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Bill Thayer

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Part 4

This webpage reproduces part of
A Sketch of the History and Topography of West Point and the U. S. Military Academy

Roswell Park

published by
Henry Perkins,
Philadelphia, 1840

The text is in the public domain.

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

The History of West Point

["Part 5" of 5 in this Web transcription]

 p119  We proceed finally to state the recent objections which have been made to the Military Academy, and to offer a brief reply. On the 26th of November, 1833, the Legislature of Tennessee passed Resolutions in favour of abolishing the Academy; saying, "a few young men, sons of distinguished and wealthy families, through the intervention of members of Congress, are educated at this institution at the expense of the great body of the American people, which entitle them to privileges, and elevate them above their fellow-citizens, who have not been so fortunate as to be educated under the patronage of this aristocratical institution." On the 3d of March, 1834, similar Resolutions were passed by the Legislature of Ohio, saying that the Academy "is partial in its operations, and  p120 wholly inconsistent with the spirit and genius of our liberal institutions." It was in reply to these Resolutions, that an able Report was made to the House of Representatives, May 17th, 1834, by Colonel Richard M. Johnson, as Chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs; vindicating the institution against these charges, showing how fully it has been approved by all our leading statesmen, from Washington downwards, and how substantially it has repaid the country for her maternal care and support. But this institution was destined to pass another ordeal, when, on the 1st of March, 1837, a virulent Report against it was presented to the House of Representatives, by the Honourable F. O. J. Smith, of Maine, Chairman of the Select Committee of Nine, appointed to investigate the condition of the United States Military Academy. This Report concluded by recommending the abolition of the Academy, and the establishment of a School of Practice in its stead; for reasons which it is our present purpose to examine.

It is objected that the cadets at the Academy are not a part of the efficient force of  p121 the army. In denial of this assertion, we may quote the very language of the law of 1812, as quoted by Mr. Wirt, in proving that the cadets are subject to courts-martial. They are subject to do duty, whenever, and wherever, and whatever the President shall direct; and they would at any time be fit and ready for duty, even on the battle-field, like the youthful Polytechnists of Paris, did occasion require it. If they are not an efficient part of the army, it is in the same sense that soldiers newly recruited, or citizen officers newly appointed, are not efficient, until they have acquired the requisite knowledge and experience. If the number of cadets were more than the public service requires, as has been objected, the remedy would be to reduce the academy, not to destroy it; but this objection does not at present hold good, in point of fact. The objection that the graduates are not under obligation to continue in the service, was obviated in a reasonable degree by the law of July 5th, 1838, requiring them to serve four years after graduating; and if this be not sufficient, it rests with Congress to extend the  p122 period of service, as far as the nation may see fit to require.

The objection most relied on, against educating the cadets at the public expense, would apply equally against instructing recruits of any grade, or paying them any thing until they should be thoroughly drilled and complete you efficient. This answers also the constitutional objection against the right of Congress to establish a seminary of education. The cadets are not merely students, but a grade of officers on duty, as much so as if they were dispersed through all the posts and garrisons; but learning that duty ten times as well as they could thus learn it, and at much less expense than if instructed after being commissioned as lieutenants; when their pay would be more than twice as great. They learn it too far more thoroughly and uniformly than if taught at private schools, military or civil, as the result of more than one rival institution abundantly testifies. No fewer than thirty-one gentlemen, all but six of whom are graduates of the Academy, are employed in instructing two hundred and sixty cadets. What other institution  p123 in our country could present any thing like the same amount of suitable instruction to candidates for army promotion?

