The beginnings of West Point Military Academy can be traced back to the earliest days of the independent nation of The United States of America and Commander George Washington. Used as a strategically placed fort during the Revolutionary War, West Point, located along the Hudson River, demonstrated its importance during the war. Also during the pivotal and important events of the Revolutionary War, Washington was aware that the fledgling nation that had depended on foreign engineers and native ones that were of “dubious quality” for critical engineering information during the seven years of war. Washington believed that the new nation needed its own way to effectively train engineers of the highest quality and also these men were to be trained in the arts of military strategy with a focus on artillery and engineering which are both critical and require specialized training that was unavailable elsewhere in the states. Fort West Point was determined to be a critical and strategic location after Washington took over the Continental Army in 1775. Washington, his commanders, and members of the Continental Congress studied topographical maps to assess which areas were the most critical to defend from the British armies. Focusing on the Hudson River, which divided New England from the other colonies, was deemed to be essential in keeping open trade routes, enabling troops to move into and out of New England, and establish some political unity between New England and the other colonies.
After a needed resolution was passed by Congress on May 25, 1775, the primary focusing became the area of the Hudson River where it became tortuous and narrow, the area known as West Point was a main area of focus on which to construct the strategic fort. Christopher Tappen and Colonel James Clinton determined that fortifications should be established on an area known as Martalear’s Rock. This area was located where a rocky tidal island was located on the eastern bank as well as a point that was higher in elevation on the opposite shore, the area known as West Point. The winds that blew through this highland area made it difficult for ships to navigate the river, especially those travelling north, since it also narrowed in the same area. To further impede ships and travel, especially those of the British army, Tappen and Clinton suggested placing obstacles in the river.
Before any suggestions could be acted on with any real progress, funding, a nemesis throughout the war for the colonists, became an issue. Soon, however, the loss at the Battle of Bunker Hill occurred on June 17, 1775. There were rumors that New York City was soon to be attacked by the British. Concerned, congress met again and discussed building a fortification at the area known as West Point. Complicating matters even further was that there were few engineers that had been born in the colonies. Most engineering tasks were handled by foreigners. Congress engaged Dutch-born naturalist who also proclaimed himself to be an engineer, Bernard Romans, to design forts on both sides of the Hudson River. Romans was opinionated and did not openly accept criticism of his work. He believed that Tappen and Clinton were wrong in wanting to construct forts on both sides of the Hudson River and was of the opinion that one large fortress should be constructed on Martler’s Rock, which later was renamed Constitution Island.
Forts in the colonial era were designed to be a star shape and were enclosed, multi-sided structures. The walls were slopped and made of stone masonry that was topped by stone or timber parapets. If there was no mortar readily available, walls were instead constructed by dry masonry aided with the support of ridges of earth, referred to as earthworks, or timber. Larger forts were more time-consuming to construct because the stone walls were thicker, the earthworks needed to be constructed, and there were also more barracks, bombproof shelters, and magazines to be constructed within the walls of the structure.
Romans also did not bother with the committee that had been sent from New York to discuss the design of the fort. Instead, he went directly in front of the Continental Congress. Committee members were upset when Roman’s designs were approved by congress. The actual construction of the fort was a slow undertaking due to a lack of manpower to complete the construction. The committee members blamed Romans and he blamed the members of the committee. When winter of 1775 broke, construction was still far from completion. Romans had halted construction after the stalemate with members of congress. They discovered the setback when they visited the site that winter. The congress members also found the fort to be unusable due to a flaw in the tactical location; plateaus and hills surrounded the fort where construction had begun. The fort would be able to be easily overtaken by the British. Romans was fired from the project in early 1776.
Because of this flaw, it was decided that the construction of smaller redoubts and batteries would provide better protection from the enemy. The redoubts were smaller models and similar design of the forts. Construction consisted of bundles of wood or dried stacked stones that were put on top of earthworks. Parapets were put on top of the earthworks and were made of timber of stone. In this area the gun and cannon ports were located. Towers were also constructed on top of some redoubts to enable soldiers to have a better view of the surrounding areas. Artillery was placed in the battery either stacked similar to a single wall or in a manner representing two walls that formed an angle. These were made up of earthworks, fascines, or stone or some combination of the three. Some batteries were usually rectangular in design and gained their support from blockhouses that were made of timber.
A larger fort, named Fort Montgomery, was to be built south of West Point on the western bank of the Hudson River. Construction began in the spring of 1776 because of the harsh winter. Progress was slow because the construction team were members of the New York militia and refused to work for more than an few hours per day. Washington understood that there was little pressure that could be forced upon the New York Militia to make them work faster, so he undertook management of the project under the name of the Continental Army. To ensure that the pace was increased due to the need of the fort for protection, Washington sent his chief of engineers, Colonel Rufus Putnam, to supervise construction. Putnam was aware, after he arrived on scene, that Fort Montgomery had the fault of being untenable if British forces were able to take control of West Point. For unknown reasons, he did not enlighten Washington of this matter.
