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Chapter Outline
  1. The Thayer Era
    Author: Thomas Fleming
  2. The Mexican War
    Author: Cecilia Holland
  3. The Civil War
    Author: Stephen W. Sears
  4. World War I
    The Class the Stars Fell On
    Between the Wars
    Author: Robert Cowley
  5. World War II
    Author: Tom Wicker
    Essay: Hugh Sidey
  6. Creating a National Academy
    The Cold War Years
    Author: Dennis E. Showalter
    Essay: Alistair Horne
  7. Athletics at West Point
    Author: Geoffrey Norman.
  8. Into the Modern Era
    Author: Brian Haig
    Essay: Arthur Miller and David Halberstam

 

The Thayer Era by Thomas Fleming. 
There was more than enough tempest to go around in the first years of West Point.  The promontory with its wide high plain jutting out into the Hudson River was a natural military chokepoint, and its possession became a key to deciding the Revolution.  The commandant, Benedict Arnold, planned to hand it over to the British in 1780;  his attempt which just failed made him the most notorious traitor in American history.  In 1802, the site was chosen for a military academy.  Thomas Fleming records West Point's early vicissitudes- which lasted until Sylvanus Thayer became superintendent in 1817. He was one of those remarkable personages that early American democracy seemed to produce.  Thayer arrived to find members of the faculty under arrest, the cadets in a state of near mutiny, and the recently deposed superintendent returning to lead a coup d'état.  An educational reformer, Thayer made West Point a model of its kind, and for the first time in its brief history, a popular one.  Rigor had its appeal.  In Thayer's sixteen-year regime, cadets worked fifteen hours a day, slept on mattresses thrown on bare floors and had no vacations.  Sixty percent failed to graduate- one of whom was Edgar Allen Poe.  Robert E. Lee was as much a "marble model" at West Point as he was in The Civil War.  But Jefferson Davis was court martialed for drunkenness, dismissed from the Academy, and then re-instated.

Thomas Fleming - Duel, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America is Mr. Fleming's latest book and has won astonishing praise from fellow historians.  He is the author of more than 40 works of fiction and nonfiction, including biographies of Jefferson and Franklin, and the revisionist "1776: Year of Illusions."  Liberty! The American Revolution told the story of the nation's founding in conjunction with a six part series on the Revolution that appeared on PBS in 1997.  The History Book Club named it one of the eight best books of the year.  It was named the best book of the year by the American Revolution Round Table, and was a main selection of both the Book of the Month Club and the History Book Club. Mr. Fleming is a frequent guest and commentator on NPR, PBS, A&E, and the History Channel.
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West Point's Golden Age, by Cecelia Holland.
This chapter will tell the story of West Point's first period of greatness, from the end of the Thayer regime in 1833 until the beginning of the Civil War.  It was a period that almost didn't happen.  The Academy was under constant fire from Washington for being too elitist.  A dispute with President Jackson had led to Thayer's resignation.  In 1845, Congress came within one vote of abolishing West Point.  Meanwhile the place was as spartan as ever- no plumbing, one bath per week, and only two holidays, Christmas and New Year's Day.  Each cadet could get up to 200 demerits per year without being dismissed, for everything from drunkenness to having an item in his room out of place or for striking a horse with a sword.  Robert E. Lee earned no demerits in four years; George Custer '61 had so many that he needed a special dispensation to graduate.  But a remarkable cast of characters would pass through The Academy in these years: U.S. Grant, George McClennan, Thomas (later "Stonewall") Jackson, James Longstreet, George Pickett, George Thomas, William T. Sherman- to name just a few of the personalities Cecelia Holland depicts.  All would distinguish themselves in the Mexican War; all would be heard from again in the Civil War.

James McNeill Whistler was not among their number.  The future artist flunked out in 1853, his most dismal subject being chemistry.  Later in life, he loved to startle ladies at London dinner parties by remarking "if silicon were a gas, I would be a major general today."
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West Point in the Civil War, by Stephen W. Sears.
The Civil War was very much a West Point war.  Of the thousand general officers on both sides, more than a third were graduates or had attended the Academy.  All of the major figures, good and bad, were West Pointers: Lee, Grant, Sherman, Thomas, Jackson, Johnson, Longstreet, Sheridan and Thomas, on the high end; Bragg, Burnside, McClellan, Pope, McDowell, Hooker and Hood, on the low.

