This week (March 16) in 1802, Congress approved legislation creating the United States Military Academy at West Point — “West Point” for short — on the Hudson River some 50 miles north of New York City. Then-President Thomas Jefferson originally opposed creating a military academy, fearing the establishment of a professional officer corps at the head of a standing army, but he changed his mind when it was proposed that West Point be an engineering school in which its graduates would build bridges, dams, canals and docks. Thus West Point’s original curriculum was mostly the study of engineering and science.
Things changed in 1817 when Sylvanus Thayer became its most famous superintendant and added the study of war to the school’s curriculum. Thayer also stressed mathematics, analytical thought, decision making, attention to detail and — most of all — discipline.
And discipline was what he instituted, although most cadets probably considered it torture, especially the first-year plebes who were tormented so unmercifully that many deserted or broke down mentally and were dismissed.
Those who did survive their plebe year weren’t treated much better. Demerits were handed out for so many reasons that a study in 1914 determined there were 18,000 different opportunities for a cadet to earn a demerit in his four years at West Point. Discipline was so harsh that when West Point undergraduate Ulysses S. Grant learned Congress was considering abolishing West Point as a waste of taxpayer money, he read the newspapers every day looking for news that the legislation had passed. It didn’t, but Grant did, graduating from West Point in 1843. Another famous graduate, Dwight Eisenhower, once mused that if he had known going in what he learned once in, “I would have taken the next train out.”
Yet, for all of its faults — including the fact that for many years the curriculum never changed despite dramatic changes in war-making strategy — West Point graduates were critical to America’s success in wars, starting with the Mexican-American War in which West Point commanders lost not one battle.
And as more years passed, West Point modernized, revamping its curriculum to teach modern war strategy, while expanding it to produce more well-rounded officers. Today women and minorities are well represented at West Point and a variety of outside activities and clubs are permitted.
And demerits aren’t handed out as liberally, meaning it is possible to graduate today without earning a demerit, something that would have astonished Ulysses S. Grant, who earned 290 in his four years, or WW I commanding general, John Pershing, who earned 200. It may even have surprised General Robert E. Lee, although he actually did graduate from West Point — in 1829 — without receiving a single demerit.