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This webpage reproduces an item in the
Proceedings of the New York State Historical Society
Vol. 15 (Jul. 1916), pp112‑125

The text is in the public domain.

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 p112  A Review of West Point's History

Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.S. E. Tillman, Colonel, United States Army, retired​a

The earliest fairly reliable records tell us that the Italian, Verazzano, sailing under the patronage of Francis I between January and July in 1524 was the first white man to discover and make entry into the Hudson river. He sailed from or near the Madeira islands in January 1524, and made his report to the king from Port of Dieppe in July of the same year. His original report is still in one of the Florentine libraries. It seems to indicate that he entered the upper bay, for he says "we passed up the river about a half a league when we found it formed a most beautiful lake three leagues in circumference"; he then says, "we sailed due east 80 leagues when we came to an island of triangular form." These descriptions are believed to show that he passed through the narrows into the upper bay and afterwards sailed due east by Long Island until he came to Block island.

We have nothing further authentic about the river until 85 years later. Then on the 13th or 14th of September in 1609 Hudson passed West Point on the way up the river; on September 22d he was at the farthest point north and the record states that they sent a small boat to make soundings and "found it to be at the end for shipping to goe in." It was probably on September 30th that Hudson passed West Point on the way down. The sharp, abrupt turn in the river here which used so often to delay and vex sailing craft caused the Half-Moon no trouble worthy of note.

It may be mentioned that Verazzano states that the Indians were very amiable and friendly, but it was somewhat different with the Half Moon's crew. One of the crew died from an arrow wound before they went up the river; this man (Colman) was the first white man who found a grave on or near Manhattan island. In the ascent of the river, some days Hudson freely admitted the  p113 Indians aboard, on others he kept them off; on the down trip near the upper end of Manhattan, Indians in canoes attacked the Half Moon and suffered several killed. On September 20th when near the upper limit of their voyage, the record states "our master and mate determined to trie some of the chiefe men of the country, whether they had treacherie in them." Without detailing this attempt it may be said that wine and aqua vitae figured to such an extent that a tradition of the entertainment spread widely among the Indians and persisted for over 150 years, as was recorded by the Rev. John Heckewelder, for many years a Moravian missionary to the Indians in Pennsylvania.

In 1614 and 1615 the New Netherlands company erected buildings at Albany and Esopus. As early as 1620 the river was designated as Hudson's by traders. The first private land owner in New York was Kilaen Van Rensselaer. In 1630 he secured large tracts of land, buying them from the Indians along the river both above and below Fort Orange, where Albany now stands. In 1633 the first English ship, the William, passed up the river to Albany, the first attempt of Englishmen to gain a foothold on the river. In 1646 Adriaan Van der Donck purchased the land where Yonkers now is. Prior to the English taking possession of New Amsterdam, this Yonkers purchase was the nearest private owner­ship to West Point. In 1683, Stephen Van Cortland purchased from the Indians land extending from the Croton river to Anthony's Nose; in 1694 a patent was granted Captain John Evans, commanding the English ship Richmond, "for land up the Hudson river," which land included West Point.

This patent was withdrawn and the land resumed by the crown in 1710. In the same year a warrant for patent was given Captain Congreve and the patent was issued in 1723 for 800 acres of the same land. The grant as described commenced at Gee's point, then designated "Stony point" and ran down the river to about where the power house now stands, then nearly west to beyond the Fort Putnam hill, then nearly north to the south side of the Crow's Nest, then east to the river. The captain was charged 20 shillings a year rent for the entire tract: he was required to "plant, settle and effectually cultivate 3 acres of land for every 50 of the grant."

 p114  In 1731 the land along the river to the immediate south of the Congreve tract for over a mile, and extending back into the hills for nearly the same distance, was granted the Ludlows. This grant specified 1000 acres. In 1747 a tract of 280 acres, lying to the west of the dividing line between Congreve and the Ludlows, was granted to John Moore. Moore at or before this time bought the Congreve tract. It was prior to 1748 that he built his imposing house in Washington valley, which afterwards became Washington's headquarters in 1779. This house was somewhat famous even before the Revolution, and must have been quite pretentious, for it was frequently designated "Moore's Folly." The grandson of this Moore was Richard Channing Moore, a well-known bishop of Virginia.

