West Point In Review

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On the west side of the Plain stands another Thayer monument, the superintendent’s quarters. Considerably expanded over the years since he built it in 1820, the dignified colonial house has a replica of Thayer’s old office in the basement. Standing in it, one can easily imagine the severe New Englander grimly dismissing Cadet Edgar Allan Poe for “gross neglect of duty.” In January 1831 Poe stopped coming to class as the quickest way to get expelled from the academy. More poignant are memories of Robert E. Lee, superintendent in the 1850s. He had more than one session with his favorite cadet, J. E. B. Stuart, in this office. Stuart often got into fistfights with Yankee cadets who cast slurs on the South. Lee constantly reminded “Jeb” and the rest of the corps that they were “a band of brothers.”

In the superintendent’s garden stands a huge copper beech tree, supposedly planted in 1802, the oldest living thing on the post. The school often uses the garden for cocktail parties for VIPs. It is, alas, closed to visitors, as is the house itself. But another piece of early West Point is open and should not be missed: the Old Cadet Chapel. En route to it you might want to pause on Trophy Point, where cannons captured in almost all our wars are displayed, and gaze up at the adjacent Battle Monument, a great shaft of polished granite, the only memorial erected to the officers and men of the Regular Army who died in the Civil War.

The road to the chapel is just beyond Trophy Point, down an easy slope. Off it is an odd gingerbread sort of house that figured prominently in The Long Gray Line, the movie about West Point’s legendary trainer, Marty Maher. Maureen O’Hara stood in the doorway and supposedly watched the cadets drilling on the Plain. “If she did,” one veteran post resident says, “she had to have the world’s longest neck.” The Plain cannot be seen from the doorway.

The Old Chapel used to occupy the present site of Bartlett Hall in the fortress-Gothic cluster off Thayer Road. It was moved to its present location in 1910. In the reverential silence of this Greek-revival building the visitor can recapture the small, intensely intimate cadet corps of the nineteenth century, which seldom numbered more than three hundred men. Here sat the gaunt hillbilly Thomas Jackson, not yet called Stonewall; the mocking, effervescently intellectual William Tecumseh Sherman; and the taut, iron-jawed John J. Pershing.

Before the Civil War religion had to contest with science for the cadets’ loyalties. Many imbibed a prejudice against it in their science courses, and some used to bring their textbooks to church and study during the service. One chaplain had a penchant for two-hour sermons that extended through the cadet lunch hour. One Sunday, after weeks of eating cold food, the first captain listened for the drumbeat of mess call. The moment it sounded, he marched the corps out of the chapel, leaving the chaplain foaming in the pulpit. The chaplain accused the entire corps of drunkenness, profanity, and insubordination. Gen. Winfield Scott dismissed the charges and suggested the chaplain seek civilian employment. He soon did.

 
“How long are we going on preparing for the War of 1812?” asked General MacArthur in 1920.

Above the altar a painting by Robert Walter Weir, professor of drawing at West Point from 1833 to 1875, depicts a fierce American eagle flanked by a Roman soldier, symbolizing war, and a pleading woman, symbolizing peace. Weir, whose Embarkation of the Pilgrims hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, had a famous run-in with Cadet James McNeill Whistler in his brief sojourn at the academy. The professor tried to improve one of Whistler’s classroom drawings. “Don’t, Sir, you’ll spoil it!” Whistler said. The good-natured Weir let him get away with it.

On the chapel’s wall are plaques commemorating graduates who served in nineteenth-century wars; black marble shields on the east wall honor the generals of the Revolution. The one for Benedict Arnold, just above the choir loft railing, is blank.

Adjoining the chapel is the cemetery. Visitors can and should obtain a map for a walking tour. Beneath the weeping beeches, ginkgos, and Camperdown elms lie more than five thousand dead. Among them are eighteen former superintendents, including Thayer; George Goethals, builder of the Panama Canal; Robert Anderson, the hero of Fort Sumter; George Armstrong Custer, with his wife, who devoted her widowhood to defending him; the first American to walk in space, the astronaut Edward White III, of the class of 1952, who was killed in the 1967 Apollo explosion.

For me the cemetery stirs a memory of the day in 1965 when I was scheduled to interview the then superintendent, Maj. Gen. James R Lampert. He was late and apologized, explaining that he had just attended the funeral of a young officer killed in Vietnam and visited with the family after the service. The boy had been graduated the previous year, and Lampert had known him well. “Going to those funerals is the hardest part of this job,” Lampert said. There were tears on his face.