West Point fortifications 1780
Artillery cadet 1805, in the mixture of commissioned and non-commissioned uniforms prescribed for cadets of artillery.
West Point, from Phillipstown
(1831) engraving by W. J. Bennett showing the original buildings of the United States Military Academy
Colonial period, founding, and early years
The Continental Army first occupied West Point, New York, on 27 January 1778, and it is the oldest continuously operating Army post in the United States. Between 1778 and 1780, the Polish engineer and military hero Tadeusz Kościuszko oversaw the construction of the garrison defenses. The Great Hudson River Chain and high ground above the narrow "S" curve in the river enabled the Continental Army to prevent British Royal Navy ships from sailing upriver and thus dividing the Colonies. While the fortifications at West Point were known as Fort Arnold during the war, as commander, Benedict Arnold committed his act of treason, attempting to sell the fort to the British. After Arnold betrayed the patriot cause, the Army changed the name of the fortifications at West Point, New York, to Fort Clinton. With the peace after the American Revolutionary War, various ordnance and military stores were left deposited at West Point.
"Cadets" underwent training in artillery and engineering studies at the garrison since 1794. In 1801, shortly after his inauguration as president, Thomas Jefferson directed that plans be set in motion to establish at West Point the United States Military Academy. He selected Jonathan Williams to serve as its first superintendent. Congress formally authorized the establishment and funding of the school with the Military Peace Establishment Act of 1802, which Jefferson signed on 16 March. The academy officially commenced operations on 4 July 1802. The academy graduated Joseph Gardner Swift, its first official graduate, in October 1802. He later returned as Superintendent from 1812 to 1814. In its tumultuous early years, the academy featured few standards for admission or length of study. Cadets ranged in age from 10 years to 37 years and attended between 6 months to 6 years. The impending War of 1812 caused the United States Congress to authorize a more formal system of education at the academy and increased the size of the Corps of Cadets to 250.
In 1817, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer became the Superintendent and established the curriculum, elements of which are still in use as of 2015 . Thayer instilled strict disciplinary standards, set a standard course of academic study, and emphasized honorable conduct. Known as the "Father of the Military Academy," he is honored with a monument on campus for the profound impact he had upon the academy. Founded as a school of engineering, for the first half of the 19th century, USMA produced graduates who gained recognition for engineering the bulk of the nation's initial railway lines, bridges, harbors and roads. The academy was the only engineering school in the country until the founding of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1824. It was so successful in its engineering curriculum that it significantly influenced every American engineering school founded prior to the Civil War.
The Mexican–American War brought the academy to prominence as graduates proved themselves in battle for the first time. Future Civil War commanders Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee first distinguished themselves in battle in Mexico. In all, 452 of 523 graduates who served in the war received battlefield promotions or awards for bravery. The school experienced a rapid modernization during the 1850s, often romanticized by the graduates who led both sides of the Civil War as the "end of the Old West Point era." New barracks brought better heat and gas lighting, while new ordnance and tactics training incorporated new rifle and musket technology and accommodated transportation advances created by the steam engine. With the outbreak of the Civil War, West Point graduates filled the general officer ranks of the rapidly expanding Union and Confederate armies. 294 graduates served as general officers for the Union, and 151 served as general officers for the Confederacy. Of all living graduates at the time of the war, 105 (10%) were killed, and another 151 (15%) were wounded. Nearly every general officer of note from either army during the Civil War was a graduate of West Point and a West Point graduate commanded the forces of one or both sides in every one of the 60 major battles of the war.
After the Civil War
Immediately following the Civil War, the academy enjoyed unprecedented fame as a result of the role its graduates had played. However, the post-war years were a difficult time for the academy as it struggled to admit and reintegrate cadets from former confederate states. The first cadets from Southern states were re-admitted in 1868, and 1870 saw the admission of the first black cadet, James Webster Smith of South Carolina. Smith endured harsh treatment and was eventually dismissed for academic deficiency under controversial circumstances in 1874. As a result, Henry O. Flipper of Georgia became the first black graduate in 1877, graduating 50th in a class of 76. Two of the most notable graduates during this period were George Washington Goethals from the class of 1880, and John J. Pershing from the class of 1886. Goethals gained prominence as the chief engineer of the Panama Canal, and Pershing would become famous for his exploits against the famed Pancho Villa in Mexico and later for leading American Forces during World War I.
