The Corps

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Then, when Jefferson entered the White House, the issue was presented to him anew but in distinctly unmilitary terms. The Army of 3,800 men had a detachment of engineer troops stationed at West Point in the Hudson River highlands, the largest fort in the United States. Why not set up a school there, primarily for the training of engineer officers who would become capable of building for a vast and raw land roads, bridges, dams, harbors, canals, docks, and aqueducts? Jefferson went for it. Congress agreed on March 16, 1802.

The United States Military Academy formally opened on July 4, 1802, and all who applied were made welcome. Ten people showed up for the first classes.

Eventually some sort of entrance requirements were set up, and when the War of 1812 came, West Pointers at least did better than most of the participants in what was not America’s most glorious military hour. (Students departed almost en masse for the fray; the graduating class of 1813 consisted of one man.) When peace came and classes resumed, it was ordered that there be a special cadet uniform based on that worn by the soldiers who had served under Winfield Scott in one of the few American victories over the British, the Battle of Chippewa. Th’at attire, horsehair plumes and crossbelts and all, is what you find if you are one of the present day’s three million annual visitors or have seen pictures of the Corps marching across the Plain in formal review.

IN 1817 CAME THE MOST IMPORTANT occurrence in the USMA’s history. A boat arrived at the South Dock, and a man as central to the story of West Point as Jesus is to Christianity stepped ashore. Bvt. Maj. Sylvanus Thayer, 32 years of age, father of the Academy, patriarch of the Long Gray Line, was majestic, cold, unbending, impartial, orderly, unrelaxed and unrelaxing, never one half-minute late for anything, and always seeming to have just bathed, shaved, and dressed. He had prepared for his appointment as Superintendent by obtaining $5,000 in government funding to purchase in Europe military books, maps, models of fortifications, and charts. These formed the basis for a serious study of the art of war, and how exactly that study would be conducted was Thayer’s great construction, lasting almost unbelievably intact for nearly a century and a half. The foundation for everything was mathematics. A math problem had only one correct answer. It was the duty of a cadet to find it. Then he went on to another problem. Math had to do with decisiveness, precision, and attention to detail, with certainty and no wandering. It sharpened, Thayer felt, analytical powers and taught a manner of thinking transferable to other areas of life. Derivative from math was engineering, the other bulwark of the Superintendent’s educational program. Everything in these two fields of study worked according to inflexible rules from which no deviation was permissible.

So did the West Point that Sylvanus Thayer invented Entering cadets, he ruled, would report in late June for two months of what was soon called and still is, although now greatly toned down, “Beast Barracks.” The newcomers were handled in the brutal fashion of Frederick the Great, whose army was termed a jail on the march. “Mr. Dumbjohn! Mr. Dumbwillie! Animal! Thing! Smackhead!,” they heard screamed from morning to night. They were constantly ordered to “brace” —get the shoulders back so that the blades met. They were put to picking up all the ants in a hill one by one and ordered to change from one uniform into another in impossible time. Taking orders under pressure, with no questions allowed or any excuse, makes for soldiers who are disciplined.

 

The tormentors of the new men were the members of the third-class year, the yearlings, as sophomores were called. The yearlings, remembered Morris Schaff, offered raging shouts, indignant voices, glaring eyes, “looks of the most desperate character,” and a “panther-like readiness to jump on us and tear us to bits.” Decades after Thayer’s death, the plebe John J. Pershing found that in the eyes of the screaming yearlings “a burnt match left in the company street became a log, a scrap of paper was magnified into a trash pile.” Plebes took meals at strictest brace with no part of a chair except for its front two inches utilized. They were often compelled to eat soap and drink Tabasco. Plebe Douglas A. MacArthur, ordered endlessly to “eagle,” which meant doing deep knee ‘bends from which one arose with arms flapping, collapsed and went into convulsions. This went on until plebe year ended, and those who had not gone mad or run away or broken down were on Recognition Day addressed by their names and offered handshakes.

 

Matters improved for a cadet after Recognition Day, but still he was harried by tactical officers, “tacs,” who recorded demerits for men talking while standing in place, defacing public property by having their feet up on a table, whistling when going up a flight of stairs, being late to drill or duty—for which, a 1914 study determined, there were more than 18,000 opportunities in the four years—and any other infraction of the rules of proper and understood conduct.