An act of Congress of 16 March 1802, signed by President Thomas Jefferson, formally established the Military Academy at West Point, New York, on the site of a strategic Revolutionary War fortress. The academy was begun in part as a result of desires expressed by George Washington, among others, to train Americans in the technical arts of war (artillery and engineering). It was also established to enhance scientific education in the nation and to diversify the nation's military leadership. In 1843 Congress formally ensured a national representation for U.S. military leadership when it specified that the academy's cadets would be selected from each congressional district as well as from the territories and the nation at large.
In 1817, after years of governmental neglect and institutional disarray, Sylvanus Thayer was named commanding officer, or superintendent, at West Point. For the next sixteen years he improved administrative and organizational efficiency and established the foundation for future institutional success. He formalized a prescribed four-year curriculum grounded in mathematics, science, and engineering, and utilized some of the more advanced pedagogical thinking of his day. He continued the practice of daily recitations in small classes, provided instruction in all courses at various levels based on the abilities of cadets, and directed that each cadet pass every course in order to graduate. He improved military instruction, tightened discipline, and emphasized earlier efforts to instill ethical conduct and integrity in cadets. That emphasis continued throughout the academy's subsequent history. Thayer is recognized as the father of the Military Academy because the academy is based on the foundations and traditions he established.
To accomplish his academic goals Thayer gathered an impressive faculty, often graduates of the Military Academy, who offered a superb education in mathematics, physical sciences, and engineering. Their efforts established the academy as the first, and for several decades the premier, engineering school in the nation. Faculty members Charles Davies in mathematics, William H. C. Bartlett in engineering, mechanics, and physics, and Dennis Hart Mahan in engineering and military science provided cadets with scientific and technical skills rarely taught elsewhere in the new nation. The faculty's scholarship was widely used in courses at other colleges, and the academy's graduates helped establish technical departments at many leading universities. In addition, Mahan's writings had a major impact on the tactics used by military leaders on both sides in the Civil War.
Due to limited promotion opportunities in the nation's small peacetime army, graduates in the first half of the nineteenth century provided their greatest service through civilian contributions to the nation. Thayer's prescribed scientific and technical education, largely unprecedented among America's early colleges, enabled academy graduates to make important contributions in the design and construction of the nation's expanding railroad lines, harbors, bridges, and roads.
Although graduates served in the War of 1812 and the Seminole Wars, and with great distinction in the Mexican War, it was not until the Civil War that the Military Academy had a profound impact on America's military history. The "band of brothers" who were trained and educated in West Point's demanding environment fought side by side, or in opposition, on the battlefields of the Civil War. During that conflict academy graduates quickly rose to senior leadership positions and contributed more than four hundred generals to lead the armies of the North and South. Academy graduates Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Philip Sheridan became some of the most honored heroes in the North, as did Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson in the South. Although the Military Academy has a congressionally mandated geographical diversity, and a degree of social diversity, it was not until after the end of the Civil War, in the 1870s, that the first African Americans entered the academy. During the final decades of the century, prior to the reinstitution of social segregation, a handful of African Americans attended the academy and three graduated.
Encouraged by the success of its graduates in the Civil War, the academy saw little reason to expand its curriculum beyond a focus on engineering and military science. The most notable advance after the war was in the area of physical education. Under the guidance of Herman J. Koehler, later called the Father of Army Physical Education, the academy began an extensive exercise program to supplement fencing and horsemanship. By the turn of the century, the institution that had begun as the nation's premier engineering school and had provided officers of superior talent in wartime was also training cadets to meet the physical demands of war.
Near the end of its first century, the academy selected the motto "Duty, Honor, Country," a phrase that formalized Thayer's ideals. An emphasis on character development instilled in a rigorous military environment and enhanced by a demanding academic, military, and physical program enabled academy graduates to provide both military and civilian service to the nation throughout the nineteenth century.