This introduces another objection, that the expense of educating the cadets is exorbitant, especially as compared with the expenses at our best colleges. In answer to this, we have only to state, that the current expenses of the institution, including the pay and rations of the cadets, amount to about $100,000; and dividing this sum by 250, the average number of cadets, we have the annual expense of each cadet, equal to $400 per annum; which, contrasted with college expenses for travelling, boarding, tuition, fuel, books, and clothing, is we think by no means unfavourable to the Military Academy, considering the number and qualifications of its instructors. We may add, that this expense is far less than would be that of the scheme recommended by the Hon. Mr. Smith, of ordering nearly one third of the company officers of the army to West Point, when converted into a School of Practice; especially as those officers would not then be a part of the efficient force of the army, as the phrase is understood  p124 by Mr. Smith. But what are a few dollars, more or less, compared with the importance of having a body of select and thoroughly educated officers, to take the command of our armies, and direct our fortifications and national improvements?

The objection that only the sons of influential and wealthy men are admitted to the Academy, is far from being true; but even were it the case, the fault would not in the Academy, but in those who are vested with the power of making the appointments thereto. Hence it would not be remedied by abolishing the Academy; since the Executive would then appoint as lieutenants those who are now appointed as cadets; or rather, it would appoint a more favoured class of young men, already tolerably educated. As regards the Academy itself, even its most violent opponents, on the successive Boards of Visiters, have admitted that nothing could be more just and impartial than its awards of academic honours and censures. It is not strange that many of those who are discharged should find fault with its strictness; but it is surely just that  p125 the country should select those who are deemed best qualified, and not be required to educate and commission all who may be admitted on the recommendation of partial friends. Though they may possess latent talents, and may afterwards distinguish themselves, still the Academic Staff must judge them by their present industry and acquirements, without waiting for the future.

Much has been said against the moral tendency of the education acquired at West Point, but we think with great injustice. The argument drawn from the conduct-rolls is perfectly futile; where to appear on parade with a rusty gun lock, is charged, and properly so, as a military crime. We appeal with confidence to the subsequent career of a great majority of the graduates, as disproving this charge; and we assert that since the Academy became settled under the present régime, there have been fewer disturbances there than at our colleges, generally speaking. But in strictness, the comparison should be made not with our colleges, but with the character which young officers would be likely to acquire without an education  p126 at the Academy; and in this point of view, the result need not be stated.

Another of the objections is, that the graduates of the Military Academy, being entitle to precedence in filling vacancies in the army, all citizens above the age of twenty-one are virtually almost excluded from entering the service, and that no inducement is left for the general acquisition of military knowledge, "nor for the institution of military schools," elsewhere.​67 But allowing that fifty appointments are to be made annually in the army; we ask how many private military schools this inducement would foster and support? or if only one or two, we ask in what respect these would be preferable to the National Academy; and whether the appointment of graduates from such institutions, who would necessarily be sons only of the wealthy, would not be an act of greater favouritism than that which has been unjustly urged against West Point?

It is said that the commanders of upper army in cases of emergency, will be men inspired  p127 with military genius and energy springing up with the occasion, and not the graduates of the Military Academy. But we ask who will be more likely to be thus inspired, than those who voluntary sought the profession of arms in their youth, and have devoted their lives to its acquirement? It is still more strongly urged that the militia of our country will not submit to be commanded by these graduates, and that either they will refuse to enlist, "or the earliest discharges of their musketry will be to rid themselves of their obnoxious commandants, and to devolve the duty of command upon some more congenial comrade."​68 Can such be the language of an American citizen, and member of Congress? Is it justified in the least degree by facts? Take, for instance, the Florida war. If there has been any fault in its management, it should be remembered that the chief commanders there were heroes of the war of 1812, but not graduates of the Academy. Has there been any collision between the militia and the officers from West Point, in  p128 all this trying service? We believe none, absolutely none; but on the contrary, entire harmony and respect. Far be it from us, however, to disparage the merits of the commanders in Florida, who, we sincerely believe, have done all that was in their power, with the means and materials afforded them, to terminate that harassing war, if war it deserves to be called. But we can by no means believe that an officer who receives a singular military education, thereby forfeits the confidence or sympathies of his fellow-citizens of the militia. As to the privileges which the graduates are accused of possessing, we know of none but that of serving their country in the army, and receiving a superior education to fit them for the service.

