Fort Myer, Virginia, traces its origins to the Civil War and since then, has been a Signal Corps post, a showcase for Army cavalry and site of the first flight of an aircraft at a military installation.
The acreage that is Fort Myer and Arlington National Cemetery was once called Arlington Heights when owned in the late 1850s by Mary Anna Randolph Custis, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson.
Mary Anna married young Army Lt. Robert E. Lee in 1831. Lee, who had graduated second in his West Point class of 1829, later helped rescue the estate from financial ruin in 1860. The Lees left the area in the spring of 1861, and Lee became military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and later, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. He never returned to Arlington.
The government confiscated the land in 1864 when Mrs. Lee did not pay her property taxes in person. Part of the estate became Arlington National Cemetery. The remainder of the estate consisted of Fort Cass (named by the Union Army’s 9th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry soldiers for their commander Col. Thomas Cass), built in 1861 where the Fort Myer Thrift Shop now stands; and Fort Whipple – built in May 1863 – now Whipple Field. Fort Whipple was named in honor of Maj. Gen. Amiel Whipple, a West Point graduate of the class of 1841. A Union officer, Whipple fought in the Civil War battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in Virginia. He died of wounds sustained at Chancellorsville in 1863.
Fort Whipple was one of the stronger fortifications built to defend the Union capital across the Potomac River. Units stationed there lived in tents and temporary frame structures. The fledgling post’s high elevation made it ideal for visual communication, and the Signal Corps took it over in the late 1860s. Brig. Gen. Albert J. Myer commanded Fort Whipple and, in 1866, he was appointed the Army’s first chief signal officer, a post he held until his death in 1880. The post was renamed Fort Myer the next year in his honor.
In 1886, Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, the Army’s commanding general, directed Fort Myer to become the nation’s cavalry showplace. Signal Corps personnel moved out and cavalrymen moved in, including the 3rd Cavalry Regiment between World Wars I and II, supported by the 16th and 55th Field Artillery Battalions. Some 1,500 horses were stabled at Fort Myer in 1940, and Army horsemanship had become an important part of Washington’s official and social life.
Most of the buildings at the north end of Fort Myer were built between 1892 and 1908. Quarters One was completed in 1899 as the post commander’s house, but since 1908, it has been the home of Army chiefs of staff, including Generals George C. Marshall, Omar N. Bradley, Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The first military test flight of an aircraft was made from the Fort Myer parade ground on Sept. 9, 1908, when Orville Wright kept the Wright Flyer in the air for a minute and 11 seconds. The thirteenth test flight ended in tragedy when, after three minutes aloft, the aircraft crashed. Wright was severely injured, and a passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, became the first powered aviation fatality.
Defense troops were stationed at Fort Myer during World War II, when it also served as a processing station for Soldiers entering and leaving the Army. The U.S. Army Band (Pershing’s Own) and the U.S. Army School of Music moved to the post in 1942, joined later by the U.S. Army Chorus. The Army’s oldest infantry unit, the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) was reactivated in 1948 and assigned to Forts Myer and McNair (D.C.) to become the Army’s official ceremonial unit and security force in the Washington metropolitan area.
Fort Lesley J. McNair, on the point of land where the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers join in Washington, D.C., has been an Army post for more than 200 years, third only to West Point and Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, in length of service. The military reservation was established in 1791 on about 28 acres of what then was called Greenleaf Point. Maj. Pierre C. L’Enfant included it in his plans for “Washington, the Federal City,” as a major site for the defense of the capital. An arsenal first occupied the site in 1801; earthen defenses had been there since 1791.
The fortifications did not halt the invading British in 1814. With the British coming overland toward Bladensburg, Maryland, Soldiers at the arsenal evacuated north with as much gunpowder as they could carry, hiding the rest in a well as the Redcoats approached from two directions. About 45 British soldiers were killed and wounded from an accidental explosion when a spark ignited an open barrel of black powder.
“A tremendous explosion ensued,” a doctor at the scene reported, “whereby the officers and about 30 of the men were killed and the rest most shockingly mangled.” The remaining British destroyed the arsenal buildings, but the facilities were rebuilt after the war.
Land was purchased north of the arsenal in 1826 for the first federal penitentiary where the conspirators accused of assassinating President Abraham Lincoln were imprisoned in 1865; after a trial found them guilty, four were executed there by hanging.
Among them was Mary Surratt, the first woman to be executed under federal orders.
The movie “The Conspirator,” recalling these events, came out in 2011.
