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1917-1918: Establishment of Camp A. A. Humphreys

The U.S. Army began utilizing the Belvoir peninsula as an engineer training facility in1915, which they named Camp Belvoir. The facility evolved from the U.S.Army’s Engineer School, which was established in 1866 at Willet’s Point (now Fort Totten), New York. In 1901, the school relocated to Washington Barracks (now Fort McNair) in Washington, D.C. Although Washington Barracks provided ample classroom facilities, that installation lacked adequate field training areas and rifle ranges. As a result, the school was forced to seek additional training space.

In 1912, the Engineer School began conducting summer training exercises on a government-owned parcel in Virginia, located approximately 15 miles south of Washington along the Potomac River. The District of Columbia had acquired the1,500-acre tract on the Belvoir peninsula in 1910 from the Otterback family, for development of a reformatory. However, local community groups and patriotic organizations, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, opposed the establishment of a reformatory on ground so closely associated with George Washington and the other “founding fathers” of the country. Thus, the reformatory never materialized at Belvoir, but was later constructed in nearby Lorton.

In 1912, Congress transferred the Otterback property to the War Department, following an Army request to use the land as a training site. This site was chosen by the Engineer School because of its proximity to the existing school, its adequate water supply and its challenging terrain. Here, engineer students conducted rifle practice, trained in building ponton bridges, and billeted in temporary Camp Belvoir.

America’s entry into World War I in April 1917 led to the first wave of military construction at the Virginia training site. Construction of the semi-permanent cantonment, named Camp A.A. Humphreys in honor of Civil War commander and former Chief of Engineers (1866-79), Major General Andrew A. Humphreys, began in January 1918 under very difficult conditions. The Winter of 1918 was remembered for its extremely cold temperatures and unusually heavy snowfall. Despite these severe conditions, some 5,000 soldiers and 6,000 civilians cleared, surveyed, and constructed camp facilities in only 11 months. Much of the heavy labor was performed by segregated African-American service battalions. According to the first issue of the camp newspaper, The Castle, Camp A.A. Humphreys was “the wonder city in the midst of an unbroken wilderness of forest and swamp” where “the Washingtons and the Fairfaxes hunted the fox.”

The development of Camp A.A. Humphreys transformed the agrarian neighborhood around Accotink and Woodlawn; one historian described the establishment of the camp as “the second invasion by the armed forces” of the Woodlawn neighborhood. Many residents were displaced from their homes and farms, sometimes unwillingly. Many of the members of the Woodlawn Quaker Meeting, who had lost properties, moved elsewhere, and as a result, the long-standing Quaker influence in the Woodlawn neighborhood declined. Through purchase or condemnation, the Army acquired additional acreage during 1917 and 1918, fourteen farms on the peninsula between Accotink and Pohick Creeks were transformed into target ranges, two large parcels along Dogue Creek were taken through government condemnation proceedings, and the purchase of a 3,300-acre parcel that today comprises most of the North Post and Davison Army Airfield was in process by 1918.

Transportation systems and utilities also were improved. Previously, the most direct access to the Belvoir Peninsula had been by boat down the Potomac from Washington – the most efficient way of supplying the camp with building materials and other necessities. Road systems therefore were improved: the unpaved Washington-Richmond Highway was surfaced in concrete within six months (October 1918), and a plank road was constructed that linked the camp to the Washington-Richmond Highway. Standard gauge and narrow gauge railways followed. The Mount Air property was used to construct a railway linking Camp Humphreys with the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. Building these transportation system not only facilitated deliveries to the camp, but provided valuable engineer training experience for troops sent to the battle lines in Europe.

To accommodate the 20,000 men anticipated at the camp, plans called for the construction of 790 temporary wood-frame buildings. Quarters were filled as soon as they were completed. A consistent supply of fresh water was assured through the construction of a dam across Accotink Creek and a water filtration plant on the site of the former Accotink Mill. Within only four months of the start of the construction, Camp A.A. Humphreys operated in full swing.

Several schools operated at Camp A.A. Humphreys during World War I. One of the most vital components of the camp was the Engineer Replacement and Training Camp, where enlisted men were trained. Camp A.A. Humphreys was also active in training officers during the war. The Engineer Officers’ Training Center operated at Camp Humphreys until February 1919. Its program was designed to select the most qualified enlisted men for training as junior officers. Another school located at Camp A.A. Humphreys was the Army Gas School, necessitated by the advent of chemical warfare. The school of Military Mining taught trench warfare and field fortification techniques. The schools conducted most of their training on the South Post although parts of the southwest peninsula were used for rifle ranges. By the end of the war, over 50,000 enlisted men and 4,900 officer candidates had been trained at Camp A.A. Humphreys.

