WEST POINT, in southeast New York State, is the site of the U.S. Military Academy (founded 1802). It is also the site of remains of two military posts, Forts Clinton and Putnam, built by the Continental army during the Revolution.
The swift collapse of the Hudson River defenses in October 1777, when in a fortnight Gen. Henry Clinton brought under British control the entire area from Manhattan Island north to Kingston, impressed on the Continentals the need for a proper defense. Moved to action by the urgent pleas of Gen. George Washington, the provincial congress of New York initiated a new survey of the Highlands of the Hudson, with the result that West Point was chosen as the site of the citadel for a strong system of defenses. The location was ideal. A plateau of about forty acres, lying more than 100 feet above the river level, formed a peninsula that dominated the water of a double right-angled bend of the river, as well as the river approaches, north and south, within cannon range. Moreover, the crests of two ridges west of the plateau could be fortified to meet a land attack.
Washington, who referred to West Point as the "key to America," made his headquarters there for the four months following 28 July 1779. He was impelled to take charge by the urgencies of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben who, writing of British plans of campaign, declared: "Whatever means they employ, I am positive their operations are directed exclusively to getting charge of this post and of the river as far as Albany. … On their success depends the fate of America." The seizure of West Point was always present in the British plans of campaign after 1777. Except for the British capture of Stony Point (May and July 1779) and Benedict Arnold's failed effort to turn the fort over to the British Army (1780), it was never threatened.
A corps of invalids (veterans) created by act of Congress, 20 June 1777, was transferred four years later to West Point, with the intention of using them as a cadre for the instruction of candidates for commissions. The germ of the idea that ultimately produced the U.S. Military Academy existed in that plan. In June 1784 Congress declared that "Standing armies in time of peace are … dangerous to the liberties of a free people," and accordingly reduced the army to eighty men, of which fifty-five were detailed to guard stores at West Point.
When domestic violence and foreign embroilments later forced Congress to increase the army, West Point became the garrison station of a corps of artillerists and engineers. Finally in 1802 Congress took the step that legally established the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It is the oldest U.S. military post over which the country's flag has continuously flown.
Ambrose, Stephen E. Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966.
Atkinson, Rick. The Long Gray Line. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Palmer, Dave Richard. The River and the Rock: The History of Fortress West Point, 1775–1783. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1991.