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West Point


The Army Goes Rolling Along

The United States Military Academy USMA, is a U.S. service academy and former Army fort. Occupying over 16,000 acres, it is one of the largest school campuses in the world. Its unique combination of facilities include a ski slope, a small nuclear reactor, and an artillery range, in addition to the academic buildings and sports facilities found on a typical university campus. The post itself was first occupied in 1778, and it is thus the oldest continuously occupied military post in the United States.

A full quarter century after General Knox had first suggested it, after two presidents had pressed for it and a third had been persuaded of its merits, after many false starts and missteps, the dream of so many for so long had at last become reality. The date Jefferson signed the vital piece of legislation, March 16, 1802, has forever after been celebrated as the birthday of the United States Military Academy.

Major Jonathan Williams, who carried the titles of both chief engineer of the Corps and superintendent of the Academy, was given a faculty of two professors and a minuscule budget to procure textbooks and classroom supplies. He immediately faced a multitude of problems. Classes were held in a cramped, two-story building that dated from the Revolutionary War. Cadets lived in drafty, wooden barracks that were just as old and almost impossible to heat. The students themselves varied in age from as young as ten to well into their thirties - one middle-aged man arrived with his wife and children in tow. Some cadets possessed college degrees and experience in law or other professional fields, while others - undoubtedly of good Jeffersonian-Republican stock - had only a primary education and a rudimentary grasp of writing and arithmetic. Worse still, they arrived unannounced, with appointment letters in hand, at any time throughout the year.

With the great disparity in ages and prior schooling among his cadets, and with only two instructors to teach them, Williams faced a demoralizing situation. Classes inevitably moved at the pace of the slowest students. Nor could cadets who wished to study on their own find much help in the academy's paltry library. Williams could not add geometry to the curriculum without drawing instruments, and his simple requisition for twelve inexpensive sets took months to fill.

The War Department turned down the superintendent's appeals for more and newer texts on the specious grounds that scientific knowledge was changing so rapidly that the books would be out of date by the time they arrived. Discouraging as all this was, Williams counseled one of his officers never to "lose sight of our leading star, which is not a little mathematical School, but a great national establishment to turn out characters which in the course of time shall equal any in Europe."

The superintendent did enjoy one success during this period: Congress approved his petition to hire two additional instructors - for French and drawing - with the admonition to steer clear of "intemperate men, foreigners, or men far advanced in years." The staff and students, meanwhile, settled into a routine. Classes were held six days a week from 9:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M.; on four afternoons a week, the cadets would gather for outdoor sessions to learn skills such as surveying and map drawing.

Less than six months after Jefferson signed it into law, the U.S. Military Academy graduated its first cadets. With no formal requirements or procedures in place, a cadet could take the examinations whenever Williams and his instructors felt he was ready. On September 1, 1802, two cadets faced a barrage of questions on the subjects of mathematics, natural philosophy (or physics, as it is now called), and the theories of fortification construction and artillery usage. Both answered to the satisfaction of their professors, and Cadet Joseph Swift entered the annals of West Point history as the Academy's first graduate. Simon M. Levy became the second-and first Jewish cadet -. so honored. They were commissioned second lieutenants and remained at West Point as members of the garrison.

But despite this significant milestone, Williams grew increasingly disenchanted with the government's neglect of and the country's indifference toward West Point. The threat of war had dissipated; Congress and the general public turned their attention to other matters, such as the vast territory west of the Mississippi that President Jefferson had just purchased from France. "The military academy, as it now stands," Williams glumly wrote the secretary of war, "is like a foundling, barely existing among the mountains, and nurtured at a distance out of sight, and almost unknown to its legitimate parents." One of his school's most fundamental problems, in Williams's view, was its location. "The military academy is at present in a miserable state," he grumbled, "resulting from an Absurd Condition in its original creation `that it shall be stationed at West Point'." Throughout his tenure he campaigned long and hard to have the Academy moved to Washington, but Congress never approved the transfer. Williams, now a lieutenant colonel, grew so fed up with the state of affairs that he resigned his commission in June 1803.

His presence was missed; Lieutenant Swift wrote: "Colonel Williams had been the friend and advisor of every one of us." His successor, Major Decius Wadsworth, fared no better in getting remedial action from Congress or the War Department. Furthermore, long and frequent absences from West Point in connection with his duties as chief engineer left little time to attend to his superintendent role. One cadet sent a pleading letter to Williams: "Never was West Point so much in want of you as at this moment. Everything is going to ruin, Morals and knowledge thrive little and courts-martial and flogging prevail." By 1805 the new superintendent, having spent the winter (as he termed it) "buried alive in snow at West Point," was ordered to New Orleans and tendered his resignation. A personal appeal from Jefferson finally convinced Williams to return.