Besides the integration of southern-state and black cadets, the post-war academy also struggled with the issue of hazing. In its first 65 years, hazing was uncommon or non-existent beyond small pranks played upon the incoming freshmen, but took a harsher tone as Civil War veterans began to fill the incoming freshman classes. The upper class cadets saw it as their duty to "teach the plebes their manners." Hazing at the academy entered the national spotlight with the death of former cadet Oscar L. Booz on 3 December 1900. Congressional hearings, which included testimony by cadet Douglas MacArthur, investigated his death and the pattern of systemic hazing of freshmen. When MacArthur returned as superintendent, he made an effort to end the practice of hazing the incoming freshmen by placing Army sergeants in charge of training new cadets during freshman summer. The practice of hazing continued on some levels well into the late 20th century, but is no longer allowed in the present day.
Class at West Point, 1929
The demand for junior officers during the Spanish–American War caused the class of 1899 to graduate early, and the Philippine–American War did the same for the class of 1901. This increased demand for officers led Congress to increase the size of the Corps of Cadets to 481 cadets in 1900. The period between 1900 and 1915 saw a construction boom as much of West Point's old infrastructure was rebuilt. Many of the academy's most famous graduates graduated during the 15-year period between 1900 and 1915: Douglas MacArthur (1903), Joseph Stilwell (1904), Henry "Hap" Arnold (1907), George S. Patton (1909), Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley (both 1915). The class of 1915 is known as "the class the stars fell on" for the exceptionally high percentage of general officers that rose from that class (59 of 164).
The outbreak of America's involvement in World War I caused a sharp increase in the demand for army officers, and the academy accelerated graduation of all four classes then in attendance to meet this requirement, beginning with the early graduation of the First Class on 20 April 1917, the Second Class in August 1917, and both the Third and Fourth Classes just before the Armistice of 11 November 1918, when only freshman cadets remained (those who had entered in the summer of 1918). In all, wartime contingencies and post-war adjustments resulted in ten classes, varying in length of study from two to four years, within a seven-year period before the regular course of study was fully resumed.
Douglas MacArthur became superintendent in 1919, instituting sweeping reforms to the academic process, including introducing a greater emphasis on history and humanities. He made major changes to the field training regimen and the Cadet Honor Committee was formed under his watch in 1922. MacArthur was a firm supporter of athletics at the academy, as he famously said "Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory." West Point was first officially accredited in 1925, and in 1933 began granting bachelor of science degrees to all graduates. In 1935, the academy's authorized strength increased to 1,960 cadets.
World War II and Cold War
As World War II engulfed Europe, Congress authorized an increase to 2,496 cadets in 1942 and began graduating classes early. The class of 1943 graduated six months early in January 1943, and the next four classes graduated after only three years. To accommodate this accelerated schedule, summer training was formally moved to a recently acquired piece of land southwest of main post. The site would later become Camp Buckner. The academy had its last serious brush with abolition or major reform during the war, when some members of Congress charged that even the accelerated curriculum allowed young men to "hide out" at West Point and avoid combat duty. A proposal was put forth to convert the academy to an officer's training school with a six-month schedule, but this was not adopted. West Point played a prominent role in WWII; four out of five of the five-star generals were alumni and nearly 500 graduates died. Immediately following the war in 1945, Maxwell Taylor (class of 1922) became superintendent. He expanded and modernized the academic program and abolished antiquated courses in fencing and horsemanship.
