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Cadets Learn about Rare Books and Life at the Academy in the 19th Century

elaine checkOn 28 and 30 April, cadets enrolled in the EN102 plebe (freshman) English course visited the Library to see a selection of rare books and manuscripts. On display were such disparate treasures as De civitate dei (Venice, 1485), the earliest printed book in Special Collections; Londinopolis (London, 1657), a guidebook to London just before the Great Fire of 1667; Ben Jonson’s Plays (London, 1667); Cadet George S. Patton’s annotated copy of the textbook Elements of Strategy; period reproductions of the Kelmscott Chaucer and Morte d’Arthur; and fine editions of more recent classics like A Farewell to Arms, Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ed A second table illustrated the role literature played in the lives of cadets in the nineteenth century, when diversions were few and news from the outside world was limited, especially after the last boat went down the Hudson in late autumn. The Library was only open to cadets once a week, on Saturday afternoons; books that were borrowed had to be returned on Monday. Circulation records, which begin in 1824, show cadets checking out the same book for weeks on end in order to finish it. Many of these books are still part of today’s library, held now in Special Collections.

EN102 cadets who visited were able to examine well-thumbed biographies like first Chief Justice John Marshall’s Life of Washington (1822), the Langhorne translation of Plutarch’s Lives (1822) and Hazlitt’s Life of Napoleon (1848). Nineteenth century cadets also devoured poetry: the works of Lord Byron and other British poets and, not surprisingly, Edgar Allen Poe. Histories and travel books like A Year in Spain by a Young American (1830) were heavily read, as were magazines like the Edinburgh Review, the Westminster Review and Harper’s Weekly with its serialized chapters by Charles Dickens. As the library grew, so did its fiction collection; at mid-century by far the most popular were Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, followed closely by those of Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Fenimore Cooper. Some examples from each of these categories were on show.

MSS Table

The use of our Special Collections in direct support of the Academy’s
curriculum is both educational and fun. If past history holds, the cadets
who visited during EN 102 will return to us in the future.

 Contents contributed by Susan Lintelmann, Manuscripts Curator

“I’ll take the Medal!” John H. B. Latrobe Designs Original Kosciusko Monument


We all know that the Thomas Jefferson statue located in the rotunda of Jefferson Hall was designed by a former member of the class of 1968, James N. Muir, but did you also know he was not the first non-graduate to design a prominent monument here at the academy?  Follow us back in time to 1824.

John H. B. Latrobe was appointed from Maryland and admitted to the United States Military Academy on September 28, 1818, at the age of fifteen years, five months.   John’s father, Benjamin H. Latrobe of Baltimore, was a prominent architect who designed many public buildings and oversaw the construction of the United States Capitol.

Sadly, Benjamin Latrobe’s untimely death from yellow fever in 1820 eventually compelled John to resign from the academy to provide for his family. On the effective date of his resignation, December 31, 1821, John was just six months shy of graduation and stood first in his class. Register records indicate that he excelled in drawing, as he was one of three cadets who acted as Assistant Teacher in Drawing.

Latrobe became a student of law in the practice of a family friend, but his association with the academy was not over. A few years later The National Gazette, Literary Register: Principles and Men posted the following advertisement:

United States Military Academy, West Point, October, 1824

A GOLD MEDAL, of fifty dollar’s value, will be given by the Corps of Cadets of the United States Military Academy, for the best Design of a Monument to the Memory of Gen. Thad’s Kosciusko.  The Monument is to be erected at West Point, on the spot known by the name of Kosciusko’s Garden.  This place is formed by a table rock, situated  on the bank of the Hudson 41 feet above the level of the Plain, and measuring 34 ½ feet wide.  It is a rude romantic spot, and bears the name of Kosciusko’s Garden, because it had once been his favourite retreat in his leisure moments.  Design to be exhibited by the  1st of January, 1825.

Communications addressed to

Committee of Cadets

The Kosciuszko monument was not an “official” project, as it was undertaken by a committee of cadets and funded by voluntary contribution from the Corps.

An account of Latrobe’s association with the monument is included in John E. Semmes’ John H. B. Latrobe and his times:  1803-1891 (Baltimore, Md: The Norman, Remington Co., c1917):

I cannot now fix the date, but it must have been in 1824 or 1825, that I saw an
advertisement in a New York paper, offering a prize of $50.00, or a gold medal of that value, for the best design of a monument to the memory of Kosciuszko, to be erected at  West Point.  As I had not given up my pencil, I became a competitor, and had the good fortune to succeed.  The Kosciuszko monument on the capital of the North Eastern  bastion of Fort Clinton is of my design.  But a grave question arose when I was informed of  my success,-should I take the medal or the money?  The latter was greatly needed, for my dear mother had her own troubles in making headway against narrow means.  There was considerable consultation, and we both, my mother and myself, settled the matter, saying, ‘We would have gotten along if you had failed, the medal will be an inheritance for your children.’


Latrobe’s submittal included not only the sketch of his proposed design for the monument, but also went on to propose an alternate location.  On February 28, 1825, Cadet J.S. Thompson, Chairman of the Committee, informed Latrobe that his submission had been accepted as the model for the monument.  On March 10, 1825, Latrobe wrote, “Let Kosciuszko simply be the inscription (on the Monument) and on the lowest steps in smaller character, ‘Erected by the Corps of Cadets of the USMA’, and while your river flows and your country exists, no one will be at loss to understand the Monument, its purpose, and its location.”  This illustrated letter (featured below) and other documentation of the monument is included among our Special Collections and Archives.  You will note that the featured photograph of the monument, from an 1868 Class Album, depicts the monument as originally constructed based on Latrobe’s design.  The statue of Kosciuszko was added in 1913; but that’s another story…

Contents contributed by Archives Curator Alicia Mauldin-Ware