New York: West Point

West Point was the site of an important fort controlling passage on the Hudson River. It was this fort that General Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) attempted to betray to England during the Revolutionary War. Since 1802, it has been the site of the United States Military Academy, the professional school for prospective Army officers. West Point is the oldest continuously occupied military post in America.

Site Office

United States Military Academy

Visitors Center

West Point, NY

ph.: (914) 938-2638

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West Point’s importance in American history lies in its role in the American Revolution; its continuing importance is rooted in its identity as the site of the United States Military Academy, whose function is to train the professional officer corps which has led the Army during U.S. wars. Most of the great military leaders of the country have been West Point graduates. Some of the most notable are Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, John J. Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Norman J. Schwarzkopf.

Revolutionary Heritage

About fifty miles north of New York City the Hudson River runs through a region of high mountains and steep cliffs called “the Hudson Highlands.” The river narrows and makes an S-curve, which is commanded by the present site of West Point. The navigable width of the Hudson at this point is approximately one-quarter mile.

At the beginning of the Revolutionary War both sides recognized the importance of the Hudson River Valley system. For the British, military success hinged on control of the Hudson Valley. If they could seize and hold the waterway, by taking or destroying the forts which guarded it, New England would be cut off from the middle and southern colonies, which contained two-thirds of the population and most of the food and wealth. The British would be able to move troops down from Canada to dominate New York and New England, and could then use their fleet to control southern towns and cities, most of which lay on navigable rivers. If the colonists could control the Hudson, they might be able to defeat this British strategy.

In May of 1775, at the urging of General George Washington and Colonel Benedict Arnold, the Continental Congress deputed two New Yorkers–Christopher Tappen and Colonel James Clinton–to “go to the Highlands and view the banks of Hudson River there, and report to this Congress the most proper place for erecting one or more fortifications . . . .” Tappen and Clinton determined that West Point was the best site for the major fort. Here the river was narrow and its currents and tides difficult to navigate. Guns placed at the Point and on Marter’s Rock (now known as Constitution Island) on the east bank of the river would command the entire navigable channel. Moreover, Tappen conceived a scheme to place a chain or boom across the river at this point to impede vessels attempting to pass. Construction began in the fall of 1775; by 1778 the fort was garrisoned and essentially in full operation. Guns were sited on both sides of the river, and the boom suggested by Tappen closed the river to shipping except when opened by the garrison. Although under continuous occupation by troops, West Point did not formally become U.S. government property until 1790, when Congress appropriated money for its purchase.

Benedict Arnold’s Treachery

Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1741, the son of a merchant. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War he volunteered for service. He was with Ethan Allen in the successful attack on British-held Fort Ticonderoga. He went on to serve the Patriot cause as a commander of distinction and brilliance in the attack on Quebec, in the defeat of a superior British flotilla near Valcour Island, New York, and in the great American victory at Saratoga, where he was in command of the advance guard. He was twice seriously wounded. However, Arnold became disaffected. He believed that his accomplishments had been inadequately rewarded and that he had been unfairly denied promotion. Moreover, he was accused of misappropriating government property and had to face a court-martial. Although acquitted, he felt that his exoneration was grudging and incomplete.

In May of 1779, a month after his marriage to Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a Loyalist family, Arnold surreptitiously offered his services to the British. His contact, through an intermediary, was Major John André, an English officer on General Sir Henry Clinton’s staff. During the following fifteen months he passed intelligence on Patriot movements to the British. On at least two occasions he gave them details of George Washington’s personal movements, in the hope that British troops might kill or capture him. After being appointed to command at West Point, Arnold devised a plan to betray the fort to the enemy. To that end, in September, 1780, Arnold met with André in a house just below the fort. At this meeting the details of the fort’s surrender were established. Arnold was to receive œ20,000 (about $100,000) for his treason.

After the meeting, André, who had come upriver on the British sloop Vulture, was prevented from returning aboard her because she had been seriously damaged by heavy cannon fire from Constitution Island. He tried to return to the British lines by an overland route, but was intercepted by Patriot militiamen and searched. Plans of the fort in Arnold’s handwriting were discovered in his boot, and he was arrested as a spy. As soon as Arnold learned of André’s capture he fled by boat, and was able to reach the Vulture safely. The plot to hand West Point over to the British had failed. So close had it come to fruition, however, that the British garrison in New York had already cancelled leaves in preparation for the attack. Many military historians believe that the Revolutionary War would have been lost had Arnold’s plot succeeded and West Point fallen.

Arnold later served in the British army. After a short court-martial, André was hanged as a spy.

