Mutiny At West Point

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It was June 15, 1817, and up at West Point newly elected President James Monroe, staunch friend of the Military Academy, was in a towering rage. The place was in poor shape, its curriculum had unraveled, examinations were unknown, and discipline was non-existent. The acting superintendent, Captain Alden Partridge, Corps of Engineers, seemed to be running a “Dotheboys Hall” of sorts, where favoritism governed and cadets were being graduated without reference either to academic standing or military ability.The academic staff-Professors Mansfield, Ellicott, Berard, Douglass and Crozet—had just presented the President with burning indictments of the existing regime. In particular, Mansfield had written:”… Men, not principles, are intended to prevail … this noble institution is calculated on as an instrument to gratify the capacity of individuals, in subserving the interests of friends & connexions, in advancing favorites & sycophants, instead of rewarding merit on fair & honorable principles as designed by the laws.”

These allegations were not entirely a surprise to the President. Monroe was well aware of the brilliant records of its few graduates during the War of 1812. But, for a short time secretary of war in addition to his other duties as secretary of state under James Madison, he had also had inklings that all was not well up on the Hudson. That was why he was here now.

There had been protests from the professors—notably one from Ellicott in 1815 complaining of Partridge’s flouting of regulations: “The Academick staff are the only persons capable and qualified … to judge of the respective merits and requirements of the Cadets … the opinion of the staff has never been taken with regards to the talents, acquirements or merit of a single Cadet who has been commissioned; on the contrary, the names of those intended to be commissioned have never been communicated to the staff. … The most accomplished scholars have either not been taken notice of, or placed in so low a grade … that their continuance in the service would have been degradation.”

Previous charges of nepotism had been made against Partridge: that his uncle, Isaac Partridge, had run the cadet mess; that his nephew, Lieutenant John Wright, was post adjutant; that another relative, “Major” James Barton, operated the cadet store, where uniforms were sold to cadets at prices exorbitant in comparison with those charged by New York tailors.

Other complaints of disciplinary laxness had been made: that cadets wandered on and off the post at will; that they were selling their pay vouchers in advance to loan sharks to obtain money; and that officers who passed the barracks might be showered by missiles thrown from windows.

There had been the curious case of Dr. Walsh, the post surgeon, who in 1816 had narrowly missed being brained by a chair-round hurled by cocky Cadet Thomas Ragland, a special favorite of Partridge. Ragland had never been punished.

James Monroe had seen and heard enough. During his short tour as secretary of war he had sent a brilliant young graduate, Brevet Major Sylvanus Thayer, Corps of Engineers, abroad to study European military pedagogy and to collect a scientific library for the Military Academy. Thayer, now just returned from two years of intensive study and inspection in France and England, would be just the man to rectify matters.

Turning to General Joseph G. Swift, chief of engineers, who after all was responsible for the Military Academy, and who had accompanied him on this hurried tour of inspection, the President ordered a new deal. Partridge must go; later he should be court-martialed. Thayer should immediately be appointed to the superintendency to bring order out of chaos.

Thus it was that Sylvanus Thayer, “Father of the Military Academy,” a native of Braintree, Massachusetts, assumed the command he would occupy for sixteen years, rebuilding West Point, launching its Corps of Cadets on the path of “Duty, Honor, Country.” That the first fourteen months of his incumbency were spent in an atmosphere of riot and smoldering insurrection is something else again. We must first look at the causes for the dry rot that had possessed this school, launched in 1802 under high auspices and with lofty ideals-the consummation of the dreams of George Washington, Henry Knox and Alexander Hamilton.

 

The collapse was not sudden. Rather there had been a combination of circumstances—the active hostility of a secretary of war, the exigencies of the War of 1812, and an absentee landlordism—which had brought the Military Academy to this sorry state.

William Eustis, President Madison’s secretary of war from 1809 to 1813, had shown his violent dislike for both the Academy and the Corps of Engineers by not only doing all in his power to prevent the appointment of cadets but also by transferring officers away from West Point.