The last objection which we have been enabled to discover, and the one which remains to be noticed is, that the academy has failed to accomplish the objects for which it was established; and therefore should be abolished. An attempt is made to prove this by a reference to General Bernard and Colonel McRee's statement, in 1819, that the "school at West Point has hitherto been  p129 very inferior as such, and altogether inadequate to the objects for which it was established." But their farther statement, that "A project has been presented, to place this school upon the footing of the most perfect of the kind that exists," the objector has not seen fit to notice. Their object was to recommend the establishment of a School of Practice, not as a substitute for the academy, but as a supplement to it; to perfect the knowledge therein acquired. In time of peace, when the young officers would otherwise be scattered at the remote posts, and the troops be dispersed by companies, a school of practice is doubtless highly desirable, and even necessary; but in time of war, when armies are wanted in the field, they are the only school of practice then needed. If such a school be an elementary one, it is only a military academy under another name; but this was not the idea of General Bernard and Colonel McRee, who intended that it should bear the same relation to the West Point Academy, that the French School of Practice at Metz, bears to the Polytechnic School.

Turning from authorities on this point, we  p130 appeal to facts, in proof of the efficiency and utility of the Military Academy. The whole number of graduates prior to the year 1813, was only 88; and of this number no fewer than eleven were breveted, during the war of 1812, for distinguished services, five of whom are at present colonels or lieutenant-colonels in the army. Of the corps of engineers during that war, all those commissioned prior to 1812, including all the higher officers, were graduates of the Academy. "Not to speak of others, it was McRee, who on the field of Bridgewater suggested the expediency of that perilous but well-timed order, whose successful execution," [by the gallant Miller,] "turned the tide of battle; — and to him and to Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Wood, who fell at the head of his column in the sortie from Fort Erie, — may justly be ascribed much of the glory of that memorable campaign."​69 We believe that the first successful sortie of an American garrison against a besieging army, was that of Fort Erie, and that this was first suggested and planned by Colonel Wood, who fell so  p131 bravely during its successful execution. Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ketchum, who captured the British General Ryall, at the battle of Bridgewater, was also a graduate of the Military Academy. We may also add, that the success of the battle of Plattsburg was due, in no small degree, to the skilful and energetic efforts of Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Totten, in fortifying the banks of the Saranac, while awaiting the enemy; General Macomb, the commander-in‑chief, having also been one of the first students of the Academy.​a Colonel Thayer's successful arrangements for the defence of Norfolk, have already been referred to, but should here be recalled to mind. Of the first eighty-eight graduates, nine fell in battle during the war of 1812; eight of whom are not included among the brevets already mentioned. Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Eleazer D. Wood, of the engineers, Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.James Gibson, of the rifle regiment, and Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Alexander J. Williams, of the artillery, fell at Fort Erie, in 1814; the latter we believe at the assault by which it was taken from the British, and the two former at the sortie by which it was afterwards successfully defended. Lieutenant  p132 Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Samuel B. Rathbone fell at Queenston Heights, in 1812; Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Henry A. Hobart, at Fort George, in 1813; Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George Ronan, at Chicago, in 1812; Lieutenants Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Henry Burchstead and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Joseph N. Wilcox, at Fort Mimms, in 1812; and Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William W. Smith, at Christler's Farm, in 1813.

The whole number of graduates of the Military Academy, from its first establishment to 1840, inclusive, is 1058; of whom, according to the last official register, 396 remain in the military service, besides the graduating class of 1840. If to these be added the graduates now in the civil service of the United States, as engineers or assistants on the fortifications, coast survey, and improvement of rivers and harbours, it will be found that there still remain in the public service nearly one half of all the graduates of the Military Academy, at the end of forty years from its first establishment; while no fewer than one hundred and seventy-four of the remainder have died in service or been killed in battle. When it is added that the appointments in the two regiments of dragoons were  p133 mostly conferred on citizens, thereby disappointing reasonable hopes of promotion, and introducing many citizens into the service, the fact that about two thirds of all the officers now in the army, the whole number of which, exclusive of the medical, pay, and purchasing departments, is six hundred and thirty, are graduates of the Military Academy, is alone a proof, we think, that this institution has not failed of its object. "Our whole army," says Colonel Johnson, in his Report, "possesses now far more of the public respect and confidence than it did not many years since. It is the great distinction of the Academy at West Point, that it has contributed largely and effectually to this elevation of the character of the military establishment." More might be quoted, and from various sources, in praise of this institution; but we forbear.

