Category Archives: History

Information about the history of USMA, our graduates, and our libraries.

USMA Coat of Arms

Original USMA Coat of Arms

Original USMA Coat of Arms

Current USMA Coat of Arms.

Current USMA Coat of Arms.

USMA Coat of Arms
An official coat of arms for the United States Military Academy was adopted on October 13, 1898. Years later, Captain George Chandler of the War Department brought it to the attention of Superintendent, Major General Fred Winchester Sladen that the eagle and helmet faced to the heraldic sinister, or left, side. In heraldry, the only viewpoint of historical relevance is that of the bearer, to whose right (dexter) the eagle and helmet should face. On July 2, 1923 the Adjutant General of the Army approved a slight revision, which turned the helmet and eagle’s head to the position that we see today.

Shield: The shield is that bearing the arms of the United States.
Crest: The crest comprises an eagle with wings, displayed and a scroll bearing the motto, “Duty, Honor, Country,” with the words, “West Point, 1802, USMA.”
Motto: “Duty, Honor, Country”
The emblem consists of the helmet of Pallas Athena, who has been used for many centuries as a symbol of Wisdom and Learning. Pallas Athena was a militant Goddess, fully armed; and since Homer, her wisdom has been associated especially with war and the arts of war. This helmet is over the Greek sword, the universal symbol of war, in its general sense. The two together typify the military and education functions of the Academy. This device, as a coat of arms has been associated with the Academy for many years, and is familiar to its graduates for more than a century. The motto of “Duty, Honor, Country” concisely expresses the character of this institution.
As you walk around the academic area you cannot help but notice the coat of arms carved onto many of the older buildings, as well as the newest academic building, Jefferson Hall, which was completed in 2008.

Contents contributed by Alicia Mauldin Ware, Archives Curator

Buildings Repurposed — Riding Hall

Riding HallThe old riding hall was a granite structure with a wooden trussed roof, measuring 218 x 78 feet. There was a call for a new riding hall due to the increase strength of the Corps of Cadets.  With the new increase in the Corps size, the current 1855 Riding Hall was deemed inadequate.

A  Special Board of Officers  which consisted of the Professors of Drawing, Chemistry, Civil and Military Engineering, Mathematics,  the Instructor of Ordnance and Gunnery and the Adjutant of the Military Academy, as Recorder was tasked “to increase the efficiency of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, and to provide for the enlargement of buildings and for other necessary works of improvement…”

The 1902 Board of Officers “recommended that a new riding hall, 580 by 125 feet, be constructed on the site of the present hall, cavalry stables and cavalry barracks.  It will be arranged with a counterpoised partition so that it may be divided into two halls when it is desirable to train two squads at the same time.  As the general stable is to be located at the south end of the post, it will be necessary to provide also temporary accommodation for the horses and rooms for all equipments required in the hall.”

The post saw many changes in 1911: the Reveille gun was moved to Trophy Point; the Old Cadet Chapel was moved, stone by stone, to the cemetery to make room for East Academic building; the organ was installed in the New Cadet chapel; and the Riding Hall was completed.

Built within the walls of the old Riding Hall, Thayer Hall was designed by Gehron and Seltzer of New York, and named after Sylvanus Thayer (USMA 1808), Superintendent from 1817-1833.  It was completed in 1958, and originally housed administrative space for the Departments of English, Foreign Languages, Law, Mathematics, Military Art and Engineering, Military Psychology and Leadership, Ordnance and Social Sciences.  It included 98 classrooms, two 200-seat writ rooms, two 200-seat map-problem rooms, an 800-seat auditorium, and a 1,500-seat auditorium, a material testing laboratory, and space on the first and second floors for the Museum which was formerly housed in the Administration Building.  To this day the roof continues to provide parking for nearly 200 vehicles.

Contents contributed by Alicia Mauldin Ware, Archives Curator

Those Daring Young Men in Their Flying Machines!

