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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
West Point

Elizabeth D. J. Waugh

published by
The Macmillan Company,
New York, 1944

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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Chapter 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p70  Chapter VI
West Point Comes of Age

Just as the climate of the Hudson River valley varies sharply from the arctic temperatures of winter to almost equatorial heat in summer, so now U. S. M. A. was to change from the regime of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Partridge to the almost perfect system which has been the admiration of military authorities for more than a century. "The Mill That Thayer Built" was to make West Point a military school second to none in the world, perhaps the finest in the world. Thayer's task was creative in its essence, but in its execution it was a work of almost mechanical perfection. Yet the word mechanical cannot fully describe a military unit whose precision is made by the perfect coordination of men — and the Cadet Corps at West Point is comprised of very young men.

Sylvanus Thayer may be said to have created that intangible which we call the "spirit of West Point." The institution whose noble buildings crown the Highlands of the Hudson today was not built by him from whole cloth; rather, he resembled a skillful tailor who cuts the smartest imaginable uniform from moth-riddled wool.

First of all the very necessary pruning of the unfit — it was said that there was one forty-year‑old cadet in residence, with a family in Newburgh, and another with but one arm — reduced the Corps to one hundred and eighty-one men. Entrance examinations, installed now for the first time in years, eliminated many candidates. Of the remainder many had been badly ruined by Partridge's regime, though this was not at first apparent  p71 in all cases. Favoritism had been the rule of the Academy; now at all costs this must be forever done away with. Almost at once a situation arose which required Thayer's courage.

The son of Major General Thomas Pinckney was dismissed for failure to return on time. General Pinckney was one of the most influential men in the country at the period and he did not rest content with the decision of the Superintendent of U. S. M. A. He enlisted the interest of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Swift. Then General Pinckney wrote that his son had been held at home because of bad weather. Swift, convinced of the justice of General Pinckney's case, recommended that in this one instance an exception be allowed to Major Thayer's new-made rules. But Thayer was adamant. Result: every cadet at West Point knew that favoritism was dead, that while Major Thayer was Superintendent it would remain buried.

Then a more serious challenge to Thayer's authority arose — serious because in this case two wrongs were involved and the right was difficult to discern. Before the affair was finally settled, young men's hearts were broken and young careers were thwarted; for the birth of the new West Point could not in the nature of things be painless.

To stiffen discipline Thayer had created the post of Instructor of Tactics — afterward, Commandant — and had requested the Secretary of War to appoint Captain John Bliss to the new post. But Captain Bliss had a defect which is so often ruinous to a military career: an ungovernable temper. In drilling the cadets he was tried beyond his endurance by a clumsiness which he felt inexcusable in what should have been already an elite corps. Captain Bliss was further infuriated by what seemed to him to be, and what actually probably was, deliberate disobedience in drill. When Cadet Edward L. Nicholson failed to obey an order on the parade ground, one cold day  p72 in November, it was not the first time he had offended the fiery captain. The captain seized the cadet by the collar, dragged him from the ranks, and "publicly damned him."

The result was that a deputation of cadets presented one of those round robins which had been so common in the days of Old Pewter, but this petition was signed by one hundred and seventy-nine cadets so chosen that they might be truly said to represent the feeling of the whole Corps. The petition was presented by a delegation of five cadets, for whom Cadet Thomas Ragland, the Knight of the Chair Round, was the spokesman. All five cadets, even Ragland, were now in good standing. Another was Andrew Jackson Donelson, nephew of the future President.

"Gentlemen," said Major Thayer, "I cannot receive your petition. Any cadet who feels himself aggrieved shall have a hearing. What you propose, however, is something else. It is unmilitary. I shall not consider it for a moment. You have my permission to go, gentlemen."

This affair almost rocked the mountains; it took a full year before it was terminated. Major Thayer called for a formal inspection, which upheld his course; but the cadets in question laid their grievance before Congress. In the end Captain Bliss was relieved, "as he does not appear to have sufficient command of his temper." All five of the cadets were permitted to resign, though some among them had shown brilliant promise.​a Popular rule at West Point was over forever, because — as a direct result of this affair — the Attorney General of the United States, William Wirt, ruled that the Cadet Corps at West Point formed a part of the land forces of the United States, subject to the rules and articles of war, and that they were, like all other soldiers, subject to trial by courts-martial.

A glamorous soldier eventually took Captain Bliss' place as Commandant of Cadets. He had won glory at Niagara and  p73 Chippewa, and was to win still more at Monterey and Chapultepec. This officer was tall and straight and commanding, the visible incarnation of the military beau ideal — Captain and Brevet Major William J. Worth. "Haughty Bill," the cadets named him; but they took pride in and had an admiration for this soldier who could somehow review a parade with the same spirit in which he led a charge in battle. Under his eye the colors were upheld with a certain proud invincible defiance.

