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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 6

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.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p83  Chapter VII
Beyond the Sally Port

In 1833 two more state legislatures, those of Tennessee and Ohio, voted that the Military Academy be abolished. The rumpus in Washington was already showing its unfavorable results, and yet men had been graduated from U. S. M. A. who, if they could not disprove the frequently made allegation that West Point had produced no military genius, proved beyond any possible question that it could educate soldiers brave almost beyond belief.

Colonel Sylvanus Thayer had been away from West Point three years and the Mexican War was yet ten years in the future when West Pointers were fighting the savage Seminoles in the hot wilderness of Florida. Andrew Jackson himself knew well how to appreciate the heroism of these men who had been drilled on the plain of West Point, for it was in fighting these bloodiest of Indians — these Seminoles — or "renegades" that he had himself first attracted public notice.

Ten years later West Pointers had their first chance to prove their mettle in war — as some historians believe, to win one almost alone. Like other Americans, graduates of U. S. M. A. were to "Remember the Alamo."

The war with Mexico was directed by a Congress which was undecided, ineffective, and contradictory. General Winfield Scott ("Old Fuss Feathers") and General Zachary Taylor ("Old Rough and Ready") were left to decide almost by themselves as to who should assume command of which sector, or to which belonged the supreme command. Volunteers  p84 were raised impromptu by unorthodox means. Supplies were sent to the armies irregularly and a large portion of them lost. Many times the generals and their subordinates commanding at wilderness posts from Taos to San Diego did not know whether the United States was at war or peace. If they were attacked they assumed that it was war. Thus ambiguously prowling about California and especially its capital, the City of Angels, Colonels Fremont and Stevenson and Commodore Stockton annexed the future state to the Union.

The Mexican War added five hundred thousand square miles to the territory of the United States and mapped its outlines in their present form, with only the future addition of Alaska. It was fought in three main theaters and in each of these West Pointers found themselves in key positions. In 1846 General Zachary Taylor, not a graduate, was already in command in Texas, which vast state was a member of the Union of barely one year's standing. The western border of Texas still was a frayed-out and undetermined line, a territory inhabited mostly by Mexicans. But this western spur of Texas lay straight in the path of American western migration. Beyond Texas lay the long Indian trail which led from Taos to the Pacific.

Lieutenant Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Philip St. George Cooke, a graduate, was at Santa Fe in the present state of New Mexico. Colonel Cooke knew as much about the Santa Fe trail to the Pacific as any white man; for in 1829 he had escorted a caravan over it, had been among the first American soldiers to tangle with the Comanche Plains Indians. General Kearny was now commanding at Santa Fe; he handed over a Mormon battalion from Fort Leavenworth and ordered Colonel Cooke to open a wagon road to the Pacific! Tall orders, but they were carried out.​a "Half naked and half fed" — Colonel Cooke's words — three and one-half months afterward his command entered San Diego, California, on January 29, 1847. Colonel Cooke  p85 had left a discernible trail behind him and had dug wells along the way. At Tucson, Arizona, he had fought a victorious battle with a party of Mexicans, who had the advantage of real artillery.

Meanwhile in Texas the main movements of the Mexican War were taking shape. Zachary Taylor had crossed the Nuecesº River, fought the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, crossed the Rio Grande, and chased the Mexicans all the way to Monterey. Only after the battle of Resaca de la Palma did Congress actually declare war. Taylor followed these victories by his greatest one, at Buena Vista in 1847, which more or less terminated the campaign in northern Mexico. Meanwhile General Winfield Scott had landed at Vera Cruz and fought himself victoriously into Mexico City.

In all of these actions West Pointers were conspicuous. In the Battle of Palo Alto it was the artillery, which consisted of two light batteries and two eighteen-pounders, to which the victory was attributed. Major George H. Ringgold, class of 1833, who was the "life and leader of the Light Artillery," was mortally wounded and died a few days after the battle.

