Duty, Honor, Country: The Glory of West Point
As George Washington looked towards America’s future, he saw a need for and supported creating a permanent military academy. That vision was not realized in Washington’s lifetime, but two years after the “Father of his Country” passed away, his hopes for an institution to train the future fighting leaders of the United States came to fruition. On Tuesday, March 16, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed the Military Peace Establishment Act, which directed that a corps of engineers be established and “stationed at West Point in the state of New York, and shall constitute a Military Academy.” Thus, the sacred Academy that has trained the likes of Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, and countless others over the years was born. To this day, West Point remains the oldest continuously operated Army post in the United States.
Located on a plateau on the west bank of the Hudson River and approximately sixty miles north of New York City, West Point had a pivotal role to play well before it became the United States Military Academy. During the American Revolution, the position was fortified and garrisoned by American soldiers in order to prevent the British from gaining control of the Hudson River, which would have effectively split the colonies in two. The commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington, fully understood the significance of the site, calling it “the most important Post in America,” and worked to ensure that it remained in American hands throughout the war.
George Washington at West Point during the American Revolution. Elements of the Great Chain, also known as the Hudson River Chain can be seen in the photo. In 1778, a giant iron chain was laid across the Hudson, stretching from West Point to Constitution Island in order to prevent British ships from sailing down the river. (Photo Credit: Mort Künstler)
Despite Washington’s efforts, the British were determined to capture the vital post and it was nearly handed to them by a man who was at one time perhaps the most feared combat leader in the America service. Feeling unrewarded and unrecognized for his supreme bravery and sacrifices for the American cause, General Benedict Arnold defected to the British and agreed to help the Redcoats capture West Point. As the commander of the post, Arnold also intended to invite Washington to the fort for dinner, where he would be taken prisoner by the British. Thankfully for the American cause, Arnold’s treacherous plot was foiled, saving the most important position and person in the War of Independence. Although West Point was originally named Fort Arnold during the Revolution, it was renamed Fort Clinton after Benedict Arnold’s painful betrayal.
After President Thomas Jefferson formally signed the document establishing the U.S. Military Academy in 1802, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer put West Point on the path to greatness. Known as “the father of the Military Academy,” Thayer served as superintendent of the post from 1817 to 1833. Under his watch, academics took on a whole new level of importance and cadets were taught military discipline and expected to conduct themselves as men of honor. Thayer made civil engineering the foundation of the Academy’s curriculum. As skilled engineers poured out of West Point, they helped the nation grow stronger by constructing railway lines, bridges, harbors, roads, forts, and more.
Monument to Colonel Thayer at the U.S. Military Academy. (Photo Credit: Joe Archino)
The standards set by Thayer served the United States very well as West Point graduates excelled in the Mexican-American War. Upon the outbreak of the American Civil War in April 1861, however, men who had once formed treasured bonds at the Academy were destined to stare each other down on some of the bloodiest battlefields in American history. Approximately 359 West Pointers sided with the Confederacy during the War Between the States and 638 pledged themselves to fight for the Union. Southern graduates like Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, James Longstreet, and more racked up many victories in command of Confederate troops, but the Rebel cause was unable to prevail over the defenders of the Union. The leadership of Ulysses S. Grant. William T. Sherman, George H. Thomas, and other West Point graduates in blue proved indispensable and they guided the Union to ultimate victory. By the end of the Civil War, 95 West Point graduates had been killed in combat and around 141 were wounded. The highest ranking officer killed in combat during the war was Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, an 1826 graduate of the Academy. To this day, Johnston remains the highest-ranking American military officer ever to be killed in action.
After the Civil War pitted West Pointer against West Pointer, graduates of the Academy once more confronted the dangers of the battlefield together. During the First and Second World War, West Point men demonstrated the prowess of American fighting power on the global stage. Under the leadership of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, an 1886 graduate of the Academy, the American Expeditionary Force helped break the bitter stalemate that had taken hold along Europe’s Western Front and propelled the Allies to victory in the First World War in 1918. West Point graduates such as George S. Patton Jr. and Douglas MacArthur served well under Pershing in the Great War and emerged as central figures in the world’s next titanic struggle. In addition to Patton and MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley, and several more Academy graduates helped navigate the perils of World War II and guided the Allies to victory over Germany and Japan in 1945. A common thread running through both conflicts was West Point’s Class of 1915, which Eisenhower and Bradley were a part of. Nicknamed “The Class the Stars Fell On,” 59 of the 164 members of the Class of 1915 went on to become generals. Some graduates of that class distinguished themselves on the battlefields of WWI and a great many more went on to be true difference makers in WWII.
West Point's Class of 1915, better known as, "The Class the Stars Fell On." (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
From the Second World War to the present day, West Point graduates have continued to lead the nation forward on the battlefield and beyond. Some of these standout soldiers have included Generals Matthew Ridgway, who turned the tide of battle in the Korean War and saved South Korea from ruin, Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., who expertly commanded a U.S.-led international coalition and liberated Kuwait from Iraqi forces during the Persian Gulf War, and David Petraeus, who revived American fighting fortunes during a complex stage of the Iraq War in 2007.
In his final speech at the Academy in 1962, the legendary General Douglas MacArthur famously told cadets, “From your ranks come the great captains who hold the nation’s destiny in their hands the moment the war tocsin sounds.” He continued, “The Long Gray Line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses, thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country.” That soldierly commitment to duty, honor, and country will forever be embodied by those who set foot on the sacred grounds of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
American Battlefield Trust: 10 Facts - The United States Military Academy at West Point.
George Washington's Mount Vernon: West Point.
National Park Service: Shiloh Battlefield - Albert Sidney Johnston Monument.
National Review: David Petraeus.
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello: United States Military Academy at West Point.
U.S. Military Academy: History of West Point.
We Are the Mighty: West Point's Class of 1915 is one the stars fell on.