This Day in Jewish History, 1802

West Point Graduates Its First Officers, Half of Them Jewish

Simeon Magruder Levy would distinguish himself in battle but, crippled by rheumatism, wound up resigning his commission.

Library of Congress

On October 12, 1802, when the first class of cadets graduated the U.S. Military Academy, at West Point, New York, one of its two members was Simeon Magruder Levy, a Jew.

West Point, as it is commonly called, is the U.S. Army’s officers training school, today offering a four-year undergraduate program that turns out 1,000 new officers per year. It is situated at a turn in the Hudson River some 80 kilometers from New York City, where the Continental Army first established fortifications in 1778, during the Revolutionary War.

In 1802, when its first group of 12 cadets began their studies there, West Point was intended to provide training for military engineers, but had no standard length of duration of the program, nor fixed admission standards.

Simeon Magruder Levy (some records give his first name as “Simon”) was probably born on or about January 18, 1774. Although no birth certificate is known to exist, a Yiddish-language record of his circumcision, signed by the mohel (ritual circumciser) Barnard Jacobs, is dated to January 25 of that year, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Unless medical conditions prevent it, the brit milah is generally performed on the eighth day of life.

Historian Ira Rosenwaike has established with some certainty that Simeon was the son of Levy Andrew Levy and his wife Susanna. Levy Andrew Levy was a fur trader and land speculator; in 1784, he noted in a letter that he had been a resident of Lancaster for 38 years. By 1799, however, the family seems to have moved to Baltimore, Maryland.

Distinguished in battle

According to historian Jacob Rader Marcus, Simeon joined the ranks of the American army in 1790, when he was 16. He distinguished himself in his participation in the Battle of Fallen Timbers (also called the Battle of Maumee Rapids), on August 20, 1794.

The battle, which took place near present-day Toledo, Ohio, marked the end of the Northwest Indian War, a decade-long struggle between the newly independent United States and a coalition of Indian tribes, aided by the British, for control of the Northwest Territory, a large area bordered on the north by the Great Lakes and on the west by the Mississippi River.

U.S. Army, Wikimedia Commons

Levy’s lone colleague in the 1802 class at West Point was Joseph Gardner Swift (1783-1865), who went on in 1812 to become the school’s superintendent and the army’s chief of engineers. In his memoir, Swift noted that his classmate Levy was a “member of a responsible Jew family of Baltimore and formerly a sergeant in Capt. [Benjamin] Lockwood’s Company of Infantry and thence promoted to cadet for his merit and mathematics attainments.” 

In great Pain

Sadly, Simeon Magruder Levy’s career as an officer was short. In 1804 he was assigned a position as engineer at Fort James Jackson, Georgia, and that was followed by a move to Fort Wilkinson, also in Georgia.

But in April of the following year, Levy was writing to Samuel Smith, of Baltimore, who was apparently a commander of his in the 1790s, requesting Smith’s help in appealing to the secretary of war to reassign Levy from the engineers corps to the artillery. Levy had been suffering from “the Rheumatism” since being exposed over successive winters to “the colds and damps,” he wrote. After having tried “every medical aid in vain,” he was now hoping to be moved to New Orleans temporarily, which he saw as “the only untried mean within my knowledge, to regain the use of my limbs, and be eased of Pain.”

Levy’s campaign seems to have failed: He resigned his officer’s commission for reasons of health on September 30, 1805, and by March 1807, still in Georgia, he was dead, possibly a victim of yellow fever. His place of burial is not known.

Over the past two centuries, West Point has graduated approximately 900 Jewish officers. It has a Jewish chapel, and since the mid-20th century, it has hosted the Jewish Cadet Chapel Choir, whose members, who include both Jews and non-Jews, sing a number of Hebrew and Jewish songs at a variety of occasions.  

Wikimedia Commons