The most striking fact about the history of the Department of English is that no department of that name existed until 1926. No other department has had such a long and stormy voyage to gain recognition as the Department of English.
Although the United States Military Academy was founded in 1802, its curriculum did not include English until 1825. In that year the Department of Ethicks and Belles Lettres appeared. Thus as “Belles Lettres” English had its humble beginning.
From that beginning, English was taught successively in the Department of Rhetoric, Moral and Physical Science, Geography, History and Ethics, Ethics and English Studies, Geography, History and Ethics, French and English Studies, Modern Languages, English and History, and finally, English (1926).
The classes taking the course and the number of hours assigned to the subject show quite as bewildering a variety as the names of the departments under which English was taught. Originally, only the first class received instruction in English. In 1844 English became one of the studies of the third class. In 1864 the fourth, third and first classes all received instruction in English. As a result of frequent recommendations by the Board of Visitors, English regained its position in the curriculum in 1878 when the study of English became a part of the course for fourth classmen. In 1896 the course covered only 84 recitations during half the school year, but by 1926 English had grown to a two year course with an allotment of 188 recitations. Until 1879 the Chaplain of the Military Academy was in charge of the instruction of English. From 1825 until 1879 Chaplains McIlvaine, Warner, Adams, Marks, Sproule, French and Forsyth assumed the preservation of literary as well as spiritual culture at West Point. In 1879, when the instruction of English was consolidated with that of French, George L. Andrews, the Professor of French, took charge of the English course. During the tenure of office of his successor, Col. E.E. Wood, Lt. Col. O’Hern and Mr. Adams in turn were the nominal heads of the provincial department of English and History. When Congress authorized the Department of English and History in 1910, Col. L. H. Holt took charge and began to stress English. Under his guidance English grew in importance rapidly. In 1921 Major Chilton became acting head of the provisional Department of English. In 1926, when Congress authorized the new Department of English, Lt. Col. Clayton E. Wheat, Chaplain of the Military Academy, became the first Professor. A chaplain of the Military Academy brought English into the curriculum, another chaplain brought it to age.