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Sylvanus Thayer

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Sylvanus Thayer (1785–1872)
CLASS OF 1808

“It is important our officers should gain a knowledge of the European Military Establishments, their fortifications, Mil’y Schools & Military Work Shops; to those objects I presume the enquiries of . . . Capt. Thayer would be diverted, & also to the collection of rare books, maps, plans and instruments for the Military Academy.”
    —Brig. Gen. Joseph G. Swift (Class of 1802) to Secretary of War James Monroe, April 1815

Thayer had already graduated from Dartmouth College before attending West Point. Commissioned in the Corps of Engineers, he worked on coastal fortifications in New York and New England. He served as a staff officer in the War of 1812, rising from second lieutenant to major.

After the war, Thayer embarked on a two-year inspection tour of European military schools and installations, returning in 1817 to become superintendent at West Point. The educational and administrative reforms he initiated during his sixteen-year tenure created a preeminent school of engineering, making him remembered ever after as “the father of the Military Academy.”

Thayer resigned as superintendent in 1833 but remained an army engineer, working on harbor improvements in New England. He retired in 1863 with the rank of brigadier general. In 1867 the lifelong bachelor endowed the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College and designed the new school’s curriculum.


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Dennis Hart Mahan




Key Figures






Sylvanus Thayer
Sylvanus Thayer
1785–1872
Class of 1808



Dennis Hart Mahan
Dennis Hart Mahan
1802–1871
Class of 1824





Smithsonian National Museum of American History

West Point in History Introduction 1802–1860 1861–1870 1866–1914 1914–1918 Epilogue Introduction 1802–1860 1861–1870 1866–1914 1914–1918 Epilogue A School for the Nation West Point after the Civil War