On this day in 1802, the United States Military Academy at West Point is founded. The academy has trained some of America’s greatest military minds, including such notables as Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George S. Patton.
Generals on both sides of the Civil War were trained at West Point as well.
West Point found its beginning in another war, though. In January 1778, Brigadier General Samuel Parsons and his men crossed the Hudson River and occupied the plain on West Point. Since that day, the point has always been occupied by the American army. The fort was important during the American Revolution, as it was used to protect the Hudson River and to prevent the British from moving supplies and soldiers.
Amazingly, Americans held on to West Point throughout the war, despite Benedict Arnold’s treasonous attempt to give it to the British.
The Revolution contributed to the development of West Point in another way. During the war, George Washington became frustrated by the colonists’ lack of military experience. He was constantly looking to foreigners for their knowledge of military engineering, training, and artillery, and he wanted America to have its own system of military training instead. Even after the war, though, he faced an uphill task. Early Americans were pretty wary of a permanent standing army to begin with, but they were also distracted by the other logistics of getting the country up and running.
They had a lot on their plate.
Our third President, Thomas Jefferson, was the one who finally achieved the goal of creating a formal military academy. On March 16, 1802, he signed a bill authorizing the creation of a “corps of engineers.” These corps, the legislation provided, “shall be stationed at West Point in the state of New York, and shall constitute a military academy.” The academy opened on July 4, 1802, with a focus on engineering. “We must always bear it in mind,” West Point’s first superintendent noted, “that our officers are to be men of science.”
In 1817, West Point benefited from the appointment of Sylvanus Thayer as its new superintendent. Thayer has been called the “Father of West Point,” the “Father of the Military Academy,” or even the “Father of American Technology.” Thanks to his leadership, West Point’s curriculum was sharpened, increasing the focus on civil engineering and putting stricter academic procedures into place. West Point cadets thrived and its graduates went on to contribute much to the infrastructure of America’s westward expansion. They created roads, railroads, and canals—in addition to their military engineering feats, of course.
The academy continued to grow. After World War I, Douglas MacArthur diversified the curriculum to include a greater emphasis on athleticism. “Nothing more quickly than competitive athletics,” he noted, “brings out the qualities of leadership, quickness of decision, promptness of action, mental and muscular coordination, aggressiveness, and courage.”
Since then, of course, the curriculum has been modernized and expanded still more.
Thomas Jefferson was proud of the academy that he helped build. “I have ever considered that establishment as of major importance to our country,” he wrote in 1821, “and in whatever I could do for it, I viewed myself as performing a duty only.”
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A Brief History of West Point (United States Military Academy at West Point website)
Captain John C. Thomson, West Point and the Post-World War 11 Years: From Bullets to Books (1994) (United States Military Academy Tactical Officer Education Program)
George Fielding Eliot, Sylvanus Thayer of West Point (1959)
Lance Betros, Carved from Granite: West Point since 1902 (2012)
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Jared Mansfield (Feb. 13, 1821)
Morris Schaff, The Spirit of Old West Point, 1858-1862 (1907)
United States Military Academy, Annual Report of the Superintendent (1922)
United States Military Academy at West Point (Thomas Jefferson's Monticello website)