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Mutiny At West Point
In 1817, “Old Pewt’s” rebellious cadets met their master in Sylvanus Thayer
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
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.
The question of brevet rank may have entered into it. Partridge was senior to Thayer on the engineer roster, and, since West Point was an engineer post, the latter’s brevet rank would not count. It is most probable, however, that Thayer concluded that any attempt to resist Partridge’s fait accompli would be futile, in view of the plaudits the usurper had just received from the cadets. Their mass defiance of any counter order on his part would have resulted in what could only be considered a mutiny of the entire corps, leading to a public scandal which might well have wrecked the Military Academy forever.
In New York Thayer reported to Swift. Forty-eight hours later came the aide-de-camp of the chief of engineers, saber clanking, to place Partridge in arrest and reinstate Thayer. “Old Pewt” was to be court-martialed, charged with mutiny. He was permitted to go to New York to prepare his defense, and the Corps of Cadets made plain their opinion when he departed. They accompanied him to the steamboat dock in riotous ovation, while the band played him off “with honors of musick.”
Thayer had permitted the cadets to go to the dock, well knowing that their excuse—to welcome incoming comrades—was but a subterfuge. But the band—that was something different. Partridge’s nephew, the post adjutant, had officially turned it out and this Thayer could not stomach. Lieutenant Wright was removed; shortly he resigned from the service.
Up to West Point came an imposing array of rank for Partridge’s trial, with General Winfield Scott, “Old Fuss and Feathers,” presiding. “Old Pewt” was found guilty of disobedience of orders and of assuming command without authority. Much was made of his advising a junior officer, one Lieutenant Davies, “to address the cadets in his behalf and particularly to thank them for their manner of receiving him … and making other declarations calculated to induce them to support his assumption of command.”
He was, however, cleared of the specific charge of mutiny, and the court, while sentencing him to be cashiered, accompanied it with a plea for clemency on the grounds of previous “zeal and perseverance.” President Monroe permitted Partridge to resign. Thus Partridge left the West Point scene, to become a lifelong and vociferous enemy of the Military Academy.
Thayer now went seriously about the business of building an institution based upon character, its foundation the premise that “a cadet does not lie, cheat or steal”—the substance of West Point’s well-known honor code. The Academy was to become a kind of secular novitiate under Spartan discipline, in which each cadet suffered equally and was rewarded equally, striving to a common goal under impartial command.
The house cleaning was a thorough one. A careful screening of the corps disposed of some hardy perennials who, through favoritism, had been permitted to stay at the place for years. Tradition has it that one forty-year-old cadet was unearthed, with a wife and family living in Orange County. Another cadet, so the story goes, had but one arm. But the majority of the misfits, in Thayer’s own language, were just “nuisances and should be removed.” They were.
Vacations were abolished. The Academy was placed on a twelve-month cycle. Incomers were screened by a thorough examination before acceptance. Pedagogical methods adapted from École Polytechnique in France were instituted. To ensure democracy, individual cadets were prohibited any outside financial assistance; each had to depend upon his government pay. Actually, no cadet now touched money; all his financial transactions were upon a checking system. Were a cadet in debt, he got along as best he could with what he had, until such time as his pay re-established his credit.
The Partridge clique amongst the cadets took these changes hard, as might be expected from unruly youngsters accustomed to selling their pay vouchers for ready cash at tremendous discount. But worst of all, from their viewpoint, was the new disciplinary setup. Captain John Bliss, 6th Infantry, had been appointed by Thayer as commandant of cadets, to supervise his Spartan rule. Bliss, Thayer felt, was “peculiarly well qualified.” Actually, as it turned out, the choice was not a good one; the new commandant had a most violent temper.
And so the storm clouds rose, amongst a corps still composed mostly of young men accustomed to “Old Pewt’s” laxities, and chafing under the new restrictions. They burst on Sunday, November 22, 1818, in an explosion whose reverberations would not cease until they had reached the halls of Congress, and the result of which would settle once and for all the heretofore moot status of the Corps of Cadets in the military hierarchy.