Local Boys at West Point

I saw a story in the New York Times last week about a nearby town, Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York and a local boy from that town who was the subject of many other articles in the Times that week, Gen. David H. Petraeus, Worried Town Recalls a Young Petraeus. General Petraeus is a graduate of West Point, which is located just a few miles down the road from the town where he grew up.

General Petraeus is but one of our many generals and officers who attended West Point. Each was a “local boy who made good,” and I expect most of them had stories with that theme written about them in their local paper after their acceptance to West Point.

I write this post about these local boys and West Point, starting with West Point itself.

Here is one of my favorite photos:

Boscobel-WestPointView of West Point from Boscobel

It was taken on the grounds of Boscobel while at a picnic before a seeing a performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF). My family has attended most of the performances at HVSF for well over a decade.

Boscobel is situated on a bluff on the east bank of the Hudson River opposite the United States Military Academy at West Point. It is the site of a “house that was completed in 1808 for the State’s Dyckman family and is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of Federal architecture in the country.” It is indeed a wonderful house, and views of it can be found at the Boscobel web site.

The Hudson River is one of the great rivers of America. Though over a mile wide in places, this photo is of one its narrowest stretches.

The salt water of the ocean tides reaches up over fifty miles from the river’s outlet in New York City, and large vessels can go over a hundred miles up the river from New York City to Albany, New York. The Hudson is also of geographic interest in that is it the world’s southernmost fjord.

The Hudson was the most important strategic target of the Revolutionary War. Whoever controlled the Hudson controlled the colonies, and had the British gained control, they could have sailed their warships all the way up to Albany, cutting the colonies in half and almost certainly winning the war.

The British didn’t gain control because of two of the more important military actions of the war: The Great Chain and the Battle of Saratoga.

The Great Chain was built in 1778 and stretched from West Point to Constitution Island. Part of that island can be seen in the photo above. See Hudson River Chain,
Constution Island: The Revolutionary War, The Chaining of the Hudson — And Profiteering on History. See also United States Military Academy at West Point: History and Points of Interest, which says in part

West Point is, in fact, America’s oldest continuously occupied military installation.

General George Washington selected Thaddeus Kosciuszko, one of the heroes of Saratoga, to design the fortifications for West Point in l778, and Washington transferred his headquarters to West Point in l779. Continental Soldiers built forts, batteries and redoubts and extended a l00-ton iron chain across the Hudson to control river traffic. Fortress West Point was never captured by the British, despite Benedict Arnold’s treason.

Benedict Arnold fought in the Battle of Saratoga, after which he was promoted to Major General. Indeed, according to the Wikipedia article, “Had Benedict Arnold died of his injuries at Saratoga, it has been believed that the United States Military Academy at West Point would today be named in honor of Benedict Arnold.”

But he didn’t die at that battle, but survived and became the commander of Fortress West Point, where — in the greatest act of treason in American history — he tried to give the plans to the fort to the British. His plot failed only because his co-conspirator, John André, was captured while on his way to New York City, less than seven miles from my home. See The House on Hardscrabble Road (PDF) which says in part

A plaque on Hardscrabble Road marks the spot where Major John André is believed to have watered his horse on September 22, 1780. André was riding south toward the British lines with
the plans of West Point concealed in his stocking. The plans, which were crucial to the outcome of the war, had been given to André by the commander of West Point, Benedict Arnold, who had also arranged for André to sail back through the lines on the British sloop Vulture.

and Pleasantville, which says in part:

The infamous British spy, Major John Andre, passed through what is now Pleasantville on a mission to carry information from Benedict Arnold at West Point to the British in New York City. Andre lost his bearings near the present-day corner of Road and Choate Lane. As a result, Andre fell into the hands of the American Army. The capture of Andre is often cited as a key factor in the ultimate victory of the American forces.

West Point’s most famous graduate, and best general, was Ulysses S. Grant.

I came to fully appreciate Grant’s military genius and the quality of his mind only when I read his memoirs. He wrote them in his last few months as he was dying from cancer, to provide an income for his family.

Grant’s orders were extraordinary in their precision and clarity, comparable to the war-time orders of Winston Churchill (to whom by the way I am related). Here is an example from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, Volume One by Ulysses S. Grant, during the Battle of Vicksburg, May 18 – July 4, 1863:

On the 27th McClernand’s corps was all at Hard Times, and McPherson’s was following closely. I had determined to make the attempt to effect a landing on the east side of the river as soon as possible. Accordingly, on the morning of the 29th, McClernand was directed to embark all the troops from his corps that our transports and barges could carry. About 10,000 men were so embarked. The plan was to have the navy silence the guns at Grand Gulf, and to have as many men as possible ready to debark in the shortest possible time under cover of the fire of the navy and carry the works by storm. The following order was issued:

PERKINS PLANTATION, LA., April 27,1863.