At the battle of Buena Vista, General Taylor expected to be attacked by the Mexican General Santa Anna with twenty thousand troops, while his own force numbered only forty-seven hundred and fifty. In the actual fighting the huge column of Mexican infantry proved very unwieldy and the brilliant head‑on attack of Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jefferson Davis and his Mississippi Rifles threw it into irretrievable disorder, while the batteries of Captain Sherman and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Braxton Bragg played havoc with the Mexican left flank.

Meanwhile, fighting with General Scott were many young officers whose names were to be written large in their country's history in another and a more tragic war. Captain R. E. Lee was distinguishing himself as an artillery officer and as an  p86 engineer.​b Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.U. S. Grant, when General Scott was before the moatlike ditch which surrounded the city of Mexico, fought brilliantly at the San Cosme Gate.

General Scott held Mexico City until 1848 — when he concluded peace at Guadalupe Hidalgo, which returned Mexico to the Mexicans and presented us with the Golden West.

At a banquet in the city, his big frame swelling inside his magnificent uniform, General Winfield Scott proposed a toast: "Gentlemen, I give you the United States Military Academy, without whose science this army multiplied by four could not have entered the City of Mexico!"

West Point had fought its first war; it had established that tradition which we have hailed so proudly ever since. In all three theaters of the war the Thinº Gray Line had been the steel wire on which the beads of victory had been strung. General Taylor was vastly assisted by his Adjutant General, Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William W. S. Bliss of the class of 1833 — the last class under the superintendency of Colonel Sylvanus Thayer. Known at the time as "Perfect Bliss," General Taylor's Chief of Staff earned the name not only by writing some of the best dispatches known to military annals but in the administrative field as well. Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Joseph K. F. Mansfield, class of 1821, was Taylor's Chief of Engineers and to him goes the credit for those careful ground plans which produced Taylor's victories.

The battle of Buena Vista brought the first great glory to West Point. We can mention only one typical detail. Captain John Washington, class of 1817, had brought his company of artillery two thousand miles, all the way from Pennsylvania to Texas; now they were before Buena Vista and his five main pieces of artillery were barring the Mexican advance. These guns were under the immediate command of Lieutenant J. P. J. O'Brien, class of 1836. The American line was forced back  p87 under terrific Mexican pressure. Still O'Brien's guns barked. At last this officer was forced to report to Captain Washington that he had not one cannoneer left unwounded. But, falling back slightly and with reinforcements, he carried on until the Mexican infantry swept up to the muzzle of his famous guns. They were abandoned only when not a cannoneer remained to serve them. Lieutenant O'Brien was forced to see his guns disappear with the Mexican retreat.

The guns of the West Pointer Captain Braxton Bragg took up where O'Brien left off and it was to him that General Taylor, riding up into the fire at this desperate moment, said, "A little more grape, Mr. Bragg" or, has been reported by a private who stood near, "Double-shot your guns, and give 'em hell."

It was Jefferson Davis, class of 1828 and future President of the Confederacy, who turned the tide of battle with his First Mississippi Volunteer Rifles.

Six months later General Scott's force was fighting its way from Santa Cruz to Mexico City. At Contreras they swept over two handsome brass fieldpieces; someone cried out that these were American cannons. Scott had recaptured O'Brien's guns! Today they stand proudly at the stairway of the Administration Building at West Point, proud trophies which need bark no more.

Captain Robert E. Lee, class of 1829, distinguished himself in the Engineer Corps; Ulysses S. Grant, class of 1843, led a perilous charge at Chapultepec and helped his former instructor, now General (Haughty Bill) Worth, to win the day.