selfridgeThe United States Armed Forces and graduates of the Military Academy have always been on the forefront of technology integration. Thomas Etholen Selfridge, born February 2nd 1882 in San Francisco, California exemplifies this sense of wonder and adventure.
Upon graduation from the Academy in June 1903, Selfridge served with the coast and field artillery. Returning to West Point in 1906, Selfridge began a serious study of the new field of aeronautics and discovered his true vocation. Through the auspices of astronomer and librarian Edward Singleton Holden, Selfridge spent the summer of 1907 in Nova Scotia working with Alexander Graham Bell. Lt. Selfridge flew Bell’s tetrahedral kite the “Cygnet” as well as the “White Wings and “June Bug” aero planes. These experiments were so successful that Selfridge was sent to Hammondsport, NY to assist Professor Bell in continued experiments through the winters of 1907 and 1908.
Selfridge was then transferred to Fot Meyer, Virginia as part of the “Signal Corps for Aeronautical Work” unit.  In Fort Meyer Selfridge worked with Captain Baldwin on the development of dirigibles and met Mr. Orville Wright, who with his brother had successfully flown a motor driven plane at Kitty Hawk, N.C. in 1903.
With dirigible experiments going so well the army selected Lieutenant Selfridge as one of the two officers to manage its new dirigible experimental station in Saint Joseph, Missouri. On September 17th, 1909, just prior to his planned departure, Thomas Selfridge realized one of his long held dreams—a heavier than air flight with Orville Wright. Selfridge and Wright took off at 6:14 p.m. into a four mile per hour wind. According to contemporary reports they circled the field four and one half times before a propeller blade detached. Wright and Selfridge were at an altitude of about 150 feet.  Wright turned off the motor and glided the plane down to 75 feet; they fell the remaining 75 feet. During the precipitous fall Selfridge “sustained severe cuts about the face and a fracture at the base of the skull”. Lieutenant Selfridge died of his injuries at 8:10 on   the evening of September 17th 1909, becoming the first air fatality of a mechanized flight.
A memorial to Thomas Selfridge, USMA 1903 stands in the West Point Cemetery as a monument to his tenacity, forward thinking and mankind’s everlasting dream of flight.

Contents contributed by Elaine McConnell, Rare Book Curator.  Photo courtesy of USMA Library Special Collections and Archives.

Less Than 100 Days Until Graduation!

Written by Rare Book Curator Elaine McConnell


Hundredth Night Program Cover, 1946. Special Collections, USMA Library.

For many college students the prospect of graduation is much anticipated; this is especially true at West Point. The “100th Night Show” at the U.S. Military Academy is the celebration of a milestone for the First Class cadets: in just 100 short days, the seniors will leave behind “Kaydet Grey” and don the “Army Blue” of the officer corps. According to Kendall Banning’s book West Point Today, February 13, 1884, is the first recorded date of the 100th Night Show.

What was life like for cadets in the 19th and 20th centuries? From the official records we know about the regulations, the buildings, the classes that were taught, the text books that were used; but what really happened? To better understand the experiences of the men and women of the Long Gray Line we rely on letters, memoirs, scrap books and published accounts in books,newspapers and magazines; but, again, this is only a part of the story. Fiction by graduates and Academy aficionados reveals other aspects of the West Point mystique and draws on a long history of storytelling that reigned before the days of the Internet, YouTube and personal electronics. Storytelling and “entertainments” were a large part of 19th century recreation, and the cadets at West Point mirrored the nation’s norm in this respect.

The 100th Night Show, conceived, written and performed by the cadets, has taken on a life of its own. Originally the “show” consisted of skits, and readings of poetry and prose presented to the members of the Corps of Cadets. Over the years the shows became more elaborate to include original music, scenery and costumes. Like Shakespearian actors of yore, all the parts were played by men in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although much of the story has always been an inside joke, understood only by the student body; family, friends, dates (or “drags”), faculty and staff purchase tickets and come to enjoy the festivities. According to a New York Times article published on April 21, 1895, the 100th Night Show in Grant Hall was well done and quite elaborate. “The make-up of Cadet Augustine as Yum-Yum…was very successful. Had it not been for his voice the majority of the audience would have thought that a Vassar girl had been borrowed for the occasion.”

The lore of the 100th Night Show became so ingrained in the popular culture of the day that it was a major plot device in the 1950 film “The West Point Story” starring James Cagney and featuring Doris Day, Virginia Mayo, Gordon MacRae, and Gene Nelson. “Cagney as Broadway director Bix Bixby is down on his luck. Reluctantly, he is
persuaded to go to West Point Military Academy to help the students put on a musical show. Bix takes Eve, his on-again, off-again assistant, with him to the Academy. His ulterior motive is to recruit student star Tom Fletcher for Harry Eberhart’s new production. Then, Bixby finds that he himself must live as a cadet.”

For those living as cadets, 100th Night made another important contribution: providing the name for the Academy’s yearbook, The Howitzer. While early programs had varying titles, the 1887 edition was titled: Programme, Address and Howitzer of the Hundredth-Night Entertainment Given by the U.S. Corps of Cadets. Over time this title was reduced simply to The Howitzer and the modern yearbook evolved from a combination of this publication and the types of photographs formerly featured in the Class Albums.

The holdings of the Special Collections and Archives Division include programs, scripts and, in some cases, sound recordings of past 100th Night Shows. The West Point Story is available on DVD in the library’s collection.

