West Point Warriors: Profiles of Duty, Honor, and Country in Battleby Tom Carhart
The gripping stories in this book detail the 200 year history of the United States Military Academy at WestPoint, capturing the raw physical courage of graduates in the face of death. Tom Carhart was the winner of two Purple Hearts in Vietnam. See more details below
The gripping stories in this book detail the 200 year history of the United States Military Academy at WestPoint, capturing the raw physical courage of graduates in the face of death. Tom Carhart was the winner of two Purple Hearts in Vietnam.
- Grand Central Publishing
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West Point Warriors
By Tom Carhart
Warner BooksCopyright © 2002 Tom Carhart
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFoundation and Eleazar Derby Wood, the First West Point Warrior
AS SAD AS ART PARKER'S DEATH WAS, his is one of many similar stories of West Point graduates who did exactly what they were educated and trained to do-risk their lives in combat for "Duty, Honor, Country." For two hundred years, the military academy at West Point has developed these West Point Warriors, people who bravely defend America at any cost to themselves.
During the Revolutionary War, a great need was felt on the American side for trained, competent military figures. Since there were no formal schools dedicated to military studies on this side of the Atlantic, and there had been only limited opportunities for men born in this country to experience combat, generally under British colors, there was a great shortage of military expertise in the new Continental Army.
The lack of home-grown military ability was felt during the war, of course. To American revolutionary leaders, it seemed that courage was both more desirable and more readily available than technical knowledge among the unschooled masses for filling out infantry and cavalry units. That much was true, but, as they were to learn the hard way, technical knowledge was absolutely essential in the more complex military fields of engineering and artillery. There, specific technical skills and abilities were required of both officers and men for the operations of any effective field army. The presence of European military experts who filled key roles in American ranks, men like Steuben and Kosciusko and Lafayette, made the need all the more apparent.
Late in 1775, Washington made the immense Henry Knox, then twenty-six years old and nearly three hundred pounds in weight, his chief of artillery. Self-educated in the military field, Knox led a hazardous expedition to Fort Ticonderoga, New York, during the first winter and returned with valuable ordnance taken from the British by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold. Knox fought in many battles around New York City, and once peace was signed, served as Washington's first secretary of war.
Knox made the establishment of an American military academy a key issue, which he pressed on virtually everyone he knew. In 1783, Washington took up the cry, calling for "academies, one or more, for the instruction of the art military." Washington declared, "I cannot conclude without repeating the necessity of the proposed Institution, unless we intend to let the Science [of war] become extinct, and to depend entirely upon the Foreigners for their friendly aid."
Nothing came of this, though many prominent Americans agreed with Washington's conception. Finally, in 1799, Alexander Hamilton gave a detailed plan for an academy to Secretary of War James McHenry, and sent a copy to Washington. In the last letter he ever wrote, on December 1, 1799, two days before his death, Washington told Hamilton the establishment of such an institution "has ever been considered by me as an object of primary importance to this country," and said he hoped Hamilton's arguments would "prevail upon the Legislature to place it on a permanent and respectable footing."
In January 1800, President John Adams presented Hamilton's basic plan to Congress. They deliberated and did nothing, as Congresses sometimes do. Finally, Thomas Jefferson acted in May 1801, when he had the Army begin preparations for the establishment of a military academy at West Point, New York. In March 1802, Congress finally passed legislation establishing both a corps of engineers and a military academy at West Point.
One perhaps confusing aspect of Jefferson's support for a military academy is that it seems to conflict with the antimilitary stance of the Republican party, of which he was the national leader. The best explanation from those historians who have addressed the issue is that they have found Jefferson's position on a national military academy to be an extension of his support for a national university that emphasized the study of science. But such evasive explanations are really not satisfactory.
One twelve-month period-between the fall of 1791 and the fall of 1792-saw the emergence of truly partisan politics in the United States, with an "opposition" party challenging the one in power. The precipitant event or series of events for this was the growing influence of the Treasury over the policy of the government, of Hamilton's industrial vision and plan for national development, and the virulent opposition to these held by Jefferson and Madison. The final division was a function of the French Revolution and the resulting wars that raged through Europe. The political sentiments of the entire nation were divided into the first two major American political parties: the Republicans, who supported the French and their revolution, opposed by the incumbent Federalists, who strongly opposed them and favored the British aristocratic model.
