- Historic Sites
The United States Military Academy turns 200 this year. West Point has grown with the nation—and, more than once, saved it.
October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
Cadet Dwight D. Eisenhower was “hived” for dancing too swiftly at a hop. At least he wasn’t caught in a public display of affection, with a penalty of 22 demerits and 44 hours of walking a punishment tour up and down while toting a rifle, for giving a kiss to one of the girls imported from the outside world that no cadet would see for one single minute during his USMA career except for the 10-week furlough given at the end of the third year. “Those ten weeks were shorter than one week at West Point,” Ulysses Grant wrote, remembering “a place I felt I had been at always and that ' my stay at had no end.” When in 1839 Congress took under consideration a bill to abolish the Academy as an undemocratic and unneeded drain on taxpayers, Grant read the papers in eager hopes of finding the measure passed. Disappointed, he stuck it out, as did Eisenhower decades after. Eisenhower later said that if they’d had a chance to sit and think for a moment, most of his 1915 class—the Class the Stars Fell On, 59 of its 164 men becoming generals owning a total of 111 stars—"would have taken the next train out.”
Other men fled, Edgar Allan Poe declaring that on his illicit visits to Benny Havens’s tavern he dealt with “the only congenial soul in this god-forsaken place.” James McNeill Whistler had his only academic success in sketching class. His worst subject was chemistry. “Sir, I am required to discuss the subject of silicon,” he announced in class. “Silicon is a gas—”
“That will do, Mr. Whistler,” said the instructor, and shortly Superintendent Robert E. Lee ordered dismissal. “If silicon had been a gas, I would have been a major general,” Whistler loved to say in later years.
THE SOUL OF THE ACADEMY IS DISTILLED IN ITS HONORS CODE.
That the system worked appeared confirmed by the country’s performance in the 1846-48 war with Mexico. Without the leadership of USMA men, Winfield Scott said, the conflict would have lasted four or five years with many U.S. defeats, but as things turned out, not a single battle or skirmish was lost. Then came the Civil War, with 55 of the 60 major battles finding West Pointers in command on both sides, and elevation to the highest positions of military glory of such soldiers as Lee, Grant, Sherman, Stuart, Jackson, and Sheridan. So the USMA needed no alteration, it was held. Cadets of the Gilded Age and after went on precisely as had their predecessors. They studied under instructors who could hardly be called teachers, as Pershing’s ’86 classmate T. Bentley Mott remembered, and were rather more “a machine for grading cadets on their knowledge of prescribed texts” that operated, Mott thought, in a place to find the approximate parallel of which you would have to travel to a Tibetan lamasery or the Jesuit College in Rome.
The comparisons were apt, for what was desired was the production of knightserrant in a military cloister protected from the contaminating impurities of the outside world of trade and commerce. And indeed, it seemed, from everything connected with that world. The European war begun in 1914 was ignored in the fortresslike Military Gothic buildings looming over the Hudson, and as late as the third year of fighting nothing was ever mentioned about Verdun or the Somme. “The great charm of West Point is that so many things never change,” an alumnus wrote in that year, 1917, when cadets continued to study cavalry tactics. At least by then there was something new for the Corps to be involved with. For the first time, cadets could depart the Point, one day a year, for the Navy game held at some neutral spot, New York or Philadelphia. Other teams had to come to Michie Stadium, named for the first football captain, Dennis Mahan Michie, class of ’92, killed in action in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. As they do today, all cadets stood for the duration of play at all games.