Tuesday, July 3, 2012

On July fourth…

July 4 is a significant date in United States history that commemorates our independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain –a worthy cause for celebration, of course– but many other notable events have also taken place on this day. The acquisition of Louisiana Purchase was announced, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was first published, the NASA probe Pathfinder landed on Mars, and in 1802, the United States Military Academy first opened in West Point, New York. 

A room inspection in 1870

During the Revolutionary War, the forts at West Point were considered the most strategically important in the colonies for two reasons- the natural advantage of high ground, and also its position in relation to the narrow “S” bend in the Hudson River that forced ships to move slowly. From this superior vantage point, the Continental Army would be able to spot incoming British ships, slow their progress, and prevent the attempt to seize the area and thus divide the colonies. Despite Benedict Arnold’s infamous attempt to turn the post over to the British, West Point has remained the longest occupied post in US history. On March 16, 1802, Thomas Jefferson signed legislation to establish a military academy at West Point.

An exercise class from 1902
Although first founded on May 16, 1802, the first academic term began that year on July 4. Surprisingly, the school produced less than 100 graduates in the first ten years it was open. In 1812, the academy made substantial adjustments regarding admission and curriculum due to the impending war with England, and still more changes in 1817 when alumnus (then Major) Sylvanus Thayer became superintendent. By this time, focus on the refinement of “academic, military, and physical domains” had become standard.

A signaling class in 1951
Many notable generals and soldiers are alumni of “West Point,” including Stonewall Jackson, William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert E. Lee, George Armstrong Custer, Douglas MacArthur, George S. Patton, Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and more recently, CIA Director David H. Petraeus.

The State Library has a wide variety of literature about the United States Military Academy, including detailed histories, depictions of cadet life in the 19th century, and even a book on the history of academy dress and uniform. If you are more interested in general military history, we also have a generous assortment of materials relating to the United States Calvary, United States infantry, and a large collection of books about the United States Navy. To see these materials and more, visit the State Library from 9-5, Monday through Friday… but not on the Fourth of July, as the library will be closed for the observance of Independence Day.

Bianca Hezekiah
Program Coordinator, Reference Department