In political shorthand, the Republicans sought a truly democratic form of government that reflected the will of the people, the government for which the Revolutionary War had been fought, while the Federalists believed in entrusting all political and economic power to the competence and good will of an aristocracy based on wealth and family connections.
And these political feelings were passionately held: the adherents of either party refused to admit the legitimacy of the other, and the constant threat of internal strife loomed menacingly.
In 1798, the possibility of American involvement in a European war grew, and the incumbent Federalists used political fears to their advantage by, among other things, expanding the military. Republicans feared that this larger army would be used by the Federalists primarily to silence their political opposition. Indeed, Army troops did crack heads and smash the presses of Republican newspapers. When the Federalists were able to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts, Republican fears seemed justified. The election of Jefferson in 1800, however, ended the immediate crisis, and he went right to work trying to realize the Republican goal of reducing the size and potential threat to freedom of the enlarged Army.
As related in Theodore Crackel's Mr. Jefferson's Army, Jefferson's initial reduction of the size of the standing army was brought about by the Military Peace Establishment Act of 1802. This was widely portrayed as an economy measure, but Crackel shows us that such a description was little more than a political ruse, for it was really much more.
Jefferson was able to dramatically change the political coloring of the officer corps of the Army during his tenure in office. Before he was elected, the Army numbered over 5,000 men; under the provisions of the Military Peace Establishment Act of 1802, Jefferson reduced the number to 3,289. But by the end of his term, in 1809, the number had risen again to nearly 9,000 men.
At the outset of his presidency, more than 90 percent of the officers in the Army were Federalist political opponents of Jefferson. As a result of his careful reorganization of the Army's officer corps so as to discharge his hidebound political enemies, convert the less zealous to his cause, and infuse the force with the fresh blood of his loyalists, by 1809 the numbers had reversed, so that more than 90 percent of the officers were then his solid political supporters.
Jefferson saw a military academy at West Point as a very powerful tool by which he could train and then commission as officers of his army the sons of loyal Republicans. In his eyes, it was a key agency through which he could help politically reform the Army from within. So West Point was born as part of Jefferson's successful effort to establish democracy in America.
In his attempt to establish a military academy that would train politically selected young men from across the nation, Jefferson was taking bold steps, and early success should not have been expected. Indeed, for the first fifteen years of its existence, the structural, political, and organizational problems confronted by the new military academy caused it to be of only minimal value to the leadership of the army it was intended to serve.
After Alexander Hamilton's death in 1804, Federalist political power began to fade, but it was their opposition to the War of 1812 that did the first really mortal damage to the party. The year 1815 brought the formal end of the War of 1812 and the effective end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. In the same year, Jefferson's Republican successor, President James Madison, called for adequate military and naval forces in peacetime, direct taxation, and a national bank-things the Republican party had previously loudly opposed. But by this time, the Republicans no longer feared that the Federalists, whose national political power had faded badly, posed a genuine threat to individual freedoms, and the personal political inclinations of army officers were no longer the central issue to the nation's leadership that they had been.
In its earliest days, West Point was not well organized, and the quality of its graduates and the value of their service to America's early army varied. One graduate, however, performed splendidly during the War of 1812 and even became a national hero at a time when heroism gave much-needed reassurance to the American people.
His name was Eleazar Derby Wood. Born in 1783, he was twenty-one when he entered West Point, and studied for only eighteen months before graduating with the class of 1806. His initial assignment was with the Corps of Engineers working on harbor defenses on Governor's Island in New York Harbor. He would later do similar work at New London, Connecticut, and Norfolk, Virginia, and he was a captain when war broke out with England in 1812. He felt that the United States had suffered great harm from the British and felt that military action was warranted. In a letter to his sister, he said:
The period has now arrived when I am to be tested as a soldier. If I prove to be one and fortunate, it will no doubt be extremely pleasing and gratifying to all. If I shall fall in the present conflict, you must not grieve nor mourn, but rejoice that you have a brother to lose for the maintenance and preservation of those sacred rights for which our Revolutionary Patriots bled and fell.