Severe Winter Weather Reported At West Point

By Manuscripts Curator Susan Lintelmann

This image is from the John Pitman Collection, Special Collections, USMA Library.

Here at West Point we are experiencing an unusually cold and snowy winter. Yet extreme winter weather conditions are not new to this area.  We can confirm this by examining a diary in the Special Collections Division of the Library.  Below are some of the entries recorded by  Cadet Samuel Heintzelman, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1826.

Cadet Heintzelman was born in Manheim, PA. Judging from his diary, he was a serious young man keenly interested, possibly for want of other diversions, in the weather. Many of Heintzelman’s diary entries illustrate why the cadets have habitually called the time between the winter holidays and March “Gloom Period;” but he also records extracurricular activities like skating, hiking and chess, as well as the pleasures of time spent curled up with an absorbing book. In the end, we’re left to consider how little some things have changed in the last one hundred and eighty-nine years.

[Saturday] January 1st [1825]
Room at NO 21 S[outh]B[arracks] with Cadets Minor and Mercer. Welcomed the New Year by giving to some of our most particular friends a treat of eggnog and fruit-the gentlemen present were Cadets Allen, Allison, Brooke, Dancy, Macrae, Grin, Izard,
Baldwin, and Sims. H.T. Washington was invited, but did not attend-cause not known. Academic exercises were suspended during the day, but we had study hour after supper. It began to snow about Tattoo.

Tuesday 4th [January]
A fine day cold and clear. No lecture to-day in chemistry. I marched on guard to-day, the wind has lifted nearly all the snow from the plain around the Barracks,
but the wind being so violent has left both parade grounds clear, and it is drifted so hard that it will bear a man in front of the Barracks, to-day. I drew from the
Quartermaster Renwick’s outlines of Philosophy, he had only the second volume. I drew it only on account of some theories it contained to account for the
formation of rain, hail and snow.

Saturday 15th [January]
The weather has been very bad to-day…at half past eleven the examination of my section in philosophy commenced, they examined four before dinner…. We
were called up again after dinner. They commenced to examine me, but before they had finished, they dismissed the section. I did not miss a word. I did
better than anyone in my section that has been examined.

Friday 21st [January]
Got up this morning at 4 o’clock. Was examined in chemistry, did not do very well. The first and second sections were examined together, they did not do very
well, they got through with us by one o’clock. The third and fourth sections were taken up at two o’clock and finished by night. They did not do very well. I spent the evening reading Shakespeare’s plays.

Saturday 5th [February]
The thermometer was at 4 and ¾ below zero this morning. I went skating this afternoon, the ice was pretty good though it was rather weak in some places. I
broke in several times, once up to my middle there were over a dozen broke in. It was on the flats where the water is not deep. I played chess this evening the
first time for a long time and beat a man six or seven times in succession.

Tuesday 15th [February]
Last night after taps I went down to [H]avens to get a supper-there were six of us, two went down before tattoo to engage the supper. It was very dark and
muddy. We had a pretty good supper. We started to return about one o’clock. This morning we heard the result of the presidential election. Our breakfast
hour has been changed. We breakfast at 7 and have guard mounting at half past. The river remains frozen over above the Point.

Sunday 20th [February]
We had inspection this morning. We marched to church today, but we had no preacher, so we concluded that it would be best to march back again.

Tuesday 22nd [February]
To-day it was proposed by the corps to illuminate. We obtained permission from the Superintendent to do it. We prepared a transparency with the name of
Washington. At 7 o’clock the signal was given to light candles. In the South Barracks we closed the window shutters and lighted the candles before the time so
that at the instant the signal was given we threw open the window shutters…. The lights were extinguished a little before 9 o’clock when the bugle sounded
to retire to quarters. The officers had a ball.

Monday 7th [March]
To-day 35 cadets were excused from duty, the greater number on account of colds. We had no recitation to-day in philosophy, our professor is sick.

Saturday 19th [March]
I drew a book from the library to-day. I took a walk to-day with several others along the banks of the river as far as Cornwall, about 4 miles from the Point, the
scenery was sublime beyond description…. We intended to walk along the shore but the rocks ran into the river…. We had to climb up the sides of the mountain
and at some places it was so steep that we had to hold on to the limbs and roots of trees and projecting rocks…. Another cadet was arrested today for
improper language to his teacher of drawing.

Saturday 26th [March]
Rain mingled with sleet fell last night and it continued during the day. I received a letter and 2 papers from my brother (The Lancaster Free Press) from home
to-day. I had to borrow 8 cents to get it out of the post oce.

Thursday 31st [March]
We had a drill to-day, but it was too cold to have a dress parade.

