In the long history of the U.S. Army, can we point to one man who had a decisive influence on shaping the spirit and ethos of the American officer? The competition for such a role is impressive. If we rely on leadership as a crucial factor, generals such as George Washington, Winfield Scott, Ulysses Grant, John J. Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, and Dwight Eisenhower come to mind. If we rely on combat prowess, the choice would range from Generals Anthony Wayne to George Patton to Matthew Ridgway. But if we search for a man whose influence and example almost single-handedly created the standards of honor, pride, patriotism, and professionalism that have long animated the American officer corps, we must turn to a soldier who never became a general: Sylvanus Thayer.
To grasp Thayer’s importance, we need a short course in the little-known early history of the U. S. Army. There is a tragic gap between the Continental Army that fought and won the Revolutionary War and the later army.
In 1783, with independence secured, the officers demanded that Congress make good on its promise of half pay for life—or a lump sum payment of five years’ salary—a “commutation” of the larger debt. Unfortunately for those veterans, Congress was bankrupt and virtually powerless. The $200 million in Continental money it had printed from 1776-1779 had depreciated to waste paper. Under the Articles of Confederation, the scarecrow constitution Congress had knocked together during the war, the national legislature had only the power to make requests to the states—and, as one politician wryly observed, the states had the power to refuse them. General Washington soon lamented, “I see one head turning into thirteen.” Worse, the new nation owed large sums to France and Holland for money borrowed during the war.
When the politicians waffled, the officers, encouraged by certain congressmen and public officials, threatened to march on the nation’s capital, Philadelphia, and exact the money with leveled muskets. Only a desperate speech by Washington dissuaded them from an act that might have started a civil war and unraveled the Revolution. A large British army was still in New York, waiting for just such an upheaval.
A terrified Congress hastily authorized the money the soldiers demanded. But the publicity was disastrous to the Continental Army’s reputation. In New England, state legislatures refused to raise a dollar for the soldiers and issued scorching denunciations. Half pay for life was portrayed as an attempt to create a privileged class in America; commutation was equally reprehensible. One officer in Connecticut said his neighbors cursed him in the street and hoped he would die before he could collect his money. Before long, this wrath against the officers expanded to a dislike of the entire Continental Army. A Washington County, Virginia, official reported, “Some how there is a general disgust taken place for what bears the name of a regular.”
When General Washington urged Congress to create a peacetime regular army of 2,631 officers and men, the politicians ignored him. The dawn of peace saw the Continental Army dwindle to fifty-five men guarding artillery and ammunition at West Point and twenty-five performing similar duty at Fort Pitt in western Pennsylvania.
Into this vacuum rushed politicians such as Thomas Jefferson who argued that a regular army was a threat to American liberty. The answer to keeping order and defending the country was a “well regulated militia.” These men blithely ignored the militia’s atrocious performance throughout the Revolution. Jeffersonian Fourth of July orators revived the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, which was fought before the Continental Army was organized (and was actually an American defeat), as proof of the militia’s prowess.
In the 1790s the nation created by the Constitution of 1787 discovered it needed a regular army to protect western settlers against hostile Indians, armed and financed by the British in Canada. After two shocking defeats of tiny federal armies supported by militia (the regulars consisted of a single regiment), President George Washington put Major General Anthony Wayne in charge of 5,120 soldiers called the Legion of the United States. Wayne led them to a crucial victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. The Indians made peace, and the Midwest was safe for American settlers. This has prompted some historians to call Wayne “The Father of the U.S. Army.” But Mad Anthony died soon after his victory, and his ethos of hard training and decisive combat died with him.
Meanwhile Sylvanus Thayer was growing up on his family’s farm in Braintree, Massachusetts. His intelligence was recognized early; a New Hampshire school hired him as a teacher at the age of sixteen. People also noticed that he had an unusually strong interest in military history. In his later boyhood, he lived with an uncle in New Hampshire and worked in his grocery store. The place was the local hangout, and young Thayer listened with fascination to the reminiscences of Revolutionary War veterans.