In 1790 Moore's land was sold by his son to United States and thus began the Government reservation at West Point. It is interesting to note that in a resurvey of the Congreve and Moore tracts in 1812, the former was found to contain 1463 acres instead of 800 and the latter 332 instead of 280.

The importance of the Hudson river during the Revolution, and that of West Point in connection therewith, have often been set forth in history, and it is not possible to make a full connected story of West Point's role therein without describing many operations of the war. Such full account is not here attempted, only brief reference to the salient facts which serve to emphasize West Point's importance.

The value of the control of the Hudson river had been impressed upon both the Americans and the British in the French and Indian wars. It was accordingly to be expected that this defence would be a first consideration in the Revolution. So we see that within about a month after Concord and Lexington the Continental Congress suggests to the Congress of New York that batteries be erected on each side of the river and that examinations be made with the view of placing obstructions. The Provincial Congress immediately acted and sent a commission to the Highlands to select the "most proper place for erecting one or more fortifications." The committee reported in June, designating Constitution island and the sites where Forts Montgomery and Clinton were afterwards erected.

 p115  Work was begun on the island in August 1775. The progress of this work was very slow. In November a committee from the Provincial Congress reported that the works were poorly situated for defence and stated that in order to make the river impassable it was necessary to place batteries on the opposite shore. On May 21, 1776, Washington ordered a board of officers to "see and report such alterations" as may be necessary to put the fortifications in the Highlands in proper condition. This board reported the absolute necessity for works on the West Point side both "for safety of Constitution island and for its own importance on many accounts." This board also gave instructions to hasten and improve the works at Forts Montgomery and Clinton, which had been begun in March of that year.

[image ALT: A longish brick or stone wall receding from the viewer, from which a triangular salient projects to the left, overlooking a river; here and there, a small tree. It is the remains of Fort Clinton, a small Revolutionary War fort on the grounds of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.]

Fort Clinton built during the Revolution, restored 1857. View South.

In spite of the repeatedly reported necessity, little was accomplished on Constitution island during 1776, for in November, Washington, accompanied by General Heath and others, came up the river as far as the island to inspect the fortifications, and Heath says there was a small work and a block house on the island, and that a "glance at West Point without going on shore, evinced that this post was not to be neglected." Washington does not seem to have landed at West Point on this occasion, though it is so stated by Irving and others. Early in 1775 the Continental Congress had suggested to the New York Congress the desirability of having the river examined with the view of finding where it would be "most advisable and proper to obstruct the navigation." During 1776 this feature of defence was frequently considered. The points selected for obstruction were four, Forts Washington, Montgomery, Polopels island and West Point. Nothing was done at West Point to this end in 1776.

With the close of 1776 and the opening of 1777 events of such importance took place that little opportunity was given for strengthening the defenses at West Point, and practically nothing further was accomplished. The events just referred to, in the south, were the Battles of Trenton, Princeton and the defense of Philadelphia; to the north, the movement of the British from Canada, via Lake Champlain, toward Albany. These movements continued during the summer and into the autumn, and resulted in the north in the surrender of Burgoyne, October 17th. The efforts of  p116 Sir Henry Clinton to connect with Burgoyne by ascending the Hudson led to the capture on October 6, 7, and 8 of Forts Montgomery and Clinton and the insignificant works on Constitution island, all of which were completely destroyed by the British, together with a few unfinished redoubts on the east side of the river opposite West Point.

The beginning of the year 1778, the third of the war, finds all the works of Constitution island destroyed and West Point not yet occupied by the Americans. In spite of this fact the importance of the locality was at all times recognized. Washington in December 1777, and January 1778, was persistent and urgent in his efforts to accomplish proper works here. On the 13th of January 1778, it was definitely decided to fortify the West Point side.

