April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
The old school is alive with the memory of men like Lee, Grant, Pershing, and Eisenhower
Each year most of West Point’s three million visitors enter the U.S. Military Academy through the Thayer Gate. They drive past the cluttered main street of Highland Falls, which the historian Samuel Huntington described as a town of a sort “familiar to everyone … a motley, disconnected collection of frames coincidentally adjoining each other, lacking common unity and purpose.” A moment later the visitors are in, as Huntington put it, “a different world [of] ordered serenity…. Beauty and utility are merged in gray stone” in “a bit of Sparta in the midst of Babylon.”
For Huntington, writing in 1957, this contrast dramatized the inescapable conflict between the military mind, with its devotion to order and singleness of purpose, and the wayward, often self-indulgent spirit of civilian America. Today Highland Falls remains a model of small-town clutter, although the names on many of the storefronts have changed. But contemporary West Point has aspects that might give Professor Huntington—and certainly would give a Spartan—pause.
On a hot day last August, as I walked along Thayer Road, with its superb view of the Hudson, two captains approached me. One was male; the other, female. The female captain’s blouse was outside her trousers; that struck me as odd until I got close enough to see that she was pregnant. As they passed, I heard her say: “Frankly, the first two times I jumped, I didn’t remember a thing. But I must have done everything right.”
This pregnant captain was a paratrooper. Moreover, she was only one of some five hundred women in the cadet corps—a most un-Spartan phenomenon. At the Visitors Information Center, near Thayer Gate, there is a model cadet room. In it stand plastic dummies of two cadets, male and female, giving the casual observer the unsettling thought they might be rooming together. Sexual fraternization is, of course, strictly forbidden, although female and male cadets live in the same barracks. More to the Spartan point, the model room is luxurious compared with accommodations in early West Point, when cadets slept on the floor. Also, the model shows a plebe (freshman) room; upper-class cadets are permitted to have such un-Spartan privileges as pictures on the walls and stereos. In one corner sits an IBM computer.
But it is history, not the novelty of computers or women cadets or the serenity of the twenty-five-hundred-acre campus, that makes West Point a fascinating place to visit. The post is drenched in echoes, mementos, plaques, memories of America’s military past. It played a central role in the American Revolution before it became a school for soldiers. As Fortress West Point, it was the pivot on which the shaky alliance between militant New England and the lukewarm Middle and Southern states swung.
By coincidence, Lt. Gen. Dave Richard Palmer, the man who wrote the best book on Fortress West Point, The River and the Rock, is now the superintendent. In this handsomely illustrated volume, Palmer narrates the story of how and why the site was selected in 1775 as the best place to block the expected British attempt to seize the Hudson River Valley and strangle the infant Revolution. Not only does he narrate the story with a wealth of detail, but as a general he analyzes the British strategy, which did indeed contemplate capturing West Point and the rest of the Hudson Valley by conquest or chicanery, and concludes that the strategy might have worked.
The attempt by conquest failed twice. In 1776 a British invasion fleet was stopped at Valcour Island in Lake Champlain by an impromptu general turned admiral named Benedict Arnold; in 1777 Gen. John Burgoyne’s army surrendered at Saratoga, thanks largely to a headlong charge led by the same man, unquestionably the Revolution’s finest combat commander. The attempt by chicanery failed in 1780, when a combination of luck and shrewd guesswork by American intelligence officers uncovered the British plot to bribe Arnold into surrendering West Point.
The best place to recapture those Revolutionary days can be reached by taking a sharp left turn a few hundred feet after passing through the Thayer Gate. Up steep winding roads the visitor will grind his gears to a parking lot from which an arduous climb will take him to Fort Putnam, the restored stone bastion on Mount Independence, 451 feet above the Hudson. The restoration, paid for in part by academy graduates, is a model of its kind. Gleaming brass cannons and mortars line one wall; grim, blue-black eighteen-pounders frown from another. In a central barracks, maps and an excellent taped commentary explain how and why the fort was built.
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.
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.
Eleven years later, on the same site, Cadet Ulysses S. Grant lay in his room reading with intense interest newspaper reports of the debates in Congress on whether to abolish the military academy. He rooted unashamedly for the abolishers; “Sam” (for Uncle Sam, his West Point nickname) hated everything about the place, from the discipline to the food to the endless drilling, at which he was particularly inept. Yet it was on the Plain that Grant had a first premonition of future greatness. Gen. Winfield Scott, “Old Fuss and Feathers,” was inspecting the cadet corps. Watching the tall, striding Scott, the epitome of regality in his full-dress uniform, the short, dumpy Grant was seized with a certainty that someday he, too, would review the corps as commanding general of the Army.
On Moratorium Day in 1969 the sally ports and barracks areas were the scene of numerous confrontations with two hundred young women from Vassar, who marched up Thayer Road to preach a message of Peace Now to the cadets. The women left several hours later, baffled and confused. A Vassar reporter admitted in her school paper that the “confrontation was unsuccessful.” The West Pointers were so well informed about the war that the coeds were “unable to respond to or contradict cadet arguments…. The girls had no such well-organized facts with which to reply.”
