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Bill Thayer

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History of West Point

Histories and Source Documents

[image ALT: Two companies of men, six across and numbering just under 200, marching on a wide expanse of trimmed grass, several acres in extent, toward the right foreground of the photograph, led by a single officer carrying a guidon. The men wear close-fitting vests and crisp cotton trousers, and black hats adorned with metal crests and topped by a brushlike ornament. Elsewhere on the same level field, in the distance, similar companies can be seen marching. The backdrop to the parade ground is an imposing corps of three-story stone buildings, in front of which a bronze equestrian statue can just barely be made out on a tall marble base. Behind these buildings in turn, a low forested ridge crowned by a massive church in a military Gothic style. It is a view of a cadet review (a drill, or parade) on 'The Plain' at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.]

Cadets on review on the Plain, with the Washington Monument on the right and the Cadet Chapel on the hill above them.

Photo: Parents' Almanac, 19th Edition, May 2006
published by the Office of the Superintendent, USMA: public domain.

The items introduced on this page will probably be most useful, not to Cadets — who in a sense already are West Point History — but to others: parents and friends, students of history; and not least, I hope, to prospective applicants [who might, in all seriousness, want to start here].

Roswell Park's West Point, titled in full A Sketch of the History and Topography of West Point and the Military Academy, is the earliest history of the Academy. Published in 1840 when the Long Gray Line numbered only a thousand graduates and Buena Vista and Gettysburg, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing, Eisenhower and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.MacArthur were still in the future, the book shows us an institution that, though but recently forged by Sylvanus Thayer, we can already fully recognize.

[ 142 pages of print, unillustrated ]

E. D. J. Waugh's West Point, sonorously subtitled The Story Of The United States Military Academy, Which Rising From The Revolutionary Forces Has Taught American Soldiers The Art Of Victory, was written in 1944 (partly for young men who might be thinking of applying for admission); it provides a more anecdotal view of the Academy's history and an insight into West Point on a wartime footing.

[ 246 pages of print, 5 line drawings ]

William Godson's History of West Point 1852‑1902, a doctoral dissertation, is markedly less good than the full-length books listed above, but provides a summary annalistic account of those years, and includes a useful bibliography.

[ 108 pages of print, unillustrated ]

John Latrobe, x‑Class of 1822, was forced by family circumstances to resign from the Academy during his First Class year; but he remained active in the USMA community, and in the sunset of his life published his West Point Reminiscences 1818‑1882: a well-written and informative view of cadet life under Sylvanus Thayer.

[ 36 pages of print, 1 illustration ]

Almost as important as Sylvanus Thayer in the history of West Point was Douglas MacArthur, Class of 1903, who for the much-needed forward-looking reforms he brought to the institution is now widely regarded as the second Father of the Military Academy. MacArthur Close‑Up, a book of reminiscences by his adjutant William Ganoe, Class of 1907, is valuable as a firsthand, intimate witness to the man and the reforms.

[ 171 pages of print, 2 illustrations ]

Philip Barbour, Class of 1834, left us his Mexican War Journal: an interesting, detailed daily chronicle of the Military Occupation of Texas and the first months of the war. His last entry was written a few hours before he was killed at Monterey.

[ 196 pages of print, 5 illustrations ]

The Long Gray Line naturally extends past the confines of West Point and one's time as a cadet; the Biographical Register of Officers and Graduates of the U. S. Military Academy (informally: "Cullum's Register") tracks the career of every graduate in a detailed entry thru their death. Onsite, I present several thousand entries from the Register: each entry is complete, and often filled out with information or photographs from other sources, including over 150 additional pages from the AOG Reports; occasionally annotated and with links to other pages of the site in which the subject is recorded as having played a significant part.

[ 6/2/21: 81 class rosters, 3442 entries;
114 photographs, 4 engravings ]

William Baumer's Not All Warriors is strictly speaking not a book on the history of West Point, but a set of biographical sketches, each 40 to 50 pages long, of West Pointers: five graduates, two non-graduates; men who owed their start and, inevitably, at least some of their psyche to the Academy. The author, himself a graduate, taught history at the Academy for several years.

[ 309 pages of print ]

The Cadet Chapel: the building was built in a military Gothic style in the early 20c, and seating 1500; the official booklet issued shortly after the Academy's sesquicentennial takes the reader thru the beautiful and much-loved building with good text, a wealth of particularly handsome illustrations, and the obligatory statistics.

