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The Corps

May 2024
12min read

The United States Military Academy turns 200 this year. West Point has
grown with the nation—and, more than once, saved it.

BATTALION AND REGIMENTAL leaders unsheath sabers for the issuance of shouted orders, and as drum and bugle corps thump and shrill, a great mass, 4,000 strong, moves into its mess hall of thick overhead beams below vaulting ceiling heights and the size-of-a-house painting of history’s groupedtogether Great Captains: Richard the Lion-Hearted on his charger, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Alexander, Grant, the rest. Plèbes, who in other higher-education locales are termed freshmen, report to table commandants that duties have been performed: Water is in the glasses, milk containers properly available, foil on condiment jars stripped off, platters ready for passing.



The Corps of Cadets of the United States Military Academy at West Point sets to. This is luncheon. Breakfast’s imminence was hours earlier communicated by plèbes announcing in every barracks hallway that the time was five minutes past six in the morning and the menu was as follows and such was the uniform of the day.

While breakfast and luncheon appearances are mandatory for all cadets, dinner (save on Thursday nights, when the entire Corps gathers for important announcements) is optional. That this is so has been received in recent years with great disapproval by a group known, but certainly not to their faces, as DOGS . That stands for Disgruntled Old Grads. More than 9 out of 10 USMA graduates over the years have belonged to the Association of Graduates, a figure undreamed of by other institutions of higher learning (do you belong to your alma mater’s alumni group?), and some are DOGS who regard permission for cadets to go off post for meals as a grave mistake. Why, the Academy was no less than 83 years old before the student body ever left the grounds en masse, and that was a one-time occasion that saw USMA ’86’s 1st captain of the Corps of Cadets John J. Pershing leading it across the Hudson River to stand at attention along the tracks when the funeral train of Ulysses S. Grant, USMA ’43, passed by.


Not only can they eat out, but they can take a drink with the meal too. By contrast, when Cadet Jefferson Davis, ’28, was caught having a sip at the famed Buttermilk Falls tavern run by Benny Havens, he was dismissed from the Academy for permitting liquor to pass his lips after the authorities had rejected his defense that all he’d had was malt beer, which he did not take to be liquor. (Even then he was a strict constructionist.) An appeal to his congressman resulted in his reinstatement. Reinstatements were quite common in the old days.

Such indulgences, say the DOGS , go against the whole point of the Academy, which was, wrote Morris Schaff, ’62, to prepare those who went there to meet the high test of the soldier and the gentleman and to imbue such with the air of an officer. The eating out and drinking, say the old grads, can be ranked with the fact that cadets no longer stand in front of the blackboard with pointer in left hand (in the past, holding it in the right meant a demerit, a gig, with a posting on the daily “skin list") and, eschewing the former obligatory “Sir, I am required to discuss ...,” instead lounge in their chairs when called upon by professors, who often address them not as mister but by their first names. (Anyway, “mister” would be inappropriate for 16 percent of the student body. Moreover, the Academy head of physical education, the Master of the Sword, is, while a colonel, a she-colonel.)


The old grads talk about tradition. It all begins with President Thomas Jefferson’s requesting Congress to authorize the establishment of a school to produce Army officers. He made his recommendation with many reservations. The creation of such a school had come up for discussion at a 1793 Cabinet meeting, when Jefferson was Secretary of State under George Washington, and he had vigorously opposed it then. The last thing the fledgling United States needed was a governmentproduced military caste at the head of standing armies aping those of despotic European autocracies. The sturdy yeoman farmer seizing his musket from over the fireplace for patriot militia enlistment had won the Revolution, Jefferson believed, and could be relied upon to take care of future emergencies.

President Washington knew better. Victory in the Revolution would have been a doubtful bet without such as the Prussian Steuben and Polish Kosciuszko and French Lafayette, and the country would be ill advised in the future to depend again on experts imported across an ocean. But he let the matter go.

Then, when Jefferson entered the White House, the issue was presented to him anew but in distinctly unmilitary terms. The Army of 3,800 men had a detachment of engineer troops stationed at West Point in the Hudson River highlands, the largest fort in the United States. Why not set up a school there, primarily for the training of engineer officers who would become capable of building for a vast and raw land roads, bridges, dams, harbors, canals, docks, and aqueducts? Jefferson went for it. Congress agreed on March 16, 1802.

