December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
In 1817, “Old Pewt’s” rebellious cadets met their master in Sylvanus Thayer
It was June 15, 1817, and up at West Point newly elected President James Monroe, staunch friend of the Military Academy, was in a towering rage. The place was in poor shape, its curriculum had unraveled, examinations were unknown, and discipline was non-existent. The acting superintendent, Captain Alden Partridge, Corps of Engineers, seemed to be running a “Dotheboys Hall” of sorts, where favoritism governed and cadets were being graduated without reference either to academic standing or military ability.The academic staff-Professors Mansfield, Ellicott, Berard, Douglass and Crozet—had just presented the President with burning indictments of the existing regime. In particular, Mansfield had written:”… Men, not principles, are intended to prevail … this noble institution is calculated on as an instrument to gratify the capacity of individuals, in subserving the interests of friends & connexions, in advancing favorites & sycophants, instead of rewarding merit on fair & honorable principles as designed by the laws.”
These allegations were not entirely a surprise to the President. Monroe was well aware of the brilliant records of its few graduates during the War of 1812. But, for a short time secretary of war in addition to his other duties as secretary of state under James Madison, he had also had inklings that all was not well up on the Hudson. That was why he was here now.
There had been protests from the professors—notably one from Ellicott in 1815 complaining of Partridge’s flouting of regulations: “The Academick staff are the only persons capable and qualified … to judge of the respective merits and requirements of the Cadets … the opinion of the staff has never been taken with regards to the talents, acquirements or merit of a single Cadet who has been commissioned; on the contrary, the names of those intended to be commissioned have never been communicated to the staff. … The most accomplished scholars have either not been taken notice of, or placed in so low a grade … that their continuance in the service would have been degradation.”
Previous charges of nepotism had been made against Partridge: that his uncle, Isaac Partridge, had run the cadet mess; that his nephew, Lieutenant John Wright, was post adjutant; that another relative, “Major” James Barton, operated the cadet store, where uniforms were sold to cadets at prices exorbitant in comparison with those charged by New York tailors.
Other complaints of disciplinary laxness had been made: that cadets wandered on and off the post at will; that they were selling their pay vouchers in advance to loan sharks to obtain money; and that officers who passed the barracks might be showered by missiles thrown from windows.
There had been the curious case of Dr. Walsh, the post surgeon, who in 1816 had narrowly missed being brained by a chair-round hurled by cocky Cadet Thomas Ragland, a special favorite of Partridge. Ragland had never been punished.
James Monroe had seen and heard enough. During his short tour as secretary of war he had sent a brilliant young graduate, Brevet Major Sylvanus Thayer, Corps of Engineers, abroad to study European military pedagogy and to collect a scientific library for the Military Academy. Thayer, now just returned from two years of intensive study and inspection in France and England, would be just the man to rectify matters.
Turning to General Joseph G. Swift, chief of engineers, who after all was responsible for the Military Academy, and who had accompanied him on this hurried tour of inspection, the President ordered a new deal. Partridge must go; later he should be court-martialed. Thayer should immediately be appointed to the superintendency to bring order out of chaos.
Thus it was that Sylvanus Thayer, “Father of the Military Academy,” a native of Braintree, Massachusetts, assumed the command he would occupy for sixteen years, rebuilding West Point, launching its Corps of Cadets on the path of “Duty, Honor, Country.” That the first fourteen months of his incumbency were spent in an atmosphere of riot and smoldering insurrection is something else again. We must first look at the causes for the dry rot that had possessed this school, launched in 1802 under high auspices and with lofty ideals-the consummation of the dreams of George Washington, Henry Knox and Alexander Hamilton.
The collapse was not sudden. Rather there had been a combination of circumstances—the active hostility of a secretary of war, the exigencies of the War of 1812, and an absentee landlordism—which had brought the Military Academy to this sorry state.
William Eustis, President Madison’s secretary of war from 1809 to 1813, had shown his violent dislike for both the Academy and the Corps of Engineers by not only doing all in his power to prevent the appointment of cadets but also by transferring officers away from West Point.