Some Vassar protesters felt they had been ambushed by cadets who had memorized set-piece defenses of the Vietnam War. One young woman said she had met a cadet who told her he had been up since six-thirty, boning up on the war. A cadet commentator on her letter, which was reprinted in The Pointer, the cadet magazine, noted that cadets ate breakfast at six-fifteen. The remark was one of many put-ons the Vassarites did not get. Among others: a cadet who ate the flower that was offered to him; another who excused himself saying he was late for his poison-gas class.
Nevertheless, the Vietnam era was an experience West Point has no desire to repeat. It created severe turbulence in the cadet corps and the faculty. One lone graduate, Lt. Louis Font of the class 1968, declared himself a conscientious objector to the war and refused to obey orders sending him to Saigon. In 1969 a cadet tried to publish a newsletter of anti-Vietnam activities on other campuses. Severely reprimanded by the superintendent, he realized he had no future in the Army and soon resigned. There was a steep rise in such “motivational resignations.” It is perhaps significant that the academy’s modest memorial to the graduates who died in Southeast Asia, a bronze plaque on a stone pillar and five granite benches, is tucked away on a hillside off the road to Fort Putnam, while monuments to our victorious wars are on prominent display.
Particularly visible on the south side of the Plain are larger-than-life statues of Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George S. Patton. The first two statues stand in front of the Eisenhower and MacArthur wings of the newest cadet barracks, additions that were built in 1974, when Congress voted an increase in the cadet corps from twenty-five hundred to forty-four hundred. Patton, wearing his helmet and full battle gear, confronts the library. Irreverent cadets are prone to wisecrack, “There’s George, still outside the building he never visited in the five years it took him to graduate.” The remark is not entirely fair. Patton failed math and French and had to repeat his plebe year, but he was by no means the only famous general with a mediocre academic record. Sheridan, Grant, Custer, Pershing, and Eisenhower all fell into this category; only a few, such as Robert E. Lee and MacArthur, combined military aptitude with high grades.
Not far from MacArthur’s statue is the entrance to the immense cadet mess hall, where the entire corps eats three meals a day. It is a spectacular sight, unfortunately closed to visitors. Dominating the enormous room is a huge, vividly colored mural depicting famous warriors and battles of the past. On the poop deck, a platform in the center of the hall where the cadet adjutant reads orders and news of athletic victories, MacArthur gave one of his great oratorical performances. He came to West Point on May 12, 1962, to receive the Sylvanus Thayer Award, given to distinguished Americans. He was in poor health, and no one expected him to make a speech. But when the superintendent, Maj. Gen. William C. Westmoreland, asked MacArthur if he would honor them with a few remarks, he ascended to the poop deck and, without referring to so much as a note, proceeded to give a superb address, ending with an unforgettable peroration:
“In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.
“Today marks my final roll call with you. But I want you to know that when I cross the river, my last conscious thoughts will be of the corps, and the corps, and the corps.”
Dazzled by this apparently impromptu performance, a faculty member turned to Mrs. MacArthur and exclaimed that it was one of the most remarkable speeches he had ever heard. Mrs. MacArthur replied, “I’m afraid I didn’t find it particularly exciting. This is the twenty-ninth time I’ve heard it.”
As you walk or ride from Thayer Gate along Thayer Road, you will pass the Hotel Thayer, built in 1927 to accommodate West Point visitors. You may wonder how and why the name Thayer gets such prominence at the academy. Again, it is history. Maj. Sylvanus Thayer was the man President James Monroe selected in 1817 to bring order to a chaotic West Point after the disasters of the War of 1812 and to make it clear that a trained officer corps was an absolute necessity. Before then a combination of governmental indifference and inept leadership had left West Point spiraling toward an ever more lamentable mediocrity. In sixteen astonishing years Thayer made the school one of the finest military academies in the world.
For a long time a statue of Thayer stood in front of Washington Hall, the cadet mess hall, on the south side of the Plain. It has now been moved to the northwest corner of the field, where it stands in not very splendid isolation. Each year, in what used to be called June Week but is now Graduation Week because it has been moved to the last week in May, visiting members of the Association of Graduates march to Thayer’s statue. They are led by the oldest living graduate present, who is escorted by the first captain of the graduating class. The post band precedes them, playing such old Army tunes as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” “Bones that haven’t straightened in twenty years somehow unbend during this march,” one veteran faculty member says. “By the time they’ve gone a hundred feet, most of them are in step.”
At the statue the first captain helps the oldest graduate lay a wreath. In the late sixties, when I saw this ceremony several times, the same OG, who was in his nineties, showed up year after year, stubbornly refusing to get sick or die, exciting not a little hostility among his ancient peers. Even in extreme old age West Pointers remain fiercely competitive. The wreath laid, the cadet glee club sings “Alma Mater” and “The Corps! The Corps! The Corps!” For me, “The Corps” is the heart of the West Point mystique. To hear it sung while members of the long gray line from the age of ninety-five to nineteen are standing there makes the last lines especially meaningful:
One senses in the shift of Thayer’s statue a symbolic gesture by today’s administration, which is struggling to combine tradition and progress to keep West Point abreast of a changing world. The engineering school that Thayer created, with its discipline and its enormous doses of mathematics and science, must now graduate officers who can deal with experts in sociology, political science, history, and psychology. Cadets are permitted to major in these subjects. They are also permitted to own cars and take weekends off in their first-class (senior) year. At Eisenhower Hall, the glossily modern student center north of the Plain, rock groups and Broadway shows, such as A Chorus Line, are regularly presented. Any one of these liberalizations would make Thayer spin in his grave; all of them must turn him into a centrifuge.
