The earliest military establishment in the vicinity of Fort Myer were the earthbound fortifications built in 1812 along the east bank of the Potomac, where the Pentagon now stands. The defense was built to protect Washington, D.C., from attack by the British.
The land currently occupied by Fort Myer traces its ownership to George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington, who owned the land upon which Arlington National Cemetery now stands. The Fort Myer property, originally called Arlington Heights, was later owned by Custis' daughter, Mary Ann Randolph, when she married a young Army Lieutenant, Robert E. Lee. Lee rescued the estate from financial ruin in 1858, but left the area to lead the Confederate Army in April 1861, when the Civil War began. He never returned.
Within a few months, the land was confiscated by the government for military purposes, and three years later it was offered for sale at public auction and bought by the government because the Lees were unable to pay their property taxes in person.
Part of the Arlington Estate became a cemetery for the war dead and the remainder became Fort Whipple. Forerunner of the current installation, it was named in honor of Brevet Major General Amiel Weeks Whipple, a division commander at both the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Whipple was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville and died in 1863.
Overlooking Washington, D.C., and Georgetown to the north and the Virginia countryside to the south, Fort Whipple was considered one of the strongest fortifications built to defend the Union's capital. Its first occupants were artillery and infantry units housed in tents and other temporary frame structures. The Signal Corps took over the post by the late 1860s because high elevation made it ideal for visual communications.
In 1881, Fort Whipple was redesignated Fort Myer in honor of Brigadier General Albert J. Myer. During his career he served as commanding officer of Fort Whipple and was appointed the Army's first chief signal officer in 1866, a position he held until his death in 1880. The post was renamed, primarily to honor him, but also to eliminate confusion raised by the existence of a second Fort Whipple in Arizona.
For the next five years, Signal Corps troops continued to man the post. Then in 1887, General Philip H. Sheridan, the Army's commanding general, decided to transform the post into the cavalry showplace of the nation. He transferred the communications unit and assigned horsemen to the post. During the next 22 years, U.S. Army horsemanship became an important part of the official and social life in Washington. As many as 1,500 horses were stabled at Fort Myer during this time.
From its beginning, Fort Myer played a special role in national and military history. The first military test flight of an aircraft was made from the present-day parade grounds in September 1908. Orville Wright succeeded in keeping the plane aloft for one minute and 11 seconds. After more than four minutes in the air, the second test flight ended with a tragic crash. Orville Wright was severely cut and bruised and his passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, became the first powered-aviation fatality. Selfridge is buried in Section 3, Lot 2158, Grid QR-13/14 of Arlington National Cemetery..
Most of the buildings on the northern part of the post were built between 1895 and 1908. Many of the buildings constructed during that period still stand and have been designated historic landmarks by either the Department of the Interior or by the State of Virginia.
No history of Fort Myer would be complete without mentioning Quarters One, the residence of the Army's senior uniformed officer. Completed in 1899, it was originally designated to serve as the post commander's house, but has been home to the U.S. Army chief of staff since 1908. Since that time it has been home to many famous Americans — Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar N. Bradley — to name a few.
During World War II, Fort Myer served as a military in-processing and out-processing station. Defense troops were also stationed there throughout the war.
The U.S. Army Band, “Pershing's Own,” moved to Fort Myer in 1942. Six years later, two battalions of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, the oldest regular Army regiment, were reactivated and assigned to Fort Myer and Fort McNair. Known as the Old Guard, this infantry unit assumed responsibility as the Army's official ceremonial and security force in Washington, D.C.
In the early 1960s Fort Myer was the sight of another spurt of construction. This growth included the building of a modern tri-service dining facility to better serve the Army, Navy and Air Force personnel living on the post. Additionally, a second chapel, new recreation facilities and one of the Army's largest freestanding ambulatory health care clinics were built.
Today, Fort Myer is under the jurisdiction of the commanding general, U.S. Army Military District of Washington, but has its own Army Garrison commander who provides housing, service and support to thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen working in a wide variety of agencies throughout the nation's capital.
With its elite ceremonial units, unique history and location adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, Fort Myer continues to serve the nation's capital in the finest military tradition.
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard