West Point in the Making of America






<i>View of West Point from Garrison, New York</i>

View of West Point from Garrison, New York

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Introduction: The United States Military Academy at West Point

“A Peace Establishment for the United States of America may in my opinion . . . [include] Academies, one or more for the Instruction of the Art Military; particularly those Branches of it which respect Engineering and Artillery, which are highly essential, and the knowledge of which is most difficult to obtain.”
  —George Washington, “Sentiments on a Peace Establishment,” May 1783

George Washington first proposed a military academy in 1783, but critics opposed this relatively new idea of a special school to train army officers as too European. They deemed it incompatible with democratic institutions, fearing the creation of a military aristocracy. Finally, two decades after Washington’s first proposal, on 16 March 1802, the United States Military Academy officially opened. It stood on a commanding bluff overlooking the Hudson River at West Point, New York, 50 miles north of Manhattan.

West Point became an important American institution in the years before the Civil War, establishing itself as the country’s finest school of engineering and science. Its graduates held key roles in virtually every aspect of American life. They also began to distinguish themselves as junior officers, many later rising to command armies on both sides of the Civil War. But the academy’s reputation suffered because so many graduates joined the Confederacy. It had also become only one among many other fine engineering schools.

During the later years of the 19th century, West Point focused on a more narrowly military curriculum and its graduates formed the heart of the army’s officer corps. When the United States entered World War I, West Pointers had charge of almost every major staff bureau and field command. Army and nation combined to make the United States a world power.


A School for the Nation

Did You Know?

Did you know that the traditional West Point gray cadet uniform, still in use today, was patterned after uniforms worn during the War of 1812?

Smithsonian National Museum of American History

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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