Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 64/November 1903/The New West Point

THE NEW WEST POINT.
By WILLIAM J. ROE,

NEW YORK.

TN the year 1802, by act of Congress, the United States Military Academy was established at West Point on the Hudson River. The experience of Washington during the war of the revolution with the militia of the several states and with raw volunteers was convincing as to the necessity for a permanent military establishment, and especially for the creation of a considerable body of officers sedulously trained in the art of war. The sentiments of the people then, and for many years after, were not favorable to the formation of a standing army, and it was not until the many and serious reverses of the land forces in the 'war of 1812' that any progress was made at West Point in the way of educating officers for their country's service. In the year 1817,—James Monroe being president and George Graham of Virginia secretary of war, Sylvanus Thayer, of Massachusetts, became superintendent of the academy, and at once began a system of instruction and discipline so complete and admirable as to have been maintained in almost the minutest detail to the present day. General Thayer remained at the head of the academy until 1833.

During the period between the close of the war with Great Britain and 1846, the sole opportunity for the graduates of West Point to prove their value was upon the frontier as it then was, the Rocky Mountains and the 'Plains' in contest with hostile Indians. In this sort of warfare there was more room for the display of the forester's and trapper's craft and experience than for the exercise of tactics or 'grand-strategy,' and the consequence was that again the people grew impatient with the appropriations for the academy's maintenance. By this time a numerous body of officers had been graduated, and the idea of a thousand or more men with a life tenure of office and something akin to 'special privilege' and European exclusiveness did not find favor with either 'democrats' or 'republicans.' About this time it was in fact seriously contemplated to abolish the academy altogether. It is more than probable that this would have been done by congress, if at this juncture the Mexican war had not suddenly burst upon the country. We have, it must be confessed, but little to be proud of as to the origin of this war, or to the aggressive and not wholly unscrupulous terms that were finally forced upon Mexico; but the war accomplished at least one good result by demonstrating the merit and necessity of trained leaders. With a little army of only a few thousands, officered almost wholly by West Point graduates, Winfield Scott marched from the Gulf to the Valley of the City of Mexico, gaining victory after victory, to finally dictate the terms of peace from 'the Halls of Montezuma.'

The change of sentiment among the people as to 'graduated cadets' was instantaneous, and from that day no thought has found expression adverse to the interests of educating and maintaining a considerable body of competent officers.

The reasons for the people's change of sentiment are not to be found alone in the proved ability of West Point men in campaigning, or in any superior valor in action. Others than graduates have shown great skill in strategy, and the volunteer has always been easily his

PSM V64 D037 The first west point academy.png

The First Academy.

equal in courage and endurance, with perhaps that moral advantage of not being a 'hireling soldier.' It is that through now a full century the record of the graduates of West Point has been spread before the country, and has been found to be on the average so exceedingly high as to be a matter not only of congratulation, but astonishment. There are West Point men who have gone badly astray; some have been promptly cashiered out of the service; others have fled with ill gotten spoils beyond a 'process,' and others yet have had short shrift in a penitentiary. There are such, but they are marvelously few. Not only in the army, but in civil life, the standard of honor and of integrity has been and is marvelously high.

This has come, not that among the four thousand graduates the same blood does not run and the same influences work for good or ill as among a similar number of others; if they are on the average more high-minded, more duteous in every department of life, it is that the penalty for departure from the straight and narrow path is so extremely swift and terrible. What is true in this respect in the army and in business affairs is true perhaps to a greater extent in the academy itself, and there indeed it is that the foundations of probity in after life are laid. For four long years—with one brief furlough the third year—the West Point cadet seldom if ever leaves the academy at all; collegians have long vacations; the cadet has none; youths in training for business may spend much time with their families; the student at West Point has no such opportunities. Again it is not with him as with others in trade or at most educational institutions, that he is 'under masters.' There are professors and instructors, a commandant and 'tactical officers,' but as to discipline and all matters of moral obligation, the corps of cadets governs itself. From the cadet adjutant and captains to the corporals, and even men-in-the ranks 'on duty,' each cadet is bound by the strongest of obligations to report violations of regulations. That which would have been called in the large school which I attended in early youth 'telling tales,' is here not only permissible, but an essential part of the academic discipline. Instruction in science, tutelage in the war-course; these go hand in hand; but far more efficient for real and vital education is the constant presence of the spirit of self-training and self-conquest in the molding of true character.

Other institutions outrank the military academy in perhaps all branches of strictly scientific education; some of the refinements of high culture are neglected, and literary excellence is ignored; but as a school of the art of living it is incomparable, as a school of the science of character it is unique.

At the close of the war between the states our regular army was left in a somewhat disorganized condition. In the process of reorganization and increase, there came into the service a very considerable number of commissioned officers who had earned a sort of right to retention in the new army by reason of exceptionally good service as volunteeers. Many of these new appointments had been high in rank—some even generals—who now were content to act as mere file-closers. Some of these were political appointments, and the most inefficient were in due time weeded out; but by far the majority were men of long experience in the field, well worthy of their commissions.