At the beginning of the war, so many of the unsuccessful Union generals were West Point graduates that the old Congressional call to do away with the Academy resurfaced with a vengence.  Washington also resented the number of West Pointers who had resigned from the Academy or the Army and headed south.  Orators called it "a nursery of treason."

But Stephen Sears recalls a touching side to the story and one that had to do with the extraordinary bonds of brotherhood established at the Academy.  Before the war, Southern and Northern cadets brawled; but as state after Southern state seceded in 1861, and wholesale resignations began, Northern cadets would carry their departing Southern opposites on their backs to the steamboat landing.  (The first official shot of the war, which also opened the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, was fired by Henry S. Farley of South Carolina, the first cadet to resign.)  Friends met friends on the battlefield.  There is a memorable 1862 photograph, which the book will reproduce, of George Armstrong Custer seated with James B. Washington, a West Point classmate whom Custer's men had captured just hours earlier.

But in the saga of West Point, no close encounter quite matches that of the Confederate Brigadier-General Lewis Armistead and the Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, both West Pointers and friends from Army outpost days in the West.  Armistead led Pickett's charge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg and had vaulted over the famous stonewall on Cemetary Ridge, when he was cut down.  Moments before, Hancock had been struck in the testicles by a minié ball, apparently mortally wounded.  (He survived and later became the Democratic candidate for President in 1880.)  As a dying Armistead was being carried back, he asked about his friend Hancock.  Some time later, Hancock's wife opened a locked suitcase that Armistead had left behind for the Hancocks.  In it she found a prayer book inscribed with the motto: "Trust in God and fear nothing."
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The Ungilded Age, 1865-1914, by Carlo W. D'Este.
The fifty years following the Civil War saw a complete reordering of American life.  The nation went from a largely agrarian society to an increasingly urban and industrial one; by the beginning of World War I, it was ready to take its place in the world.   But West Point did not always reflect those changes.  The Academy basked in its Civil War reputation.  Whenever Washington tried to initiate changes, they were promptly vetoed.  "Does not wisdom suggest that we leave well enough alone?"  William Tecumseh Sherman '40 asked, and the answer was plain.  Ironically, cadets barely studied the Civil War.  When a student who was a combat veteran tried to put forward a real-life solution to a tactical problem, his professor reprimanded him: "I don't care what you did or what you saw during the Civil War.  You stick to the text.  Sit down, sir!"

As early as 1870, young men from the South began to rejoin the Corps of Cadets.  Former West Pointers from opposite sides like U.S. Grant and James Longstreet resumed old friendships.  But if the Civil War had been largely fought over the slavery issue, West Point's treatment of the thirteen Black cadets who matriculated between 1865 and 1915 was shameful.  They were not so much hazed as ostracized.  The first flunked out; of the only three who graduated, one, Henry O. Flipper, was dismissed from the Army on trumped-up charges- and was only granted a Presidential pardon in 1999.

As Carlo D'Este notes, West Point during the Gilded Age was not a pleasant place for anyone.  The Academy was described as a "military monastery."  No less a personage than Douglas MacArthur '03 called it "a provincial reformatory based on fear."  He spoke from the experience of extreme hazing.  ("Boys will be boys" Sherman commented about the "Bracing" problem -as hazing was called- that too often made headlines in those years.)  Cadets even marched in formation to take baths.  Rules were draconian.  A cadet once received a demerit for touching a young lady's arm- and another cadet for helping a woman across the street.  The woman was his mother.