General Winfield Scott, as we have seen, was always the first to affirm that his victories rested on the straight shoulders of West Pointers. As commander in chiefº of the American Army he expressed the general sentiment of Americans when he said in 1860:

 p88  I give it as my fixed opinion that but for our graduated cadets the war between the United States and Mexico might, and probably would, have lasted some four or five years, within its first half more defeats than victories to our share, whereas in less than two campaigns we conquered a great country and a peace without the loss of a single battle or skirmish.​c

The Mexican War focused public attention upon West Point and it was seldom again the butt of those bitter inquiries which are the blunt weapon of American Congresses. The United States Military Academy had shown its value and those millions which had been spent upon it had returned a dividend. At no time since 1808 had the Regular Army been so low in strength as it was at the opening of the War with Mexico. It particularly lacked officers. West Point-trained volunteers had made soldiers of raw recruits, formed an army overnight — a victorious army. Grateful America was now in a mood to discover those other things which West Point had accomplished through the years when it was the only school of engineering in America.

Ever since President Jefferson had decided to build the Cumberland road, America's first highway, West Pointers had been doing the major part of this nation's road building. The U. S. Corps of Engineers, at the time of which we are writing, was almost entirely composed of West Pointers. Many of our country's most brilliant engineers were willing to contribute their brains anonymously or to the group accomplishment.

The exploration and mapping of the West were carried forward by many graduates, in some cases at their personal expense — as in the case of Benjamin E. L. Bonneville, class of 1815. Born in France, he had served La­fayette as secretary. He became a reader of Western tales, which apparently existed before 1830 just as they do today. Returning to the United  p89 States, he sought leave of absence to explore the West. Evidently this leave was somewhat hard to come by, as one of the conditions of granting it was that Bonneville pay all his own expenses. Further, although he had requested leave to "explore the unknown territory west of the Mississippi," he was ordered to advance to the Pacific and report on the "nature, character and mode of warfare of the Indians" whom he encountered on his path. It is rather hard to see on what grounds a soldier would require a leave for such service. While Bonneville organized the expedition as a fur-trading venture, the journey certainly promised no vacation.

Bonneville, who had been brought up by Thomas Paine, was a bold thinker and pioneered in the deepest wilderness of the Pacific Northwest with wagons. These he used to great advantage, as he made a square with them at night within which he was able to blockade his camp. He always tethered his horses, thereby preventing the favorite savage means of warfare: causing the horses to stampede and kill their masters. Bonneville understood the Indians. But perhaps, unfortunately, it is also true that the Indians understood Bonneville. They were able to drive sharp bargains with the jolly explorer, who thought that he was on a trapping expedition. Those "blow-outs" — this is Bonneville's own word for them — wherein such a very hilarious time was had by both white and red men were always paid for in the precious skins of the wily beavers. As fur trader Bonneville was a marvelous explorer. While his astronomical observations proved inaccurate, his description of the country through which he broke trails is not only accurate but poetic. The incredible wonder of the scenery of the untrodden Northwest entered his soul. His maps, too, proved of inestimable value to future trappers and explorers. These were only second in value to his thorough knowledge of the many Indian tribes whose great chiefs called him "Brother."

 p90  Bonneville's expedition left Fort Osage on the great Missouri on August 9, 1832. There were one hundred and ten men and twenty wagons, drawn by oxen and mules, which carried supplies and ammunition — all paid for by Bonneville For a very long while nothing was heard of this expedition and when its leader's leave expired he was dropped from the army rolls.

Meanwhile Bonneville and his band had carried out what is perhaps the greatest river survey of American pioneer history. He had proceeded up the Platte to the Green River in the present State of Wyoming; he had explored the Great Salt Lake, the Snake and Salmon rivers; he had crossed the Sierra Nevada to the Sacramento, thus passing the Santa Fe trail. He explored the headwaters of the Yellowstone and wandered about in the Big Horn and Wind River mountains. Twice Bonneville himself had traveled on the waters of the Columbia River.

He reported to the Secretary of War from Nebraska on August 22, 1835, three years and thirteen days after he had left Fort Osage. The Secretary of War refused to recommission him. When, however, Bonneville was able to tell his story to President Andrew Jackson this decision was most promptly reversed.