MAJOR-GENERAL J. A. MCCLERNAND, Commanding 13th A. C.

Commence immediately the embarkation of your corps, or so much of it as there is transportation for. Have put aboard the artillery and every article authorized in orders limiting baggage, except the men, and hold them in readiness, with their places assigned, to be moved at a moment’s warning.

All the troops you may have, except those ordered to remain behind, send to a point nearly opposite Grand Gulf, where you see, by special orders of this date, General McPherson is ordered to send one division.

The plan of the attack will be for the navy to attack and silence all the batteries commanding the river. Your corps will be on the river, ready to run to and debark on the nearest eligible land below the promontory first brought to view passing down the river. Once on shore, have each commander instructed beforehand to form his men the best the ground will admit of, and take possession of the most commanding points, but avoid separating your command so that it cannot support itself. The first object is to get a foothold where our troops can maintain
themselves until such time as preparations can be made and troops collected for a forward movement.

Admiral Porter has proposed to place his boats in the position indicated to you a few days ago, and to bring over with them such troops as may be below the city after the guns of the enemy are silenced.

It may be that the enemy will occupy positions back from the city, out of range of the gunboats, so as to make it desirable to run past Grand Gulf and land at Rodney. In case this should prove the plan, a signal will be arranged and you duly informed, when the transports are to start with this view. Or, it may be expedient for the boats to run past, but not the men. In this case, then, the transports would have to be brought back to where the men could land and move by forced marches to below Grand Gulf, re-embark rapidly and proceed to the latter place.
There will be required, then, three signals; one, to indicate that the transports can run down and debark the troops at Grand Gulf; one, that the transports can run by without the troops; and the last, that the transports can run by with the troops on board.

Should the men have to march, all baggage and artillery will be left to run the blockade.

If not already directed, require your men to keep three days’ rations in their haversacks, not to be touched until a movement commences.

U. S. GRANT, Major-General.

I expect General Grant learned of the Great Chain while at West Point, as it was Grant who charged General Sherman to create a hundred-mile wide river of destruction that cut the South in half, sealing the fate of the Southern cause.

I’ve personally known several “local boys who made good” and attended West Point.

One of my classmates in high school was Ronald J. Bartek. I knew him as “Ronnie Bartek.” I didn’t know him very well back then, but I do recall while reading the local paper a couple of months after our graduation that he was at West Point, and had already attained a senior leadership position in his brigade. See also Dellums Committee Hearings on War Crimes in Vietnam, Testimony of Ron Bartek (Capt, West Point, Class of 1966).

I coached a baseball team in our town’s Babe Ruth League about fifteen years ago. I knew the catcher’s father had attended West Point. I was also an assistant scoutmaster at the time, and knowing of his West Point background I asked him if he would like to join our troop on a campout. He said, “Dave, thanks but I’ll pass. After I graduated the Point I did the Army’s Ranger Training. Part of that training was to spend a week in a jungle in Panama, eating bugs, snakes and whatever plants I could find that I knew wouldn’t kill me, all the while trying to evade my fellow soldiers who were trying to capture me. I vowed to myself that if I survived I would never voluntarily go into the woods again.”

My first roommate at Caltech,R.L. Meyers, was also admitted to West Point. He played football at a time when Caltech was ranked 714th out of 715 teams in the country. After one particularly brutal loss he remarked that perhaps he should have gone to West Point.

The son of a friend of mine completed his first year at West Point this past May.

And I can think of one man who, were he alive today, would be welcomed at West Point: SSgt. Kyu Hyuk Chay, United States Army.

Whenever I look over at West Point when I’m at Boscobel I know I am looking at a view that has changed little since the Revolutionary War. Yes, you can see part of the Bear Mountain Bridge in the distance, and there are railroad tracks that run down both sides of the Hudson, but the rest is little changed.

I expect, and fervently hope, that this view will look much the same one hundred years from now, or even a thousand years from now. For the U.S. Army will never move West Point, and its current and future graduates in the generations to come know that part of their responsibility is to preserve that view, as have the graduates who have come before them.

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