The United States Military Academy formally opened on July 4, 1802, and all who applied were made welcome. Ten people showed up for the first classes.

Eventually some sort of entrance requirements were set up, and when the War of 1812 came, West Pointers at least did better than most of the participants in what was not America’s most glorious military hour. (Students departed almost en masse for the fray; the graduating class of 1813 consisted of one man.) When peace came and classes resumed, it was ordered that there be a special cadet uniform based on that worn by the soldiers who had served under Winfield Scott in one of the few American victories over the British, the Battle of Chippewa. Th’at attire, horsehair plumes and crossbelts and all, is what you find if you are one of the present day’s three million annual visitors or have seen pictures of the Corps marching across the Plain in formal review.

IN 1817 CAME THE MOST IMPORTANT occurrence in the USMA’s history. A boat arrived at the South Dock, and a man as central to the story of West Point as Jesus is to Christianity stepped ashore. Bvt. Maj. Sylvanus Thayer, 32 years of age, father of the Academy, patriarch of the Long Gray Line, was majestic, cold, unbending, impartial, orderly, unrelaxed and unrelaxing, never one half-minute late for anything, and always seeming to have just bathed, shaved, and dressed. He had prepared for his appointment as Superintendent by obtaining $5,000 in government funding to purchase in Europe military books, maps, models of fortifications, and charts. These formed the basis for a serious study of the art of war, and how exactly that study would be conducted was Thayer’s great construction, lasting almost unbelievably intact for nearly a century and a half. The foundation for everything was mathematics. A math problem had only one correct answer. It was the duty of a cadet to find it. Then he went on to another problem. Math had to do with decisiveness, precision, and attention to detail, with certainty and no wandering. It sharpened, Thayer felt, analytical powers and taught a manner of thinking transferable to other areas of life. Derivative from math was engineering, the other bulwark of the Superintendent’s educational program. Everything in these two fields of study worked according to inflexible rules from which no deviation was permissible.

So did the West Point that Sylvanus Thayer invented Entering cadets, he ruled, would report in late June for two months of what was soon called and still is, although now greatly toned down, “Beast Barracks.” The newcomers were handled in the brutal fashion of Frederick the Great, whose army was termed a jail on the march. “Mr. Dumbjohn! Mr. Dumbwillie! Animal! Thing! Smackhead!,” they heard screamed from morning to night. They were constantly ordered to “brace” —get the shoulders back so that the blades met. They were put to picking up all the ants in a hill one by one and ordered to change from one uniform into another in impossible time. Taking orders under pressure, with no questions allowed or any excuse, makes for soldiers who are disciplined.


The tormentors of the new men were the members of the third-class year, the yearlings, as sophomores were called. The yearlings, remembered Morris Schaff, offered raging shouts, indignant voices, glaring eyes, “looks of the most desperate character,” and a “panther-like readiness to jump on us and tear us to bits.” Decades after Thayer’s death, the plebe John J. Pershing found that in the eyes of the screaming yearlings “a burnt match left in the company street became a log, a scrap of paper was magnified into a trash pile.” Plebes took meals at strictest brace with no part of a chair except for its front two inches utilized. They were often compelled to eat soap and drink Tabasco. Plebe Douglas A. MacArthur, ordered endlessly to “eagle,” which meant doing deep knee ‘bends from which one arose with arms flapping, collapsed and went into convulsions. This went on until plebe year ended, and those who had not gone mad or run away or broken down were on Recognition Day addressed by their names and offered handshakes.


Matters improved for a cadet after Recognition Day, but still he was harried by tactical officers, “tacs,” who recorded demerits for men talking while standing in place, defacing public property by having their feet up on a table, whistling when going up a flight of stairs, being late to drill or duty—for which, a 1914 study determined, there were more than 18,000 opportunities in the four years—and any other infraction of the rules of proper and understood conduct.

