Published: September 14, 2004
Steeped in history, the hallowed halls of West Point have long been influential in shaping the minds of exemplary young men and women who played defining roles in the outcome of America’s struggles for freedom. From the Revolutionary War to modern-day Iraq, those who have gone forth from “The Point” have not only made an undeniable impact in our military history, but they have also been a key element in its preservation.
Celebrating its 150th anniversary, the West Point Museum has installed a special exhibition titled “A Museum for the Army.” This exhibition relates the history of America’s military; at the same time, it chronicles both the museum’s and the academy’s evolution through displays of significant artifacts. Many of the rdf_Descriptions in the exhibition – on view through June 2005 – have not been on display in decades. Interestingly, in many cases, their presentation – thanks to Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century photographs – mimics the original displays mounted over the course of the previous century.
The museum’s roots began germinating in 1777 when triumphant troops returned to the fortress at West Point after a resounding defeat of the British at Saratoga, N.Y. Along with them came a few spoils of war, specifically, a prized British kettle drum in original paint, along with cannons and mortars that had been surrendered. Historians have long considered the Battle of Saratoga to be the turning point of the American Revolution.
During the Revolutionary War, the site proved pivotal in the success of the continental forces, with one of the key maneuvers taking place in the river below. At Trophy Point, a massive iron chain was stretched across the mighty Hudson River to Constitution Island, effectively cutting off British ships heading north on the important waterway to supply their troops. Links from the chain are on view at Trophy Point.
Continental soldiers built forts and batteries in the area, and despite the treasonous acts of Benedict Arnold, West Point was never captured by the British. It remains the oldest continuously occupied military post in America.
During post-Revolutionary War years, Washington and others, desiring to eliminate America’s wartime reliance on foreign engineers and artillerists, urged the creation of an institution devoted to the arts and sciences of warfare. By executive order, President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation to establish the US Military Academy at West Point in 1802. In a critical move that ultimately, and perhaps unknowingly, formed the foundation for the military museum, he also designated it as a permanent depository for war trophies.
By the 1820s, a vast “teaching collection of artifacts” was firmly in place, including an untold amount of material turned in for storage by the disbanded Continental Army. Tourists of the period were attracted to the area to view trophy cannons and other artifacts, thus establishing the desire and a basis for the museum. Although the museum had been recognized since the early 1800s, it had remained a semiprivate institution primarily geared toward cadet education. The museum officially opened to the public in 1854.
“The West Point Museum is unique and important,” stated museum director Michael Moss. “It has always been here to support cadet instruction; however, another parallel goal was to operate a public museum that will accurately demonstrate our role in history.”
The museum at West Point grandly succeeds in that role. Not only is it recognized as the oldest federal museum, predating the Smithsonian, but it is also the oldest and largest military museum in the country.
The museum has been called many things over the years, initially referred to from 1783 onward as the Artillery Museum. It opened to the public as the Ordnance Museum in 1854 and was renamed the USMA Museum in 1942. Numerous moves have taken place for the museum over the years, along with the name changes. In 1948, the final title change came about when it took on its current name, and in 1989, it relocated to its current home in Olmstead Hall at Pershing Center. The museum is now housed in what was once the center of Ladycliff College, whose grounds were purchased by West Point when the college closed in 1980. The latest move provided greater accessibility for the public and a better-suited arena for the collections.
The museum is spread throughout four floors of the building, all of which are filled with military artifacts of every shape and fashion. The collection includes a large selection of uniforms highlighted by Civil War pieces from Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, artwork by cadets and, naturally, a plethora of weaponry, including everything from handguns to cannons.
Some of the rdf_Descriptions on view include a pair of George Washington’s personal pistols, Napoleon Bonaparte’s pistols and sword, paintings by the likes of Gilbert Stuart, George Catlin, Frederic Remington and – believe it or not – Leroy Neiman. Neiman’s abstract depiction of the final seconds of the 1946 Army/Navy football game, where Army’s goal-line stand in the final seconds led them to victory, is a crowd pleaser for all except Navy fans.
Representations of later years depict the military successes and genius of cadets turned generals, such as Douglas MacArthur, Omar Bradley, George Patton and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
A Museum For The Army
The exhibition “A Museum for the Army” is divided into four sections, each commemorating a period in the museum’s history and assigned the corresponding name of the museum from that time. The Artillery Museum covers the years 1783 to 1854; The Ordnance Museum, 1854 to 1908; The USMA Museum, 1908 to 1948; and the West Point Museum from 1948 to present.