On January 20th, Parsons' brigade reached West Point and began building the new Fort Clinton in the northeast corner of the plain, which was for a time called Fort Arnold. The plain was then described as covered with scrub pine and, at that date, the snow was waist deep. General Parsons at that time writes of West Point that, "to a contemplative mind which delights in a lovely retreat from the world, 'tis as beautiful as Sharon, but affords to a man who loves the society of the world a prospect nearly allied to the shades of death. News arrives here by accident only."

The work of fortifying was now vigorously pushed first under the direction of De La Radiere, then of Kosciuszko and Col. Rufus Putnam and others. By midsummer of 1778 Forts Clinton, Putnam, Willis and Webb were well advanced. The great West Point chain was contracted for by the Noble, Townsend Co. on February 2d, was built at Stirlington, N. Y., and first stretched across the river on April 30, 1778.​b

Washington saw West Point for the first time on November 11, 1776; his first visit to the place was July 18, 1778. His headquarters were here from July 21 to November 28, 1779. The West Point orderly book for July and August of that year, kept by Captain Treadwell's company, of Colonel Grave's artillery battalion, now a possession of the West Point library, contains two items of interest. It records the fact that Washington assured Wayne before the attack on Stony Point, July 16th of that year, that the value of the captured property of all kinds should be  p117 divided among the attacking troops. The book, under date of July 22d, contains directions for the appraisal of all the captured stores, the amount to be paid to General Wayne for distribution. Congress four days later, July 26th, authorized this action, evidently approving Washington's order. This retention of the custom of awarding prize money, I think, has not been generally noted in the histories of the period.

On August 4th this orderly book has the following copy of an extract from an order of Washington.

"15th. The Commandant of the corps of Engineers shall take the most effectual and expeditious method to have the sappers and miners instructed in their duties and as probably the officers of these companies whose talents and acquirements fit them for the profession will be appointed Engineers, the Commandant of the corps shall have a plan of instruction for these officers, which being approved by the Board of War and Commander in Chief shall be carried into execution.

16th. The Commandant of the Corps of Engineers shall appoint an Engineer or Engineers whom he shall judge best qualified, to read lectures on Fortifications proper for towns or the field, on the manner of adapting fortificationesº to different grounds and positions, to regulate their extent according to the number of men intended to be covered upon attack and defense, upon the use of mines and their construction, upon the manner of forming plans reconnoitering a country and choosing, laying out and fortifying a camp."

We have here the official beginning of the first school at West Point.

During the years 1779 and 1780, Washington and all his principal officers considered West Point the very keystone of the revolution. They all expected the British to make it their immediate objective in a campaign for the control of the Hudson. Baron Steuben writes on July 27, 1779: "On their success (in getting possession of this post and river) depends the fate of America, our army should be destroyed or taken before we allow them to commence an attack on West Point." This was the prevailing view as to the importance of West Point and great efforts were made to remove anxiety as to its safety, but with only partial success as the records abundantly show.

Such was the condition of affairs when the command of West  p118 Point and its dependencies was given to Arnold in August 1780. The story of Arnold's treason and escape, and André's capture and execution, perhaps the most dramatic feature of the Revolution, centered about West Point.

Had Arnold's efforts been successful, the result would probably have been fatal to American independence. The obloquy that attaches to his name is surely deserved, yet one can but be impressed as to how fortuitous may be fame or ignominy. Had Arnold fallen at Saratoga, his would have been one of the most heroic memories of the war for the rank which he held; had his wound at Quebec been fatal, his memory would have lived in great honor; even without these able and honorable feats, his deeds at Ticonderoga, on Champlain and at Crown Point would have given him distinction. Although time has exposed his many other frailties, some of which were then unknown, one can but regret that fate was unkind to him and too greatly extended his earthly career. The end of André has always excited sympathy, and surely no other career similarly terminating ever received a memorial in a Valhalla so famous as Westminster.

