Fort Myer History
|Fort Myer, Virginia, traces its origin as a military post to the Civil War. Since then it has been an important Signal Corps post, a showcase for Army cavalry and site of the first flight of
an aircraft at a military installation and the first military air fatality.
The acres encompassing Fort Myer and Arlington National Cemetery were called Arlington Heights when they were owned in the 1800s by Mary Anna Randolph, granddaughter of George Washington Parke Custis. Custis was Martha Washington's grandson. Mary Anna Randolph married Robert E. Lee when he was a young Army lieutenant. Lee helped rescue the estate from financial disaster in 1858, left the area in April 1861 to lead the Confederate Army, never to return.
The land was confiscated by the government for military purposes when the Lees were unable to pay their property taxes in person. Part of the estate became Arlington National Cemetery and the remainder Fort Whipple, named in honor of Maj. Gen. Amiel Weeks Whipple, a division commander at Fort Cass which was established where the stables are today in August 1861. Gen. Whipple fought in the Civil War battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in Virginia. He died of his wounds from Chancellorsville in 1863.
Fort Whipple, on 256 acres, 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, 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, primarily to honor the late chief signal officer, but also to eliminate confusion created by the existence of another Fort Whipple in Arizona.
In 1887, Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, the Army's commanding general, decided Fort Myer should become the nation's cavalry showplace. Communications people moved out and cavalrymen moved in, including the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, supported by the 16th Field Artillery Regiment. As many as 1,500 horses were stabled at the fort during any given time from 1887 to 1949, and Army horsemanship became an important part of Washington's official and social life.
Most of the buildings at the north end of Fort Myer were built between 1895 and 1908. Many of those still standing have been designated historic landmarks by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the state of Virginia. 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 one of his planes in the air for a minute and 11 seconds. The second test flight ended in tragedy when, after four minutes aloft, the aircraft crashed. Wright was severely cut and bruised, and a passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, became the first powered aviation fatality.
Defensive 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 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) was reactivated in 1948 and assigned to Forts Myer and Lesley J. McNair in Washington to become the Army's official ceremonial unit and security force in the Washington metropolitan area.