After graduating, Heintzelman served on the Northern Frontier and in Florida and was brevetted Major for his service with General Scott in Mexico. Years of Indian and outlaw fighting in Arizona and Texas followed and then during the Civil War he rose rapidly to the rank of Major General.

General Heintzelman retired in 1869 after 45 years of service, and died in Washington, D.C., in 1880, aged 74.

Lorenzo Smith III Only USMA Grad to Compete in Winter Olympics


The Howitzer / [United States Military Academy] 2000

By Heather Goyette\Cataloging Librarian

Today the XXII Winter Olympics begin in Sochi Russia. Go TEAM USA!!

The Olympic Games have a long and rich history. Originating in Olympia, Greece in 779 BC they began as a series of religious and athletic competitions that were held in honor of Zeus before ending in 394 AD. The modern version of the Olympic Games was revived under the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and held in Athens, Greece in 1896. The first Winter Olympics took place in 1924 in Chamonix, France and have been held every four years since then –    except for a break during World War II.

Through all of the years the Winter Olympics has been held, only one USMA grad has participated in a winter event. Lorenzo Smith III, was a track and field star at USMA and graduated in 2000.  After graduation he became involved in the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete program (WCAP) where he moved over into bobsledding and competed as a bobsledder from 2002 to 2006. Smith participated in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy and served as one of the pushers for sled USA-2, which finished sixth overall. Although there will not be a USMA grad this year at the XXII Winter Olympics in Sochi Russia, there will be current and former soldiers competing and coaching in this Olympics.

To learn more about Lorenzo Smith III, you can visit the BobTeam USA website.


First Lt. Lorenzo Smith, Spc. Mike Kohn and Spc. Steve Holcomb compete earlier in 2004 World Cup 4-man bobsled competition. U.S. Army photo


Mathematics! Who Needs It?!

Image Provided by the Stockbride Collection of the USMA Archives.

Image Provided by the Stockbridge Collection of the USMA Archives.

Written by Archives Curator Alicia Mauldin-Ware

Math has been taught at West Point since the early years of the Academy, but did you know there was a time when the Math curriculum was in jeopardy of not being taught?  President Roosevelt himself raised the question of the relative importance of mathematics education to the military officer in 1908 in a letter addressed to the Secretary of War:

January  11, 1908

To the Secretary of War:

It seems to me a very great misfortune to lay so much stress upon mathematics in the curriculum at West Point and fail to have languages taught in accordance with the best modern conversation methods.  I should like to have this matter taken up seriously.  I have several times called attention to it, but nothing has been done.  Mathematical training is a necessary thing for an engineer or an artilleryman, doubtless; but I esteem it of literally no importance for the cavalryman or infantryman.  If tomorrow I have to choose officers from the regular army for important positions in the event of war, I should care no more for their mathematical training than for their knowledge of whist or chess.  A man who learns a language by studying a book, but can not speak it, loses at least half the benefit obtainable, I would like a full report on this matter.

Also, is there not danger of too much mere book learning being required in the Fort Riley school?  We need soldiers, not mere students; or, rather, we need students only so far as study helps toward soldiership.  A man with an eye to the country, who can take care of men and horses, and whose administrative capacity is developed, is more valuable than a closed student, to the Army.

Theodore Roosevelt

What?  Down play the role of mathematics in the course of study?  How could this be? The leaders of West Point considered mathematics so important that two acting Professors of Mathematics – one to teach algebra and the other geometry – were appointed shortly after the establishment of the Military Academy in March 1802.  A permanent Professor of Mathematics, however, was not authorized until
April 29, 1812, when an Act of Congress reorganized the Academy and enlarged the academic staff. Capt. Alden Partridge was appointed to the position on April 13, 1813.

By the early 1820’s, trigonometry, mensuration, (calculations for measuring areas, quantities, etc.) and surveying had been added to the mathematics curriculum, and calculus was added shortly thereafter. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, the department expanded under the direction of several long-tenured professors, but the curriculum underwent few major changes.

This is not to say that 1908 was the first time that the Math Department’s curriculum came under fire. The following is part of the answer the Academic Board gave in 1843 to certain criticisms of the course of instruction made by a Board of Officers of which General Winfield Scott was president.  It is interesting in showing the objectives and views of the Academic Board at that time:

The Academic Board believe that one of the most important objects of the Academy is to subject each Cadet, previous to his promotion to a higher grade in the Army, to a thorough course of mental as well as military discipline, to teach him to reason accurately, and readily to apply right principles to cases of daily occurrence in the life of a soldier.  They are satisfied that a strict course of mathematical and philosophical study, with applications to the various branches of military science, is by far the best calculated to bring about this end, and that the present scientific course at the Academy, the result of the experience of many years, is in its main features such a course.