But "Haughty Bill" was not indifferent to the minutiae of military technique. It was Worth who taught the cadets to slap their hands on the butts of their rifles as they came most smartly from "present" to "support"; his idea, the whittling away of wood under rifle bands which gave so smart a rattle to the manual. Many such characteristic points still seen and heard on the plain during parade today were originated by Haughty Bill.

Thayer had abolished vacation; cadets might obtain leave by furlough, at the request of their parents, during the summer camping period only, and then it was required that each cadet fulfil at least two complete encampments. The reading of fiction was prohibited; also the playing of chess, of which Thayer himself was especially fond. Was he afraid that this game, always the most fascinating of all to the military mind, would inevitably steal away study time? Otherwise this ruling might seem a little hard today.

Yet undoubtedly during Thayer's superintendence West Point was a happy place. Members of the Board of Visitors of that date write that they were impressed by the easy bearing of the cadets, who even during the stress of oral examination never lost a certain self-confident ease — that ability to respect themselves while at the same time respecting their superiors which marks officerlike demeanor. At this time appointments to U. S. M. A. were most eagerly solicited, and the  p74 cadet who felt sure of graduating was sure also that he was to possess the best technical education in the country. We must always marvel that Thayer was able to do so much so quickly.

The cadets' day was both long and full. Reveille was exactly at sunrise, but the cadets awoke not to the call of a bugle but to the tattoo of drums. Roll call followed in one minute; to be late meant two hours' sweeping or other duty. Drill followed in thirty minutes and lasted two hours; then, at last, the march to breakfast. Perhaps the young men could enjoy it?

Recitations followed, from eight until eleven; at twelve, French. This subject was of particular importance at that time as most of the best military works were in French and remained untranslated. Dinner was at one; at four, drill again for two hours; then supper. At 9 P.M. came roll call, and lights out five minutes afterward.

"Every movement," comments a cadet writing to his father in 1818, "is made in the most perfect order." He goes on to say that he is well fed and comfortable, but that he has only a half-hour at noon and Saturday afternoon as recreation periods and even at those times is not allowed off the reservation except by very special permission.

"For exercise," he says, "we have enough drilling, rather more than I would wish." But he comforts his absent father by saying that he is very well contented at West Point.

Another sort of exercise was constant, that of maintaining military posture. In the words of a contemporary the new cadets were taught to:

Display the Chest, draw in the Corporation, draw the Chin in perpendicular to the Chest, hold the hands down so as to touch the seam of the Pantaloons, and take care don't bend the elbows, keep the Shoulders back and to keep the feet at an angle of 45 degrees.

 p75  If the cadets' day was a full one, that of the Superintendent was not less so. He was often up for a walk even before reveille; he almost invariably supervised the morning parade, but returned to breakfast before seven. Before eight he was ready to interview cadets having business with him. His morning was given to paper work in his study. In the afternoon Major Thayer was out of doors on the post until four, when he received officers; he inspected evening parade and then returned to dine. Sunday afternoons he reserved for talks with the faculty.

Yet, like the cadet, we can be sure that Thayer was "well content" with his life on the Point. His house was perfectly run by Molly, an Irishwoman, and by Pat from the same green country. These two achieved for him perfect comfort, perfect quiet and dignity. Personally something of a gourmet, Sylvanus Thayer liked rare vintages and good food. Molly could cook many dishes which her master had enjoyed in France. The Superintendent's cellar was well stocked. His pleasant house, the same one which is occupied by the Superintendent of today, was cheerful with bright fires in winter and cool in summer. It is doubtful if the master left it often during his long residence at the post. Probably he did not want to leave the creative task which absorbed him.

Even the social life of the Superintendent revolved about West Point. He used his very considerable social talents for the advancement of the Academy. He was unmarried, and West Point was his only love. He knew all the families resident in surrounding Orange County, was known well and favorably in Newburgh. It was, however, through his intimacy with Gouverneur Kemble, who was master of the Iron Foundry across the river at Cold Spring, that Thayer met the great world. The foundry was, at that time, of vast importance. Almost everything made of iron, everything of heavy metal  p76 needed in the length and breadth of the growing country, was cast at the West Point foundry. Unmarried also, Kemble had famous bachelor dinners each Saturday night. His foundry teams went almost daily to New York, and brought mail and packages to the post because the stagecoach ran but twice a week. The important men of the nation were Kemble's friends. Few projects of importance were undertaken without his advice. Iron steamships, such as the famous Walk-the‑Water which trampled Lake Erie under her paddled feet in 1818; iron bridges; ports for canal locks — all were figured upon at the West Point Foundry.

As early as 1821 Kemble writes that he has just been dining with Thayer at West Point: "Had a long talk with him about lighting the Academy with gas and heating it by steam."