When he joined the staff of Major General William Henry Harrison's Northwestern Army, he was put in charge of the construction of two forts that would prove to be of crucial importance. The first of these, Fort Meigs, was to be built on the Maumee River near Toledo, Ohio. The second, Fort Stephenson, had been built near Fremont, Ohio, on the Sandusky River in 1812. But after the fall of Detroit, it had been abandoned to the Indians, who largely destroyed it. Wood's mission was to rebuild it into a defensible condition.
Work on Fort Meigs began in February 1813, when Wood had his troops build a palisaded fortress using logs that covered some eight acres. As part of the construction, Fort Meigs had seven blockhouses along the wall and positions for five artillery batteries. Construction was nearly complete in March when Wood left to begin work on Fort Stephenson. This was a much smaller fort, and it took only a matter of weeks to repair its defenses. By the middle of April, Wood was back at Fort Meigs to oversee the finishing touches.
And he was none too soon, for in the final days of April, British troops were seen on the opposite side of the river. A British artillery barrage opened up on May 1. The American artillery commander was killed by enemy fire, and Wood was appointed to take command of the artillery as an added duty. But the structure of the fort held, and on May 4, Kentucky militia under General Clay arrived to raise the siege.
The British force, commanded by a General Procter, returned on July 21. This time, it was more than twice the size of the original besieging force. The siege again lasted only four days, and it was no more successful than it had been the last time. On July 25, the British withdrew again. Procter marched his force to Fort Stephenson, which he attacked on August 2, with both artillery and an infantry attack by the 41st Welsh Regiment. The Americans were well protected, however. The combination of artillery and small-arms fire that poured out of Fort Stephenson was devastating to British forces, and the attack of the 41st Welsh failed completely. American forces had very few losses, and this was the third attack by British forces on a fortification built by Captain Wood that had failed.
At the time, military prowess of this sort was awarded not by medals but by brevet promotion. Captain Wood became Brevet Major Wood, and he did much of the planning required for General Harrison's planned attack to retake Detroit. They would there be attacking General Procter and a British force consisting of the 41st Welsh, hundreds of Canadian militia, and thousands of Indians led by Chief Tecumseh.
Wood developed a complex plan that called for the Kentucky militia who were mounted to move north on horseback against Detroit. Meanwhile, Harrison's main force would move by boat between a chain of islands and the west shore of Lake Erie to attack Fort Malden at the mouth of the Detroit River. For this attack, the commander of Harrison's artillery force would be Major Wood. This was a very complicated plan for such a young army, and the British navy had a squadron of warships loose on Lake Erie. But on September 10, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry defeated them, clearing the way for Harrison's amphibious attack.
And the amphibious assault went off perfectly. But when they got there, General Procter had left nothing but ashes of the fort behind. Harrison immediately set off in pursuit of him, taking only the Kentucky militia and the artillery force under Wood. They caught up with Procter and Tecumseh along the banks of the Thames River, where they fought a major battle. Tecumseh was killed and his Indian force dissolved, the 41st Welsh was destroyed as an effective fighting force, and General Procter fled the field of battle in great haste. Harrison's victory was complete. Wood commanded the cavalry force that pursued Procter, whom they narrowly missed capturing, although they did take his carriage filled with personal papers and other possessions.
Wood next moved to the Niagara front, where he helped expand and strengthen Fort Erie. He commanded an artillery section at the Battle of Chippewa on July 5, 1814, and at the Battle of Lundy's Lane on July 25, General Brown paid him the highest compliments and promoted him to brevet lieutenant colonel.
After Lundy's Lane, American forces in the region withdrew to the protection of Fort Erie.
Excerpted from West Point Warriors by Tom Carhart Copyright ©2002 by Tom Carhart. Excerpted by permission.
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