Mutiny At West Point
In 1817, “Old Pewt’s” rebellious cadets met their master in Sylvanus Thayer
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
That afternoon, Captain Bliss’s temper cracked. Laying hands on a cadet misbehaving on parade, Bliss threw him bodily out of ranks. Two days later, five cadets presented themselves before Thayer at his quarters. Leading them was Thomas Ragland, Partridge’s favorite, whom we remember as the young gentleman who had hurled a chair-round from his window at the post surgeon. The quintet announced themselves to be a committee representing the entire cadet corps and presented a round robin signed by more than 150 men, demanding the removal of Captain Bliss.
The Superintendent sent them back to their quarters, after informing them that, although any cadet feeling himself aggrieved would have a hearing, such collective action was unmilitary. But they returned shortly, this time bearing a set of charges of “unofficerlike conduct” against Bliss. He was accused, among other things, of having on one occasion, “with the least possible provocation,” thrown stones at several cadets; another time he had “violently thrown” a cadet off the railings of South Barracks. The final specification was that he “did seize by the collar, jerk out of the ranks, and publicly damn Cadet Edward L. Nicholson.” Presenting this paper, the truculent five now announced that noncompliance with their demand would mean the rebellion of the entire corps.
Thayer’s reaction was prompt. The five committeemen were ordered off the post “to the places of their respective guardians, where they will remain until further notice.” Finding next day that they were still hanging around a tavern just off the reservation, Thayer gave them one hour to leave, which they did, by rowboat to Peekskill, despite the fact, as they later wailed, that they were “only awaiting the arrival of the steamboat in the evening, and on the morning on which the order was issued it was raining very fast.”
The affair became a cause célèbre of the period. An inspector came and supported the Superintendent’s action. President Monroe went further to uphold Thayer. “I have the pleasure,” wrote the secretary of war, John C. Calhoun, January 15, 1819, announcing the Presidential approval, “to state that your conduct … has been satisfactory and approved. … The course pursued by the cadets is highly reprehensible throughout the whole transaction, and particularly objectionable on the part of the young gentlemen who composed the committee.”
Captain Bliss, however, was relieved as commandant, since “he does not appear to have sufficient command of his temper.”
The rumpus went on for more than a year. A court-martial convened to try Cadet Ragland declared itself to be without jurisdiction, on the ground that the cadets were not under military law. Here, of course, lay the crux of the whole situation.
Thayer had pointed this out in his original report of the incident, noting that”… the radical cause of the disturbance to which the Mil. Acad’y. is liable is the erroneous and unmilitary impressions of the Cadets imbibed at an inauspicious period of the institution when they were allowed to … intrude their views and opinions with respect to the conduct of the Acad’y. So long as these impressions shall remain the Acad’y. will be liable to combinations & convulsions & the reputation of the institution & of the officers connected with it will be put in jeopardy.”
The issue was settled on August 21, 1819, when the attorney general of the United States, William Wirt, ruled that “the corps at West Point form a part of the land forces of the United States, and have been constitutionally subjected by Congress to the rules and articles of war, and to trial by court-martial.”
Sylvanus Thayer had met the second threat to his reorganization of West Point, and had won again. The Long Gray Line was on its cadenced way.