The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

February 8, 2013

‘The Long Gray Line’

When you first consider which are the best colleges and universities in this land to attend, I would venture most people — right off the top of their heads — would mention Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and throw out the occasional MIT, Stanford and Cal Tech.

Yet, upon further reflection, with a little more thought and despite the obvious quality of these handful of top schools, the U.S. government’s three service academies stand in good stead, right alongside these other prestigious institutions.

Founded back in 1802 in the nation’s infancy, the United States Military Academy at West Point more than holds its own against the private colleges that top the list.

Its very setting is steeped in Revolutionary War history and intrigue. Located at a strategic sharp S-curve on New York’s Hudson River — above New York City — it originally was established as Fort Clinton, becoming a fortified site during the Revolution.

Built by one of foremost engineers of the time, Polish Gen. Tadeusz Kosciuszko, it was manned by a small garrison of Continental soldiers throughout the war with the British.

So well was it fortified, using a massive iron chain laid across the river on the bend, the British Navy never tested it. In fact, they attempted subterfuge and intrigue to capture the forbidding yet scenic post on the cliffs overlooking the river.

The most famous act of treason in American history, when Continental Gen. Benedict Arnold attempted to hand the post over to the British, was foiled by Gen. George Washington, and the rest is history.

Fort Clinton became the oldest continuously operated Army post in the U.S., first established in 1778.

A number of famous men have sprung from the ranks of cadets at West Point, and three also served as superintendents at the prestigious school that turned out some of the finest engineers to ever have walked this continent.

Robert E. Lee, Douglas MacArthur and Maxwell Taylor all oversaw West Point at one time or another in our history, all also serving as leading generals in various American armies.

In 1802, Congress formally authorized funding for training in artillery and engineering studies at the request of President Thomas Jefferson, and the first official graduate was Joseph Gardner Swift.

Far from today’s rigid guidelines for admission, the early U.S. Military Academy featured few standards for cadets, or even length of study.

The first cadets actually ranged in age from 10 to 37, and attended anywhere from 6 months to 6 years.

Looming war with Britain in 1812 forced Congress to authorize a more formal system of study and term, and the Corps of Cadets was increased to 250.

The introduction of standardized cadet-gray uniforms originated in 1814, and is the basis for the expression that defined the corps — “The Long Gray Line.”

The curriculum still used to this day was established in 1817, and included strict discipline, a standard course of study and an honorable code of conduct.

But it wasn’t until the Mexican-American War in 1846 that academy graduates were thrust into historical prominence.

Men like Lee and Ulysses S. Grant distinguished themselves on the field of battle.

Some 452 of the 523 graduates who served in that war received either promotions or medals for bravery.

No war filled the ranks of former West Point officers like the Civil War did in 1861. Virtually every West Point officer of note fought for either the North or South, and 105 graduates died on Civil War battlefields — another 151 were wounded.

Other noteworthy West Point graduates included J.E.B. Stuart, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and George Pickett, all celebrated generals who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The first name George figured prominently during the Civil War, with graduates George B. McClellan, George Meade, George Thomas and George Armstrong Custer all serving with distinction for the Union.

The president of the Confederate States of America — Jefferson Davis — was a graduate of West Point’s class of 1828.

Beside Grant stands Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as the two graduates who later would become presidents of the United States.

Names like Phil Sheridan, William T. Sherman, John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, Omar Bradley and George Patton all are listed on the rolls of distinction at West Point, and on and on and on.

The Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, has been bestowed on no less than 74 graduates of the Point. And 18 NASA astronauts can trace their studies back to the little post on the Hudson.

Born a slave in Georgia, Henry O. Flipper was the first African-American to graduate — entering in 1873 — and who was never spoken to by a white cadet during his four years of study.

The first females were not allowed at West Point until 1976.

And as at historic West Point, this nation has come a long, long way since 1802.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking

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