West Point In Review


The view is the chief glory of Fort Putnam. You gaze down upon the entire academy and the shining river below. The actual west point—where the Hudson bends around the jutting glacial rock—is marvelously visible. Without the slightest effort you can imagine the drama of that September morning in 1780, when General Arnold, knowing that his British contact, Maj. John André, had been captured and that Washington was en route to the fort for an ominous visit, rushed from the Beverly Robinson house across the river, called for his boat, and ordered his oarsmen to row downstream to the waiting British sloop Vulture.

General Patton, Sheridan, Grant, Custer, Pershing, and Eisenhower all had mediocre academic records.

There are only a few other Revolutionary memories at West Point. On the northeast corner of the drill field (always called the Plain), directly overlooking the Hudson, are a long earthen mound and some stonework, all that is left of Fort Clinton, the main bastion in West Point’s complex of forts. It was finished in 1779 under the direction of Col. Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish engineer who served Washington as a volunteer. A monument to the boyish colonel stands nearby. Below, the rock garden he created on the cliffs beside the Hudson was restored in 1969. Unfortunately it is behind the Officers’ Club and is not accessible to tourists. Neither is Fort Putnam from mid-November to mid-April. Too often, during those months, the steep hills of West Point are sheathed in ice.

Another interesting relic of the Revolution, out on Trophy Point, on the outermost edge of the Plain, is a few links of the massive chain that the Americans stretched across the river to block British men-of-war. Built by one of those forgotten heroes of the Revolution, the engineer Thomas Machin, it was a triumph of American technology, foreshadowing the scientific expertise that generations of academy graduates were to bring to the art of war.

Returning from Fort Putnam, visitors proceed up Thayer Road, with the Hudson on one side and the venerable houses of Colonels Row on the other side. These red-brick quarters have been home to senior family members for more than a hundred years. They are also repositories of West Point and Army lore. I visited them many times for lunch or dinner during the four years I spent at West Point writing a history of the academy during the mid-sixties. I met wives whose mothers had followed officer husbands to the Philippines and China at the turn of the century and faculty members whose parents had grown up on Western Army posts in the 1880s.

Ahead, as Thayer Road bends around the cliff and joggers, male and female, stream past, you see the focus of Samuel Huntington’s apostrophe to serenity and beauty. The cadet barracks and central administration buildings are grouped south of the Plain, all in majestic, dark gray fortress-Gothic architecture. The barracks, organized into four quadrangles known as the North, Central, South, and New South Areas, are closed to visitors. But you can peer through the sally port, the arched entrance into the Central Area, part of which dates from 1851, and with a little imagination waft yourself back to a gloomy February 22, 1861, when the United States was on the brink of Civil War.

With classes suspended, the cadets spent Washington’s Birthday discussing politics. That evening, at tattoo, the West Point band marched across the Plain to the stirring strains of “Washington’s March.” When they reached the Central Area, they switched to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Suddenly, from the window of his room, George Armstrong Custer, of the class of 1861, roared out a cheer for the Union. Southerners, led by Custer’s best friend, Thomas Lafayette Rosser, responded with shouts for Dixie. Back and forth went the rival cheers. By the time the cadets and the band ran out of breath, little doubt was left that the academy was fearfully divided.

On this same site in 1826, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and several other hell-raising cadets had organized a Christmas party to initiate their friends into the mysteries of eggnog. The party turned into a riot that became a pitched battle between cadets and tactical officers (“tacs”), the commissioned regulars who were—and still are—the academy’s disciplinarians. Before the upheaval subsided, Davis’s roommate had tried to shoot an officer with a pistol that fortunately misfired, and every “tac” on the roster was a mass of bruises from the stove wood, stair railings, and chair backs the cadets had flung at them. Almost every window in the barracks was smashed. Nineteen cadets were expelled, but Davis, put under arrest and sent to his room before the riot started, survived to be graduated in 1828.