Notwithstanding all the anxiety and all the effort bestowed on West Point, the situation here, independently of Arnold's treason, was most unsatisfactory in the autumn of 1780. Wade, replying to a letter from Washington dated September 26th, writes, "that about all the available provisions consisted of some pickled fish, but that the water supply was abundant." Again, General Greene, writing between October 6th and 19th while he was in command here, says, "I am sorry to find a place of such importance in such a miserable condition; we have been out of flour most of the time since I have been here and the troops have suffered exceedingly." Greene was also anxious to have the redoubts back and above Fort Putnam strengthened. In April 1781, General Heath, then in command here, writes, "At this time provisions were growing very scarce at West Point and the prospects daily growing more alarming. The magazines in Clinton and Putnam, which were intended for reserves, had to be broken into and were nearly exhausted."

In the summer of 1781 the movements were begun which resulted in the surrender of Cornwallis. Notwithstanding this final  p119 victory in October, persistent efforts were made to strengthen the West Point works and to accumulate supplies here. In this very month Heath reports "a shortage of flour in the Highlands," and in January 1782, to save powder the morning and evening guns were dispensed with.

On May 17, 1782, Washington, writing Robert Morris, says, "West Point has hardly a barrel of salt provisions, it could not stand a siege of three days." In spite of the shortage in salt provisions, two weeks later, by order of the Commander in Chief, a grand festival was held at West Point to celebrate the birth of the Dauphin of France. According to Thatcher, it took 1000 men ten days to construct the edifice under which the entertainment took place; the material for the construction was obtained from native trees in the vicinity.

We learn from General Heath that as late as August 1782, a powder magazine to contain 1000 barrels was begun on Constitution island. On August 24, 1782, General Knox was placed in command at West Point and remained here until he became Secretary of War in 1785.

In the months of September and October, 1782, for the first time since the war began, there was sufficient relaxation in this region for military exhibitions and reviews to take place. A grand review was held by Washington and Rochambeau near Verplancks point and Peekskill. Peace rumors now filled the air. On January 4th General Heath records that "intelligence was received that Great Britain had acknowledged the independence of the United States collectively and generally." Under date of West Point, N. Y., April 15, 1781, appears a draft by General Knox of a society to be called "The Cincinnati." On May 10th following "the proposals for establishing a society" with slight modifications were adopted at Verplancks mansion, above the Highlands. Knox's draft was submitted to the consideration of the officers along the river before the meeting of May 10th; thus originated this celebrated society.

On April 19th cessation of hostilities were announced by Washington from headquarters in Newburgh. As indicating the social importance of West Point even at this early day, we find Washington on June 6th urging the Secretary of War to grant  p120 General Knox extra allowance of money. He says, "West Point being a post of great importance and much famed for its peculiarity of situation and circumstances, is at all times subjected to much company, many of whom are so respectable as to claim the attention of the commandant." On November 25th, American troops from West Point, in connection with others, took possession of New York City.

This brief outline of West Point's history during the Revolution shows that it was not fortified until the third year of the war, that efforts to increase and improve its works were continued to the very end of the war, that its supplies were never equal to desire and expectation, that there was always anxiety lest a vigorous attack would capture the place and that there was never any fighting here. It was, however, the main center of the entire war, first for concentration of troops, second, for collecting supplies of all kinds, third, for distributing troops for immediate or prospective service, fourth, as menace to several of the enemy's important posts and their connecting lines. The reason that its strength was never satisfactory to Washington and his advisers was entirely due to the nearly always empty treasury.

Captain Reeve in his admirable essay on West Point in the Revolution says, "the toiling soldiers who built these works were at times ill clad, ill rationed, poorly sheltered, and their full pay to this day is unpaid." "To West Point at one time or another came nearly every officer prominent in the annals of the war . . . troops were continually arriving and departing . . . men who had served around Boston and in the Quebec expedition, with Washington in the Jerseys and against Burgoyne, were here camped with men who had seen service in the middle and southern colonies . . . It became the most carefully fortified post possessed by the Americans during the war, containing at times the largest garrison and nearly all the military stores." Had the British attached the importance to the place that our officers constantly feared they would, or had their campaigns been more wisely planned, its possession would have been more strongly contested.