The Long Expedition, which started out on a stern-wheel steamboat from Pittsburgh — the Western Engineer was her name — explored the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri and later mapped the courses of the Platte, Arkansas, and Canadian rivers. The astronomical work on this expedition was shared by three West Pointers: Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John R. Bell; Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.James D. Graham; and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William H. Swift, a cadet on leave.

The expeditions were typical of many others made by West Pointers; in fact, the early engineering history of this country was made in large measure by graduates.

 p91  Captain William H. Swift made engineering history in another field. Harbor improvement and coast surveys had been a most important part of the work carried on by West Pointers since the beginning of the U. S. M. A. We know how dependent our young nation was on shipping, then as now a lifeline never to be cut.

Off the coast of Massachusetts, a little to the south of the great port of Boston, lay, almost submerged, the vicious, jagged teeth of a group of murderous rocks known collectively as the Cohasset Rocks. Partly because of a deceptive current in the ocean and partly because these almost always invisible menaces lay across the course into Boston harbor, each year many ships were wrecked amid the angry foam of the towering waves which broke upon this ledge. The Cohasset Rocks were threatening the prosperity of the growing maritime city of Boston.

When Swift was a member of the Long Expedition he had been only a cadet; now he was a captain of topographical engineers. He had studied abroad and had become master of skeleton iron construction, examples of which he had seen in Holland. He had built the Black Rock Lighthouse in Connecticut waters, employing this new method. Swift was asked to erect a beacon on the Cohasset Rocks.

These rocks were an all but insurmountable problem. In the first place they were completely submerged a great part of the year. The waves dashed and broke upon them with such violence and they were surrounded by such deep water that only the hardiest men would venture to work upon this ledge. Captain Swift made the most careful soundings and studied the contours of all these nasty rocks until he knew each one thoroughly. He then decided to attempt to erect his lighthouse on the outermost rock, identified as Outer Minot on the charts. Even this rock at the lowest tide exposed only a bare  p92 twenty-five feet and at its highest was a mere three and one-half feet above sea level. A few hours' work only were possible between tides, and the slightest bad weather made building, even during these few hours, an impossibility.

Swift's iron tower had nine legs, each deeply secured into the rock, and it was thought that the waves would expend their energy safely among these skeleton stilts or piles. The lantern and the keeper's quarters were sixty feet above the rock when the structure was completed. The lantern was lighted for the first time in 1848. Thus warned, mariners were able to keep away from this graveyard of ships.

Nevertheless the keepers were uneasy in the terrible winter gales which dashed the heavy ruthless green and white waves right over the lantern itself. Yet Captain Swift's structure stood, and in the placid sunlight of summertime the keepers nearly forgot to be afraid. Were they not supported by solid iron?

In the spring of 1851 a gale of almost unprecedented force beat upon the coast of New England. And this gale, unlike the others, did not soon abate. For four days and four nights it howled and shrieked. The people of Boston often spoke of the two keepers on Minot's Ledge Light. But no boat could live five minutes in the sea which rushed upon Boston; they were powerless to help the keepers of the light. Then it was apparent that tragedy had come. On April the sixteenth, the light went out! But on the next day a doleful tolling of the bell on Minot's Ledge was heard. This bell struck terror into the heart, even though it proved that there was life on the ledge. Then it was heard no more. When the storm cleared, Minot's Ledge was as clear as it had been before Captain Swift had erected his structure upon it — not a trace of his lighthouse could be seen. Upon landing on the rock observers could see only the holes which had been drilled for the stilts,  p93 with bits of their iron bases twisted and snapped off cleanly. No trace of the brave keepers was ever found.​d

After this most people believed that no light could ever be maintained on the Cohasset Rocks, and Minot's Ledge was dark. But in the year 1855 another West Pointer was again at work upon the reef, Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.B. S. Alexander.º

The tragedy which had overthrown the first lighthouse on Minot's Ledge made the construction of a second one the concern of the best engineers in the whole country. The plans, which had been prepared by General Barnard and Joseph G. Totten, at that time Chief Engineer of the Army, had been modeled upon Rudyard's famous Eddystone Light, perhaps the most difficult light to build which had ever been constructed. The Eddystone site, frequented, as seamen believed, chiefly by mermaids, had presented problems very like those encountered on Minot's Ledge. The American plans improved on the Eddystone structure in that they called for masonry, not wood. After the blueprints had been completed they were subjected to rigid scrutiny by many experts. No changes, however, seem to have been suggested.