Change has never come easily to West Point. For long periods, particularly after the Civil War, the school’s curriculum seemed set in concrete. When Douglas MacArthur became superintendent in 1919, he asked the post adjutant, “How long are we going on preparing for the War of 1812?” MacArthur did not get far in his attempt to revise the system; the superintendent’s broad powers do not extend to the curriculum. The chief MacArthur legacy is West Point’s athletic program, which he vastly expanded. On the slopes above the Plain are its two power centers, Michie Stadium, where the brave old Army team plays football, and the new as yet unnamed “sports facility” for the hockey and basketball teams. Its raw industrial architecture is as far from traditional fortress Gothic as a building can get.
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.
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.
There are three other chapels on the post. The Catholic Chapel of the Holy Trinity is historic in an unpretentious, pleasingly humble way. It is a copy of a medieval church in Essex County, England. More striking is the Gothic, spired Cadet Chapel, on the hillside above the Plain. Everything about it, from the exterior carvings to the stained-glass windows, has a military motif. In the long, narrow nave, historic battle flags hang from the triforium. They include colors carried by famed old regiments in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. The organ, with more than eighteen thousand individual speaking pipes, is the largest pipe organ in the world.
No one has summed up the meaning and purpose of the Cadet Chapel better than Maj. Gen. Hugh L. Scott, who was superintendent when it was built in 1911. The combination of organ, cadet choir, and setting would, he thought, fill the “most prosaic American soul with religious and patriotic fervor.” These days chapel is no longer compulsory, but the academy describes cadet attendance on an average Sunday as “heavy.” Visitors are welcome at services in all of the chapels.
Although Simon Levy, one of the two cadets in West Point’s first graduating class, was Jewish, for 182 years the academy never had a Jewish chapel. In recent years the school has averaged about eighty Jewish cadets, and in May 1984 the academy’s first Jewish chapel was opened, financed entirely by private funds and situated along the road between the Protestant and Catholic chapels. The rock-faced, random rectangular granite stonework echoes the military Gothic of the Cadet Chapel. Its serene, light-filled temple section has become one of the most popular places to visit on the post.
For those who want history in large gulps, the West Point Museum is a must. It will be closed for renovation, however, from late summer 1988 until some time in 1989. There are dioramas of famous battles in world history, such as Cynoscephalae, fought in 197 B.C. in Thessaly, where the Roman legion and short sword supplanted the Greek phalanx and lance as the ruler of the ancient world. There are weapons from all our own wars, including the grisly trench knives and clubs of World War I. There are life-size exhibits of a World War I tank and General Pershing’s locomobile staff car and a panoramic mural of Omaha Beach on D-day. In the West Point Room are a superb portrait of Sylvanus Thayer, samples of early cadet uniforms, and vintage photographs of the nineteenth-century academy.
Almost every visitor to West Point who does not come to see a football game wants to see the cadet corps parade. This, too, is a historical exercise. The resplendent uniforms summon echoes of the War of 1812, and the evolutions the corps performs once had urgent meaning in combat tactics. A long, unbroken front gave a unit maximum firepower. To be able to wheel or change direction on command was vital for dealing with flank attacks and cavalry charges.
The cadets do not parade as often as in past years. Before World War II they used to be on display constantly during the summer. Now most go off to serve with units in the real Army or practice modern tactics at Camp Buckner, about five miles west of the academy. Parades take place only in the spring and fall. The academy issues a schedule on request in mid-August and mid-March, when the marching seasons start.
Ask any graduate and he or she will assure you that the corps does not parade as well now as in his or her day. This holds equally true whether the graduate is from the twenties or the seventies. For all of them their cadet days take on a haze of nostalgic perfection the moment they drive out the Thayer Gate. In time—often a very short time—they become DOGs (disgruntled old grads), convinced that West Point is a mess. Of course, if a mere civilian voices such an opinion, they will defend the old school until their blood pressure goes off the chart.
A review is more than the climax of a West Point visit. It is an occasion when America’s past and future intersect. I try to pick out individual faces. That skinny kid with thick glasses—is he the Omar Bradley of the year 2015? That burly black cadet dipping the colors of his regiment—is he another Sheridan or Patton? That young woman striding at the head of her company—will she sit in a command center in Washington, D.C., and make decisions that change the world of the twenty-first century? Watching rank after rank of faces resolute beneath their shining visors, white-gloved hands gripping the stocks of their M-14s, you can almost become part of the long gray line as it marches into the future, our hopes and fears weighing on their young shoulders.