After the close of the war until the end of the eighteenth century, West Point remained the most important post of the country. Work on the fortifications was done at intervals and  p121 continued as late as 1796. The school for educating officers, begun under orders from Washington in 1779, was intermittently in operation at West Point until the main school building was burned in 1796, and probably even later.

With the beginning of the nineteenth century West Point became the location of the Military Academy, an acquisition which at the end of that century had carried the name of West Point over the entire civilized world. At the end of the Revolution many of the leading soldiers and statesmen had become thoroughly impressed by the need of the country for technically educated officers. Between 1776 and 1800 it had been attempted partially to achieve this end by educating young officers while serving with their regiments. General Knox in 1776 was the first to propose a school on the "Woolwich plan." Washington in the last letter written by him, dated December 12, 1799, to Hamilton, strongly advocated such an academy.

The school on the Woolwich plan was authorized by Congress March 2, 1802, and went into operation on July 4th of that year. For the next ten years the average number of cadets taught was not over twenty. In 1812 an act of Congress established the academy in its present form, making the possible number of cadets 250 besides those of the engineers, and authorizing the academic board to confer degrees upon its graduate cadets.

Previous to 1817 the academy was in a very inchoate state; no defined or consistent course of instruction was pursued. Examinations previous to entrance were not always had, cadets were not arranged in distinct classes, definite courses of study were not prescribed, and regular examinations were not held. When Major Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Thayer became superintendent in 1817, he made use of the authority which the acts of Congress granted and really brought into operation the basic methods and system of discipline and instruction which still exist. He organized the cadets into a battalion, formed separate classes, divided classes into sections according to proficiency in studies, with arrangements for transfers from section to section; caused weekly class reports of daily proficiency, introduced the system and scale of marking which is still followed; and the publication of the annual register of the school: he brought about the attendance of the annual board of visitors which had  p122 been authorized. A definite curriculum of studies was prescribed; entrance examinations were made invariable; semiannual examinations were established for the cadets, to be held in January and June. Considering the time and prevailing conditions, it is no exaggeration to call Thayer's accomplishment marvelous. His title of "Father of the Academy" is richly merited.

The history of the academy is voluminous, full of interest and a tempting subject, but I shall refer only to a few enlightening facts and give the opinions of a few of those competent to judge her: the long list of distinguished personal achievements of her graduates can not here be given.

General Scott, at the close of the Mexican War, wrote: "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 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." At the close of our great war between the states, when the doors to Temple of Janus had stood wide for four long years and an aggregate of nearly three million of combatants were engaged, when favoritism was subordinated to merit, all the armies on the field on both sides were commanded by graduates, nearly all the corps and a large majority of the divisions.

Gen. Francis A. Walker, formerly president of the Boston Institute of Technology, writing in 1891 says: "There is one school in the United States devoted mainly to the application of scientific principles to a professional art, which is so well known to all our people and whose work in the development of mind and manhood has been so severely tested in the sight of the country and of the whole world, that I can not forbear to allude to it here. I mean the Military Academy at West Point. . . . When the war broke out, what a wealth of intellect and character was displayed by the graduates of that one small school during the terrific trial to which they were instantly and without preparation subjected! Think how many men for that single academy, which had fewer living graduates than either Amherst or Williams, led army corps and armies with distinction on the one side or the other, in what was the  p123 greatest war of modern history. . . . what power developed, out of these few small classes of raw lads, a Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant, a Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Lee, a Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sherman, a Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Meade, a Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson, a Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Thomas, the two Johnstons, a Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hancock, a Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Reno, a Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Reynolds and a Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sheridan, not to mention scores of others who waxed valiant in fight and commanded divisions and corps with a skill and address which have excited the admiration of the professional soldiers of Europe."

At the outbreak of the Spanish War all the senior commands in the regular army were filled by nongraduates, in which positions they continued during that brief struggle. Many graduates did honorable and distinguished service in the less conspicuous positions. In that last century in the intervals between our recognized wars, usually recognized as "peace times," many graduates with their nongraduate associates waged frequent pioneer wars against the fiercest and most dangerous of all savage warriors and did invaluable service in carrying forward the boundaries of civilization. This field could furnish many stories of hard, heroic, distinguished and forgotten service.