The British forces were calculating their strategy in London, England. They wanted the rebellion to come to a quick end and their colony to know its place. The Hudson was deemed one of the key elements in controlling the Hudson River was a means to regain control of the continent. The British planned to use the Hudson to regain control of Fort Ticonderoga from colonial control. New York City would also be regained from the colonists. After words, the plan was for these two divisions to merge and regain control of the Hudson River.
The Continental Congress continued to fuel the British’s rage by declaring its independence from England in July, 1776. After the declaration was made, the head of the British forces, General William Howe, ordered 34,000 soldiers to conquer Staten Island, New York. Putnam returned to New York to try to hold off British forces and Washington replaced him with Lieutenant Machin to continue construction of the fort. Machin immediately began to construct a battery south of Fort Montgomery which was named Fort Clinton. It began to resemble its final construction in August 1776. Earthen and stone walls shaped the initial structure. By August 27, with Washington barely escaping New York, the forts braced themselves for action. On November 10, Washington visited the forts in person and advised the commander of the garrison, Major General William Heath, to ensure that the roads leading to the rear of the forts had adequate protection. This advisement was never followed. The forts received a temporary reprieve during the winter of 1776-1777 as General Howe turned his efforts towards Philadelphia.
In May, 1777, Brigadier General Israel Putnam was placed in charge of the still unfinished construction. He was ineffective, and even with an entire summer to work, the rear fort walls remained unfinished. On October 5, 1777 the British, under the leadership of General Henry Clinton, took over the fortifications in Peekskill, NY and continued to attack Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery from their weaker western sides. It took less than 30 minutes for the British to conquer the forts. Those observing the feud from ort Constitution retreated to the eastern shore for their safety. Unsure that he would be able to keep control of both New York City and the Hudson, although it is probable that he could have done so, Howe abandoned the forts, redoubts, and batteries before retreating to New York City.
Arnold began by finding a way to get Washington to appoint him to West Point. He did succeed in August, 1780. At that time when Arnold assumed his control, there were over 400 men working on the construction of the fort. Kosciusko was reassigned to command in the south, where most of the fighting was occurring, and French engineer, Jean-Louis-Ambroise de Genton became the supervising engineer of the construction. Within a few weeks, Arnold had reassigned 350 of his troops to other areas in the north and construction slow as only 50 men were now working on the project.
Major John Andre, who commanded a British warship known as the Vulture, worked his way up the Hudson. Upon reaching West Pointe, Arnold ordered his men not to attack and met in private with the British major. Their meeting on September 21, 1780, brought the results of a deal that if Arnold allowed the fort to be overtaken; he would receive 20,000 pounds from Andre. Arnold had brought schematics of the fort to the meeting so Andre would know and understand the details of the fort, helping the deal occur. A lieutenant under Arnold’s command, Lieutenant Colonel James Livingston, who led the battery that was located next to the Vulture, was too uncomfortable with the warship being next to the fort in the river, and ordered its attack. It fled down the river, leaving Andre, who had spent the night off the ship with Arnold, off of the ship, stranded. Trying to return to New York City, Andre was captured on September 23, with the West Point schematics hidden in his boots.
When Washington heard of these events, he returned to West Point, and was shocked at the poor condition of the fort. He had several of his men take the command positions and ordered them to further the construction of the fort. The act of Arnold’s treason had the colonists so upset that they became more unified against the British and increased the resolve to win the war. After two years of continuing battle and subsequent peace talks, the war ended with Washington being victorious. During these last two years of the war, Washington had the Corps of Invalids relocate to West Point. When the corps was founded by Congress in 1777, their call was to provide a military school for potential officers. After the war, when the Continental Army was disbanded, the corps remained housed at West Point with one small garrison of soldiers.
Washington had the support of many of his former officers that West Point be used as an academy to train soldiers. Congressional leader Alexander Hamilton, however, did not concur in that opinion. None the less, by 1794, each former regiment of the Continental Army had several cadets studying at West Point. In 1802, Congress finally gave in, and with President Thomas Jefferson’s consent, a group entitled the Corps of Engineers was sent to West Point to receive a military education. Congress gave no support of any kind to the academy, however, and only a few junior officers and two cadets actually attended classes. Major John Williams was the superintendent, and received little respect from the students. Williams had the courses of geography, science, and history added to the curriculum of the study of engineering . By 1812, due to continued lack of support from Congress, the academy almost closed. It was the War of 1812 that enlightened Congress about the need for such an academy. By April, 1812, in order to keep the academy running, Congress began to support the school by awarding $25,000 for new buildings and materials .