From 1798 to 1800, when Thayer was in his teens, the United States fought the QuasiWar with France. Although most of the shooting was done at sea, Major General Alexander Hamilton organized a regular army of ten thousand men to counter a possible French invasion, resulting in a violent political attack by Jefferson and his followers.
Military events became even more absorbing in the next few years, when Napoleon Bonaparte emerged from the chaos of the French Revolution and launched a career of conquest in Europe. The Corsican genius was at the height of his power during Thayer’s four years at Dartmouth College. One of Thayer’s friends later recalled that young Sylvanus seemed to know by heart all the movements of Bonaparte and his armies.
Graduating from Dartmouth in 1807 at the top of his class, twenty-two-year-old Thayer declined to give the valedictory address. He was too shy. He had a choice of promising careers as a clergyman, doctor, or lawyer. Instead, he amazed his family and friends by enrolling in the new U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It was striking evidence of his fascination with a soldier’s life.
Thayer’s enthusiasm survived the deplorable conditions he encountered at the new school. President Jefferson had founded the academy in 1802. He largely saw the school as a way to alter the political composition of the federal army’s officer corps, which Hamilton had filled with conservative members of his Federalist Party. Simultaneously, Jefferson’s dislike of a regular army prompted him to neglect the school and ignore suggestions to move it to Washington. He preferred to keep it remote from the center of political power.
The school’s faculty numbered two. There was no curriculum worth mentioning except some haphazard lectures on mathematics and courses in French and drawing. Virtually admitting it had nothing to offer Thayer from an educational point of view, West Point commissioned him a lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers less than a year after he enrolled.
For the next four years, the military academy continued to deteriorate. In the words of the first superintendent, it was a “foundling barely existing among the mountains…almost unknown to its legitimate parents”—the federal government. When Thayer returned to the school as a teacher of mathematics in 1810, he watched in dismay as the number of cadets steadily dwindled. The Jeffersonians hated the place and had little interest in recruiting or appointing anyone. According to the academy’s charter, the Corps of Engineers was supposed to run the school. But the corps numbered only sixteen officers, and all of them were busy elsewhere, mapping the two thousand miles of America’s coastline and building forts.
The regular army deteriorated at a similar pace. Most of the higher-ranking officers were elderly veterans of the Revolution with little else to recommend them. Winfield Scott, who joined the army around this time, described them as “swaggerers, dependents, decayed gentlemen and others…totally unfit for any military purpose whatsoever.” This was the situation when the United States plunged into the War of 1812, putting Jeffersonian military ideas to an agonizing test.
Congress voted a huge increase in the regular army (to eighty-five thousand men) and called out a hundred thousand militiamen. But when the fighting began, the regulars numbered a mere 6,744 and there was no sign of a single militiaman. Worse, all the generals were Revolutionary War veterans averaging sixty years of age, without a man of talent among them. The result was a series of military disasters. Brigadier General William Hull surrendered Detroit to a besieging British army that was half the size of Hull’s twenty-five-hundred-man garrison. The militia, when they appeared, refused to serve outside the borders of their home states, making them virtually useless in a campaign aimed at conquering Canada. They elected their own officers, which made them almost impossible to discipline. The army’s supply services were equally inept. Men were left wearing summer uniforms as the first winds of the Canadian winter swirled around them.
Sylvanus Thayer watched in mute horror as army after American army stumbled to disgrace and defeat along the Canadian border against British regulars—and even Canadian militiamen—who were often outnumbered five to one. Promoted to captain, Thayer served as aide de camp to General Wade Hampton, another do-nothing Revolutionary veteran. Hampton’s army did not fire a shot while a British force captured Plattsburgh, New York, and burned it.
Thayer and other West Pointers with engineering know-how were ordered to defend the coastline against British raiding parties from their blockading fleet. Thayer built a fort on Craney Island, the key to the harbor of Norfolk, Virginia. On June 22, 1813, the British attacked his fort with seven hundred men in two columns. Thayer’s three-hundred-man garrison sent them stumbling back in bloody defeat.
