- Historic Sites
Mutiny At West Point
In 1817, “Old Pewt’s” rebellious cadets met their master in Sylvanus Thayer
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
The first superintendent, portly Colonel Jonathan Williams, had resigned in 1812 and his successor, Swift—himself the first graduate of West Point-had been away on service at the front. The actual administration had then been left during practically all this time to Captain Partridge, a graduate of 1806 who had since spent all his service there—first as an assistant professor and later as professor of mathematics and engineering. When the war ended Swift, who had become preoccupied with other affairs in New York City, had persuaded President Madison to make Partridge acting superintendent.
An austere introvert from Vermont and a mathematician of parts, Partridge appears to have lacked any administrative or command ability. Filled with good intentions, he set forth again and again plans for revision of rules and for regularity in instruction and promotion, yet he personally violated all of them. A martinet whose excessive severity at times made life miserable for some of the cadets, he was also weak. Certain strong-willed youths who had solved his character curried his favor, and as a result this clique could do no wrong.
“Old Pewt” was Partridge’s nickname. Stiff and ungainly, he strutted about clad in an ancient blue uniform coat overladen with buttons and lace, and with such unusually widespread tails that it became known as the “Peacock.” He could delegate no authority, tried to do everything himself, and was at continual loggerheads with the faculty.
Partridge it was who put the corps into its now traditional “cadet gray” uniforms, commemorating Winfield Scott’s victory at Chippewa, and he introduced pipe-clayed white crossbelts because “they have a more neat and elegant appearance …” But he could not maintain discipline. “Tin soldier” would perhaps best describe Alden Partridge.
A far different man from Partridge was Sylvanus Thayer. A gradute of Dartmouth College previous to his short career at West Point—he was graduated in 1808, a year after his admission—he was an ardent admirer of Napoleon’s military virtues and a close student of the Little Corporal’s campaigns. During the War of 1812 he had distinguished himself and had become personally known to James Monroe. Slim, erect, a soldier every inch of his five-foot-ten frame, Thayer arrived at West Point on July 28, 1817, bearing orders for the relief of Partridge.
Nobody realized it at the moment, but when Sylvanus Thayer stepped across the parade ground and walked to the superintendent’s house, the modern West Point had arrived. The old happy-go-lucky days were over; now the “young gentlemen” who rejoiced in the title of cadets were going to be soldiers, and it would be like that forever after.
Thayer was not outwardly tough; indeed, in his first big test he showed a quiet capacity for patience, for avoiding bluster and letting the showdown take its natural course. But he knew how to make his ideas effective. There was no nonsense about him, and since his regime there has been no nonsense about the United States Military Academy. He made the place, presumably in his own image, and the image seems to have been a good one.
Thayer began by handing the dismissal orders to Partridge. Accepting the orders in grim silence, Partridge slipped away from the post next day and Thayer set about cleaning house. For instance, on the departure of President Monroe, Partridge had put the entire faculty in arrest as revenge for their complaints, and that legal tangle had to be snipped. Then the corps had to be called to return, for more than haft of the 213 on the rolls were on “vacation.”
On August 29, soon after he took command, Thayer was interrupted by a long roll of drums, followed by tumultuous cheers. Outside his office the Corps of Cadets was being paraded, under arms. By whose order? By none other than Alden Partridge! “Old Pewt” had returned. Clad in the “Peacock,” he was reading out an order he himself had written, reassuming command of West Point.
Thayer quietly left the post, after writing a letter to the secretary of war:
“I have the honor to inform you that Captain A. Partridge of the Corps of Engineers has returned to this post and has, this day, forcibly assumed the command and the superintendency of the Academy. I shall therefore proceed to New York and wait your orders.”
Why did Thayer so meekly acquiesce? We lack certain knowledge, for Thayer never discussed the matter directly, and his evidence in the later trial of Partridge gives no inkling of his motives. One can only speculate, dismissing immediately any thought of vacillation or weakness on Thayer’s part; his record both before and after belies that.