The first Superintendent and Chief of Engineers of the academy was Joseph G. Swift, who had also been the first graduate of West Point. Soon it was realized that these roles would and should be separate, so Alden Partridge became the second superintendent of the academy. Partridge abused his power and was replaced in 1817 by Captain Sylvanus Thayer.
The academy underwent many changes after Thayer arrived and learned of the poor academic shape of the academy. Most cadets were still in what should be their first year of studies even though they had been there for two or three years. He also required that faculty rate each cadet daily and their progress was to be by him personally on a weekly basis. He also realized that the students were lacking in their math skills and added math and drawing into the curriculum. In addition, descriptive geometry, only taught in a few European schools, was added to the core curriculum. During his 16 year tenure, the school gained a well-designed structure, core program, and very organized. He also added a hospital, observatory, science laboratory, and additional barracks for the cadets.
After the Civil War, which had its forces led by two graduates, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, the Corps of Engineers allowed for West Point to be attained by officers of any branch of the armed forces . As a demonstration as to how this impacted the academy’s future, in 2002, from a release from the Dean’s Office, the following statement was made referring to the expectations of a graduate: cadets should be able “to anticipate and to respond effectively to the uncertainties of a changing technological, social, political, and economic world .”
As an inspiration to what could evolve from these earliest of days of West Point, it would be possible that students receive a much more well-rounded education, with a wider variety of courses and majors. An example of this would be how the department of sociology has expanded over the years. In the 1960s, there were only three courses in sociology available to students. By 1977, there were seven courses from which students could choose. By 1985, the number of potential courses grew to thirteen by 1985 and in 1986 West Point had its first graduate with a degree in sociology .
I expect that West Point will continue in its fine tradition of providing its cadets with an outstanding college education while simultaneously training them for military service. However, I think that there are many areas in which West Point will expand. I believe that the thirteen percentage of female cadets will increase significantly, there will be more field trips provided by the school, service-learning opportunities will expand into the community, cadets will expand their presence in academic conferences, cadets will begin to write with and conduct research for faculty members and be published while undergraduates, there will be more opportunities for cadets and faculty to have casual interchanges and interactions through clubs sponsored by the school, intermural sports will be available for the less athletic students, and non-academic and non-military activities will increase on campus.
Field trips for cadets will be formal and informal, academic and non-academic. Formal trips could include visiting rank and file troops at their stations to see the life of the traditional soldier first-hand. Informal trips could include shopping, amusement parks, and dining at restaurants. Educational trips can include visiting other academic institutions in the area. Non-educational trips might include trips to Broadway, museums, and other sites in near-by cities. With such trips, life a cadet can be better-rounded and more closely emulate life of more traditional college students.
Academic conferences and research collaboration will enable cadets to become more specialized in their particular field of study. By adding academic conferences, students will be able to learn from students and faculty that are not involved in the military. The students will, therefore, be able to develop a broader sense of their subject area. By working with faculty on academic collaborations, cadets will be able to learn and practice research skills and have the potential to be published in periodicals that many undergraduate students in traditional colleges do not get to do as it is usually graduate students working at this level.
When faculty and students have the opportunity to bond over a fun activity such as a club, it helps the relationship between student and teacher as well. The clubs can be of any variety and style, it is the casual atmosphere that builds the bond. Inter-mural sports also help to foster a team relationship among the players and faculty coach. Many of the cadets are athletic, but not well-developed enough in their sport to make the varsity team. By offering sports in a recreational manner, more students would be able to develop the skills of athletes and foster that style of relationship.
Lastly, only 13% of West Point cadets are female. I believe that as the school continues to develop, foster relationships with the community, and grow into a more college-like setting, more females will apply and be accepted into the program. Since it is well-established, respected and demonstrates leadership qualities among its graduates, a more community style school will draw more applicants, making it more diverse in its student body population. These types of changes will draw a more female class student body. West Point is already one of the well-respected institutions in the nation. As its presence increases in the community, this reputation will continue to flourish.
Dean, Office of the. Educating Future Army Officers for a Changing World: Operational Concept for the Academic Program of the United States Military Academy. Press Release. West Point: West Point Press, 2002. Web.
Hansen, Brent. "Establishing the Legacy: West Point and the United States Military Academy, Part ll." Civil Engineersing (2010): 52-55. Web.
Hansen, Brett. "Establishing the Legacy: West Point and the United States Military Academt, part l." Civil Engineering (2010): 42-45. Web.
Keiry, M. G. Ender and R. Peace, War, and Millitary Institutions. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007. Print.
McDonald, Robert M. S. Thomas Jefferson's Military Academy: The Founding of West Point. Charlottsville, VA: Charlottesville University Press, 2004. Print.
Morten G. Ender, Ryan Kelly, and Irving Smith. "Sociology at West Point." Armed Forces and Society (2008): 49-70. Web.
Segal, Christy. Feedback from Cadets. West Point, NY: West Point Press, 2003. Print.