At the time of the breaking out of the Spanish war it was these men, appointments either from the army or from civil life, who by the natural process of seniority had arrived at the highest rank, and it was chiefly upon them that the responsibility rested of commanding troops in the ensuing campaigns. The record of these men is so open and so recent that it appears unnecessary to particularize. They made many mistakes, but on the whole their actions were marked with singular skill, and the results that they achieved were remarkably successful.

Such having been the case, it would not perhaps have been unnatural if the veterans of the civil war had been rather disposed to magnify their own opportunities, even possibly to the extent of discrediting the advantages of West Point training. This, however, has not been the case; the most successful of leaders who had come up 'from the ranks' have united in deploring for themselves the lack of certain elements, hardly to be described and to be gained only in early youth, and to advocate most strenuously the training that the academy affords.

This influence, which has been quite unanimous, combined with the popular feeling consequent upon our sudden rise as a 'world-power,' has determined congress to increase largely the capacity of West Point, and to remodel wholly the material of the institution. For this purpose

PSM V64 D039 The west point chapel.png

The Chapel.

the sum of five million dollars has been appropriated, and, after a competition between ten prominent firms of architects, the award of excellence in general design has been made to Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson, of Boston.

The work of remodeling the academy is necessarily tri-fold: it naturally resolves itself into the architectural, the pictorial, and, inevitably, the practical. At present the buildings of the academy, constructed as they have been at various periods and by authority of men of various degrees of artistic feeling, are more or less ill-assorted and incongruous; several are fine examples of architecture; the cadet barracks highly appropriate in treatment, and the cadet mess-hall exquisitely designed. But—not to be invidious—at least, there are 'others.' The Cullum Memorial building is quite worthy in its way and standing alone; but its Polonian fairness serves only to 'swear at' the grim granite, buttressed and embattled, across the plain. By the side of the Memorial (as if it had laid an egg) is the officers' mess—that also not bad architecturally, but a little, just a little, one feels, out of keeping. The hotel, of course, is a bad blot on the landscape, and some other matters need remedying. Let us be patient as well as brutally frank—they are all going to be remedied if the government will permit the architects to 'build up the system.'

To mere panaceas for the accident of incongruity; touches here and there modifying or obscuring or obliterating something hideous or something merely obtrusive, saving sacredly all that can or ought to be saved out of the chaos; never replacing anything really beautiful by something even more beautiful even to propitiate uniformity, and above all guarding jealously the spirit of old associations, always at 'arms-port' to cry, 'Who comes there?' to him—even to a friend, without the academy or within, who can not give the countersign, 'Propriety,' or seeks to substitute 'Utility.'

What a superb foundation these artist souls may build upon! A level square mile, terre-plein whose barbette views throw glances riverward many miles north and south, a steep scarp of primeval rock plunging down sheer to the glacis of water below; outlying works of precipitous hills, piled terrace upon terrace to the highest peak crowned with the gray vestiges of Fort Tufus Putnam.

jot alone the traditions of the military academy invite the artisan and the architect to his best efforts, but here are older historic associations yet ta stimulate also the poet. To the planning of such work as is here contemplated some measure of fine frenzy must mingle with the dull prosaic details of necessity or expediency.

The general plans and such details as have been elaborated show conclusively how grand the scope of alteration, how admirably existing conditions are to be utilized, and the natural features are to l)e availed of. In its material phases West Point may»be easily separated into three distinct periods: that of the early academy, of the old north and south barracks—of the academy as it was when Edgar Allan Poe was a cadet, where Whistler stood higher in drawing than in chemistry, and where Grant and Lee, Sherman and Longstreet got their education. Then came the time of the present barracks, Elizabethan, stately, well appointed. It was erected in 1851. The old academic building was built in 1838, and was replaced by the present modern structure in or about 1890, The third period is that about to be inaugurated.

In the construction of the New West Point the present academic building will be retained; the site of the old chapel being utilized for additional academic accommodations; the new chapel—decidedly the most ornate and conspicuous of the new buildings—lifted upon a spur of the hills overlooking the plain. The barracks also will be kept, with material additions and changes needed for the housing of the increased number of cadets. To the north of the Cullum Memorial and balancing the officers' mess-hall will be located a building for use as bachelors' quarters, of the same Georgian style of architecture.

The enmity of styles, as far as possible, will be propitiated, one blending with the other, without actually mingling, masses of foliage serving to keep a measure of peace between them. Where the hotel now stands it is proposed to erect the quarters of the superintendent, the present battle monument duplicated on the right of what may be termed the major axis of the scenic system. The avenue now existing vistas upon the center of academic life, while other avenues will be made to radiate from here, across the plain, sweeping down the hillside.