They are aware that many of the Cadets, as in the case with most of those who pursue a scientific course at other institutions, will have little occasion to make practical applications of the many mathematical formulae which they meet, and that they may have passed over certain problems without thoroughly understanding their meaning in all their points.  Still if the course has been carefully taught, the reasoning faculties will have been strongly exercised and disciplined and a system and habit of thought acquired which are invaluable in the pursuit of any profession and as desirable for the infantry or dragoon officer as for any other officer in the service….”

Based on the opinion of the Academic Board, the course of math study, with few modifications and extensions, remained virtually unchanged until September 1902 when a revised curriculum caused the Mathematical Department to yield forty days of instruction (one-hundred eighty hours) to the Department of Modern Languages. Despite this decrease in mathematics instruction, it was only six short years later that President Roosevelt’s letter questioned whether too much math was still being

In spite of Roosevelt’s concerns, math continued to be a significant course of instruction at the Academy. In the years since, the mathematics curriculum has been adjusted to encompass mathematical trends of military importance.  Teaching methods have continued to stress the fundamental military qualifications developed by mathematical study: mastery of the reasoning process, self-reliance, practical applications of mathematics, and the role of mathematics in warfare.
Today’s cadets can’t get away from math!

You can find additional records concerning the math or other academic departments in our Special Collections and Archives Division of the Library.


Our Earliest Cadet Letters: Still Relevant After 200 Years

The Special Collections and Archives Division of the USMA Library collects a variety of materials specific to West Point history and interests, but nothing in our collections is more personal than the letters cadets wrote and received while here at West Point.

The earliest cadet letters in the Library’s collection are two written in 1807 by Samuel Newman to his brother Henry, a Boston lawyer. The Newmans seem to have been a well-established Massachusetts family, and Samuel writes with some aplomb; on his initial visit to West Point he stayed with the first graduate, Captain Joseph Swift, and the Superintendent, Colonel Jonathan Williams, knew his grandmother. These letters remind us that early 19th century America was a small and inter-connected place, in which a letter could be confidently addressed: “Mr. Henry Newman Junr, Boston”, and unfailingly find its intended recipient. On 12 December 1808, Cadet Newman became the 42nd graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. A second lieutenant in the Light Artillery, he served in garrison at Atlantic posts until resigning in 1810, at the rank of  first lieutenant.


West- Point Sunday July 17, 1807 

Dear Henry

I have rec.d the lines of a lawyer’s pen, as also Peggy’s letter dated a month or two since. I sincerely regret that it has not been in my power to answer them before …. I was very wrong however in not acquainting the family with my safe arrival etc. But it may be truly said that at West Point “time taketh to itself wings.” The duties of study and parades are incessant; & the little time allowed for recreation is beguiled by the unavoidable sociability of the place. I have therefore less time at my disposal than even you have…. I must recite two lessons every day besides parading under arms…. I wish to hear oftener from home. What are you all doing? How do you like your new neighborhood…. You may remember I left home with a bad cold; I had not travelled far before my neck became very stiff & my head inflamed & by the time I [had] arrived within twenty miles of Hartford, the jolting [of the] carriage & cold morning & evening air had made me [a] confirmed invalid. I was obliged to stop & go to bed; and after sweating & suffering etc. for three days, having eat but two meals since leaving home, I was enabled to proceed with a reduced purse. On enquiry I found my shortest route to be through New York; where on my arrival having obtained what was necessary, I proceeded to this place. As to uniforms I could do no more than purchase a pretty shabby second hand one; & on the whole have made myself tolerably comfortable, though not precisely so splendid as most on the Point. As to my prospects they are wholly uncertain. Commissions are scarce. In the fall examination I shall obtain a certificate which will lead me to a commission as soon as there are five or six more vacancies in the Artillery Corps. Let me hear from home soon…. I am your affectionate friend & brother 

Samuel Newman

 On December 2 Samuel wrote again: 

