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Sylvanus Thayer

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Sylvanus Thayer
Sylvanus Thayer, painting by Robert Weir
Nickname(s)"Father of the Military Academy"
Born(1785-06-09)June 9, 1785
Braintree, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedSeptember 7, 1872(1872-09-07) (aged 87)
Braintree, Massachusetts, U.S.
Resting Place
West Point Cemetery, West Point, New York
AllegianceUnited States of America
Service/branchUnited States Army
Union Army
Years of service1808 – 1863
Rank Colonel
Brevet Brigadier General
Commands heldSuperintendent of the United States Military Academy
Battles/warsWar of 1812

Colonel and Brevet Brigadier General Sylvanus Thayer (June 9, 1785 – September 7, 1872) also known as the "Father of the Military Academy",[1] was an early superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point and an early advocate of engineering education in the United States.

Early life and education[edit]

Sylvanus Thayer was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, the son of Nathaniel Thayer, a gentleman farmer, and his wife Dorcas Faxon.[2] In 1793, at the age of 8, Thayer was sent to live with his uncle Azariah Faxon and attend school in Washington, New Hampshire. There he met General Benjamin Pierce, who, like Faxon, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. In 1803 Thayer matriculated at Dartmouth College, graduating in 1807 as valedictorian of his class. However, he never gave the valedictory address at Dartmouth, having been granted an appointment to West Point by President Thomas Jefferson at the behest of General Pierce. Thayer graduated from the United States Military Academy after a single year and received his commission as a second lieutenant in 1808. His first assignment was to supervise the construction of Fort Warren (later renamed Fort Winthrop) in Boston Harbor, foreshadowing the bulk of his later career.[3]

During the War of 1812, Thayer directed the fortification and defense of Norfolk, Virginia, and was promoted to major. In 1815, he was provided $5,000 to travel to Europe, where he studied for two years at the French École Polytechnique. While traveling in Europe he amassed a collection of science and especially mathematics texts that now form a valuable collection for historians of mathematics.[4]

Superintendent of West Point[edit]

In 1817, President James Monroe ordered Thayer to West Point to become superintendent of the Military Academy following the resignation of Captain Alden Partridge. Under his stewardship, the Academy became the nation's first college of engineering.[5][6]

While at West Point Thayer established numerous traditions and policies which are still in use at West Point. These include the values of honor and responsibility, strict mental and physical discipline, the demerit system, summer encampment, high academic standards and the requirement that cadets maintain outstanding military bearing and appearance at all times.

One of Thayer's reforms was to establish a standard four year curriculum with the cadets organized into four classes. Starting with the Class of 1823, July 1 was the date each year when the graduating class was commissioned and the entering class was sworn in. The graduation date was moved up to June 15 starting in 1861.

Many of the cadets who attended West Point during Thayer's tenure held key leadership positions during the Mexican War and American Civil War.

Statue and Memorial to Sylvanus Thayer

Later career[edit]

Colonel Thayer's time at West Point ended with his resignation in 1833, after a disagreement with President Andrew Jackson. He was elected an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1834.[7]

Thayer returned to duty with the Army Corps of Engineers. Thayer spent the great majority of the next 30 years as the chief engineer for the Boston area. During this time he oversaw the construction of both Fort Warren and Fort Independence to defend Boston Harbor. Thayer's great engineering ability can be observed in both of the above-mentioned forts. He was elected as a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1838.[8]

Thayer was a member of the Board of Engineers for Coast Defenses, April 2, 1833, to December 21, 1857, and was President of the Board from Dec. 7, 1838. He temporarily commanded of the Corps of Engineers from December 21, 1857, to December 22, 1858, while its commander, Colonel Joseph G. Totten, was on a leave of absence. In December 1858 Thayer was placed on an extended sick leave of absence. He did not play an active role in the American Civil War.

In August 1861, Fort Thayer, an earthwork fort part of the Civil War Defenses of Washington, DC, was built and named in his honor.[9]

Thayer retired from the Army on June 1, 1863, with the rank of colonel in the Corps of Engineers. He was retired under the first act regulating the retirement of Army officers which required the retirement of any officer with more than 45 years of service.

Death and legacy[edit]

In 1869, as a result of Thayer's enduring legacy at the United States Military Academy, a meeting took place in Braintree between Thayer and the West Point graduate and Civil War hero Brigadier General Robert Anderson. An outcome of Anderson's 1869 meeting with Thayer was the establishment of the Military Academy's Association of Graduates (AoG).

In 1867, Thayer donated $40,000 to the trustees of Dartmouth College to create the Thayer School of Engineering. Thayer personally located and recommended USMA graduate Lieutenant Robert Fletcher to Dartmouth president Asa Dodge Smith. Fletcher became the school's first—then only—professor and dean.

