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TO JAN. 4, 2004

When George Washington first put forth the idea of a United States military academy in 1783, critics cautioned him against facilitating the creation of a European “military aristocracy” in America. Nonetheless, in 1802 West Point opened its doors. Two hundred years later, the USMA has left an indelible boot-print on the forging of this American nation. The Smithsonian’s “West Point in the Making of America, 1802-1918” celebrates the bicentennial of our first service academy, offering an in-depth look into the role of its graduates in “engineering, exploration, and”—of course—”war.” As the exhibition winds its way through 116 years of distinguished alumni—Lee, Grant, Pershing, Eisenhower (pictured)—museumgoers are introduced to such lesser-known West Pointers as Samuel Ringgold and George Goethals. Credited with the creation of the Army’s first “horse artillery” unit, Ringgold (class of 1818) was recorded as the first American casualty in the war with Mexico after being killed by a cannonball during the battle of Palo Alto. Goethals (class of 1880) was the chief engineer of the Panama Canal project before retiring, only to return to duty when America became involved in World War I. Also notably included are a copy of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and a lithograph of Custer (last in his class, 1861) blundering with his 7th Cavalry into his “last stand” at Little Bighorn. The exhibition is on view from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, except Christmas, to Saturday, Jan. 4, 2004, at the National Museum of American History, 14th and Constitution Avenue NW. Free. (202) 357-2700. (P.J. Martinez)