West Point – Beyond the Cadets

Since its founding in 1802, the United States Military Academy at West Point has been an essential provider of leaders for the United States Army and armed forces. Many alumni biographies focus on a person’s time as a cadet; this is rightly so, as those years at West Point provided an essential foundation for the future. But some graduates’ biographies also include later service at West Point, as a commissioned officer in a variety of senior roles.

The West Point Corps of Cadets on parade for Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration.

In my research for my latest book, I’ve delved into the various officer roles at West Point. It has expanded my knowledge, and may help you understand officer’s biographies further.

The three most prominent roles are:

Superintendent. The Superintendent is a serving general officer who is in charge of the entire Academy. A prestigious post, some of the most prominent officers in the history of the United States Army have held this position. (The approximate civilian equivalent is university president.)

Commandant of Cadets. The Commandant is the second-ranking officer at West Point, is the commander of the Corps of Cadets, and is the approximate equivalent of a civilian Dean of Students. This is also a prominent post, and many holders have gone on to important subsequent service. Through at least World War II, it was held by a field-grade officer, but now is filled by a brigadier general as the Corps of Cadets has grown.

Tactical Officer/Instructor (Tac). A Tac is a company-grade officer who works closely with the cadets on military training, supervises cadet leaders, and mentors cadets. See this link for details.

These are listed in descending order of rank. By tradition, alumni fill these roles.

To cite notable examples of each from the Civil War era: Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Z.B. Tower, Thomas H. Ruger, O.O. Howard, John Schofield, Wesley Merritt, and John G. Parke all served as Superintendent. Commandants of Cadets included E.A. Hitchcock, Charles F. Smith, Robert S. Garnett, W.H.T. Walker, William J. Hardee, John F. Reynolds, Kenner Garrard, John C. Tidball, Emory Upton, and Thomas H. Neill. Alexander McCook was a tactics instructor.

Of course, officers play other important roles at West Point as academic instructors, administrators, athletic staff, and even athletic director for a time. Many of those roles have evolved in later years; for Civil War officers, the three listed above show up most often in biographies.

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