But the Americans could do nothing fourteen months later to stop another British landing in Maryland, where the Redcoats routed a militia army of seven thousand fighting under the eyes, if not the command, of Jefferson’s successor, President James Madison. The enemy then marched unopposed to Washington, where they burned the White House, the Capitol, and other government buildings and marched back to their ships without another shot fired at them.
Paradoxically, the war ended with Major General Andrew Jackson’s triumph over an invading British army in New Orleans. The battle was fought two weeks after the British had signed a peace treaty with American negotiators in Paris. While the country celebrated this victory, thoughtful soldiers like Thayer were taking a long, hard look at the war. Jackson’s victory with his army of squirrel hunters and sharpshooters from Kentucky and Tennessee was a fluke. The Jeffersonian military system, with its emphasis on militia and barely trained volunteers, was obviously bankrupt. What should replace it? Thayer decided the answer was knowledge. The U.S. government must send officers abroad to study the latest weaponry and the organization of the professional armies of Europe.
Brevet Major Thayer wrote a letter to Brigadier General Joseph G. Swift, chief of the engineering corps, outlining this proposal, and hinted he would like to be among those chosen. Swift thought it was a fine idea. The government, in a fit of postwar parsimony, decreed that only two engineers would be selected. Swift picked Thayer and one of his closest friends, Colonel William McCree of the West Point class of 1805.
Thayer and McCree arrived in Paris only a few weeks after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. They spent more than a year in the city. It was an immensely broadening experience for the thirty-two-year-old Thayer. He was a frequent guest at the residence of the suave Swiss-born American ambassador, Albert Gallatin, where he met a cross section of European society. He became friendly with veteran soldiers such as General Simon Bernard, Napoleon’s former aide de camp and a gifted engineer. Another engineer, Claudius Crozet, told him electrifying stories about Waterloo. Brigadier General Winfield Scott, who had scored one of the War of 1812’s few triumphs leading regulars at Chippewa in 1814, was another frequent guest. He undoubtedly confided his own thoughts about the future—a trained regular army was the only way America could and should wage war.
Meanwhile, Thayer and McCree were ransacking Parisian bookstores for the latest thinking on military arts. They bought more than a thousand volumes for the West Point library. They made numerous visits to L’Ecole Polytechnique, where France’s military and civil engineers were trained, and the School of Application for Engineers and Artillery at Metz. They also noted what was happening in Prussia, where men were being taught to make the army a genuine profession by emphasizing strategy and national military policies.
Back in the United States, the military academy continued to deteriorate. The problem was the same one that had afflicted the army in the war of 1812: lack of leadership. General Swift simply did not have much time to give the school. He delegated the job to Captain Alden Partridge, who was unqualified to educate cadets or anyone else.
Partridge wore a uniform well; his hawk nose and haughty manner gave him a certain dignity. But he was a disastrous administrator, hotheaded and disorganized. He feuded with the academy’s small faculty and played favorites among the cadets, sometimes graduating his pets without even the shadow of an examination. Not surprisingly, “Old Pewter,” as he was called, was popular with the students. The faculty bombarded Washington with letters of protest, and federal officials began to think Partridge had to go. President James Monroe made the final decision, ordering Thayer to return from Europe and take command of West Point.
Thayer’s first months at the troubled school could not have seemed less propitious. Arriving in July 1817, he discovered that most of the 213 students on the rolls were on a seemingly permanent vacation. They were to return only when they received a direct order. Five of the most prominent members of the faculty were under house arrest, thanks to Captain Partridge’s ire about their letters of protest. Thayer, however, had no illusions about Partridge or the school. He knew it was a politicized football and Partridge was an adroit politician.
Thayer’s close friend Colonel McCree had been offered the job and replied with a polite no thank you. But in a letter to his sister, Thayer said he saw the order to take command as a “solemn duty” and he was “determined to perform it whatever the personal consequences to myself.” These words suggest that from the start Thayer saw the potential value of the military academy to the nation and was prepared to make personal sacrifices to realize it.
