Marching through the history of West Point

At a little more than two centuries old, the United States Military Academy at West Point is known around the world for turning out famous - and infamous - military leaders. But few people know that West Point graduates are also responsible for such famous - and infamous - creations as the Lincoln Memorial, "Robert's Rules of Order," and Muzak. West Point in the Making of America presents a history of the Academy that's not just for military historians.

Like last week's featured site, "Cover Art: The Time Collection," West Point is an online presence of the Smithsonian Institution, but the two exhibits could hardly be more different in their presentation style. And while those differences are at least partly due to the latter being several years older than the former, the contrast still makes for an effective demonstration in using style to serve intent and subject matter - where Cover Art's navigation encourages a kind of casual exploration akin to flipping through a magazine, West Point's is geared toward a more "orderly," A-to-B-to-C tour. And despite the radically different navigational systems, West Point still presents its content simply and intuitively.

Divided into three main sections, History, Graduates, and Discover, West Point puts the emphasis on History on its opening page, and once that section is launched, uses a scrolling timeline to display its material. The timeline moves according to cursor placement, and expands and contracts as various periods are selected. Content below the timeline traces events from the March 1802, establishment of the United States Military Academy, to the graduation of the first female cadets in 1980. The main content of each page is flanked with Trivia, with such "Related Items" as Ulysses S. Grant's (class of 1843) document of commission as captain (signed by then Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis), details about "Key Figures" in the academy's history, and a truly surprising number of artworks related to the institution. (Unfortunately, even the 'enlarged' versions of the art could stand to be a good deal larger.) [Editor's note: The original version misidentified when Grant received his commission as captain.]

Surprises come early in the History section, as the site mentions that in its early days, the academy was also the nation's foremost school of science and engineering. While both fields have obvious military applications, many graduates went on to distinguish themselves in such civil engineering enterprises as the construction of the Library of Congress and the Panama Canal. A series of interactive maps also reveals the significant role that West Point graduates played in the exploration and mapping of America's expanding West.

Graduates also uses a timeline, in this case introducing the biographies of 51 West Point alumni - from Lee and Grant, to Omar Bradley and Benjamin Davis (the first 20th century African-American graduate, and commander of the Tuskegee Airmen). Each bio contains images when available, summaries of military and civilian life, and pertinent quotes (such as "A general is just as good or just as bad as the troops under his command make him," from Douglas MacArthur, and Omar Bradley's observation on the Korean War: "the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." Viewers can also choose to view only "subsets" of graduates that distinguished themselves in the fields of the Military, Engineering, or Exploration.

A more thorough exploration of exploration is provided by the exhibit's third section, Discover. Along with the previously mentioned interactive maps, Discover also commemorates the expeditions of Gouverneur Warren in the Nebraska Territory. Undertaken from 1855 to 1857, these expeditions resulted in the addition of many scientific specimens to the Smithsonian's own collections, and visitors are invited to retrace some of Warren's discoveries through an interactive 'pin the specimen on the map' activity.

But Discover's "biggest" exhibit is an online reproduction of a 500-foot-long panorama, painted after the Civil War on a roll of canvas, to commemorate the career of Gen. William Rosecrans. Presented in the form of a scrolling slide show (closely approximating the manner in which it was shown - with the canvas on a stage, rolling between two spindles), the panorama also features the same narration that the artist, William Travis, gave as he toured with the work from 1865 to 1871. For the convenience of offline education, all three Discover exhibits also have printer-friendly versions of their contents. Unfortunately, a trio of interactive quizzes appear to have been lost in an early 2005 redesign of Smithsonian websites.

There's a good deal of cross-linking between the main sections, but there is never any confusion about where you are or what you've seen. Still, there were a few puzzling omissions. For example, while covering a period of 1802 to 1980, the site makes only passing mention of World War II, and the absence of Gen. George Patton (Class of 1909) from the list of featured graduates is conspicuous, to say the least.

Military secrets perhaps?

West Point in the Making of America can be found at

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