The wars cadets graduated to fight were small and not always splendid: bloody skirmishes with Indians on the frontier (which officially closed in 1890); the Spanish-American War (one of the five West Pointers killed was Dennis Michie, the first football captain, for whom West Point stadium was named); the Philippine Insurrection (sixteen graduates killed); or the Mexican goose chase of John J. Pershing '83 after Pancho Villa.  But as the new century began, West Point was at last undergoing changes- changes that events in Europe would accelerate.
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The Great War and After, by Robert Cowley.
For America, World War I was a West Point war in the sense that 366 general officers had gone to the Academy.  Pershing commanded the American Expeditionary Force but the best American fighting general- indeed, one of the best of any nationality in the whole war- was Hunter Liggett, '79.  (In January 1918 he was a divisional commander; by the fall he led the First Army and increasingly was taking over from Pershing.)  Pershing attempted to transfer the discipline of the Academy to the whole Army:  "The rigid attention, upright bearing, attention to detail, uncomplaining obedience to instruction required of the cadet, will be required of every officer and soldier in our forces in France." But even with accelerated graduations in 1917 and 1918, younger West Point graduates comprised only a small part of the million-man A.E.F., that instant mass Army.  Still West Point's relatively brief experience would prepare its graduates well for the next war.  Consider the Class of 1915, the class "the stars fell on".  Of 164 graduates, fifty-eight would become generals in World War II.  Curiously, neither of the two men who would achieve the highest rank, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar N. Bradley, would get to France.  Eisenhower commanded a tank camp in Pennsylvania and Bradley's infantry regiment guarded copper mines in a strike-ridden Montana. 

In 1919, a thirty-nine-year-old Douglas MacArthur was appointed superintendent of the Academy, the youngest ever.  The former commander of the 42nd Division had a won a Distinguished Service Cross for bravery in the late war.  He immediately set about instituting reforms- which included allowing cadets to have spending money.  He added 170 course hours in math and dropped 188 in "drawing."  "How long are we going on preparing for the War of 1812?" he asked.  MacArthur lasted just three years.  Old grads and the Academy's faculty ganged up on him.  Their behind-the-scenes manipulations led to a convenient "promotion": MacArthur was sent packing across the Pacific, to command US troops in the Philippines.  For the next two decades West Point supplied officers to an army without a mission.  By 1940 the American Army had become so unimportant that in size it ranked seventeenth in the world, just behind Bulgaria.
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West Point during World War II, by Tom Wicker.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7,1941; Wicker writes, "the United States Military Academy was much like the Army of which it was a proud part- outmoded and inadequate.  The fancily uniformed Corps of Cadets still trained on horseback three times a week and had to learn how to load a 75 millimeter howitzer pack on mules.  Riding breeches still were a part of the required dress, not to be discontinued until November 1942."

But already big, and lasting, changes were in the works, and that is the story Wicker tells.  Motorized vehicles were substituted for horses.  "Horsemanship" however was not altogether eliminated until 1947, when the last horses were "withdrawn from the post."  Army regulars were imported to teach tactics; the theoretical had no place in this war.  Khaki drill uniforms were introduced to make the cadets look more like draftees.  Many cadets trained at the nearby Stewart Airbase to be pilots in the Army Air Force: more West Point graduates won the Distinguished Flying Cross than any other award (except the Purple Heart), but there were months when the pilot training accidents claimed almost as many lives as combat.  Some 9000 West Pointers were on active duty in World War II of whom 700 died.

Even in wartime, cadet life was as rigorous as ever.  Hazing by upperclassmen was still a ritual that all incoming cadets had to endure, though it little resembled the ordeal of MacArthur's day.  Dates- known as "drags"- came up by train, and if a cadet and his date wanted to eat lunch at the Hotel Thayer, the girl had to pay.  MacArthur's reform about pocket money had been rescinded.  A goodnight kiss, if detected, was worth twenty-two demerits.  West Point life was dominated by football.  These were the years of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, and three consecutive national championships: 1944, 1945, 1946. 
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The Korean War Years, by Dennis E. Showalter.
West Point benefitted from the fact that the aftermath of World War II was not marked by an almost total renunciation of arms, as had happened after the Civil War and World War I.  A new war, The Cold War, had taken its place.  For the first time, the United States recognized a need to have combat-ready troops during peacetime.  The draft, briefly dropped, was reinstituted when the Korean War began in 1950.  But the new citizen army would be commanded by a national officer corps, most of whose permanent members came from the military academy.  War, as Dennis E. Showalter points out, had become too important to be left to amateurs.