Cadet Dwight D. Eisenhower was “hived” for dancing too swiftly at a hop. At least he wasn’t caught in a public display of affection, with a penalty of 22 demerits and 44 hours of walking a punishment tour up and down while toting a rifle, for giving a kiss to one of the girls imported from the outside world that no cadet would see for one single minute during his USMA career except for the 10-week furlough given at the end of the third year. “Those ten weeks were shorter than one week at West Point,” Ulysses Grant wrote, remembering “a place I felt I had been at always and that ' my stay at had no end.” When in 1839 Congress took under consideration a bill to abolish the Academy as an undemocratic and unneeded drain on taxpayers, Grant read the papers in eager hopes of finding the measure passed. Disappointed, he stuck it out, as did Eisenhower decades after. Eisenhower later said that if they’d had a chance to sit and think for a moment, most of his 1915 class—the Class the Stars Fell On, 59 of its 164 men becoming generals owning a total of 111 stars—"would have taken the next train out.”

Other men fled, Edgar Allan Poe declaring that on his illicit visits to Benny Havens’s tavern he dealt with “the only congenial soul in this god-forsaken place.” James McNeill Whistler had his only academic success in sketching class. His worst subject was chemistry. “Sir, I am required to discuss the subject of silicon,” he announced in class. “Silicon is a gas—”

“That will do, Mr. Whistler,” said the instructor, and shortly Superintendent Robert E. Lee ordered dismissal. “If silicon had been a gas, I would have been a major general,” Whistler loved to say in later years.

NOTHING COULD BE MORE AP- posite than that West Point’s two most famous dropouts should be a poet and an artist. For what came to be called the Thayer System, or the Thayer Method, admitted of no vagaries and no shadings to interfere with definitive, straight, orderly answers to questions. Fifty, 75, 100 years after Thayer’s 1833 retirement, cadets gave the same answers to instructors who as cadets themselves had studied that book and recited to men who had done the same. (Just after the Civil War a cadet who had fought attempted to tell a professor that his experiences conflicted with what the book said. “Stick to the text!” the veteran was told. He tried to explain, and the professor shouted, “I want to hear nothing further from you. Sit down!") West Point had no electives. Each graduate studied precisely what every other graduate studied. It was forbidden to play cards or chess or a musical instrument or to read novels or plays.


That the system worked appeared confirmed by the country’s performance in the 1846-48 war with Mexico. Without the leadership of USMA men, Winfield Scott said, the conflict would have lasted four or five years with many U.S. defeats, but as things turned out, not a single battle or skirmish was lost. Then came the Civil War, with 55 of the 60 major battles finding West Pointers in command on both sides, and elevation to the highest positions of military glory of such soldiers as Lee, Grant, Sherman, Stuart, Jackson, and Sheridan. So the USMA needed no alteration, it was held. Cadets of the Gilded Age and after went on precisely as had their predecessors. They studied under instructors who could hardly be called teachers, as Pershing’s ’86 classmate T. Bentley Mott remembered, and were rather more “a machine for grading cadets on their knowledge of prescribed texts” that operated, Mott thought, in a place to find the approximate parallel of which you would have to travel to a Tibetan lamasery or the Jesuit College in Rome.

The comparisons were apt, for what was desired was the production of knightserrant in a military cloister protected from the contaminating impurities of the outside world of trade and commerce. And indeed, it seemed, from everything connected with that world. The European war begun in 1914 was ignored in the fortresslike Military Gothic buildings looming over the Hudson, and as late as the third year of fighting nothing was ever mentioned about Verdun or the Somme. “The great charm of West Point is that so many things never change,” an alumnus wrote in that year, 1917, when cadets continued to study cavalry tactics. At least by then there was something new for the Corps to be involved with. For the first time, cadets could depart the Point, one day a year, for the Navy game held at some neutral spot, New York or Philadelphia. Other teams had to come to Michie Stadium, named for the first football captain, Dennis Mahan Michie, class of ’92, killed in action in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. As they do today, all cadets stood for the duration of play at all games.

When the United States entered World War I, John J. Pershing, commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force, announced that the standards for his troops would be the standards of West Point. No one was ever more the complete USMA product, or more acted the part of the tac he had once been, than Pershing. Commanders got men forward not half an hour early or half an hour late while keeping them closed up on the march, or commanders were gone. (In one day Pershing relieved as the heads of their divisions two of his '86 classmates.) He snarled at the chief of staff of the 42d Division that the troops needed discipline and order. “I’m going to hold you personally responsible for correcting measures with the officers at fault. It’s a disgrace.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Col. Douglas MacArthur, a former 1st captain of the Corps of Cadets.