Reform and reorganization at the Academy still proceeded at a snail's pace; an 1806 graduate referred to it as "the elementary school at West Point." In 1808 Congress authorized an expansion of West Point's student body from forty-four to two hundred. But appointments from the War Department lagged far behind; two years later a mere forty-seven cadets were enrolled. "I totally despair," Williams lamented, "of any alteration that will raise the Academy to that state which the honor of the nation and the advantage of the Amy indispensably require." One important proviso for admission was finally standardized - new cadets had to be between fourteen and twenty-one years of age -. but the Academy remained an overlooked, dilapidated institution when the United States found itself at war with Great Britain in 1812.

At the onset of the war, the engineers and instructors stationed at West Point were reassigned to other posts. Colonel Williams requested command of a fortification he had designed and built in New York Harbor. When the War Department turned him down, he resigned once more in a huff. After a decade of Williams's unswerving devotion to the school he had guided through its trying infancy, the Academy and its handful of cadets were left without a faculty or a superintendent.

Meanwhile, Congress and President James Madison were working frantically to increase the regular army's strength from eleven to twenty-four regiments, while at the same time issuing a call for thirty thousand volunteer troops and asking the individual states to supply eighty thousand militia. To fill the swelling officer corps needed to command this huge force, the Military Academy had produced a mere eighty-nine graduates.

Congress at last acted to rectify its long-standing apathy toward West Point. A reorganization bill, passed in April 1812, increased the number of cadets to 250. It also authorized permanent faculty chairs in mathematics, natural and experimental philosophy, French, the art of engineering, and drawing, so that cadets might "receive a regular degree from an academic staff." To provide them a proper military foundation, cadets would be formed into companies and participate annually in a three-month encampment to learn "all of the duties of a private, a noncommissioned officer, and officer." Congress also appropriated twenty-five thousand dollars for physical improvements to West Point and to build a proper library.

To oversee these changes and replace the retired Williams, former cadet - and now colonel - Joseph Swift was chosen as the new superintendent. The war years from 1812 to 1815 were a hectic time at West Point. Cadets were summoned to active duty as soon as they had mastered the barest rudiments of military science; most spent less than a year at the Academy. Wartime demands also kept Swift away from West Point almost constantly. In his absence he designated Captain Alden Partridge, professor of engineering, as de facto superintendent. Meanwhile a building boom, fueled by the congressional appropriation, produced the Academy's first permanent structures: a barracks, a mess hall and kitchen, and a two-story edifice that housed a classroom and laboratory, as well as the library and chapel. Setting a tradition that has continued to this day, many buildings were situated on the southern fringe of the grassy Plain, and many were made of local gray granite.

The War of 1812 ended after three years of inconclusive conflict, and in its aftermath Secretary of War James Monroe acted quickly to correct one problem that had plagued the Academy since its inception. Realizing that the chief engineer of the Corps had too many responsibilities to devote sufficient time to the school, he established a separate position of "Permanent Superintendent" who "shall have exclusive control of the Institution and all those connected with it." The first officer to hold this title was Captain Alden Partridge, while General Swift retained his post as chief engineer.

The new superintendent was a complex and quirky man. He had breezed through final exams in 1806 after less than a year at the Academy, so impressing Colonel Williams and his instructors that he received a first lieutenant's commission. As a professor, and then as acting superintendent, he had shown himself to be energetic and utterly devoted to the Academy. But he was also scheming, spiteful, and extremely vain. He never appeared in public in anything less than full-dress uniform, complete with sword and sash, yet his tastes were otherwise unpretentious and his quarters downright austere.

To a man, the professors and officers of the garrison loathed Partridge. He never solicited advice or delegated authority, and he brooked no criticism of any decision he made. His meddling with professors' course outlines and teaching methods was so invasive that one complained they had "no rights or privileges, even in their own departments."

The cadets, on the other hand, adored their superintendent even though Partridge was a stickler for discipline. He would prowl the barracks most evenings to make sure everyone was studying diligently. He tolerated no vulgar language, gambling, or "immoral conduct" among his charges. Partridge punished the most serious infractions of Academy regulations by confining the offender - never for more than half an hour - in the Black Hole, a "filthy and uncomfortable" subterranean chamber on the grounds of old Fort Clinton. But he also took all his meals with them in the mess hall, and made them feel a valuable part of the institution with a weekly briefing and review of events or developments that affected them and their school.

In winter Partridge would enliven artillery practice by turning the school's fieldpiece toward the Hudson and letting students skip cannonballs off the ice. He even made the almost constant drilling enjoyable by forming the cadet companies into miniature armies to act out great battles from history. While the cadets marched, Partridge would provide a running commentary on strategy and tactics, giving them the first and only, taste of military history they would receive during their tenure at West Point.

