- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

In 1845, George Brinton McClellan and Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson were classmates at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Less than 20 years later, they were fierce enemies during the Civil War.

The premier military academy at that time produced so many skilled military leaders it is not surprising that they were pitted against each other in the war between North and South.

"Many West Point graduates fought against each other during the Civil War and choosing which side to fight on was a tough decision," says Margaret Vining, co-curator for "West Point in the Making of America, 18021918," an exhibit that recently opened at the National Museum of American History.

Other Civil War heavyweights who graduated from West Point were Robert E. Lee (class of 1829), William Tecumseh Sherman (class of 1840) and Ulysses S. Grant (class of 1843).

The exhibit, featuring the military academy and its importance during war and peacetime, runs through Jan. 4, 2004. It is divided into four sections: "The Antebellum Army, 1802-1860," "Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1870," "An Army for the Nation, 1866-1914," and "World War I, 1914-1918."

The exhibit provides short biographies of 51 men who graduated during the first 116 years of the military academy's existence. The biographies feature the graduates' military accomplishments and family lives.

"I want people to understand that these men were well-rounded people," Ms. Vining says. "They had wives, they were parents. I hope this comes across."

Grant, for example, couldn't stand being away from his wife, Julia Dent, according to Barton Hacker, co-curator of the exhibit. Whenever they were apart for long periods of time, he would take to the bottle.

Americans may never have known of Col. George Custer's exploits were it not for his wife, Libbie Custer, who devoted her life to promoting his legend.


While West Point's biggest names are battlefield generals such as Lee, Sherman and Grant, the academy also produced engineers who literally helped build America by creating bridges, canals, railroads, weapons.

"The armed forces and science and technology go hand in hand," says Mr. Hacker. "One West Pointer completed the Washington Monument, another was the chief engineer in the Panama Canal project," he says.

Thomas Lincoln Casey (class of 1852) oversaw the building of the Washington Monument and was involved in building the Library of Congress. George Goethals (class of 1880) became chief engineer in charge of building the Panama Canal in 1907.

Alfred Mortecai (class of 1823) refused to fight in the Civil War. "He didn't want to go back on his oath to fight for the federal government, but he didn't want to fight against his Southern friends," Mr. Hacker says. "So, he resigned his commission" and became a railroad engineer, an engineering instructor at West Point and pioneer in using scientific methods for testing new ammunitions and weapons.

Aside from short biographies of West Point graduates, the exhibit includes artifacts, such as an 1867 oil painting of Grant, his wife Julia and their children, a model 1914 Lewis machine gun invented by Isaac N. Lewis (class of 1858) and a model 1928 Thompson submachine gun invented by John T. Thompson (class of 1882).


In the Civil War portion of the exhibit which is framed by iron, stone and wood look-alike gates, cases and walls, mimicking the building materials of the day a panorama painting with Civil War images is displayed on a video screen.

The original panorama is 400 feet long and 8 feet high. It was made in 1865 by Harper's Weekly staff artist William D.T. Travis and shows 32 scenes from the Civil War service of the Union's Army of the Cumberland.

"It was a form of entertainment in the late 19th century," Ms. Vining says. "They would show them in churches."

Other artifacts include a stump that was on a Spotsylvania, Va., battlefield where it was used for target practice during the Civil War and a buckskin coat that belonged to Col. Custer (class of 1861) of Civil War and Little Bighorn fame.


While it's clear in hindsight that West Point was important in training the nation's military leadership, many politicians back in George Washington's day were against its creation.

"There were people who felt that a military academy was an elitist European institution that didn't belong in democratic America," Mr. Hacker says.

Then commander in chief of the Continental Army, Washington proposed creating the academy in 1783, but the opposition was too strong. It wasn't until 1802, a few years after his death, that the military academy was founded.

It became the alma mater of several generations of famous families, including the Grants. Ulysses Grant's oldest son, Frederick Grant (class of 1871) is portrayed in an oil painting shown at the exhibit. The younger Grant is dressed in a cadet's uniform and stands next to his famed father.

But West Point cadets came not only from famous or wealthy families, they came from all strands of society, Mr. Hacker says. And it remained that way for the entire 19th century.

In 1870, Congress directed West Point to admit black cadets and in 1976, the academy started admitting women.

The academy is alive and well, but its golden age ended with World War I, which is where the exhibit also ends. The class of 1915 during World War I produced 59 generals, the highest number of generals of any graduating class.

The last exhibit of the show is a reproduction of Gen. John J. Pershing's headquarters in Chaumont, France on Nov. 11, 1918, the day the armistice was signed.

Without taking anything away from military achievement, Mr. Hacker says he and Ms. Vining would like visitors to realize the "full" impact of West Point.

"Fighting war is important, but there is much more to the West Point graduates than that," Mr. Hacker says. "They put public service ahead of personal gain, which is absolutely essential for successful nation building."


WHAT: "West Point in the Making of America, 1802-1918"

WHERE: National Museum of American History

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily

TICKETS: Free admission

PHONE: 202/357-2700

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