Military Academy

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Editor: Stanley I. Kutler
Date: 2003
From: Dictionary of American History(Vol. 5. 3rd ed.)
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 572 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1280L

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MILITARY ACADEMY. During his presidency, George Washington pushed Congress to create a military academy for professional military training of promising youths. In 1794 Congress established a School for Artillerists and Engineers at West Point, New York, but it was a training school, not a professional one. The establishment of a true military academy did not occur until 1802, when President Thomas Jeffereson provided for a formal military academy at West Point. Jonathan Williams was the first superintendent (1801–1803, 1805–1812), followed by Joseph G. Swift (1812–1814) and Alden Partridge (1815–1817).

The academy initially languished for lack of congressional support. When the WAR OF 1812 began, the academy existed only on paper. Spurred to action, Congress passed an act on 29 April 1812 providing for a reorganization, a maximum of 250 cadets, and age and mental requirements for admission. Not until Major Sylvanus Thayer took over as superintendent on 28 July 1817 did the academy begin truly to fulfill the purposes envisioned by its founders. Thayer, known as the father of the military academy, was superintendent for sixteen years (1817– 1833). He expanded the curriculum, introduced a new system of order, organization, and discipline, and left a lasting mark on the academy.

The U.S. Military Academy was for many years the only engineering school in the country, and its graduates, working both as civil and military engineers, were largely responsible for planning and directing the building of major canals, roads, and railroads in the period before the CIVIL WAR. The MEXICAN-AMERICAN WAR meanwhile proved the value of West Point education in the training of army officers; academy graduates in the middle and lower officer ranks were largely responsible for the new professionalism demonstrated by the U.S. Army in Mexico. In the Civil War, West Point graduates dominated the higher positions on both sides, furnishing about 150 Confederate and 300 Union generals.

After the Civil War, with the rise of civilian engineering schools, the Military Academy lost its preeminent position in this field and, with appropriate curriculum changes, became an institution for training officers of all branches of the army. An act of Congress on 13 July 1866 transferred supervision from the Corps of Engineers to the War Department. From 1865 to 1914, most academy graduates pursued military careers, and in WORLD WAR IPage 375  |  Top of Article they nearly monopolized the higher ranks. During WORLD WAR II, graduates of the RESERVE OFFICERS' TRAINING CORPS (ROTC) claimed an increasing place in the sun, though 70 percent of full generals and 65 percent of all lieutenant generals were graduates of West Point.

After each of the world wars there were extensive curriculum changes to keep abreast of new developments in military art and technology. After World War II there was a progressive increase in the use of modern technology in the cadet's education. The academy introduced electives and fields of concentration. In 1975 the academy began admitting women, who by the 1990s made up more than 10 percent of the school's cadets. Enrollment has grown progressively from 10 students in 1802 and 250 in 1812 to 1,960 in 1935, 2,496 in 1942, and 4,417 in 1975. In the 1990s, enrollment was capped at roughly 4,000, but the military academy has seen a growing number of applicants interested in the discipline of army training. The United States Military Academy will celebrate its bicentennial in 2002.


Ambrose, Stephen E. Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966.

Ellis, Joseph J. School for Soldiers: West Point and the Profession of Arms. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Franke, Volker. Preparing for Peace: Military Identity, Value Orientations, and Professional Military Education. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 1999.

Ruggero, Ed. Duty First: West Point and the Making of American Leaders. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3401802655