About History

About History

About the Department of History

The United States Military Academy formed the Department of History on June 15, 1969. Prior to its formation, several separate departments had offered instruction in military history and what was sometimes called political or modern history.

In 1818 the Superintendent of the Military Academy, Sylvanus Thayer, provided for the appointment of a Professor for Ethics, History, and Geography, and thereby established a new department, even though instruction in these areas was previously provided. The new department focused upon the field of international law, and instruction in geography and modern history did not receive strong emphasis until 1883.

Parallel developments in military history instruction arose within the Department of Civil and Military Engineering with the appointment of Dennis Hart Mahan as Professor in 1832. In response to the Board of Visitor’s suggestion that “the principles of strategy or grand tactics might be taught with advantage,” Mahan offered some instruction on strategy and the science of war as an adjunct to military engineering. Instruction in strategy and the science of war eventually evolved into the teaching of the history of the military art, which later became known as military history. Except for a brief period in 1864, the teaching of the history of the military art remained with the Department of Civil and Military Engineering until 1923.

In the field of humanities, instruction in modern history was reintroduced in 1883 under William M. Postlethwaite, the Professor of Ethics, History and Geography. Instruction in history subsequently fused with that of law, resulting in the faculty of the Department of Law and History teaching both disciplines. This combination lasted for twelve years until the creation of the Department of English and History in 1908.

With the appointment of Douglas MacArthur as Superintendent in 1918, the curriculum evolved, emphasizing a liberal pattern of general education and introducing courses in government and economics. In 1926, the Academy created the Department of Economics, Geography, and History which assumed responsibility for instruction in modern history. Later, this department became the Department of Social Sciences.

The Department of Civil and Military Engineering transferred responsibility for the teaching of military history to the Department of Tactics in 1923, consolidating the teaching of similar subjects. In 1929, instruction in military history returned to the Department of Civil and Military Engineering. By 1933, one-half of the total hours taught by this department – which eventually became known as the Department of Military Art and Engineering – were devoted to military history.

On June 15, 1969, the Department of History became a separate department. By July 1, 1970, the first Department Head, Thomas E. Griess, had combined the history of the military art program of the former Department of Military Art and Engineering with the modern history program of the Department of Social Sciences. The department’s program included core courses in modern history and the history of the military art, as well as a new slate of electives. The Department today remains one of the U.S. Military Academy’s largest academic departments, offering a wide range of courses in American, European, Military, and International and Strategic history.

The Department's study and research of History has evolved over time, developing Centers of Oral History, Digital History, and Holocaust and Genocide study. Each one is a leader in its field, furthering the breadth and depth of our understanding of the past, as well as how to better demonstrate a historical understanding to Cadets. Instructors are also leaders in long term research projects, such as the Black History Project and the Hudson Valley in the American Revolution, shining a spotlight on possibly lesser known or otherwise understudied or neglected areas of history.

The Department, through the Digital History Center, is also the home of world-renowned atlases of historical battles and conflicts, originally designed by Mr. Ed Krasnaborski, but since updated and revised by various department cartographers, providing unparalleled understanding of warfare through thousands of years of history.