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Little Known Characters in America: Sylvanus Thayer

Aug 22, 2015   |   by Cal Campbell   |   JG-TC

Known as “the Father of West Point,” Sylvanus Thayer (June 9, 1785 – Sept. 7, 1872) first attended Dartmouth College, graduating in 1807 as valedictorian of his class.

Before Thayer could give the valedictory address at Dartmouth, he was granted an appointment to West Point by President Thomas Jefferson. It took Thayer only one year to complete his degree from West Point and receive his commission as a second lieutenant in 1808.

Needing officers to fight the British in the war of 1812, Thayer directed the fortification and defense of Norfolk, Virginia. His success in the field earned Thayer a battle-field promotion to major.

Sylvanus Thayer
Sylvanus Thayer

Having graduated in the top of his class at West Point, Thayer was given $ 5,000 to travel to Europe to study for two years at the French Ecole Polytechnique. While in Europe he collected a series of science and mathematics texts that now form a valuable collection for historians of mathematics.

Thayer’s outstanding academic and leadership abilities became apparent to President James Monroe, and thus Thayer was appointed superintendent of the Military Academy. Under Thayer’s stewardship, West Point became the nation’s first college of engineering.

Due to a disagreement with President Andrew Jackson, Colonel Thayer was forced to resign from being the superintendent of the Academy in 1833.

Continuing his career in the army, Thayer returned to duty with the Army Corps of Engineers. For the next 30 years he was the chief engineer for the Boston area.

During these 30 years, Thayer oversaw the construction of both Fort Warren and Fort Independence. Both forts were needed to defend the Boston Harbor.

Thayer retired from the military on June 1, 1864. However, President Lincoln then nominated Thayer for the award of the honorary grade of brigadier general, United States Army. Later, the U.S. Senate confirmed the award.

In 1867, Thayer donated $30,000 to the trustees of Dartmouth College to create the Thayer School of Engineering. By 1871, Dartmouth had established a graduate school. Only three students were admitted in 1871, but the program soon grew, and the reputation of the graduates was recognized by both the military and civilian population.

To honor Thayer’s achievements, the Sylvanus Thayer Award was created by the United States Military Academy in 1958.

Thayer died on Sept. 7, 1872, and is buried at the West Point Cemetery.

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