West Point in the Making of America






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A School for the Nation

An uncertain mission, internal conflicts, and inadequate staff plagued the military academy’s first fifteen years. That all began to change with the appointment of Sylvanus Thayer (Class of 1808) as superintendent in 1817. Following the example of the famous French engineering and artillery schools that the army had sent him to study, Thayer made West Point America's national engineering school. West Point combined officer training with a highly technical undergraduate education. All cadets took the same classes; striking the right balance has remained a constant subject of discussion among the faculty.

Engineering itself became the army’s elite branch of service, the first choice by those who ranked highest in a graduating class. Lower-ranking cadets went to the cavalry, infantry, and other branches. West Point also became the nation's major source of civil engineers and of engineering educators. In the three decades before the Civil War, West Pointers as teachers, writers, and practitioners fostered science and engineering at Cornell, Harvard, Yale, and other colleges. They also helped staff the other service academies that later opened: the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, in 1845 and the U.S. Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colorado,
in 1959.


Sylvanus Thayer

Key Figures

Sylvanus Thayer
Sylvanus Thayer
Class of 1808

Dennis Hart Mahan
Dennis Hart Mahan
Class of 1824

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