Captain Partridge did not take his dismissal well. The school had become a sort of personal, even a family enterprise for him. Various relatives held jobs on the post. Thayer soon learned the school lacked a regular course of study. Cadets could enter anytime Partridge felt like accepting them and could graduate in the same careless way. Partridge often interrupted regular classes to drill the students or teach them various subjects, implying that he knew the courses better than the professors.
A grimly determined Superintendent Thayer went to work. He asked George Graham, the acting secretary of war, to order all cadets to return to the academy by September 1. He told each professor to outline a course of study in his specialty. He decreed that no one would graduate or be promoted without passing a thorough examination. He outlined a school day that ran from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M. and assured the professors that their classes would never be interrupted.
Perhaps most important, Thayer divided each class into small sections, modeled on L’Ecole Polytechnique. The head of the department would teach the first section, which included the most gifted students. Assistants would teach the rest, who would move at a slower pace. In every class, cadets would be required to recite every day. This was a startling innovation. At other American colleges, professors lectured the entire class and progress—or lack of it—was largely invisible until final examinations.
As Thayer unveiled this system, Captain Partridge returned to the school and received a riotously enthusiastic greeting from the cadets. The ousted superintendent announced he was resuming command of the academy. Thayer wisely made no attempt to compete with Partridge by appealing to the cadets. He boarded a boat for New York to inform General Swift of the usurpation. Swift had defended Partridge against numerous critics in the past, but this time Old Pewter had overreached himself. One of Swift’s aides accompanied Thayer back to West Point and arrested Partridge. When he departed, cheering cadets and the academy band accompanied him to the dock. Thayer fired the officer in command of the band, but much damage had been done. New York newspapers ran lurid stories about a mutiny at West Point.
Thayer ignored the bad publicity and ordered a general examination. The results revealed that forty-three cadets, a fifth of the corps, were unqualified. Some of these laggards had been at the school for four years. Thayer permitted about half of them to enroll in the new first-year course. The rest he sent home, in spite of some of them having powerful political connections. Thayer was telling the cadets—and the rest of the country—that future officers in the U.S. Army would have to meet high standards.
Along with his system of small classes, Thayer required professors to report each week on every cadet they taught, noting anyone who seemed to be neglecting his studies. Too many negative reports could—and did—lead to dismissal. These reports, along with a cadet’s capacity as a soldier under orders to obey the school’s regulations, became the basis of a cadet’s standing in his class, which Thayer arranged to have published in the Army Register. He thought Americans could and should compete with each other.
Thayer was determined to create soldiers as well as scholars. The cadets became their own officers, at first on a rotating basis. Captain William C. Worth, one of the heroes of Chippewa, was named the school’s drillmaster. As Worth added drill assistants, Thayer decided some of them should live in the same barracks with the cadets to create a military atmosphere.
These “tacs” (tactical officers) served as disciplinarians, handing out demerits to cadets who broke the regulations. Worth, soon titled commandant of cadets, became the court of last resort to whom offending cadets could appeal. They were expected to answer all his questions truthfully. As Thayer explained to the new Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, he wanted the academy’s graduates to have a strong sense of honor, considering it as important in the ideal army officer as intellectual achievement.
Calhoun became a vital Thayer ally. The War of 1812 had left the war department with a $45 million debt. Congress vowed to reduce the regular army to the vanishing point. This made the military academy crucial in the secretary’s plan to rescue the regulars from oblivion. He reduced the number of enlisted men in each regiment but insisted on retaining roughly the same number of officers. In time of war, the army could be swiftly expanded without creating new regiments. Calhoun looked to West Point to make sure the army’s officers were of the highest possible quality.
This little-appreciated shift in policy marked the death knell of the Jeffersonian reliance on militia. It made Thayer’s mission at West Point even more important. By this time, Thayer had added other innovations to his system. Summer vacations were abolished; in July and August the cadets would live in tents and concentrate on learning to be soldiers. Knowing that many Jeffersonian politicians still regarded the school with hostility, he tried to improve the academy’s external image by creating an annual board of visitors composed of prominent men chosen by the president. They would report on the results of the final examinations and the school’s overall progress.
