Engineering the Empire City: West Point and the Rise of New York

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Margaret S. Thompson

Second Advisor

Anne E. Mosher


Central Park, Civil Engineering, Dennis Hart Mahan, Egbert L. Viele, New York City, United States Military Academy

Subject Categories



Between 1825 and 1898, New York City evolved rapidly from being a vital Atlantic port of trade into the center of American commerce and culture. In the course of this commercial growth and cultural development, New Yorkers made the city the epitome of a nineteenth-century metropolis. While much of this urban transformation has been documented, the role of individuals educated at the United States Military Academy remains mostly unexplored in New York history. George S. Greene, Egbert L. Viele, John Newton, Henry Warner Slocum and Fitz John Porter all studied Dennis Hart Mahan's engineering curriculum, served in the United States Army and then, as civilians, came to New York City to advance their careers and status through the creation of Victorian Gotham. At West Point, Sylvanus Thayer and Dennis Hart Mahan created the nation's first engineering program that had a profound influence on American civil engineering, especially in New York. The West Pointers who were successful in Gotham leveraged their education and military experiences to become significant parts of New York's social, economic, and political transformation before and after the Civil War. This study examines the connections among the three central experiences of the West Pointers--as cadets, military officers, and New Yorkers--and seeks to assess their effects on the transformation of New York City, the rise of professionalization, and the advent of Progressivism at the end of the century.

While not the center of the research, each subject's Civil War service is considered in the context of how that service determined postwar activities in the city. Additionally, this study focuses on the Croton Aqueduct construction, the creation of Central Park, the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the administration of New York's municipal departments as key events where Military Academy alumni interacted with New York elites, politicians and civilian-trained engineers. As a result of these relationships, the United States Military Academy influenced not only the sense of New York identity, but also American civic identity at the end of the nineteenth century.


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