[ 73 pages of print, 3 photos, 3 plans, 27 drawings ]

The Collected Works of Ducrot Pepys is a wonderful little book that could not be ignored. Somewhere between fact and fiction, it purports to be the diary of a Cadet from his first months as a plebe all the way to the day of his graduation. Its author of course was a real Cadet, who wrote it while he was at the Academy, in fits and snorts, transmuting stress into rollicking hilarity and produ­cing one of the gems of American humorous literature (and one known to every Cadet): a recommended read, naturally — especially instructive and useful if you're on the verge of applying to West Point or another service academy.

[ 77 pages of print, 60 drawings ]

Onsite link

Among the journal articles collected in my American History Notes section, ten deal with West Point:

"The Forgotten 'Founder' of West Point" — Frenchman Louis de Tousard, serving in the American Army, wrote a proposal for an American national military school and submitted it to the government; stationed at West Point in 1801 he nearly became the Academy's first Superintendent.

"The System of Instruction at West Point" by Robert P. Keep (1869) provides a careful description of the method of instruction practiced at the U. S. Military Academy, with an assessment and suggestions as to its possible extension to civilian colleges.

"How to Make West Point More Useful" by F. A. Mitchel (1894) suggests several categories of West Pointers, having spent one, two, three, and the full four years at the Academy: those with the fewer years to officer the National Guard.

"The Nervous Exhaustion due to West Point Training" by U. S. Army surgeon Charles E. Woodruff (1901) contains a few kernels of truth scattered among a collection of idiosyncratic opinions.

"Was 'Secession' Taught at West Point?" by Army Judge-Advocate Col. Edgar S. Dudley (Class of 1870) examines whether Rawle's A View of the United States Constitution, in which the opinion is put forth that the right to secede is reserved to the States, was ever the official textbook used to teach constitutional law at the Point; and reluctantly admits that it was, in 1826, but denies its use ever again after that.

"A Review of West Point's History" by Samuel Tillman (1916) is a fairly standard survey, if only thru the end of Revolutionary War, of the Academy's history; of interest because within two years the author would be called out of retirement to be the institution's Superintendent.

"Military Education in the United States" by educator Leroy T. Patton critiqued the academic environment at USMA (in 1937) and proposed to remedy its flaws by removing the general education component to civilian colleges and transforming the Academy into a specialized higher-level university focused on exclusively military subjects.

"The Attack upon West Point during the Civil War", by Harry Williams: an overview of popular perceptions and of maneuvers by the radical branch of the Republican party in Congress to abolish the Academy or decrease its influence.

"The Willet Chancel Window in the West Point Chapel", by Gustav Kobbé: a description of the window — that had just been installed when the article was written — but also an account of the competition for the contract to design and execute it.

"Convert Sons of West Point", by Scannell O'Neill: a Catholic apologist looks at a number of Academy graduates who converted to Catholicism, whether at the Point or later in life.

Onsite link

The dedication of Battle Monument on the corner of the Plain was reported on in several articles in The New York Times; on this site, for now, I have reproduced only one, May 30, 1897 — which was the date of the dedication of the completed monument; but the article merely sets the stage and background of it, reported from the day before. It remains of some interest.

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West Point Fifty Years Ago: Not the 1970's, but 1829. Gen. Francis Smith's 1879 after-dinner speech to fellow classmates is of interest not only as one of the earlier extant recollections of the Point, but because General Smith had been the commanding officer of the Virginia Military Institute since before the War between the States in which he fought most of those same classmates: the very fact that he gave the speech was a sign that our divided nation was starting to heal, and he talks about it.

[ 18 pages of print ]

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The farewell speech of Gen. Douglas MacArthur (USMA, 1903) to the Corps on May 12, 1962: this is what West Point is about, as told to the Corps at the sunset of his life by one of the icons of the Long Gray Line. When I first looked into it, I was very surprised to discover that every single transcript available online was marked by gross errors and omissions of entire paragraphs (and on a spot check in 2010, it seems that nothing has changed); at any rate, I retranscribed the speech from the audio tape of his actual delivery of it on that day, without attempting to "fix" some of his curious phrases, and without mistakes of my own; the audio itself is also downloadable.

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Site updated: 26 Nov 22