Cadet life was as Spartan as it was rigorous. The cadets slept on mattresses on the floors of their rooms. Heat came from small fireplaces that did little to moderate the winter winds whistling off the Hudson River. Often the cadets studied wrapped in blankets, their numb feet pressed against the fender around the fire. In the morning, they mustered on the plain (the school’s riverside drill field), even when it was covered with ice. Thayer wanted soldiers who could function without civilian creature comforts. Reminiscences of cadets from these early years prove the results produced men who were proud of the way they coped with hardships.
No cadet was permitted to receive money from home. They had to live on their $10 a month pay, from which the cost of uniforms, swords, blankets, and other items was deducted. This ended a Partridge custom of letting well-to-do cadets go to New York, where the affluent enjoyed themselves, often returning with horrendous hangovers and sometimes with venereal diseases. Thayer made sure the cadets had as little time for dissipation as possible. Their fifteen-hour days were filled with class work, study, drill, and policing their rooms, which were inspected by the tacs three times a day.
Superintendent Thayer was a constant presence. Each day, he supervised the morning parade and from 7 to 8 saw cadets in his office. Here he revealed an almost preternatural knowledge of each cadet. He knew exactly how much each man owed at the post store and the number of demerits he had accumulated. For a long time cadets were baffled by his seemingly phenomenal memory. The secret was in Thayer’s desk, which contained a series of deep pigeonholes. The essential information on each cadet was pasted upright in the pigeonholes, and Thayer only had to glance down to grasp the cadet’s standing.
Partridge called the cadets “my young friends.” Thayer avoided such sentimental phraseology. Cadets were all addressed as “Mister” and were expected to stand at attention while they were in his office. But he could and did unbend when he visited their rooms, sometimes with a VIP from Washington. Thayer introduced each cadet by name and often chatted with them for a few minutes. Cadets grew to appreciate the superintendent’s “kindly disposition towards us,” one graduate recalled.
Although most of them were still boys, Thayer always treated the cadets as gentlemen. Even when he refused a cadet’s request, his words were never abrupt or offensive. Perhaps his most outstanding characteristic was fairness. One graduate, who became a professor and served with Thayer on the school’s academic board, said he never saw him display evidence of “prejudice or partiality.” The only thing that mattered was the cadet’s carefully documented performance. Here was another ideal that Thayer hoped his graduates would absorb.
Beneath his stern New England personality, Thayer had a sense of humor and not a little warmth. When new cadets arrived in June, he interviewed each one personally. One day a greenhorn from Kentucky showed up at his door, after trudging up the steep hill from the Hudson. “I say, stranger,” the boy said. “Is this Mr. Colonel Thayer?”
“I am he,” the colonel said.
“Well, Mr. Thayer, that hill of yours is a hell of a breather. We ain’t got nothin’ like it in ole Kentuck.” Instead of giving the boy a lecture on how to address an officer, Thayer smiled and invited the young man to come inside for his interview.
In March 1820, a congressman offered a resolution to abolish West Point. He called it “this retreat for the pampered sons of the rich.” Thayer realized that the school’s remoteness was encouraging all sorts of bizarre rumors among the public. He decided to give the average citizen a look at the cadets. During summer they journeyed to Philadelphia and dazzled thousands of spectators with their precision marching and drilling. The following year they traveled to Boston for another performance, followed by stops in several smaller New England cities, climaxed by a day of drills and parades in New York and a reception at City Hall.
West Point’s reputation rose steadily as a result of these appearances, which meshed with glowing reports from the boards of visitors, and the impression Thayer’s early graduates made in the army. Before his arrival in 1817, many places at the academy remained unfilled. By 1823, applications had soared to over a thousand a year.