The Genisis of the Long Gray Line

In 1810 Major Jonathan Williams persuaded the War Department to issue the following directive: "A uniform shall be established by the Superintendent, with the approbation of the Secretary of War, for all Cadets attached to the Academy, without regard to their respective; corps." It took four years, however, for the army's inspector general to prepare regulations describing that uniform. They read in part: "Coat, blue cloth, single breasted, standing collar, eight buttons in front, six in rear, one on each side of the collar, with one blind buttonhole, and one on each cuff." Headgear would consist of`a "round hat, cockade with gilt eagle and loop," and every cadet would be issued a "cut and thrust sword in a frog belt worn under the coat."

By the time these instructions reached West Point, the regular army - greatly expanded during the War of 1812 - had consumed all the blue fabric available in America. Consequently, cadets were issued gray woolen uniforms designed by Superintendent Alden Partridge in the summer of 1814. Two years later General Swift proposed that this shade be made permanent because "the price of the uniform $18 to $20 better suits the finance of the Cadets than one of blue would." A popular legend maintains the color'was chosen to commemorate Winfield Scott's brigade, which wore gray militia uniforms in its victory over British forces in the Battle of Chippewa: In fact, the decision was based solely on cost and availability.

The distinctive gray uniform so closely identified with West Point has undergone many alterations over the years, but the original design is still plainly evident when today's Corps of Cadets marches across the parade ground. And contemporary cadets can no doubt still commiserate with their early-nineteenth-century counterparts - early members of the "Long Gray Line" - who composed the following verse: Your coat is made, you button it, give one spasmodic cough, And do not draw another breath until you take it off!

Partridge also instituted many aspects of cadet life that are still recognizable today. He was the first to clothe them in gray uniforms, which he designed himself. He also introduced a strictlv regimented daily routine that accounted for the cadets' every waking hour. It began with 6:00 A.M. roll call, followed by an inspection of quarters. At 7:00 the cadets would march to the mess hall for breakfast, which, like all meals, they would eat in "utmost order and silence." Mathematics class lasted from 8:00 to 11:00; then came two hours of French instruction. Dinner, the day's main meal, was served from 1:00 to 2:00. Engineering and drawing classes were held in the afternoon, followed by drill, study hours, an evening parade, and a light supper.

Despite his many innovations and strong dedication to the Academy, Partridge's reign ended ignominiously. His subordinates' bitterness spawned rumors and finally led to allegations of fraud, nepotism, and mismanagement. Partridge responded by arresting all the professors and teaching every class himself. In the end, whether the charges against him were valid, exaggerated, or altogether spurious made little difference; Superintendent Alden Partridge was done in by his own prickly personality and overbearing comportment.

In June 1817 newly elected president James Monroe journeyed to West Point to investigate the matter for himself. What he saw - and heard from the staff - convinced him that Partridge must go, and a replacement was soon named. Owing to the circumstances of his departure, Partridge's positive and lasting contributions to the U.S. Military Academy are often overlooked. But in his favor it must be said that he helped lay the foundation for his illustrious successor.

There was resurgence of American pride in the military profession after its sad decline during the Vietnam War. In 1991 U.S. forces played a prominent role in Operation Desert Storm, the campaign by an allied coalition that swiftlv crushed the Iraqi army, reversing its invasion of neighboring Kuwait. West Point could cite the gallantry and battlefield leadership of its graduates, including the commander of Desert Storm, Lieutenant General H. Norman Schwarzkopf. "It was exactly the war that the U.S. military had been training to fight for 40 years and we were good." said Schwarzkopf. And, he added, "it did serve on the part of a lot of us to expunge the ghosts of Vietnam."

Schwarzkopf felt that he has been practically born into the Academy. "West Point has been part of my consciousness as long as I can remember," he said. His father graduated in the Class of 1917, later organized the New Jersey State Police, and was called back during World War II, retiring as a major general. The younger Schwarzkopf graduated in the top 10 percent of the Class of 1956 and flirted with the air force before settling for the infantry. He twice was assigned as an instructor at West Point and served two tours with distinction in Vietnam, which only strengthened his sense of duty. "When I began as a plebe," he recalled in his best-selling memoir It Doesn't Take a Hero, "`Duty, Honor, Country' was just a motto I'd heard from Pop. By the time I left, those values had become my fixed stars. Some officers spend all their time currying favor and worrying about the next promotion - a miserable way to live. But West Point saved me from that by instilling the ideal of service above self. It gave me far more than a military career - it gave me a calling."

The precise nature of that calling in West Point's third century cannot be predicted. Along with the mission of the army itself, the role of the long gray line in the post Cold War world changes and expands, embracing preparation for such tasks as peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance as well as fighting wars and brushfires. As it has since its founding by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, West Point intends to go on meeting the challenge of producing leaders of character committed to Duty, Honor, Country.

John Grant; James M. Lynch; Ronald H. Bailey; Buzz Aldrin; Ted Spiegel. West Point: The First 200 Years (Broadcast Tie-Ins) . Globe Pequot Press. 2002.


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