Unlike previous conflicts, the Korean War did not disrupt class graduation schedules. More than half of the Army leadership during the war was composed of West Point graduates. The Class of 1950, which graduated only two weeks prior to the war's outbreak, suffered some of the heaviest casualties of any 20th century class and became known sourly as "the class the crosses fell on." A total of 157 alumni perished in the conflict. Garrison H. Davidson became superintendent in 1956 and instituted several reforms that included refining the admissions process, changing the core curriculum to include electives, and increasing the academic degree standards for academy instructors. The 1960s saw the size of the Corps expand to 4,400 cadets while the barracks and academic support structure grew proportionally.
West Point was not immune to the social upheaval of American society during the Vietnam War. The first woman joined the faculty of the all-male institution amidst controversy in 1968. The Army granted its first honorable discharge in 1971 to a West Point cadet, Cary E. Donham, of Illinois, who applied for conscientious objector status in 1970. The academy struggled to fill its incoming classes as its graduates led troops in Southeast Asia, where 333 graduates died.
Following the 1973 end of American involvement in Vietnam, the strain and stigma of earlier social unrest dissolved and West Point enjoyed surging enrollments. West Point admitted its first 119 female cadets in 1976, after Congress authorized the admission of women to the federal service academies in 1975. In 1979, Cadet, later General, Vincent K. Brooks became the first African American to lead the Corp of Cadets.
Kristin Baker, ten years later, became the first female First Captain (an effigy of her is now on display in the Museum), the highest ranking senior cadet at the academy in 1989. Three other females have been appointed as First Captain: Grace H. Chung in 2003, Stephanie Hightower in 2005, and Lindsey Danilack in 2013. In 2017, Simone Askew, became the first African American woman to lead the Corps. In the 21st century, women compose approximately 20% of entering new cadets.
First female graduates in 1980
In 1985, cadets were formally authorized to declare an academic major; all previous graduates had been awarded a general bachelor of science degree. Five years later there was a major revision of the Fourth Class System, as the Cadet Leader Development System (CLDS) became the guidance for the development of all four classes. The class of 1990 was the first one that issued a standard and mandatory computer to every member of the class at the beginning of Plebe year, the Zenith 248 SX. The academy was also an early adopter of the Internet in the mid-1990s, and was recognized in 2006 as one of the nation's "most wired" campuses.
At the height of the Cold War in October 1987, President Reagan visited the Academy and delivered a speech about ending the Evil Empire.
During the Gulf War, alumnus General Schwarzkopf was the commander of Allied Forces, and the American senior generals in Iraq, Generals Petraeus, Odierno and Austin, and Afghanistan, retired General Stanley McChrystal and General David Rodriguez, are also alumni. Following the September 11 attacks, applications for admission to the academy increased dramatically, security on campus was increased, and the curriculum was revamped to include coursework on terrorism and military drills in civilian environments. One graduate was killed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and ninety graduates have died during operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the ongoing Global War on Terror. The Class of 2005 has been referred to as The Class of 9/11 as the attacks occurred during their first year at the academy, and they graduated 911 students. In 2008 gender-neutral lyrics were incorporated into West Point's "Alma Mater" and "The Corps" — replacing lines like "The men of the Corps" with "The ranks of the Corps." In December 2009, President Barack Obama delivered a major speech in Eisenhower Hall Theater outlining his policy for deploying 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan as well as setting a timetable for withdrawal. President Obama also provided the commencement address in 2014.
After the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy was lifted September 20, 2011, the academy began admitting and retaining openly gay cadets. By March 2012, cadets were forming a gay-straight alliance group called Spectrum. By March 2015, Spectrum had two faculty and 40 cadet members, a mixture of gay, straight, bi, and undecided. According to a Vanity Fair essay, the LGBT cadets were well accepted. After the ban on transgender service members was lifted in 2016, the Class of 2017 saw the first openly transgender graduate. However, she was denied a commission and was honorably discharged.
Brig. Gen. Diana Holland became West Point's first woman Commandant of Cadets in January 2016.