A good number of these applicants had superior gifts. Perhaps most important to the future of the school was a short, wiry Irish-American from Virginia, Dennis Hart Mahan, who arrived in 1820. He stood at the head of his class for four years and taught slower students as a cadet instructor. Thayer appointed him an assistant professor of mathematics the moment he graduated, and a father-son bond soon developed between the two men. Mahan would remain at West Point for the next forty years as a guardian of Thayer’s legacy. In class his emphasis on offensive warfare shaped the military thinking of generations of graduates.
Other arrivals had soldier written all over them from the moment they stepped onto the plain to shake Thayer’s hand. One was tall, remarkably self-assured Albert Sidney Johnston. Another Southerner with an air of command was Jefferson Davis. A born rebel, he never saw a rule he did not feel challenged to break. Court-martialed for drinking off the post at a tavern destined to be famous, run by Irishman Benny Havens, Davis was sentenced to be dismissed. But Thayer listened to a plea from his tactical officers who praised “Jeff’s” soldierly talents, and restored him to duty.
For Johnston, Thayer made an even larger exception. Johnston failed a math exam because he had neglected to prepare to answer two questions. He claimed he could answer every other question in the textbook and asked for an examination on the entire course. The tactical officers testified to Johnston’s soldierly gifts. Thayer approved the examination, and Johnston passed it with distinction and won his commission. In both cases Thayer acted not only as an educator but also as an officer whose goal was to create thinking soldiers for the U.S. Army.
Another graduate embodied the Thayer ideal soldier to an extraordinary degree—and never gave the superintendent a single worry: Robert E. Lee. In his four years at the academy, the dark-haired, strikingly handsome member of the class of 1829 never received a single demerit for misbehavior. Some cadets dubbed him “the marble model,” but that was as much a tribute to his superb physique as to his conduct. (Five other members of his class also graduated with no demerits.) In Lee’s final year, Thayer and Commandant Worth chose him for the coveted post of adjutant of the corps. The honor was given to the man who stood high in his studies and had the finest military bearing and the best record on the drill ground—in short the best-thinking soldier in the class.
One potential problem Thayer confronted in the mid-1820s was an outburst of religious fervor at West Point. At a school dedicated largely to the teaching of science, religion did not play a large part in the thinking of the average cadet. Thayer maintained a strict neutrality on the subject, but he did not interfere with the cadets’ often obvious indifference—and even hostility—to worship. He required them to attend chapel every Sunday but made no attempt to prevent them from sitting, arms folded, staring into space, or reading their textbooks during the sermons.
In 1825 the Reverend Charles Petit McIlvaine became chaplain. He was young and preached inspiring sermons. He also gave the quartermaster well-written books on the Christian religion that the cadets could borrow. Soon Cadet Leonidas Polk, one of the leaders of the class of 1827, came to the chaplain to confess his conversion. He was in mortal fear of the ridicule of his classmates. McIlvaine convinced him that he should declare himself. The following Sunday, after the sermon, Polk astonished the corps by kneeling—a first in West Point’s history. In the barracks, Polk admitted his conversion and replied skillfully to numerous critics and doubters. Soon other cadets were coming to see the chaplain, who began holding prayer meetings in his home. These were followed by the public baptisms of Cadets Polk and William B. Magruder.
What did Sylvanus Thayer think of this phenomenon? With obvious relief, Polk told his family that the superintendent was “very well disposed to religion.” Thayer gave Polk and other cadets permission to hold nightly prayer meetings in the barracks. He saw that religious cadets were more likely to observe the rules and work hard. But he knew that they would never be more than a minority. Another trend in the school, though, did concern him: The bad influence of certain cadet leaders—and the way they frequently escaped punishment.
The cadet corps had remained part of the engineering department, which gave the chief of engineers considerable authority over the school. If the chief was not entirely in sympathy with Thayer’s rigorous system, trouble was inevitable. The chief in the mid-1820s was Alexander McComb, a good soldier but also a wary politician. If Thayer expelled a cadet who had influence in Washington, McComb was more than likely to reinstate him.