In a compilation made by Dr. J. H. Finley, former president of the College of the City of New York, now State Superintendent of Education, with reference to the value of college education as a factor of success in life, he included eighteen of our principal colleges and universities, as well as the West Point and Annapolis Academies. In the case of the two academies, only the last fifty years of nineteenth century were included. His data were based upon standard biographical dictionaries, and upon this base he gave West Point the highest per cent of success, Annapolis and Harvard having the same, and coming second.

Mr. Elihu Root, Secretary of War, at our centennial in 1902 said, "The informing spirit, the high standing of the regular army, are derived from the graduates, the teaching and the traditions of the Military Academy. No army inspired by the spirit of the Military Academy can ever endanger a country's liberty or can ever desert a country's flag."

President Roosevelt, on the same occasion, said, "This institution has completed its first hundred years of life. During that century no other educational institution in the land has contributed so many names as West Point has contributed to the honor roll of  p124 the nation's greatest citizens"; he added, "I claim to be a historian and I speak simply in the spirit of one, simply as a reciter of facts, when I say what I have said. And more than that, not merely has West Point contributed a greater number of men who stand highest on the nation's honor roll, but I think beyond question, that, taken as a whole, the average graduate of West Point during this 100 years has given a greater sum of service to the country through his life than has the average graduate of any other institution in this broad land."

This brief reference does scant justice either to the history of the Academy or the record of its graduates, but it lends hope that an institution with so creditable a past may have a more glorious future. That the Academy has over 100 years to its credit, that it, without political influence, has been permitted so long an existence, solely upon its merits, proves its necessity and the wisdom of its founders. Finally, this history of over 100 years leaves a message to the Academy for the next hundred, perhaps the message will reach other educational institutions; that is, to conserve the basis upon which its work has been done and the idea for which the Academy has stood.

This idea is that the highest result of education is the ability to use the rational faculties to their greatest capacity; that this ability is far superior to the faculty of absorbing information, that mental power is worth more than knowledge, that this power is best acquired by strenuous effort to overcoming mental difficulties; that hard labor is the surest means of success for the great majority and these means should be made familiar habits to every student.

Mental discipline and training have been the objects, rather than mental acquisition. Coupled with these and of greater importance have been the formation and development of character. These two principles, disciplining the mind and building character, have guided the academy; the accumulation of information has always been subordinate; neither discipline nor information are of much worth without character.

It would be an interesting extension to include here a historical account of the methods the Academy developed for securing her aims, but time and space forbid.

Never before in the world's history have so many men been engaged  p125 simultaneously in making war, never before has war made such full and fatal use of the developments of science; never before, in time of peace, has the attention of the American people been so sharply concentrated upon the necessity for military training and education; never was it more certain than now that the Military Academy is an asset of the utmost importance to the country, more important by far at the beginning of the twentieth century than at the beginning of the nineteenth when Washington, Hamilton and Knox deemed it so important. For the third time within my own memory the same thoroughly prepared nation is demonstrating to the world that war is a science whose details, if victory is to attend, must be laboriously learned in advance. Never was the necessity for preparedness against war so self-evident as now. This Academy is one of the most elements of preparedness and safety from war. We bespeak for it the confidence and support of the American people in the future even more fully than in the past.

[image ALT: A very large roofed space, in which a line of eleven horses abreast face the viewer, widely spaced and dwarfed by the structure. It is the old Riding Hall, now demolished, at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.]

Cavalry drill in largest riding hall in the world.
Area 135 by 565 feet, opened February 22, 1912.

Thayer's Notes:

a This paper was read before the Historical Association on Oct. 7, 1915. Less than two years later, Col. Tillman would be pressed out of retirement to become Superintendent of the Military Academy during the term of America's involvement in World War I.

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b The Great Chain — its specification, forging, and laying across the river — is covered in great detail by Boynton in chapter 4 of his History of West Point.

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Page updated: 15 Jun 16