In a sense, the museum of the United States Military Academy was in existence years before the academy itself was founded. When Burgoyne’s army surrendered at Saratoga, its cannon and other ordnance were shipped overland to West Point and placed in storage there. The Point was then a fortified camp of the Continental Army, and doubtless some curious souls went to peer at the guns of George III, come to grief in the New World. When in 1802 Congress authorized the organization of a corps of engineers to “be stationed at West Point … and [which] shall constitute a military academy,” many of these trophies were still around, and they formed the nucleus of one of the finest military collections in the world. The museum grew slowly at first; but relics accumulated, and after the Mexican War, West Point became the national depository of military trophies.
Today the museum houses such diverse relics as the first flag captured by an American force (the King’s Color of the 7th Royal Fusiliers, taken in 1775), the baton of Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering, a brace of pistols that belonged to George Washington, an atomic bomb, the cannon that fired the first American shot in World War I, a number of Galling guns, and a boxy, frail-looking 1916 Dodge of the sort used by staff officers on the western front. But for all these bellicose treasures, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the museum is its superb collection of military art. Some of the paintings were commissioned by various departments of the academy—there are fine portraits of Presidents and military men by such artists as Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Sully—but many were acquired more casually over the years. Then, in 1968, Alexander McCook Craighead boosted the collection to its current prominence when he willed his magnificent battle paintings to West Point. Craighead, the grandson of the pugnacious Union General Alexander McDowell McCook, devoted much of his life to assembling his collection.
Despite a history that is anything but tranquil, America has produced very few painters who specialized in military subjects—perhaps only two. They are James Walker, who painted the scene from the Mexican War on pages 54 and 55, and Gilbert Gaul, whose Union skirmish line appears on the preceding pages. Gaul never smelled powder burned —he was ten when the Civil War ended—but his vision of men in battle is most convincing.
On the following pages we present a splendid portfolio through the courtesy of Tom Maloney and the United States Military Academy. The paintings—of soldiers and the men who led them, of battles and boredom, hunger and misery—provide an intimate and revelatory glimpse into the tumult and bitter glory of our national past.