The Last Army Pillow Fight

The United States Military Academy — where young men and women train to become Army officers — has been at West Point, New York, since 1802.  Each year, approximately 1,300 cadets enter as the equivalent of freshmen. In doing so, they become part of many long-standing traditions that are unique to, or originated at, the academy, most of which are harmless. For example, the tradition of giving class rings to graduating students is believed to have originated at West Point in the 1850s. And some something a little stranger, there’s the rumor that if a cadet is at risk of failing a class, there’s a way to get some extra luck — you don a full dress uniform, spin the spurs on a statue of a Civil War general, and then run back to your barracks as quickly as you can. 

And then there’s the pillow fight, seen above.

Being a first-year cadet — a “plebe” — can be a taxing experience, and the first summer particularly so. Students, often just days removed from their high school graduations, are thrown into a demanding basic training regiment which is designed to push them beyond their previous limits. Not all the cadets make it through the summer, but those who do reward themselves with pillow fight to blow off steam. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1897 and became an annual event shortly thereafter. Hundreds and hundreds of plebes would take to the yard, pillows in hand, and bash each other safely. Here’s a video from the 2015 pillow fight; the image above is a screenshot from that event.

Looks harmless, right? Well, looks can be deceiving. A few years back, the academy issued helmets to participants In order to protect against head injuries — despite pillows being soft, taking one to the temple may prove harmful. But during the 2015 fracas, this safety precaution backfired. Instead of wearing the headgear, some cadets loaded these hard shells into their pillowcases. Other foreign objects made their way into the sacks as well. And even in cases where only pillows were used, cadets often blindsided their classmates.

The result was an extensive and gruesome injury list. According to the New York Times, thirty cadets suffered injuries that could hardly be described as minor. One of the cadets was knocked unconscious and needed to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. Another ended up with a broken leg, and at least two others dislocated a shoulder. Two dozen other cadets were diagnosed with concussions. One cadet — who was wearing his helmet — ended up looking like this (warning: his face is very bloody). It was a mess. 

And it was also the end for the tradition. None of the injuries were serious enough to prevent the cadets from returning to their duties in at timely fashion, but after news of the carnage spread, the West Point administration decided that the century-old tradition had run its course. The annual pillow fight, as of November 2015, is no longer. Pillow fights are banned from America’s top Army training institution.

Bonus fact: Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States, graduated from West Point. But he didn’t only get his degree there — he also got his middle initial. Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant but when Representative Thomas L. Hamer sponsored him for admission to the academy, Hamer wrote Grant’s name as “U.S. Grant” accidentally (and for reasons unclear). Grant would later adopt these initials as his own.

From the Archives: General Order Number Eleven: A surprisingly offensive Grant policy.