Dear Henry,

Your letter of the 15th Oct.r & my father’s of the 10th ulto have been duly rec.d—I have been very lazy & negligent indeed; but my undetermined fate occasioned such a corresponding effect upon my mind as to deprive me of the resolution to write even a letter of friendship. I desired excessively to hear from home without feeling any right to expect it.… I am truly obliged to you & my father for your successful exertions in my behalf, & beg you will present my best respects to Col.n Bradford & thanks for his letter of introduction. Capt.n Swift of the Corps of Engineers, very recently from this place has by this time arrived in Boston. Col.n Bradford may possibly introduce him to you or my father as being able to give you some information respecting me. If he does, I have no doubt you will treat with polite attention a gentleman & man of merit, to whom I am under obligations for many civilities…. The first visit I made to this place, I lived two or three days, as long as I tarried here, at his house; Col.n Williams at that time not being able to lodge me at his own…. Pray answer this letter soon & let me know how my mother is after her severe cold…. How does my venerable grandmother sustain the bleak assaults of the approaching winter. Give my respectful love & tell her Col.n Williams speaks of her with filial affection & respect…. I have rec.d my warrant as cadet in the Regiment of Artillerists, enclosed in the customary official letter from the Secretary of War. It is dated the 30th Oct.r from which time my pay commences. My acceptance was transmitted the 10th Nov .r. Every thing (though tardily) has succeeded to my wishes; & henceforward my exertions will be directed entirely to qualify myself for the duties of my profession. In pursuance of this object & I believe agreeably to my father’s desire, I have determined to reside for this winter at this place. The Cadets are allowed $10 per month & two rations per day or 17 cents per ration. They are allowed all kinds of Stationary & rooms are found for them to live in. There is no such thing as a boarding house here. The life we lead is very similar to a colledge one, except there are no commons; consequently each one has to buy his own Furniture & provisions— bedding, chairs tables, pots, kettles, pans etc. etc. etc. are all necessary for a cadet. There is one or two messes established upon the point of four or five in a mess not unlike a Batchelors Hall. I have entered one of these & therefore some of the furniture became unnecessary & of course I did not purchase them. There is a Library here containing military books to which the cadets have access. I will write you a particular account of this institution in another letter.

Tell Mary & Peggy to write me. …give my love to all the family. I am, your affectionate brother

Samuel Newman

Reading these letters, even 200 years after they were written, gives us a glimpse into a world not so different from our own – where new cadets are homesick and want to hear from their families, are concerned about their future in the Army, and have to make grown-up decisions about their lives as they move out into the world. This is just a sample of the wonderful historic resources we have available for viewing and research in the Special Collections and Archives  – ask us what we have that can help with your next project!

“We have come to dedicate…” Remembering and Memorializing the Battle of Gettysburg

An annotated bibliography prepared by Laura Mosher, Reference & Liaison Librarian


19th Maine Infantry Monument – Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Photo by Laura Mosher

We’ve just passed the 150th Anniversary of one of the most memorable battles of the Civil War, one that took place from July 1 through 3 of 1863, in and around a small town in south central Pennsylvania. The Battle of Gettysburg has fascinated historians, Civil War buffs, and pretty much everyone else almost from the day it ended – recall that President Lincoln gave his now-famous Gettysburg Address not even five months after the battle, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. Since then, Gettysburg and the battle that occurred there have been the subject of countless books, memorials, songs, and even the subject of discussion in a popular sitcom, the Big Bang Theory:

The scene opens with our geeky gang seated at a table in the Cheesecake Factory, moving various condiment containers across the tabletop to signify the movements of soldiers at Gettysburg.

Sheldon: Alright, I’m moving my infantry division, augmented by a battalion of orcs from Lord of the Rings; we flank the Tennessee Volunteers and the North once again wins the Battle of Gettysburg!

Howard: Not so fast! Remember, the South still has two infantry divisions…plus: Superman and Godzilla!

Leonard: No, no, no…the orcs are magic – Superman is vulnerable to magic! Not to mention, you already lost Godzilla to the Illinois Cavalry and Hulk!

Rajesh: Why don’t you just have Robert E. Lee charge the line with Shiva and Ganesh?

Howard: Shiva and Ganesh??!! The Hindu gods against the entire Union Army??!!

Leonard: …and orcs!

Rajesh: Excuse me! Ganesh is the remover of obstacles and Shiva is the Destroyer. When the smoke clears, Abraham Lincoln will be speaking Hindi and drinking mint juleps.

What is it about the Civil War, and the Battle of Gettysburg in particular, that holds such interest for so many? In an attempt to understand some of that fascination, I joined a staff ride held by the Department of History a few years ago and got a chance to walk the same hills and fields that were the site of the significant engagements during the battle. We spent our morning visiting the scenes of Day 1 battles northwest of Gettysburg (McPherson Ridge & Woods – where Gen John Reynolds was mortally wounded; the railroad cut; Oak Ridge and Oak Hill; Barlow’s Knoll) and the afternoon retracing the battles of Day 2 (Devil’s Den & the Slaughter Pen; Little Round Top; the Wheatfield; the Peach Orchard; Cemetery Ridge/Hill; Culp’s Hill). On our final day in Gettysburg, we took the part of a Confederate unit and re-enacted Pickett’s Charge from Seminary Ridge to Cemetery Ridge, under imagined “fire” from Union forces on Round Top and Little Round Top most of the way. While walking the battlefields of Gettysburg gave me a sense of the enormity of the events of 150 years ago, it was difficult to truly comprehend that over the course of three days in and around that small Pennsylvania town, there were some 51,000 casualties (dead, wounded, and missing or captured). Even more difficult was finding a way to understand the effect of that damage and loss on a town of only 2,500 people.  It was an enlightening experience, especially since it has helped me with historical insights that allow me to better assist our cadets as they did the research and writing about the Civil War that their classes here require. 