Thayer’s problems were complicated by the spirit of defiance that pervaded American colleges during this period. Princeton, Harvard, and other schools experienced widespread rioting when the faculty tried to enforce discipline. This spirit of “Young America,” as the new generation styled it, was imitated at West Point. Liquor was smuggled into the barracks for drinking sprees. Benny Havens did a brisk business night after night. McComb was much too tolerant of cadets expelled for these excesses.
Thayer’s troubles multiplied when Andrew Jackson became president in 1828. Old Hickory was psychologically disposed to dislike West Point. Throughout his army career, he had scored his victories with relatively untrained volunteers who relied primarily on raw courage. Soon the new president was reinstating repeatedly misbehaving and even riotous cadets.
Ex-superintendent Alden Partridge, who had founded a rival military school in Vermont that he called the American Literary and Scientific and Military Academy, sensed an opportunity and unleashed a ferocious assault on the Thayer system in a book titled The Military Academy at West Point Unmasked: or Corruption and Military Despotism Exposed. Partridge ranted that West Point was creating a “military aristocracy” that was a menace to the future of the country. In Congress, a Tennessee politician named David Crockett took up a similar cry, and was soon calling for the academy’s abolition.
Jackson’s first secretary of war, Tennessean John H. Eaton, dismissed these critics. But when Eaton was forced to resign over a political problem unrelated to military matters, Lewis Cass of Michigan took his place and swiftly decided that a negative attitude toward the academy was likely to please the President. Soon cadets began to discern that they could get away with almost anything if they protested their dismissal with a plaintive letter to Cass or Jackson.
One cadet, Thomas W. Gibson, was court-martialed and expelled four times for major offenses and reinstated each time by Secretary Cass. Gibson capped his performance by trying to set the barracks on fire, after disabling all the nearby fire pumps. This time Cass let his expulsion stand.
More and more, Thayer began to perceive that an ugly personal feud was developing between him and the president. One night during Jackson’s 1832 reelection campaign, a New York cadet planted a hickory tree in the middle of the parade ground. People were doing this all over the country to testify to their support for Old Hickory, but Thayer was enraged by this intrusion of partisan politics. If there was one principle besides honor and duty that an American officer should live by, it was political neutrality. Thayer expelled the cadet. A month later he was back at the academy, reinstated by the president. He strutted around the post declaring “Old Thayer” could not stop him from doing whatever he pleased.
For Thayer the last straw was a cadet who was given demerits for serenading a lady on the post when he should have been in his room studying. The cadet protested this trivial punishment, and Cass upheld him. It was all too evident that the secretary and the president were prepared to interfere in every aspect of the academy’s life. Thayer decided the school he had created was in mortal danger. His solution was a twenty-seven-word letter to Secretary Cass: “I have the honor to tender my resignation as superintendent of the military academy and request that I may be relieved with as little delay as practicable.”
With those words, Thayer set a final example of what an American officer must be prepared to do. He put the future of West Point—and the U.S. Army it was helping to create—ahead of his ego, his pride, and his justifiable resentments. He didn’t call in ten reporters and attack Cass and Jackson. He didn’t write to the numerous influential supporters he had acquired from the boards of visitors, who usually could not find enough adjectives to praise what he had accomplished at the military academy. He simply resigned and let his act speak for itself.
The West Point faculty was distraught. The new commandant of cadets, Ethan Allen Hitchcock, announced he was resigning too. Thayer persuaded him to change his mind. The faculty passed resolutions expressing their regret and began collecting money for a portrait of Thayer. With tears in his eyes, Thayer thanked them but requested they destroy the resolutions and the list of subscribers for the portrait. Much as he appreciated the gestures, they were contrary to the spirit of military discipline he had struggled for so long to inculcate at the academy. He also feared the possible political consequences if they became known in Washington.
There was one more dramatic scene. At final examinations, the board of visitors was headed by Joel Poinsett, a South Carolina politician who was an ardent Jacksonian. After the graduating cadets had answered question after question from the professors with amazing proficiency, Poinsett remarked that he found it hard to believe that they had not known what to study beforehand. Poinsett later claimed he meant the remark as a compliment but Thayer heard it as another attack on the academy’s integrity— and he may well have been right.