In the Florida war, out of fifteen officers killed in battle, ten​b were graduates of the Military Academy. Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George W. Gardiner, and Lieutenants Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William W. E. Basinger, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Robert R. Mudge, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Richard Henderson, and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John L. Keais, all of the artillery, fell together  p134 at the bravely fought, but unfortunate battle in which Major Dade's command was slain, December 28th, 1835. Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.James F. Izard, of the dragoons, was mortally wounded when in command of the advanced guard of General Gaines's army, near the Withlacoochee river, February 29th, 1836. Lieutenant-Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Alexander R. Thomson, Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Joseph Van Swearingen, and Lieutenants Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Francis J. Brooke and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John P. Center, all of the infantry, fell at the victorious battle of Okeechobee, December 25th, 1837. Captain Samuel L. Russell, and Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.W. Hulbert, both of the infantry, were killed by the Indians in 1839; the former near Fort Dallas, on the 28th of February, and the latter at Mile Creek, on the 2d of May. But the officers killed in battle are only a small portion of those who have been sacrificed, through sickness from exposure, fatigue, or privation, during this unfortunate war. In the words of a distinguished senator, on the floor of Congress, "Officers and men have fought it out where they were told to fight; they have been killed in the tracks where they were told to stand. In no one of our Indian wars have  p135 our troops so stood together, and conquered together, and died together, as they have done in this one; and this standing together is the test of the soldier's character." Witness the dying words of Basinger, "I am the last officer left, — men! we will do the best we can;" — and of the gallant Thompson, "Keep steady, men! Charge the hammock! Remember the regiment to which you belong!"70 If these are the indications of inefficiency in the graduates of the Military Academy, we have nothing more to offer in their behalf.

We conclude this imperfect sketch of the history of West Point, with the following lines, written by a lady, gifted of the Muses, on visiting this interesting spot.

Bright are the memories linked with thee,

Boast of a glory-hallowed land!

Hope of the valiant and the free, —

Home of their youthful soldier-band!

Not pilgrim at earth's shrines of pride,

When fancy's wand the past unveiled,

E'er bent the heart to feeling's tide,

E'er thrilled as those who thee have hailed.

 p136  Proud smiles each spirit-haunted height,

Like Guardian Genius of the wave;

And Bathed in sunset's dying light,

Thou seem'st th' Elysium of the brave! . . .

Dearer to us yon mountain's steep,

Where moss-veiled ruins darkly rise,

Dearer that turf where proud ones sleep,

Than all that lures 'neath eastern skies.

Home of the gallant brave — farewell!

Long mayst thou shine, thy country's boast, —

Her bulwark when strong tempests swell, —

Her beacon, should all hope seem lost!

Long may her sons, — the prized, the true, —

Be mid thy scenes to glory fired,

Here bathe the soul in wisdom's dew,

Be here by genius' light inspired.

 p137  Note.