One of the aspects of Gettysburg that made a lasting impression on me was the way the entire area has become a memorial: every battlefield has markers, statues, and plaques that pay tribute to the units who fought there, the soldiers who died or performed heroic deeds there, and the meaning of each engagement for the battle and sometimes even for the overall conflict between the North and South. This was fascinating to me, and I have been seeking out scholarship and commentary on this aspect of the Battle of Gettysburg ever since. Below, I’ll share the most engaging books I have found in my research, which, instead of focusing on the logistics of battle, the command decisions, and the outcomes of engagements, look at how we as a culture understand and memorialize, appropriate and re-interpret, and continue to be riveted by the “turning point” of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg.

Before delving into the memorial aspect of Gettysburg, it’s appropriate to suggest a few significant books about the battle itself. If you are looking for a book or series of books to acquaint you with the Battle of Gettysburg, you can’t go wrong by consulting these classics in the field: Stephen W. Sears’s Gettysburg, Harry W. Pfanz’s Gettysburg: the First Day and Gettysburg: the Second Day, and Gettysburg: Day Three by Jeffry D. Wert. These books give an overview of the events that took place 150 years ago, each in their own way. Sears’s book covers the entire battle, including a portion of the campaign building up to the encounter in south central Pennsylvania, and is considered an authoritative history which delves into the events of those days in July 1863 in exhaustive detail. Pfanz, a former historian at Gettysburg National Military Park, presents a deeply researched and detailed tactical description of the first day’s fighting in Gettysburg: the First Day, drawing on published and archival sources to present his analysis of the events. His Gettysburg: the Second Day (which he actually wrote first!) is considered by some to be the most complete account of the actions of July 2, 1863 in print, giving a detailed account of the second day’s combat along with a thorough analysis of the decisions and events that took place that day. Finally, Wert’s Gettysburg: Day Three, portrays the last day of the battle, relying heavily on letters, diaries, and other primary sources, taking the reader through Pickett’s Charge and into the evening of July 3rd, providing a coda to the three days of the battle.

If you’re planning a trip to Gettysburg, and are looking for a detailed guide to bring the events of those three summer days to life, check out the Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg, edited by Jay Luvaas, Harold W. Nelson and Leonard Fullenkamp, with maps by Steven Stanley. The Guide is part of the series “The U.S. Army War College Guides to Civil War Battles,” and it’s clearly written by authors with more than a casual feel for their subject. Formatted with routes that match the stops of the battlefield auto tour created by the National Park Service and the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, the Guide includes at every stop the words of the officers who led the men who fought there and reported on their actions and encounters, taken mostly from the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. You’ll get a nearly eyewitness account of the events – as you stand on the very ground where they took place. Guaranteed to give you shivers!

The first book I came across after I returned from the Staff Ride was The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle, by Margaret S. Creighton. In her book, Ms. Creighton explores how these three disparate groups of Gettysburg residents were affected by their participation in or response to the conflicts that surrounded them. This book gave me an introduction to several aspects of the battle that are not generally covered in other literature I have encountered about Gettysburg.

Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, and there seem to be an endless number of books that describe, parse, and evaluate one of the most famous speeches given over the course of America’s recorded history. Lincoln at Gettysburg : the words that remade America, by Gary Wills, and Lincoln’s sword : the presidency and the power of words by Douglas L. Wilson are only two. Wills won the Pulitzer for his examination of both the address and Lincoln in the context of the time period and the President’s cultural and historical knowledge, while the strength of Wilson’s book lies in the insights he gained during his painstaking work transcribing Lincoln’s most famous writings for the Library of Congress, and his detailed recounting of the revisions and refinements Lincoln made to many of his notable speeches, the Gettysburg Address included.

A more introspective examination of the Gettysburg Address – part memoir, part observation, part analysis – has been written by Kent Gramm, in his book November: Lincoln’s Elegy at Gettysburg. Written seemingly day to day as he spent the month of November in Gettysburg, searching for the exact place where Lincoln delivered his address, Gramm’s book ranges far and wide through Novembers throughout history, examining events both famous and deeply personal, in a search for the ultimate meaning and lasting significance of the Gettysburg Address.

