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A Brief History of West PointThe United States Military Academy was established in 1802, but West Point had a major role in our nation’s history during the American Revolution. Both the American patriots and the British realized the strategic importance of the prominent plateau on the west bank of the Hudson River. General George Washington considered West Point to be the most important strategic location in America and in 1778 selected Taddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish engineer, to design the fortifications for West Point. Washington later transferred his headquarters near West Point in 1779. American Continental Line soldiers constructed forts, gun batteries, redoubts and installed a 65-ton iron chain across the Hudson to block British invasions along the river. Fortress West Point was never captured by the British, despite Major General Benedict Arnold’s treasonous attempt to turn-over the garrison to the British in 1780. Today, West Point is the oldest continuously occupied regular army post in the United States.n the 1790s several distinguished Americans, including President Washington and most of his cabinet, desired to establish an institution devoted to the art and science of warfare to train and develop officers for the Army. However, the proposal met opposition, especially from Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who objected to the concept based on his opposition to professional armies and the officer class so prominent in Europe. Later, as president, Jefferson realized the importance of defending the new republic against possible invasion. Additionally, the nation’s expansion west with new territory would require an armed force for protection and defense. President Jefferson signed legislation that established the United States Military Academy on March 16, 1802. The Academy fell under the auspices of the US Army Corps of Engineers and all the superintendents through 1866 were engineer officers.

Major Sylvanus Thayer, considered the “Father of the Military Academy,” served as Superintendent from 1817-1833. He improved academic standards, instilled military discipline, and emphasized honorable conduct and officership. Aware of our young nation’s need for engineers, Thayer made civil and military engineering the foundation of the curriculum and the top few in each class became engineers. The Academy was the first engineering school in the United States. Other officers served in the infantry, cavalry (dragoons), artillery and other branches in the tough frontier Army.

During the 19th century, USMA graduates were largely responsible for the construction of the bulk of the nation’s earliest waterways, infrastructure, harbors, the Washington Monument, and surveys for the future transcontinental railroads. Perhaps the greatest engineering feat in world history was the Panama Canal completed in 1914 under the direction of Colonel George W. Goethals (Class of 1880), an Army engineer.

After gaining experience and national recognition during the Mexican and antebellum Indian Wars, West Point graduates dominated the highest ranks in both the Federal and Confederate armies during the Civil War. Graduates such as generals Ulysses S. Grant (Class of 1843), William T. Sherman (Class of 1840), Philip Sheridan (Class of 1853) and hundreds of others served for the Union Army, while some 304 graduates rejected their oath of allegiance to the United States and served in armed rebellion in the Confederate States Army. Regardless of loyalties, West Point graduates provided significant military leadership for both the North and South.

After the Civil War, the Academy entrenched itself in its success, where tradition and austere discipline ruled the Corps of Cadets for the next several decades. During this time African-American cadets entered the Academy and endured “silencing”—the practice of isolating unwanted cadets and intimidating them to resign. Henry O. Flipper succeeded against institutional prejudice to graduate in 1877. Two other Black Cadets graduated by the turn of the century. During this era, young, commissioned officers served in the Indian Wars on the frontier army, facing the tough realities of guerilla warfare against skilled warriors.

In World War I, many graduates provided distinguished service on the battlefield, led by General John J. Pershing (Class of 1886), the commander of the American Expeditionary Force of more than two million American soldiers in Europe. Five classes were graduated early to provide new officers at the front.

After the Great War there were sweeping revisions and modernization to the curriculum resulting from the dramatic developments in science and technology, and new, younger, reform-minded leaders. One such leader was Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur (Class of 1903), who served as superintendent from 1919-1922. He sought to instill his war experience into the Corps of Cadets with an intensive physical fitness program and realistic combat training necessary for modern warfare away from the Plain of West Point. MacArthur pushed for major changes in the physical fitness by establishing intramural programs, decreeing “Every cadet an athlete.” Additionally, MacArthur established the cadet-run Honor System in 1922.

The interwar years were austere for the Army and the Academy but advances and progress were made mainly based on the quality of leaders who graduated after the turn of the century. Future senior commanders such as MacArthur, Jonathan Wainwright (Class of 1906), father of the U.S. Air Force Henry “Hap” Arnold (Class of 1907), George Patton (Class of 1909), Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell (Class of 1904), Dwight Eisenhower (Class of 1915), and Omar Bradley (Class of 1915) were among an impressive array of Academy graduates who met the challenge of leadership in World War II. During the war, a third of the Corps of Cadets underwent flight training at Stewart Field in nearby Newburgh. Nearly all the major ground and U.S. Army Air Forces units in World War II were commanded by West Point officers. More than 600 members of the Long Gray Line lost their lives in foreign lands in the war.

In 1975, Congress passed legislation allowing women to enroll at the federal service academies. The following summer, 119 women arrived at West Point for Cadet Basic Training as part of the Class of 1980. Four years later, 62 women graduated, with Andrea Hollen, a Rhodes Scholar, as the first woman graduate academically.

Over the years, the Corps of Cadets has become more diverse, with women and minority cadets attending in record numbers. Additionally, the campus has evolved immensely since 1900 with major buildings booms from 1910-13 and again from 1964-68 with the construction or renovation of new barracks and academic halls. More recent infrastructure additions include a new library (Jefferson Hall) in 2008 and Davis Barracks in 2017, honoring Air Force General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (Class of 1936), commander of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. In 2025, a new Cyber Engineering Academic Center will be completed, modernizing USMA’s engineering, technology, and cyber education capabilities.

Academy graduates have excelled in academia, business, science, and government, as well as the military. Seventy-seven have received the Medal of Honor; two (Grant and Eisenhower) were presidents of the United States, and many are senior Army leaders today.

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Visit the West Point Museum

Since 1843, the mission of the West Point Museum has been to collect, preserve, exhibit and interpret historically significant artifacts and stimulate interest in the United States Military Academy at West Point, the United States Army and the Profession of Arms. The West Point Museum also supplements academic, cultural and military instruction and provides educational programs and services for Cadets, the military and civilian personnel.

The museum offers a taste of the over 60,000 Army historical artifacts that inspire and educate the U.S. Corps of Cadets on a daily basis. The holdings of the West Point Museum are displayed not only within the Museum’s walls at Pershing Center, but throughout the United States Military Academy at West Point’s buildings and grounds. We invite you to explore these webpages and then visit the museum to learn more about the displays and galleries of America’s oldest and finest military museum. The holdings span the history of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the military history of the United States Army, the history of warfare and the profession of arms.

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