Many of the great engineering feats of that day were conceived by West Point Engineers and cast of West Point iron.

At one dinner in the neighborhood the Superintendent met an unexpected guest. An unfortunate cadet had "run it" to be present at this dinner. What was his painful surprise to find that the Superintendent was also a guest! His embarrassment was perfectly obvious to everyone at the table except, it seemed, to Major Thayer, who with apparently sincere cordiality exchanged toasts with the cadet, in the manner of that day, and was careful to treat him with the civility due to a fellow guest. Returning to his barracks, the poor young man expected each day to be his last at West Point. Yet two years afterward he graduated with the matter of the dinner still unmentioned. This was a working out in practice of Thayer's strict theory of discipline, according to which the cadet was not to be rebuked by him but by the Commandant whose duty it was to prevent absence without leave. What Thayer said to the Commandant has never been recorded. But such incidents abruptly ceased.

At another time two cadets obtained leave to visit Newburgh.  p77 The first entered a saloon; the second did not. Next day in a pleasant way Thayer complimented the second cadet on his behavior as becoming to a future officer. The first cadet was left alone with his thoughts. Cadets asking for favors were always startled at the Superintendent's intimate knowledge of their affairs. The truth was that Thayer kept in his desk a filed index of each cadet's standing, his grades, his financial condition, his conduct.

Therefore if a cadet asked for something which would be expensive — such, for example, as new shoes — the Superintendent could reply, "But, Mr. So-and‑So, you are already in debt to such an amount I think that your old pair of shoes must serve until your next pay is received."

However, these mechanical means were merely a road to justice, for Sylvanus Thayer made it his study to know each cadet who passed through the Academy as a friend. They must meet the requirements of the system he was building, but through the grind they were made conscious of their high destiny as officers in the United States Army.

At this time the great of the nation sought eagerly for appointments to U. S. M. A. for their sons, and Thayer had the satisfaction of seeing West Point grow to vast prestige not only at home but abroad also.

It was the only school of engineering in the country and we cannot help being impressed with the academic excellence it achieved while most Americans were too busy subduing a continent to take much time for higher education. The mathematical standing of West Point was as high as that of any school of its time on either side of the Atlantic, and the engineering course can be estimated by its accomplishments. West Pointers built or were largely responsible for the Buzzards Bay and Chesapeake canals, for many lighthouses, and for the construction of national roads which were just then of  p78 vast importance because of the opening of the West. Thayer introduced the study of chemistry, mineralogy and geology, history and ethics. He graded cadets with the marking system still in use: 3.0, perfect; 2.5, good; 2.0, indifferent; 1.5, bad; 1.0, very imperfect; 0.0 failure. He also inaugurated the rule of recitation, "every man in every subject daily." He gave cadets who were considered promising by the Academic Board another chance even if they failed in general examinations — the "turn-back system."

The august Board of Visitors, who appeared during examinations, gave these occasions an air of solemnity which, we are glad to note, did not frighten the cadets, who — according to the visitors themselves, you will remember — maintained a kind of courteous ease and an alacrity in their replies. During oral examinations cadets were not required to rise from their seats. But plenty of blackboard work was the order of the day, throughout the year and during examinations also.

Things seemed to be almost too good to be true — they were. During the administrations of Monroe and of John Quincy Adams, Thayer's re-creation of West Point received only the praise which was its due, but in 1828 Andrew Jackson was elected President and a new era was in store for the country — and for West Point. Old Hickory had been defeated in his race for the Presidency four years before, but under him, as a "plain honest man of the people," the American party system as we know it today came into being. Jackson resented West Point as having, he thought, a kind of Old World aristocracy; he resented it because it had been the darling of his opts at the polls. Was he also influenced by his own dismissed nephew, Andrew Jackson Donelson? We do not know. Yet he did not wish to destroy but merely to control West Point. Also, as usual when no war was in prospect, people were asking, "Why a military academy in a peaceful nation?" The  p79 attention of the country was focused on the great western migration.

The legislature of the State of South Carolina at this time voted to abolish West Point. A pamphlet appeared in Washington signed Americanus, but everyone knew that Alden Partridge had written it. The title explains itself: The Military Academy at West Point Unmasked; or, Corruption and Military Despotism Exposed.

At first this cold current was merely felt in the atmosphere, afar off, like the cold breath of an iceberg hidden by fog. It was rumored that Alden Partridge had the ear of Jackson. West Point became the subject of an inquiry in Congress. Too few cadets were graduated, it was charged. And these few — were they not from influential families only? But West Point weathered the tempest. Then the storm burst over the post itself, and with the thunder came lightning in the form of incendiary fires. A cadet, Alexander Wolcott of Connecticut, set fire to the icehouse. While under arrest he attempted to desert. Tried for both offenses, he was found guilty and sentenced to dismissal and solitary confinement on Governor's Island. But this sentence was tampered with and modified in spite of the fact that it was the second case of arson within the month at West Point.