The approach to the academy will probably be completely altered; the landing either from railway or boats being made not only commodious but imposing. Access to the high level will be as now by means of a gently winding ramp, while a large passenger elevator will conduct to a public square, to the restaurant and hotel; these being located where they vsdll be apart from the real activities of either academic or military life, and yet conducing more readily to the convenience and comfort of visitors. From the south, the post will be approached through elaborate arched gateways, with appropriate towers, the strongest emphasis being placed upon this prime avenue, while between the two sections of the academy will be a monumental arch, to be adorned with statues and memorials.

As seen from the river the riding-hall, greatly enlarged, will be the most imposing of structures, rising as it will from the perpendicular crags, growing out of them and seeming a part of them, buttressed on front and flank and crowned with a line of battlements. Above will rise the fine elevation of the post headquarters, which will form also a striking background from the southern approach.

The dominant style of the construction will be the Gothic, not American architecture as it has grown pliant and flexible from the studiously archeological, but suggestive of the ascendant impulses of formality of former British models. The material will be generally stone, treated with greater or less elaboration, according to the value pictorially of the buildings, due harmony being preserved or achieved by judicious alterations in effect. Several of the minor structures will be of red brick in Flemish bond, trimmed with stone.

Perhaps the most difficult problem was that of the judicious enlargement of the cadet barracks, to accommodate double or more the number of cadets for which the present barracks was built. The difficulty was the greater because of the limited space apparently at command. The steep hill on the south seemed an obstacle to additions in that direction, while the gymnasium on the west occupied ground that could otherwise have been used. Previous to the submission of the work to competition, there was a studied examination of the entire subject of enlargement by a board of officers detailed for the purpose, and one of the professors at the academy—Professor Larned of the department of drawing-—made a special study and comprehensive report.

PSM V64 D042 Riding hall and post headquarters of west point.png

Riding Hall and Post Headquarters.

Among the officers there was developed considerable difference of opinion and these divergent views have been set forth in a majority and minority report. The enlargement of barracks was a point upon which the difference of views was especially pronounced; in effect the problem that the architects were called upon to solve was, or seemed to be, solely to decide whether the barrack buildings should be extended on a line parallel to the west side of the plain, or whether a closed quadrangle should be formed by a series of so-called divisions south of the present sally-port and upon the line now that of the southerly side of the 'area-of-barracks.'

The successful architects, adopting neither of these suggestions, have happily (at least so it seems to an old graduate) hit upon an expedient by which all the advantage of expansion is gained, and without loss—even much gain in the way of structural effect. Practically the present barrack building is left intact, a few simple exterior changes excepted, the advantage of a spacious quadrangle is retained, while sufficient dormitories, light, airy and well swept by prevailing breezes, are provided. Instead of the present inadequate lodging an administration building is planned, not only serviceable but calculated to increase greatly the effect of unity with variety.

In the comprehensive system thus designed, the requirements of the future have not been unheeded. The probabilities of still greater

PSM V64 D042 Riding hall and post headquarters of west point.png

South Gates.

expansion than any now contemplated sedulously and with rare judgment have been pointed out. By the removal of the gymnasium to another suitable locality, the barracks could be prolonged to the westward, furnishing quarters for nearly three hundred more cadets in addition to the present large increase in the corps; the natural amphitheater at the foot of the hill back of the line of professors' quarters on the plain suggests the erection of a stadium for athletics—baseball, cricket, football and the like. The natural slope could there easily be so managed as to give seating for six thousand spectators. The removal of the cavalry and artillery ground to the southerly end of the reservation was recommended by the officers' board, and this feature will be incorporated in the design.

It is not to disparage the earnest efforts of preceding administrations of either the academy or the war department to say that heretofore little has been done in the way of symmetry of proportion or in fact of even enlightened systematic utility. Such flagrant solecisms of economy as that the post quartermaster's offices, the post office and the meat market should be huddled together in the same vicinity, will now be completely remedied. Hitherto appropriations have been too limited in amount and too rigidly doled out in detail by civilian 'watch dogs' of trivial parsimonies. Now at last the way seems tolerably clear by which the several functions of the post shall be grouped in order of the importance: first, that which is military, afterwards, and adjoining, that which is scholarly, and then, separate and apart, all other and subsidiary functions—supplying and purveying of goods, reception and entertaining of guests; all will be no longer scattered or occupying the most eligible positions, but grouped together and in exactly their right locality.

The plans as already outlined are in scope and arrangement as nearly perfect as practical ingenuity could devise. It is greatly to be hoped that in carrying out so thorough a reformation, they who are charged with the duty may remain unhampered by an authority supreme in the state, but which has in manifold instances in the past proved its woeful incapacity to deal with technical needs or more deplorably yet, with the demands of art. The mistake at Annapolis will probably not be here repeated; but the New West Point will be made to burgeon out of the old; the revolutionary relics retained with all their hallowed associations unimpaired, and the sacred traditions of the academy held inviolate.

PSM V64 D044 The new west point.png