By 1812 Eustis’ cheese-paring had brought the Academy almost to the vanishing point. All cadets had been graduated to fill posts in the wartime army, and officers were being transferred away. In September of that year newly appointed Cadet Charles G. Merchant, the one appointee warranted by Eustis, arrived to find himself the entire student body, and Captain Partridge the only officer present. Later in the year five more new cadets arrived. And that was the Corps of Cadets until the next year when Madison dropped Eustis for John Armstrong, and appointments were made again.
The first superintendent, portly Colonel Jonathan Williams, had resigned in 1812 and his successor, Swift—himself the first graduate of West Point-had been away on service at the front. The actual administration had then been left during practically all this time to Captain Partridge, a graduate of 1806 who had since spent all his service there—first as an assistant professor and later as professor of mathematics and engineering. When the war ended Swift, who had become preoccupied with other affairs in New York City, had persuaded President Madison to make Partridge acting superintendent.
An austere introvert from Vermont and a mathematician of parts, Partridge appears to have lacked any administrative or command ability. Filled with good intentions, he set forth again and again plans for revision of rules and for regularity in instruction and promotion, yet he personally violated all of them. A martinet whose excessive severity at times made life miserable for some of the cadets, he was also weak. Certain strong-willed youths who had solved his character curried his favor, and as a result this clique could do no wrong.
“Old Pewt” was Partridge’s nickname. Stiff and ungainly, he strutted about clad in an ancient blue uniform coat overladen with buttons and lace, and with such unusually widespread tails that it became known as the “Peacock.” He could delegate no authority, tried to do everything himself, and was at continual loggerheads with the faculty.
Partridge it was who put the corps into its now traditional “cadet gray” uniforms, commemorating Winfield Scott’s victory at Chippewa, and he introduced pipe-clayed white crossbelts because “they have a more neat and elegant appearance …” But he could not maintain discipline. “Tin soldier” would perhaps best describe Alden Partridge.
A far different man from Partridge was Sylvanus Thayer. A gradute of Dartmouth College previous to his short career at West Point—he was graduated in 1808, a year after his admission—he was an ardent admirer of Napoleon’s military virtues and a close student of the Little Corporal’s campaigns. During the War of 1812 he had distinguished himself and had become personally known to James Monroe. Slim, erect, a soldier every inch of his five-foot-ten frame, Thayer arrived at West Point on July 28, 1817, bearing orders for the relief of Partridge.
Nobody realized it at the moment, but when Sylvanus Thayer stepped across the parade ground and walked to the superintendent’s house, the modern West Point had arrived. The old happy-go-lucky days were over; now the “young gentlemen” who rejoiced in the title of cadets were going to be soldiers, and it would be like that forever after.
Thayer was not outwardly tough; indeed, in his first big test he showed a quiet capacity for patience, for avoiding bluster and letting the showdown take its natural course. But he knew how to make his ideas effective. There was no nonsense about him, and since his regime there has been no nonsense about the United States Military Academy. He made the place, presumably in his own image, and the image seems to have been a good one.
Thayer began by handing the dismissal orders to Partridge. Accepting the orders in grim silence, Partridge slipped away from the post next day and Thayer set about cleaning house. For instance, on the departure of President Monroe, Partridge had put the entire faculty in arrest as revenge for their complaints, and that legal tangle had to be snipped. Then the corps had to be called to return, for more than haft of the 213 on the rolls were on “vacation.”
On August 29, soon after he took command, Thayer was interrupted by a long roll of drums, followed by tumultuous cheers. Outside his office the Corps of Cadets was being paraded, under arms. By whose order? By none other than Alden Partridge! “Old Pewt” had returned. Clad in the “Peacock,” he was reading out an order he himself had written, reassuming command of West Point.
Thayer quietly left the post, after writing a letter to the secretary of war:
“I have the honor to inform you that Captain A. Partridge of the Corps of Engineers has returned to this post and has, this day, forcibly assumed the command and the superintendency of the Academy. I shall therefore proceed to New York and wait your orders.”
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.
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.