West Point


About West Point

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A Short History of West Point

U.S. Army Garrison West Point's role in our nation's history dates back to the Revolutionary War when General George Washington considered West Point to be the most important strategic position in America.

West Point had many advantages for being selected as a site to build fortifications on the Hudson River. Vessels passing by West Point had to make a sharp, ninety-degree turn to the west, sail a quarter of a mile, then make another right-angle turn to the north as they continued upriver. These bends were sharper than any point along the Hudson, creating hazards for ships passing through. In addition to the turns in the river, the river was also very narrow, the tidal effects were the greatest, and the current was the swiftest at this location. The treacherous winds also created difficulties for ships trying to navigate through this section of the Hudson.

Construction of forts and batteries in the area of West Point began in the summer of 1775. However, the original location was not the site of the future military academy, but across the Hudson River on Constitution Island (then called Martelaer’s Rock). Problems immediately became apparent in the use of Constitution Island by the Continental Army. The area was vulnerable to attack by land and was dominated by higher ground on all sides, especially from West Point across the river. 

Other fortifications were built along the Hudson River including twin forts to the south of West Point at the confluence of Popolopen Creek and the Hudson River. Fort Montgomery was constructed on the north shore of Popolopen Creek, and Fort Clinton was located on the south shore. Many of these fortifications were destroyed by the British in October 1777.

Until January 1778, West Point was not occupied by the military. On January 27, 1778, Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons and his brigade crossed the ice on the Hudson River and climbed to the plain on West Point and from that day to the present, West Point has been occupied by the United States Army. To reinforce the defenses at West Point, Washington personally selected Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish Army General and Engineer, to design the fortifications for West Point in 1778. Washington himself transferred his headquarters to West Point in 1779.

Continental soldiers built forts, batteries and redoubts and fashioned an iron chain across the Hudson to prevent the British from separating the colonies. The chain, known as the Great Chain, was placed in the river on April 30, 1778, measured approximately 1,600 feet, and weighed between 180 and 186 tons.

At the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, the materials used to construct West Point were sold in an attempt to recoup some funds. Although West Point continued to be occupied, its importance as a strategic point along the Hudson River would not be a focus until 1794 when tensions between France and England began to rise in Europe.

Fortress West Point was never captured by the British, and remains the oldest continuously occupied military post in America.

Several soldiers and legislators, including Washington, Knox, Hamilton and John Adams, desiring to eliminate America's wartime reliance on foreign engineers and artillerists, urged the creation of an institution devoted to the arts and sciences of warfare. President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation establishing the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1802. He took this action after ensuring that those attending the Academy would be representative of a democratic society.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point first cadets were assigned to the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers (which later became the Corps of Engineers) at West Point in 1802. The cadets were instructed in practical experience in the use of artillery. Joseph Gardner Swift was the first graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and would later serve as the third Superintendent from 1812 to 1814.

West Point remained under the control of the Corps of Engineers until June 1866 when it was returned to the supervision of the Secretary of War.

Sylvanus Thayer, the "Father of the Military Academy," served as the fifth Superintendent from 1817 to 1833. He upgraded academic standards, instilled military discipline and emphasized honorable conduct. Aware of our young nation's need for engineers, Thayer made engineering the foundation of the curriculum. For the first half of the nineteenth century, USMA graduates were largely responsible for the construction of the bulk of the nation's infrastructure. In the late part of the nineteenth century, USMA graduates filled political, economic and cultural posts throughout America.

Today the U.S. Military Academy at West Point is over 4000 strong and continues to supply the U.S. Army with leaders of character. In concert with the increasing role of minorities and women in society, greater numbers of minorities and women have entered and graduated from the Military Academy. Their presence has enhanced the quality and maintained the traditional representativeness of the institution.

Academy graduates are awarded a Bachelor of Science degree and a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, serving a minimum of five years on active duty. The Academy, with its long and noble history, remains an energetic, vibrant institution that attracts some of the best and brightest young men and women. It offers a challenging and comprehensive array of opportunities while retaining its enduring commitment to Duty, Honor, Country.

As a major tourist destination since the mid-nineteenth century, West Point continues to attract over 5 million visitors annually.

 

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