Since the principal part of the preceding sketch was put to press, the writer has been favoured with a letter from General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Swift, in reply to a note of inquiry, addressed to that gentleman, the answer to which was delayed by his absence from home. It contains so much valuable information, that its insertion here will, it is hoped, be pardoned by its author, and will surely gratify those interested in the history of West Point. General Swift states as follows:

Not only from July, 1812, to January, 1815, but also to July, 1817, and indeed to November, 1818, I was, as the law prescribes, the Superintendent of the Academy; for the Chief Engineer had no power to divest himself of the responsibilities of that office. The dates, January, 1815, and July, 1817, have reference to official but not statute rule, and were to give the Chief Engineer the functions of Inspector, and the officer detailed to reside at West Point that of Superintendent. The senior officer of engineers, (not being the chief,) present at the Point, was considered the temporary superintendent, pending the absence  p138 of the chief, and especially so from 1812 to 1817, at which last date, the Secretary of War, Mr. Calhoun, introduced the since efficient rule of inspection. The duty of the Superintendent, early in the existence of the Military Academy, was also that of an instructor; but after 1808, the functions of the Chief Engineer became more those of a commandant and inspector.

"The Superintendent, from November, 1816, to January, 1817, was especially ordered by the President, for the twofold purposes, 1st, of separating the Chief Engineer from service with a Foreign Engineer, in consequence of remonstrance against the impolitic interpolation into the corps that produced the resignation of the chief in 1818; and 2d, to reform certain abuses alleged to have arisen at West Point. In January, 1817, that officer was ordered to Washington, and Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Partridge left in temporary superintendence, in which, by order of said chief, he was superseded by Major Thayer, in July of that year.

"George Baron was the first superintendent, and the first Professor of Mathematics at the Military Academy in 1801. He was succeeded by Major Williams, in December, 1801. When said Baron was dismissed, in February, 1802, Captain William A. Barron, of the corps of engineers, was his successor, and continued professor of mathematics until 1807, when Professor Hassler took that chair, and continued until 1810, when Captain Partridge, the then assistant professor, discharged the duty until 1813. Captain Mansfield, the first Professor of Philosophy, 1802,  p139 with Professor Barron, signed the first diploma granted at the Military Academy, in 1802. In 1806, the philosophical chair was vacated by the absence of Professor Mansfield, who, as surveyor-general of Ohio, remained absent until 1812. In reference to Mr. Crozet, he was, by permission of the Secretary of War, at the request of General Swift, introduced, in 1816, as assistant professor of Engineering; and at the instance of the same officer, was appointed professor in 1817.

"Major George Fleming had been, for many years prior to 1800, military storekeeper at West Point; and, during the Revolutionary War, had been stationed at that place. When General Swift was a cadet there, Major Fleming often mentioned that the fort and the stone barrack on Constitution Island, were erected and occupied by the Connecticut Line, at the same time that similar works and barracks were being constructed at West Point, save Fort Clinton, which was commenced at a later period on a plan made by General Duportail, who also commenced Fort Putnam; which latter work was discontinued, and subsequently recommenced in 1792, but left unfinished. According to Major Fleming's account, Kosciuszko's Garden was made by that Polish officer, who formed a fountain in the garden, the ruins of which Lieutenant Macomb and Cadet Swift discovered, and repaired the whole in 1802.

"In the year 1794, at the recommendation of General Washington, a military school was commenced at  p140 West Point, and the building stood on the margin of the hollow northwest from the present site of the ice-house, and was burnt down by an incendiary in 1796, with its contents of books and apparatus. The school was suspended until 1801."

To those gentlemen who have kindly assisted the writer, by furnishing information for the preceding pages, he would, in conclusion, express his sincere acknowledgments; and should any errors be discovered in the work, he will be alike indebted for their correction or for any additional information relating to the subject of his labour, cheerfully and voluntary attempted, though of necessity imperfectly performed.

the end.

The Author's Notes:

67 Mr. Smith's Report, p30.

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68 Mr. Smith's Report, p28.

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69 Hon. Mr. Butler's Address, p27.

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70 See Lieutenant Alvord's address, p49, 50.

Thayer's Notes:

a Macomb was already a First Lieutenant when he was stationed at the just-founded Academy in 1802 and was given some instruction there; he is not considered to have been a Cadet at U. S. M. A., and is not listed in Cullum's Register.

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b So Park: the list that follows, however, is of 12 men, 11 of whom were graduates.

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