A hospital was built next to the penitentiary in 1857, and Civil War soldiers who were wounded were treated at what then was called the Washington Arsenal. President Lincoln was a frequent visitor to the arsenal, coming to observe ordnance tests on new weaponry. He also attended the funeral for 21 women war workers who on June 17, 1864, were killed by the explosion of a bin of gunpowder in the room in which they were assembling cartridge cases by hand. A spark ignited fireworks drying outside the building causing the explosion, one of the worst catastrophes to occur in the city of Washington.
The arsenal was closed in 1881, and the post was transferred to the Quartermaster Corps. It was known by the name Washington Barracks. A general hospital was located at the post from 1898 until 1909. Maj. Walter Reed worked there and found the area’s marshlands an excellent site for his research on malaria. The major died of peritonitis after an emergency appendectomy operation at the post in 1902.
The post dispensary now occupies the buildings where Reed worked and died.
About 90 percent of the present buildings on the post’s 100 acres were built, reconstructed or remodeled after 1903.
The post was renamed in 1948 to honor Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, commander of Army Ground Forces during World War II. McNair, who had been headquartered at the post, was killed in Normandy, France, July 25, 1944.
Henderson Hall is located in Arlington, Virginia, directly across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital.
Henderson Hall is situated on Southgate Road on the southern border of Arlington National Cemetery, next door to the Army’s Fort Myer. The Pentagon is a short distance to the east, with the Air Force Memorial immediately to the east.
Built on land acquired through deeds and other actions between 1943 and 1952, Henderson Hall officially became U.S. government property on February 15, 1954, when the governor of Virginia executed a Deed of Cession of Political Jurisdiction.
With the move of Headquarters Marine Corps to the Navy Annex in November 1941, and Marine Corps expansion following the outbreak of World War II, a Headquarters and Service Company was organized at Henderson Hall on March 1, 1942.
Subsequently, the unit was designated Headquarters Battalion on April 1, 1943. A section of Headquarters Battalion of Women Marine Reserves was organized in September 1943 to provide barracks for a portion of the 2,658 women assigned to the Washington, D.C., area. During August 1946, a substantial number of female Marines were released from active duty, making Henderson Hall barracks available for billeting of male Marines.
Henderson Hall owes its name to Colonel (Brevet Brigadier General) Archibald Henderson, fifth commandant of the Marine Corps. Born in Colchester, Virginia, Jan. 21, 1783, he was appointed a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps June 4,1806; promoted to first lieutenant March 6, 1807; to captain April 1, 1811; and was appointed a major, by brevet, in the year 1814.
As a captain during the War of 1812, Henderson participated in the engagements with the British war ships HMS Cyane and HMS Levant on April 20, 1815. He received a silver medal and was included in the thanks of Congress to the officers and men of the USS Constitution for gallant service. He was later presented with a jeweled sword by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
During the years subsequent to the second war with Great Britain, until the year he was appointed commandant, Brevet Major Henderson was on duty at such posts and stations as Boston, Massachusetts; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps; and at New Orleans, Louisiana.
Oct. 17, 1820, at the age of 37, Lt. Col. Henderson was appointed as Commandant of the Marine Corps. He served in the position for more than 38 years – the longest of any officer to hold that position.
During the 1836-37 war with the Seminole and Creek Indians in Georgia and Florida, in which the Marine Corps took an active part, Col. Henderson, as commandant, went in person into the field with his command sharing in the dangers and exposures of that campaign. For his services in checking Indian hostilities, he was advanced to the brevet rank of brigadier general.
During the Mexican War, which was preceded by much military activity on the part of the Marine Corps during the years 1845-46 on the West Coast, Henderson administered the affairs of the Marine Corps. The success attained by the Corps during the war, including its expansion and development from a small fighting force into a well-recognized and very formidable arm of the nation’s military forces, was due in no small measure to the leadership and ability of its commandant.
In 1857, Marines were ordered, at the request of the mayor of Washington, D.C., to suppress an armed mob of “hired roughs and bullies” that had been imported from Baltimore to take possession of the election booths. During the riot, when a cannon was put into position by a large crowd who threatened the Marines, Henderson deliberately placed his body against the muzzle, thereby preventing it from being aimed at the Marines, just at the moment when it was about to be discharged.
He died Jan. 6, 1859. His remains were interred in the Congressional Cemetery in southeast Washington, D.C. The Navy transport, the USS Henderson, was named in his memory.