That afternoon, Thayer summoned the graduating cadets and told them they would be required to answer questions covering the entire course of studies. It was, one of the graduates recalled, a “severe ordeal,” but Colonel Thayer told them their honor had been impugned, and they performed even more superbly than they had at the morning examination. The board, including the apologetic Poinsett, heaped praise on them. When the class graduated on July 1, every new lieutenant came to Thayer’s office to shake his hand and say goodbye. They all sensed they had participated in a kind of summation of this man’s hopes and expectations for U.S. Army officers faced with a challenge.
When a commanding officer left a post, it was common practice to give him a warm sendoff, including the “honors of music” from the post band. Thayer made it clear he wanted no ceremonies whatsoever. Several days after the graduates had departed and the annual summer camp had begun, Thayer strolled down to the dock in the twilight. A group of officers was there, waiting to see who might debark from the night steamboat for New York. Thayer chatted with them until the boat hooted its departure signal. The ex-superintendent held out his hand to the circle of officers: “Goodbye, gentlemen,” he said. He shook hands and strode up the gangplank, leaving West Point as unpretentiously as he had arrived, sixteen years before.
The new superintendent, Colonel Rene E. DeRussy, was a Jackson man, and he attempted to loosen the school’s discipline. He was soon shocked to find tactical officers resigning in disgust and several professors, notably Dennis Hart Mahan, thinking out loud about joining them. Meanwhile, the Military Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives had been investigating the criticism of the academy from Congressman Crockett, Partridge, and others. On May 17, the committee issued a report; it was a complete vindication of Thayer and his system. The investigators dismissed the talk of a military aristocracy in training, noting that no cadet had more than $4.50 a month to spend and each man had to keep his room in “a state of perfect cleanliness and order” without the help of servants or orderlies. The committee’s summary was particularly devastating to Thayer’s critics—and a strong witness to what Thayer had done not only for the military academy but also for the U.S. Army: “Our whole army now possesses far more of the public respect and confidence than it did not many years before. It is the great distinction of West Point that it has contributed largely and effectually to this elevation of the character of the military establishment.”
Several months later, President Jackson and Superintendent DeRussy were forced to eat their new policy in public. At evening parade, a presidential order was read to the cadets: “I had hoped that a lenient system of administration would be found sufficient for the government of the military academy, but I have been disappointed and it is now time to be more rigorous in enforcing its discipline.” The order closed with a warning that, henceforth, cadets should cease making “calculations” that they could escape the sentence of a court-martial for bad behavior.
In the following decade, Thayer’s “sons” vindicated his system in a more dramatic way: They played key leadership roles in the army that won the Mexican War. Of the 523 graduates who were in the ranks, 452 won promotions for gallant and meritorious conduct under fire. Among the most distinguished performers was Captain Robert E. Lee, who served as Winfield Scott’s chief of staff and made daring reconnaissances that helped win several battles. Scott declared that without the West Pointers his ten-thousand-man army even “multiplied by four” could never have captured Mexico City.
In spite of these vindications, Thayer never returned to West Point, staying in the army as an engineer. But he kept in close touch with the academy through his favorite “son,” Mahan. For many years, Mahan visited Thayer each summer and spent days discussing with him the latest developments in military art and science and possible changes in the academy’s curriculum. The school obviously remained first in Thayer’s mind and heart to the end of his long life.
When Thayer died in 1872 at the age of 87, his old friend Harvard professor George Ticknor summed up some salient features of his character that underscored his role in the creation of a superior officer corps. First Ticknor cited his “unhesitating obedience” to his superiors in rank. Second was his readiness to yield his own opinion to those with superior knowledge of a subject. Third was his “remarkable indifference to general public or popular opinion.” The only things that mattered to Sylvanus Thayer in the performance of his job were his country and his sense of honor. These ideals are still alive and well at the U.S. Military Academy—and in the officer corps of the U.S. Army.
Originally published in the Autumn 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.