Highland Falls, NY is a quaint and quiet little town sitting atop the cliffs overlooking the Hudson River. But from this serene vantage point some of the greatest military minds in the history of the United States have come to defend the country in wars from the Revolution to Afghanistan.
Home to the world famed military academy at West Point the area attracts visitors, literally by the busload, as they come to see firsthand the greatness that has emanated from the granite walls of West Points buildings.
The trip is an easy ride from the George Washington Bridge along either picturesque Route 9W or the faster Palisades Interstate Parkway. Buses from the Port Authority Terminal also make the trek as well as several rail lines.
Getting to West Point is part of the experience. As travelers look down on the rapidly flowing Hudson River it is easy to picture British warships fighting the current to head northward.
During the Revolution both sides in the conflict realized the strategic importance of the location. The view from the commanding plateau on the river’s west bank gave the new born academy its name.
It was designed by Polish-both Thaddeus Kosciuszko at Washington’s direction in 1778 and the following year he moved his headquarters to the post. To prevent the attacking British from moving ships up river a 150-ton link chain was stretched across the river and lowered only to permit friendly vessels to pass.
Benedict Arnold attempted to help the British by providing them with the plans for West Point’s defenses. When British spy Major John Andre was captured by partisans and the documents uncovered, the plot fell through. Arnold escaped to England and the brave Andre was hanged as a spy.
In 1802 President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation creating the United States Military Academy. Since that time the school has earned the reputation for turning out some of the most famous soldiers in history.
Eisenhower, MacArthur (himself a former superintendent of the Academy), Bradley, Stilwell and Wainwright were all graduates. George Armstrong Custer was a member of the school’s alumni and is buried on the grounds. His body was brought to West Point in 1877, a year after the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
On display in the Academy’s museum is the last dispatch Custer wrote the day before he was killed with his troops by an overwhelming number of Sioux at Little Big Horn.
In 1817 Col. Sylvanus Thayer, known today as “The Father of the military Academy,” was named superintendent of the school. He upgraded the academic standards, instilled strict military discipline and created the strong “Code of Honor” that guides cadets to this day. He served until 1833.
During the Civil War classmates and graduates of the Academy faced off against each other. Grant and Lee were both students at West Point. Those ranks also included Sherman and Jackson.
Cadets (including women since 1976) must be recommended by a congress member and are generally required to take an extensive test for admission. All cadets must be single and have never been married. Traditionally at graduation and promotion to the rank of second lieutenant, many hold wedding ceremonies at “The Point.”
The ceremonies are impressive as the wedded couples pass under an arch of sabers held by classmates of the graduate.
On the post is an impressive museum with artifacts ranging back to ancient Romans and Greeks. Swords of famous American officers are on display as well as modern items from World War II.
There are five floors of displays with heavy weapons-tanks and artillery-located in the sub-basement. No admission is charged but a container at the exit is there for those who would like to leave a donation.
A bus tour of West Point is available for $10 per person and covers most of the grounds otherwise restricted to visitors.
On any given day—weekend or weekday—bus loads of visitors and school groups descend on the Academy with no one leaving disappointed.