The curriculum at West Point may have become less rigid at this time, but it was hardly liberal.  As one official Army report noted, "skepticism frequently breeds indecision and to turn on a man beset by doubts is hardly the proper objective of service academy training."  That was perhaps an answer to another problem brought on by what was essentially an unpopular war.  Increasingly, instruction at West Point turned to producing men who would immediately be better leaders in active combat.

The other event in these years that produced a radical change at West Point was the cheating scandal of 1951, which turned the Academy away from the football culture that had brought it so much prominence.  Academic departments, fed up with seeing football players get special privileges, played a large role in exposing cheating, which saw the expulsion of 90 cadets.  Changes were in the air- and ones that many of the old grads would predictably resist, as would a number of the cadets.  Who in the 1950s, for example, could foresee the coming of women?  In 1955 the cadet magazine The Pointer ran a mocking feature titled "The Day West Point Went Co-Ed"  The article, which jeered at the prospect of "Cadettes", appeared on April Fool's Day. 
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Athletics at West Point, by Geoffrey Norman.
When thinking about sports at the US Military Academy, they turn almost automatically to the great Army teams of the mid 1940s.  These were the years of Doc Blanchard and Glen Davis, "Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside," and the Army won three consecutive national championships, in 1944, 1945, 1946, under Earl "Red" Blaik.  In the days before two-platoon football, these teams had an all-star cast, men who would play equally well on both sides of the ball, and these teams became a national obsession.  During the Battle of the Bulge, when English-speaking Germans in GI uniforms were infiltrating Allied lines, MPS would ask a simple, but for the counterfeit Americans unanswerable, question: "Who won the Notre Dame game?"

Army football would never be the same after the cheating scandal of 1951, which saw 37 players expelled from the Academy, including Blaik's son.  Blaik, under pressure from Douglas MacArthur, stayed on and rebuilt his shattered team.  In 1958, Army led by Heisman award winner, Pete Dawkins, was undefeated.  Dawkins would go on to become a national hero in Vietnam, as would another West Point football hero, Bill Carpenter, the so-called "lonely end."

Athletics have always been important at West Point.  Every cadet is required to participate in a team sport- the operative word being "team" (This was another of MacArthur's reforms.  He felt that too many officers in World War I, West Pointers included, had been in wretched physical condition).  One of the first great West Point athletes must have been U.S. Grant, Class of 1843, who established a high jump record on horseback that lasted until after the Civil War.  George Patton announced that he would make the football team and be the first in his class to make general; he did neither.  Injuries prevented him from making a varsity football "A" but he gained the letter anyway when he broke the Academy record in the 220-yard hurdles.  An expert horseman, he would place fifth in the Penthalon in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.  Omar Bradley '15 was a fine baseball player; his classmate Dwight Eisenhower was a star halfback, but a fall from a horse ruined his knee and his football career.  There are many more such stories that Geoffrey Norman will cite.
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Into the Modern Era, by Brian Haig.
Vietnam was a low point, both for the US Army and West Point.  It was an unpopular war in which the Army at first performed admirably- witness the heroics of men like Dawkins and Carpenter- and then under pressure from home, went into a decline.  West Point mirrored that decline.  But it also mirrored the subsequent reform of the Army that saw a victorious climax in The Gulf.  That is only part of the story that Lance Morrow will tell.  In the last quarter century, the Long Grey Line has fallen in with the major changes of American society.  West Point is no longer an all-white male bastion.  The "cadettes" that the 1955 article made fun of have arrived in force, as have Blacks, Asians and Latinos.  There is a new set of heroes like Gillian Boyce who rescued men from a Gulf War minefield.  Assimilation may have brought new problems, but they are the problems of a greater democracy.  As West Point approaches its bicentennial year- the year that this lavish book will celebrate- it must prepare its graduates not for aimless garrison duty but for America's changed role in the world.
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Produced for The West Point Project, LLC by Koerner Kronenfeld Partners, LLC.
Carl Seldin Koerner and Ivan S. Kronenfeld, Executive Producers