The Thayer School admitted its first three students to a graduate program in 1871. Also in 1871 at the bequest of his will Thayer Academy in Braintree, Massachusetts, was conceived. It opened September 12, 1877.

Thayer died on September 7, 1872, at his home in Braintree. He was reinterred at West Point Cemetery in 1877. Thayer's obituary appeared in the New York Times on September 8, 1872.[2]


Thayer's papers and manuscripts are divided between the U.S. Military Academy Library, West Point, New York, and the Dartmouth College Library, Hanover, New Hampshire.[2]

Honours, decorations, awards, and distinctions[edit]

In 1852 herpetologists Spencer Fullerton Baird and Charles Frédéric Girard of the Smithsonian Institution named a species of lizard in honor of Thayer, Sceloporus thayeri, which was later placed in the synonymy of Sceloporus undulatus hyacinthinus.[10]

On April 21, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln nominated Thayer for the award of the honorary grade of brevet brigadier general, United States Army (Regular Army), to rank from May 31, 1863, the day before he retired,[11] for long and faithful service.[12] The U.S. Senate confirmed the award on April 27, 1864.[11]

To honor his achievements, in 1958, the Sylvanus Thayer Award was created by the United States Military Academy. He has been honored by the United States Postal Service with a 9¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.

Thayer Street, in the Inwood, Manhattan section of New York City, is named after him.[13]

The house where Thayer was born in Braintree, Massachusetts is preserved and open to the public.

Sculptor Joseph Kiselewski[14] created a thirty-two inch bust of Sylvanus Thayer for the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at New York University in the Bronx, New York City. It was installed in 1966.

The Pale Blue Eye (2022) is a film adaptation of the 2003 novel by Louis Bayard featuring Timothy Spall as Thayer.

Dates of rank[edit]

Insignia Rank Date Branch
No insignia Cadet 20 March 1807 United States Military Academy
Second Lieutenant 23 February 1808 Corps of Engineers
First Lieutenant 1 July 1812 Corps of Engineers
Captain 13 October 1813 Corps of Engineers
Major 20 February 1815 Brevet
Lieutenant Colonel 3 March 1823 Brevet
Major 24 May 1828 Corps of Engineers
Colonel 3 March 1833 Brevet
Lieutenant Colonel 7 July 1838 Corps of Engineers
Colonel 3 March 1863 Corps of Engineers
Brigadier General 31 May 1863 Brevet
Colonel 1 June 1863 Retired list

Bibliography [2][edit]

  • Stephen E. Ambrose, Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point (1966)
  • Thomas J. Fleming, West Point: The Men and Times of the United States Military Academy (1969)
  • James L. Morrison Jr., "The Best School in the World": West Point, the Pre-Civil War Years, 1833–1866 (1986)
  • George S. Pappas, To the Point: The United States Military Academy, 1802–1902 (1993).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "A Brief History of West Point." United States Military Academy: West Point website. Retrieved 1 August 2023.
  2. ^ a b c d Herman Hattaway, Michael D. Smith. "Thayer, Sylvanus"; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000, accessed [1]; American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ Fort Winthrop at FortWiki.com
  4. ^ "Historical & Library Holdings". Archived from the original on 2004-11-24. Retrieved 2006-05-24.
  5. ^ "Sylvanus Thayer: The Man Who Made West Point | AMERICAN HERITAGE". www.americanheritage.com. Retrieved 2020-04-22.
  6. ^ "Who Was Sylvanus Thayer? | Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth". engineering.dartmouth.edu. Retrieved 2020-04-22.
  7. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter T" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 22 April 2011.
  8. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved 2021-04-09.
  9. ^ 1862 Commission to Study the Defenses Report - Letter to the Secretary of War - Washington, December 24, 1862 - http://www.npshistory.com/publications/cwdw/hrs/appc.htm
  10. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Thayer", p. 264).
  11. ^ a b Eicher, John H., and Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands, p. 737. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3
  12. ^ Hunt, Roger D. and Brown, Jack R. Brevet Brigadier Generals in Blue, p. 608. Gaithersburg, MD: Olde Soldier Books, Inc., 1990. ISBN 1-56013-002-4
  13. ^ "Inwood Street Names". 14 November 2008.
  14. ^ "Sculpture". Joseph Kiselewski. Retrieved 2023-04-06.


  • Eiche, John H., and Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
  • Hunt, Roger D. and Brown, Jack R. Brevet Brigadier Generals in Blue. Gaithersburg, MD: Olde Soldier Books, Inc., 1990. ISBN 1-56013-002-4.
  • Kershner, James William, Sylvanus Thayer – A Biography, Arno Press, New York, 1982, p. 329.
  • Eliot, Major George Fielding, Sylvanus Thayer of West Point, Messner, 1959
  • Lathem, Edward Connery, editor, The Beginnings of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College. The Thayer School of Engineering, Hanover, NH, 1964

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by Superintendents of the United States Military Academy
Succeeded by