The war over, MacArthur was named Superintendent. He was aghast at the accumulated stagnation. “How much longer are we going to go on preparing for the War of 1812?,” he asked. MacArthur ordered the first sweeping changes since Thayer’s time, having cadets read a newspaper daily and take classes in psychology, economics, and political science. He set up intramural sports activities to replace the deadly calisthenics and permitted upperclassmen six-hour leaves to New York City for the spending of cash from their pay. The DOGS of the day and the faculty whose members had for the most part held their posts for decades howled, and when MacArthur finished his tour of duty, his reforms were instantly repealed. West Point settled back into its former ways. So did the Army, which dwindled to the nineteenth-ranking force in the world.

Such officers as remained in uniform largely went through the motions of being soldiers while generally having a pretty good time at horse shows, balls, and dress-uniform dinners, playing polo on cavalry-regiment mounts and spending evenings at the officers’ club bar. A large number of them had the financial means to pursue whatever pleasures appealed, for West Pointers possess a startling ability to marry well: Lee’s wife owned three plantations and a thousand slaves; Pershing’s wife was the daughter of Wyoming’s richest citizen; the first Mrs. MacArthur was heir to $150 million; Mesdames Mark Clark and Jonathan Wainwright had money; and Mamie Eisenhower had come to her marriage with an eventual inheritance of a couple of million. Mrs. George S. Patton’s situation was such that her husband was the service’s richest man, all his career able to contribute every cent of his pay to Army charities.


A few men rose above torpor and studied for a war that might or might not come. When it did, they performed brilliantly, their names today in all the books and on schools, boulevards, institutions, and monuments, several on the grounds of their alma mater. How did they rise successfully to command millions, conceive and utilize all sorts of new technologies and new techniques, conquer great swaths they then ruled over wisely, become diplomats?

It has to do with something else taught by old Thayer. West Point calls it leading with character. That concept is embodied in and exemplified by what is printed on USMA stationery and the plaques affixed to Academy lampposts, this 200th anniversary year, and in the hearts of those young and old of the Long Gray Line: Honor. Duty. Country.

The purest distillation of this is the Point’s Honor Code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do.” Eisenhower said, “I profoundly feel that in its perpetuation is one of the best assurances of our nation’s future security.” Without it, others have declared, the Academy might as well be abandoned in favor of officers manufactured by college ROTC programs or the Army’s officer candidate schools. The Code, with its implied message that a soldier of the USMA must possess a core of courage and dedication unknown to others, has at times produced in the larger society ironical and dismissive smiles, although perhaps fewer in the light of events of not so long ago.

The Code lives on today in the vastly changed, yet fundamentally unchanged, institution that began to emerge in the 1960s. The women who came in 1976, the multitude of black and brown faces, the elective courses permitting cadets to major in selected fields of study, the 100 clubs for dance, chess, white-water canoeing, theater arts, plus backstage work and handling the lights for such as Billy Joel and Elton John and for touring companies of Cats and West Side Story and A Chorus Line in the 4,400seat Eisenhower Hall: Yes, it’s very different from what it used to be. And they don’t give out demerits like they used to. It’s not so hard to graduate without getting a single one, a remarkable achievement when Robert E. Lee did so. (Grant accumulated 290, and Phil Sheridan so many that he was suspended for a year. Even Pershing got 200.) The brutal hazing is gone, but to be “put on the wall” and told off by an upperclassman still can reduce plèbes to tears.

Military families continue to send their sons. And their daughters. (One wonders if there came into the mind of Cadet Jacqueline Stilwell, as a plebe opening luncheon condiments, the image of her great-grandfather Vinegar Joe, whose hat worn during his Asia campaigns of World War II is on display in the post military museum, the largest in the country.) For all the differences, it’s still West Point, with half of all its deceased graduates lying in the post cemetery.

Let the last word be MacArthur’s. Old and ailing, he went to the cadets to tell them that, his twilight at hand, he remembered what he had learned along the highlands of the Hudson. “Always there echoes and re-echoes in my ears: 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.”

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