When it comes to the monuments and markers on the battlefield, Gettysburg: Sentinels of Stone, by Timothy T. Isbell, is a great place to start. In beautifully composed photographs of memorials throughout Gettysburg, accompanied by text that describes the battles fought by the units or individuals commemorated by the pictured monuments, Isbell’s book provides a gorgeous tour of the commemorations placed at various battlefields and a snapshot of what happened at each memorable place.

During the 1890s, five Civil War battle sites were established as Civil War National Military Parks: Chickamauga-Chattanooga, Antietam, Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg. In his book The Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation: The decade of the 1890s and the Establishment of America’s First Five Military Parks, Timothy B. Smith recounts the process of turning these sites of great conflict into places that were preserved and interpreted. With an introduction that addresses why that particular decade was the right time for these efforts – incorporating the status of the war’s veterans, the end of Reconstruction, and the concept of reconciliation – Smith goes on to describe the establishment of the Gettysburg National Military Park and each of the other parks in great detail. If your interest in this topic extends to some of those other battlefields, you’re in luck, for Smith has also given us A Chickamauga Memorial: The Establishment of America’s First Civil War National Military Park and This Great Battlefield of Shiloh: History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War National Military Park.

Specific to Gettysburg, Jim Weeks’s Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine is a fascinating study of how Gettysburg has been, from just after the battle to the present day, a tourist site, a business, a memorial, and a reflection of how Americans remember and commemorate significant historic events through changing times. Surveying how the battlefields of Gettysburg have variously been treated as curiosities, hallowed ground, locations for re-enactments of battles, and ultimately revelatory of what we prioritize at different times as we pay respect to our past, Weeks’s book is well worth a read for anyone captivated by the Battle of Gettysburg.

In These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory, Thomas A. Desjardin examines the many ways in which Americans have participated in understanding, telling, crafting and reinventing the story of the Battle of Gettysburg since the battle ended. Desjardin brings his knowledge of the battlefields and his historian’s expertise to bear on the cultural and societal constructs that have created – and continue to create – a narrative of Gettysburg that tells us sometimes more about ourselves than about the actual battles that took place there 150 years ago.

Moving a little farther afield from Gettysburg, but keeping to the theme of commemoration and memory, my research has led to me to several books that address important aspects of honoring the Civil War dead. For anyone interested in the concept of reconciliation between the States after the war, and the influence of memorialization on reconciling the North and South, Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation, written by John R. Neff, is a must-read. Neff contends that the ways in which the North and South commemorated the thousands of lives lost during the war served not only to honor those who died, but to emphasize the differences in the ways each side interpreted the war and understood the meaning of the conflict as a whole. He describes how both sides engaged in myth-making during their memorial efforts, leading to two very different views of a “united” America.

Since we’re in the midst of observations of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, logic would lead us to believe that there was a Centennial observation at the time of the 100th Anniversary. For those of us not around during those years, Robert J. Cook’s Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965, can give us some insight into what it was like, 50 years ago, to observe that anniversary. Against the backdrop of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement, efforts to observe the centennial of the Civil War were complicated by each side’s historical memory of the war and its aftermath, the injustices of racism, and the growing activism of the day. Cook recounts the differences between the North and South, the difficulties inherent in finding a common ground while each part of the country tried to observe the anniversary in a way meaningful to its dominant culture, and sets the commemoration into the events taking place not just in the United States but around the world during that era.

These are but a few of the many books we have here in the USMA Library that address how we as Americans have memorialized the Battle of Gettysburg.  I hope that the books I’ve described have introduced an aspect of the Battle of Gettysburg that inspires further investigation, and in that spirit, I’ll conclude with a few recommendations that don’t involve books!  Everyone should make a visit to Gettysburg, and here are a few links to places on the web where more information about both the park in general and the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg commemoration can be found. First, visit the National Park Service website: and their special 150th Anniversary page:, and next, the website of the Gettysburg Foundation: Although the events of the actual anniversary weekend are over, at both of these websites you’ll find links to event guides, walks and tours, and information that you can use at any time when visiting or learning about the Battle of Gettysburg.

Since photography serves, even today, as both a documentary and memorial method of sorts, I highly recommend visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Photography of the Civil War” exhibit. Although we’re getting close to the end of its run (the last day is September 2), it’s well worth a visit.  Showcasing more than 200 images from both the Metropolitan Museum’s collections and private owners, the exhibit catalogs the evolving role of the camera during the Civil War. Check out information on the exhibit here: While there, you can view another exhibit (running concurrently), “The Civil War and American Art,” an examination of how major paintings by American artists responded to the Civil War and its aftermath.

Before you go to the exhibit, or to Gettysburg itself, I invite you to come in and take a look at our collection of books about Gettysburg, to get ready for your travels!