in the Army and gaining entrance to USMAPS, you can success­fully compete for a West Point appointment: a roundabout process, but a few do it every year.

Not strictly germane, but if you've read this far, the tip might be useful to you: When, as an enlistee in the Regular Army I somehow got the feeling that my application to West Point was being ignored, I remembered what I'd been told along with all the other recruits in my company in Basic Training: If you have a problem, go see the Chaplain. So on my first leave, I did: I got an appointment in the Office of the Chaplain General in the Pentagon; that produced effects quickly. To this day, that remains the only time I've ever set foot in that august five-sided building.

If you should wind up doing this, (a) drop me a line, I'd appreciate knowing I was helpful; and (b) my own Academy career was not so success­ful: I wish you better.

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Page updated: 17 Mar 16