All the masonry blocks were prepared on shore with the exception only of those foundation pieces which came in direct contact with the rock. Each piece was keyed to each contiguous piece on shore. On the rock the prepared stones had only to be fitted and cemented in place. Nevertheless the difficulties of erecting the light might well have seemed insurmountable to a less resolute and ingenious man than Lieutenant Alexander. The builder was painfully handicapped. First there was the short working season, which at best extended only from April the first to September the fifteenth of each year. Nor were the masons able to work with anything like continuity even during this brief season. Three conditions were necessary: a perfectly smooth sea, low spring tides, and  p94 a dead calm. To anyone but a seaman a dead calm and a smooth sea may appear to be necessarily the same thing; but, as every seafarer knows, there may be a considerable swell in calm weather. The essential spring tides could occur only about six days in every lunar month, three times during the full moon and three times during the change. One year, from July the first until the close of work in September, only one hundred and thirty hours of work were possible.

Lieutenant Alexander's masons worked on the foundations of the lighthouse within a dyke made of sandbags; yet, no matter how apparently calm the weather, several big seas were all but certain to break over the top of their little fortress, destroying the accomplished work and usually carrying some of the masons into the deep blue sea. The men were attached by lines to the rock so that they could be fished out after these accidents. A lookout was posted to watch Lieutenant Alexander's enemy, the sea. When a wave was seen to be inevitably approaching, like soldiers expecting a barrage the workmen threw themselves flat on the rock, clutched their lifelines, and allowed the sea to wash over them.​e

The first two years were the hardest and often Lieutenant Alexander felt that he had entered upon a hopeless task, but in September, 1857, he could at last see enough of his tower above water to insure that the rest of it could be completed. On November 15, 1860, nine years after the destruction of the first beacon, Minot's Ledge Light again flashed proudly from the top of the perfect conical shaft which supported it. Neither the prodigious assaults of the northeast gales which thunder on this reef every winter nor any other enemy has been able to put out this light, which is visible over fourteen and three-quarter miles of ocean. West Point had won another victory.​f

Thayer's Notes:

a A detailed first-hand account of the march of the Mormon Battalion, from the diary of a sergeant who made the entire trek, is onsite: Chapter 2 of William Hyde's Journal; the part commanded by Cooke, somewhat less than half the route, starts here.

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b Lee's Mexican War career is comprehensively covered in Freeman's biography of him, Vol. I, Chapters 13‑17.

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c This is slightly different (within instead of with, in which latter makes better sense) from the version currently given in Bugle Notes; I suspect merely a proofreading error. Another variant, which I trust even less, is given in Godson's History of West Point, Appendix P. The Bugle Notes version — I have not researched whether it is what General Scott actually wrote — is as follows:

"I give it as my fixed opinion, that but for our graduated cadets, the war between the United States and Mexico might, and probably would have lasted some four or five years, with, in its first half, more defeats than victories falling to our share; whereas, in less than two campaigns, we conquered a great country and a peace without the loss of a single battle or skirmish."

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d For a fuller and more technical account, see the Biographical Sketch of William H. Swift, in Cullum's Register, Vol. I, pp240‑241.

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e The similarity to the work of astronauts in space, tethered to their vehicle and at the mercy of solar flares and micrometeorites, will be noticed; the first American to "walk" in space was West Pointer Edward H. White, II, Class of 1952; see the biographical sketch at NASA.

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f The 1860 structure still stands and is still in use; a superb site on it, with a complete history, a rare photograph taken during its construction, other photographs and a comprehensive bibliography, is provided by New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide.

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