Establishment of the Military Academy

After the Revolution, the land on which West Point had been built was purchased by the government. In 1802 Congress passed an act establishing the United States Military Academy at West Point. In its earliest years the academy was primarily an engineering school whose main purpose was to train army officers to help with civil engineering projects–bridges, dams, forts, arsenals, and the like. In 1812 the academy was reorganized and expanded. It began to acquire its distinctive traditions and role in training combat officers with the superintendency of Colonel Sylvanus Thayer (1817-1833), whose mark on the physical plant and curricular development of the institution cannot be overestimated.

Nearly all of the most senior and successful commanders on both sides of the American Civil War were West Point graduates. Their successes helped to solidify the school’s reputation. From 1866 on, Congress allowed the appointment of superintendents from branches of the Army other than the Corps of Engineers. This change resulted in a broader curriculum for cadets. Further important modernizations, both curricular and organizational, took place during the superintendency of General Douglas MacArthur in the 1920’s, many of them against the wishes of the academy staff of the time. Diversification of the curriculum and greater promotion of physical fitness through the athletic program were among MacArthur’s reforms. New rules regarding “hazing,” which had actually resulted in the deaths of several cadets, were also instituted. Indeed, MacArthur himself had been seriously hazed in his first year at the academy. Although “plebes”–the United States Military Academy equivalent of freshmen–are still harassed, the sometimes extreme physical violence which once characterized hazing no longer exists.

Additional curricular changes took place after World War II when it had become clear that officers must possess scientific and technological knowledge in addition to military and leadership skills. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation increasing the strength of the Corps of Cadets from 2,529 to 4,417. To keep up with the growth of the Corps, a major expansion of facilities at the academy began shortly thereafter. Women were admitted to the academy for the first time in 1976 and now make up 15 percent of the student body. At the turn of the century, the Corps of Cadets numbered about four thousand.

Administration and Curriculum

The academy is under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Army, which appoints a superintendent, who exercises military command of the academy and the military post. The other senior leaders are the Commandant of Cadets and a Dean, who is primarily responsible for the academic program.

Admission is limited to unmarried United States citizens between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three. To be admitted to the academy candidates must first be nominated by a United States senator or representative. A limited number of service-connected nominations are also available through the president or Secretary of the Army for people already enlisted in the military and children of deceased veterans or Medal of Honor winners. After nomination, applicants are judged according to competitive examinations and academic records, as well as extracurricular activities and character recommendations.

In addition to a core of professional courses, cadets may take optional majors in many of the traditional disciplines of science, engineering, humanities, and social science. The four-year course of study leads to the degree of bachelor of science and a commission as second lieutenant in the United States Army. Graduates are expected to serve a term of at least five years in the Army.

Places to Visit

West Point is an extraordinarily beautiful place. The Hudson River and the surrounding Hudson Highlands offer wonderful scenic vistas. At West Point itself is a large visitors’ center, which should be the tourist’s first stop. There is also a museum (pieces of Christopher Tappen’s boom chain from 1778 are among the exhibits), the West Point military cemetery, which was established in 1817, and side trips across the river to Constitution Island, where some of the original artillery sites may be seen. The campus itself and the academy’s buildings are themselves worth seeing. Guided tours are available at nominal fees.

For Further Information

  • Chamber of Commerce of Orange County. This Web site is for Orange County, New York, the site of West Point.
  • Heise, J. Arthur. The Brass Factories: A Frank Appraisal of West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1969. Critical appraisal of the curricula and honor systems at the service academies.
  • Manchester, William. American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978. Chapters 1 and 3 of this full-length biography of MacArthur give details of his years as a cadet and as superintendent, respectively.
  • Morpurgo, J. E. Treason at West Point: The Arnold-André Conspiracy. New York: Mason/Charter, 1975. Focuses on the details of the conspiracy to surrender the fort. Presents John André’s role very sympathetically.
  • Palmer, Dave Richard. The River and the Rock: The History of Fortress West Point, 1775-1783. New York: Greenwood, 1969. Detailed history of the establishment of West Point, its role in the Revolution, and Arnold’s treason.
  • Randall, Willard Sterne. Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor. New York: William Morrow, 1990. The best and most informative biography of Benedict Arnold.
  • Simpson, Jeffrey. Officers and Gentlemen: Historic West Point in Photographs. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Press, 1982. Perspective on the changes and growth at West Point–on campus and in the surrounding countryside.
  • Smith, Dale O. Cradle of Valor: The Intimate Letters of a Plebe at West Point Between the Two World Wars. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1988. Smith’s letters to and from his family during his Plebe year, interspersed with interesting discussion of the changes at West Point since Smith’s cadet years.