Then, while certain cadets who could not study, or were incurably devoted to Benny Haven's tavern and had no political influence — such cadets, for example, as young Edgar Allen Poe — were suffered to resign without interference, others who were related to families considered by the powers at Washington to be vote getters were allowed by the President to flout the rules at will. Special privileges were extended to these cadets; they, for example, allowed to extend their furloughs. These appealed directly to the War Department for their privileges; they did not bother to consult Thayer, though  p80 the Academy Regulations provided expressly that any such request should go through the Superintendent.

Very calmly, in his beautiful measured English, Colonel Thayer — the years had brought slow promotion — wrote to the Chief of the Engineer Corps explaining his earnest remonstrance against this arbitrary practice. He showed that leaves were intended as a kind of reward and that to disturb the system which rewarded merit was to impair the discipline of the Military Academy. This meddling with his authority for political purposes was deeply abhorrent to a man who had been so careful himself — who had, in fact, made it a cardinal point — never to interfere with authority once delegated. He could well foresee where such interference would lead.

Sadly Thayer thought of the ardent support the Military Academy had had in the past; of the cordial endorsement of his superintendency by John C. Calhoun, the Secretary of War under Monroe, who had written to him in 1818 that "in future wars the Nation must look to the Academy for the skill to conduct valor to victory."

In his own heart, though he was too good a soldier to so express himself, Sylvanus Thayer became convinced that appointments to the Military Academy were made in Washington for the purpose of political expediency; that the future decisions of the Academic Board, of the Superintendent, and of the Tactical Departments with regard to these appointees would be disregarded. He felt that President Jackson had a personal antipathy to him. He knew, too, that Andrew Jackson was as inflexible as his nickname, Old Hickory.

One fine morning a hickory pole was discovered firmly planted in the middle of the parade ground! Cadet Norris was found to be guilty, and Colonel Thayer reprimanded him severely. Then there came a letter from Old Hickory himself charging that the cadet had been too severely treated. Thereafter  p81 young Norris boasted that he could do as he pleased at West Point — let others be slaves if they cared to be. He loaded a candlestick with brass buttons, fired it at a tactical officer; but this time he had really gone too far. He was dismissed.

Soberly Colonel Thayer took stock of the situation. He sent the Commandant, Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ethan Allen Hitchcock, to see the President, instructing him to say that if the Academy was not run in a manner acceptable to the President he, the Superintendent, would wish to change it to a more acceptable pattern but that, while he remained in command, regulations once established would be enforced. However, matters had already gone too far to admit of patching up — or so thought Colonel Thayer. He finally decided that it was his own resignation which was required.

One evening in February, 1833, Colonel Thayer announced very quietly to his official family that his resignation had been accepted by the War Department and that he would leave sometime after graduation. Something very like consternation came over West Point. Each member of the graduating class came to pay him a personal farewell. In the eyes and in the manner of these young men he could see the reward of his work: he knew that they would bear the mark of his influence throughout life; he knew that to them he was the model of soldier and gentleman, the model on which they would build their lives. And — though he perhaps at the time was not at all sure of it — he had so engraved himself upon West Point that each year's graduating class feels his influence only slightly less strongly than did the class of 1833.

The faculty decided as a slight token of their deep feeling to have a portrait of him made, and a subscription was raised. But Thayer would not accept the generous gift, though he was touched almost to the point of losing his habitual composure. One day an Orange County farmer asked to see the Superintendent.  p82 He was an old man named Cronk. In his hand he carried a sapling elm.

"Sylvanus Thayer," he said, "you are about to leave us. I, too, am aged and shall soon leave these scenes forever. I ask your permission to plant this tree at West Point that, after we have both gone, it may grow and flourish as a memento to our friendship."

The old man refused the help of soldiers in planting his tree, preferring, he said, to do the work with his own hands. This elm stands majestically today.

Spring, then early summer, greened the mountains. Colonel Thayer took to wandering down to the river at the close of day to watch the evening boat depart. Graduation, at once gay and solemn, was over. The next night a few officers were lingering on the boat landing. Colonel Thayer came down as had become his habit. Only a minute before the gangplank was raised he wheeled smartly.

"Good‑by, gentlemen," he said.

They were too astonished to reply. He left them there immobile as stone men and the boat was sucked away down-river by the tide. Sylvanus Thayer had left West Point forever; though he afterward contributed in many ways to the Academy, he could never be prevailed upon to return to the spot which he had loved with his whole mind and heart.

Thayer's Note:

a There was a court-martial; it was inconclusive, and the case was ultimately decided by the Attorney-General with the concurrence of the Secretary of War and President Monroe (Park's History of West Point, pp92‑93).

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