The Corps: The United States Military Academy Turns 200 This Year. West Point Has Grown with the Nation-And, More Than Once, Saved It

By Smith, Eugene R. | American Heritage, October 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Corps: The United States Military Academy Turns 200 This Year. West Point Has Grown with the Nation-And, More Than Once, Saved It


Smith, Eugene R., American Heritage


BATTALION AND REGIMENTAL leaders unsheath sabers for the issuance of shouted orders, and as drum and bugle corps thump and shrill, a great mass, 4,000 strong, moves into its mess hall of thick overhead beams below vaulting ceiling heights and the size-of-a-house painting of history's grouped-together Great Captains: Richard the Lion-Hearted on his charger, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Alexander, Grant, the rest. Plebes, who in other higher-education locales are termed freshmen, report to table commandants that duties have been performed: Water is in the glasses, milk containers properly available, foil on condiment jars stripped off, platters ready for passing.

"Eat."

The Corps of Cadets of the United States Military Academy at West Point sets to. This is luncheon. Breakfast's imminence was hours earlier communicated by plebes announcing in every barracks hallway that the time was five minutes past six in the morning and the menu was as follows and such was the uniform of the day.

While breakfast and luncheon appearances are mandatory for all cadets, dinner (save on Thursday nights, when the entire Corps gathers for important announcements) is optional. That this is so has been received in recent years with great disapproval by a group known, but certainly not to their faces, as Docs. That stands for Disgruntled Old Grads. More than 9 out of 10 USMA graduates over the years have belonged to the Association of Graduates, a figure undreamed of by other institutions of higher learning (do you belong to your alma mater's alumni group?), and some are DOGS who regard permission for cadets to go off post for meals as a grave mistake. Why, the Academy was no less than 83 years old before the student body ever left the grounds en masse, and that was a one-time occasion that saw USMA '86's 1st captain of the Corps of Cadets John J. Pershing leading it across the Hudson River to stand at attention along the tracks when the funeral train of Ulysses S. Grant, USMA '43, passed by.

Not only can they eat out, but they can take a drink with the meal too. By contrast, when Cadet Jefferson Davis, '28, was caught having a sip at the famed Buttermilk Falls tavern run by Benny Havens, he was dismissed from the Academy for permitting liquor to pass his lips after the authorities had rejected his defense that all he'd had was malt beer, which he did not take to be liquor. (Even then he was a strict constructionist.) An appeal to his congressman resulted in his reinstatement. Reinstatements were quite common in the old days.

Such indulgences, say the DOGS, go against the whole point of the Academy, which was, wrote Morris Schaff, '62, to prepare those who went there to meet the high test of the soldier and the gentleman and to imbue such with the air of an officer. The eating out and drinking, say the old grads, can be ranked with the fact that cadets no longer stand in front of the blackboard with pointer in left hand (in the past, holding it in the right meant a demerit, a gig, with a posting on the daily "skin list") and, eschewing the former obligatory "Sir, I am required to discuss ...," instead lounge in their chairs when called upon by professors, who often address them not as mister but by their first names. (Anyway, "mister" would be inappropriate for 16 percent of the student body. Moreover, the Academy head of physical education, the Master of the Sword, is, while a colonel, a she-colonel.)

The old grads talk about tradition. It all begins with President Thomas Jefferson's requesting Congress to authorize the establishment of a school to produce Army officers. He made his recommendation with many reservations. The creation of such a school had come up for discussion at a 1793 Cabinet meeting, when Jefferson was Secretary of State under George Washington, and he had vigorously opposed it then. The last thing the fledgling United States needed was a government-produced military caste at the head of standing armies aping those of despotic European autocracies.

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