Thayer Statue Unveiled, 1883
The statue of Colonel Sylvanus Thayer at West Point is one of the Academy’s most recognized monuments. It’s simple inscription, “Colonel Thayer, Father of the Military Academy,” is a testament to his consistent, firm leadership as Superintendent from 1817-1833. In honor of Father’s Day, here are eight facts about the unveiling of the Thayer Monument in June of 1883.
1. Thayer died in 1872 and in the years that followed there was a movement among early graduates to erect a monument to him. Much of the funding came from George Washington Cullum, a member of the Class of 1833, Thayer’s last year as Superintendent. Cullum was also Superintendent from 1864-1866 and is of course known for his Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the United States Military Academy (“Cullum Numbers”) and Cullum Hall. The former Superintendent was the primary speaker at the unveiling.
2. The white granite statue was sculpted by German-born Civil War veteran Carl Conrads. A prolific sculptor, he is also known for statues of Alexander Hamilton (in Central Park), and the American Volunteer at the Antietam National Cemetery in Maryland. Conrads worked for the New England Granite Works in Hartford, Connecticut.
3. The Monument was unveiled on June 11, 1883, the day before graduation. According to the New York Times, the weather was hot and Cullum’s speech long, covering Thayer’s entire career. The NYT says the address, presented in the Chapel, “occupied a good many minutes” and described the entire ceremony as “tremendously strung out.”
4. At the end of proceedings in the Chapel, a procession, led by the Academy band, marched to the statue site, which was in the southwest corner of the Plain approximately on the current site of the front entrance of the Mess Hall (Washington Hall). A 10-gun salute accompanied the unveiling and the statue was covered in flags.
5. Guests in attendance included ex-President General Ulysses S. Grant, USMA Class of 1843, General William Tecumseh Sherman (USMA 1840), Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, Medal of Honor recipient Henry A. Barnum, Confederate Brigadier General Thomas Dockery, and Chief Justice of the New York Court of Common Pleas, Charles P. Daly.
6. General Grant arrived unannounced according to the New York Times, taking a night train operated by the then-new West Shore Railroad. Its station was near the site of the current South Dock. Because he was unannounced and it was dark, there was nobody to greet Grant or to bring him up the hill (Grant was 61 at the time). The Times reports:
The emphatic remarks the General made on that occasion are still echoing among the hills. After paralyzing the innocent station agent and the baggagemaster and talking about Macomb’s dam and other engineering feats, the General captured an unfortunate blue-coated solder who was prowling around the station without leave and sent him up the hill after a carriage.
Grant stayed with Charles Larned, Professor of Drawing.
7. Two friends from the Class of 1828, Ivers J. Austin and Thomas F. Drayton, were reunited after not seeing each other since their graduation.
8. A mortar and pyrotechnics demonstration at 8 p.m. was followed by a ball held in the mess hall that attracted guests from all over the region. Over 500 people attended the party thrown by the Class of 1884. Dancing began at 10 p.m.. Food was served in the gymnasium at 11:30 (this likely was first floor of the Second Academy, which was on the site of Pershing Barracks and next to the Mess Hall). A german (a type of dance) began at half-past midnight. It is a complicated dance with a leader (like a caller in square dancing) that involved the exchange of small favors (souvenirs). The favors included satin handkerchief pouches for the women and canes for the men. The ball wrapped at 3 a.m., which must have meant some tired cadets at graduation the next day!
"Big Guns at West Point," New York Times, June 12, 1883, 1.
"Gen. Sylvanus Thayer," The Tennessean, June 12, 1883, 1.
"The Graduation Ball," New York Tribune, June 12, 1883, 2.
"Statue of Gen. Thayer Unveiled," The Daily Commonwealth (Kansas), June 12, 1883, 1.
Tillman, Samuel E. . 1897. "West Point and its Centenary." The American Monthly Review of Reviews 26 (150):16.
"Unveiling a Statue," The Times (Philadelphia), June 12, 1883, 1.