Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Long Gray Line

Magnet # 193: West Point Cadet

Material:  Rubber

Purchased By:  Mom & Dad

On this day in 1802, Congress approved legislation which founded the United States Military Academy at West Point. While the area had been an important army post since the Revolutionary War, from that day on, it would take on a new significance in American history,
training and shaping generations of military leaders that would help maintain the sovereignty of our nation.

It would be another 15 years before West Point realized its true potential. That's when alumnus Colonel Sylvanus Thayer was made the school's superintendent by President James Monroe. For the next 16 years, Thayer would shape the academy into one of the greatest military institutions in the world. He would establish the country's first college of engineering there and set the standard high for the cadets, demanding honorable conduct from them and imposing strict disciplinary measures on any who didn't adhere to his rules. The curriculum he created was so forward thinking that it is still used at the academy. Although a disagreement with President Andrew Jackson forced Thayer's resignation, he is still known as the "Father of the Military Academy" and statue at the academy pays tribute to him. The legacy he left at West Point is substantial. Nearly 65,000 have graduated from the academy and they are known as the "Long Gray Line," which is inspired by a phrase from their official hymn.  The Medal of Honor has been awarded to 74 of them and some of the greatest military leaders our country has ever known are among them. Both Presidents Grant and Eisenhower graduated from West Point, along with Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Grant's Confederate counterpart Robert E. Lee is another West Point alumnus, along with famous Civil War generals Stonewall Jackson and William T. Sherman. The last place graduate of the class of 1861, George Armstrong Custer, went on to achieve his own sort of fame at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. While he was at the academy, the pranks he pulled on his fellow cadets nearly got him thrown out on more than one occasion. One might argue that, in hindsight, it would have been in West Point's best interest to have expelled him after all. The institution also provided World War II with some of its greatest military generals, including Douglas MacArthur, who graduated first in his class, George S. Patton, Omar Bradley, and the aforementioned Dwight D. Eisenhower. And even in our present day military conflicts, West Point alumni are still leading the troops. Both Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., who oversaw the Gulf War in the 90's and Stanley A. McChrystal, who is now in charge of the US forces in Afghanistan are examples. Governors and members of Congress have also graduated from the institution, as well as astronaut Buzz Aldrin.  One of the more surprising West Point graduates is actor Mark Valley, who graduated in 1987 and fought in the Gulf War before going on to star in television shows like Boston Legal and Human Target. Even Edgar Allen Poe was a cadet there, but he was discharged. Although he was a master of writing horror, it's hard to imagine him leading any troops into battle. Sure, there have been some duds in this institution's 208 year history, but few academies can claim so many noteworthy and influential graduates.

West Point is situated at a location that's both strategic and idyllic.  It is on a hill that overlooks the Hudson River about 50 miles north of New York City.  Its vantage point provides the area with spectacular views of the river and other lands that surround it.  It also cuts out into the river and is an excellent place to halt enemy advancement up the Hudson in the event of an attack.  This is the site Benedict Arnold tried to surrender to the British during the Revolutionary War because it was such a significant fort.  I visited the academy once, years ago, with my family on a trip up north.  We didn't do much there, we mainly drove around the grounds.  But we did see the statue of Sylvanus Thayer and get out to take in one of the amazing views the institution has to offer.  I still remember just how breathtaking that sight was.  If you're interested in visiting West Point someday, there is actually the oldest military museum in the country there and tours are given through there and other parts of the grounds.  With its stunning architecture, incredible location, and historical significance, West Point is a great place to visit.  It's been critical in providing the best military leaders to our country, and hopefully will continue to maintain its standard of excellence for many years to come.


  1. I love the history and tradition of the various military schools. I briefly considered going to the Naval Academy up in Annapolis, but it takes a lot of work to be considered and realistically I wasn't likely to pass the bar due to my poor health at the time. One has to get sponsored by your congressman to even apply... a very competitive task since each can only nominate one or two students from their state each year.

  2. Even Douglas MacArthur had a tough time getting in. His father, an Army man and Medal of Honor recipient, had to try three times to get him an appointment. Thank goodness he did!