The Artillery Museum has such treasures as “Alpha and Omega,” a pair of flags aptly named by donor George Washington Parke Custis, “because they represented the beginning and the end of the American War of Independence.” The British flags, a King’s Color Seventh Regiment of Foot flag captured at Chambly, Canada, in 1775 – the first flag ever captured by American forces – and a Crown Forces of Great Britain standard surrendered by Ansbach-Bayreuth at Yorktown, Va., in 1781 – the last flag captured in the American Revolution – are cornerstones of the exhibit.
The flags, which are on display for the first time in nearly two decades, had originally been presented by Congress to George Washington as tokens of national gratitude for his services in the war. After his death in 1799, the flags passed to Custis, Washington’s adopted grandson. Soon after, the flags were donated to the War Department and on September 11, 1858, they were presented to the museum.
Also on exhibit in The Artillery Museum is one of the first spoils of war returned to the fortress, a 12-pound English bronze Coehorn mortar that was surrendered at Saratoga, October 17, 1777. It is cataloged as being one of “the first objects… specifically identified for [its] historical significance.”
Surprisingly, at the academy during mid-to-late Nineteenth Century, the French language, not military training, was regarded as the most important instructional course for cadets. Aside from communicating with America’s allies, the majority of the engineering and tactical warfare books had yet to be translated from their original French language. Also surprising: the second most important course was art – this due to the lack of photography and the fact that the young officers were also being trained as engineers. One of the key successes to tactical battle was to accurately record the battlefield. Subsequently, the museum has an outstanding collection of artwork, a great deal of which was executed by cadets.
Highlights from the museum’s collection of art includes a not-so-accurate battle depiction by English artist James Walker titled “Gettysburg: The First Day,” commissioned by Fitzhugh Lee, a Confederate officer in the Civil War. Another highlight on display is from a rare series of stunning watercolors by Swiss artist Peter Rindisbacher that were so accurate that they were used to train cadets who might have never seen a Native American. The series depicted Indians gathered, hunting and warring; one image in particular that caused furor among settlers was titled “The Murder of David Tully and Family by the Sissetoons Sioux, 1823.”
Other prominent works of art from the collection include a full-length portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully, done from life at Monticello in 1822, a portrait of President James Monroe by Sully and nine other portraits of officers and historical figures by the artist. The Sully paintings were all commissioned specifically for West Point by graduates of the academy. More than 20,000 pieces of artwork comprise the collection.
The Ordnance Museum display is also highlighted by stunning art, much of it of a technical nature created by cadets, as well as a huge assortment of experimental breech-load firearms that were sent to West Point for testing. Artwork includes model drawings – and, in many cases, the actual corresponding models – for mortars, cannons and other weaponry on view in tandem. While the intricate renderings were important for cadets, so, too, were the creative drawing classes. It was an area where one nongraduating cadet in particular, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, excelled. Whistler, termed by those at the academy as “more of an artist than a cadet,” has several drawings on view. Included are an allegorical scene in the special exhibition area and numerous pen and inks humorously depicting daily life at West Point elsewhere throughout the museum.
Fans of artist J. Alden Weir will find it interesting that the artist spent his childhood at West Point, although he never attended the academy. His father, Robert Walter Weir, was the art instructor at West Point from 1834 until retirement in 1876. “He taught at the National Academy and taught at West Point,” stated David Reel, curator of fine and decorative art at the museum. “He taught a lot of important people, including Grant and Whistler.”
The name for the museum changed once again in 1908, this time just prior to the outbreak of World War I. This section of the museum houses a wide variety of materials; however, the standouts are a selection of Nazi medals, one of which was destined to have been presented to Reichsmarshal Herman Goering if he had won the Battle of Britain. Other rdf_Descriptions, such as a presentation pistol presented to Adolf Hitler and Goering’s ivory, gold, platinum and diamond parade baton, are also on display within the general confines of the museum.
The final name change came in 1948, and this period is celebrated with a reflection on the past, from a wonderful rendition of “Civil War Drummer Boys” by Julian Scott to a remarkable suit of Japanese Samurai armor presented exactly as it had been when last on display decades ago.
The West Point Museum is open to the public 362 days per year, closing only on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Hours are 10:30 am to 4:15 pm. The museum and visitors center are not actually located on the West Point campus, but instead are conveniently located on Route 218 in Highland Falls, NY 10996. Due to the current national security level status, the United States Military Academy is closed to the public, except by designated daily tours that are conducted by the visitors center. The museum can be reached at 845-938-2203. For tour information, 845-446-4724.
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