Life at Camp A.A. Humphreys did not consist solely of military training. Considerable attention was paid to maintaining troop morale. At least six charitable service organizations—the YMCA, Knights of Columbus, the Jewish Welfare Board, the Red Cross, the YWCA, and the Library Board—maintained a permanent presence on the installation. These groups offered social and recreational events for both enlisted men and officers. World War I trainees could participate in inter-installation athletics; improve their basic reading and writing skills; learn to speak French; watch movies and vaudeville shows; visit Washington, D.C.; and attend dances. Troops at Camp Humphreys suffered severely during the late Summer and Autumn of 1918 during the world-wide Spanish Influenza pandemic. The number of troops treated at the camp was at least 4,000; with a mortality rate of 35%.

At war’s end in November 1918, Camp A.A. Humphreys became a demobilization center where troops were prepared for their return to civilian life. By the close of 1919, more than 14,000 men had been demobilized at Camp A.A. Humphreys. The camp retained a small garrison after the war. In 1919, the 5th Engineer Regiment from Camp A.A. Humphreys was called to Washington D.C. to help quell racially motivated civil disturbances.

Inter-War Period: 1919-1939

Unlike many temporary Army installations established during World War I and closed following the war, Camp A.A. Humphreys remained active and continued to expand. By 1919 the camp had grown from its original 1,500 acres to approximately 6,000 acres.

The Army's commitment to the post was demonstrated by the official relocation of the Engineer School from the Washington Barracks to Camp A.A. Humphreys in 1919. Although the school had been utilizing the area as a training site since 1915, it was not until 1919 that the camp became the "home" of the Corps of Engineers. Following the Engineer School's move, Camp A.A. Humphreys was designated a permanent post in 1922 and renamed Fort Humphreys. Throughout the inter-war years, the Engineer School trained new engineer officers in the technical requirements of their duties. Programs offered included forestry, road and railroad construction, camouflage, mining, surveying, pontoon construction, photography, printing, and cooking.

The school also provided compressed courses for National Guard and Reserve officers. The four-week ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) camps, which drew would-be Army Engineers from universities across the country, continued the facility's pre-World War I tradition of using the original 1,500-acre site as a summer training camp. ROTC cadets received basic training in standard military tactics through such courses as bayonet drill and target practice; military administration and military law, first aid and sanitation; and two levels of engineering courses in such specializations as bridgebuilding, demolition, reconnaissance, and railroad construction. Of course, ROTC camp experiences were not all work; the camp had a yearbook, an orchestra, and an organized program of athletic competition. The camp hostess also made certain that the would-be officers socialized with acceptable young ladies from the surrounding neighborhood.

Another addition to Fort Humphreys during the inter-war period was the Engineer Board, which relocated to Fort Humphreys in 1924. The Engineer Board, forerunner of the Belvoir Research, Development and Engineering Center, was founded in 1870 to test engineering equipment. At Fort Humphreys, the Board's mission was to develop specialized engineering equipment. Its establishment marked the beginning of the installation's role in military research and development. During the inter-war period, the Board developed numerous items to make troops more effective and more comfortable in combat. Among the many innovations were assault boats, portable steel bridges, mine detectors, and even portable bathing units.

One of the more dramatic changes to Fort Humphreys during the inter-war period was its physical transformation. By the 1920s, the installation's original temporary buildings had deteriorated, as had most of the Army's other temporary training cantonments that were hastily built during World War 1.

In 1926, the Army initiated an ambitious, nation-wide building program designed to address growing concerns over the deplorable living conditions reported at the nation's military installations. The program aimed to replace World War I temporary wooden buildings with permanent buildings. The program was financed through the sale of 43 military installations; money received from the sales was deposited into a special fund designated the "Military Post Construction Fund."

The Army's nationwide re-building program resulted in a massive construction effort that involved both military and civilian architects, planners, and designers. Standardized architectural plans were developed by the Army's Quartermaster Corps to carry out the construction program effectively and economically. These plans included designs that adapted to local climatic conditions and that reflected local architectural history. The Georgian Colonial Revival style, characterized by red brick facades, strict symmetry, and pedimented central pavilions, was used most often in the eastern areas of the country, where English settlements were clustered in the colonial period. The Spanish Colonial Revival style, characterized by stucco walls and clay tile roofs, was favored for posts in the south and the west, in areas of traditional Spanish influence.

Many of Fort Belvoir's most important buildings were constructed as a result of the nation wide rebuilding program. Most of Fort Humphreys' temporary wood-frame World War I buildings were demolished; in their place, new permanent masonry construction buildings were erected. At Belvoir, the new buildings included officers' housing, barracks, and a hospital, all designed in a Georgian Colonial Revival style.

The landscape plan adopted for Fort Humphreys also exemplified Army efforts to improve the quality of life for its personnel and the aesthetic beauty of its installations. George B. Ford, planning adviser to the War Department during the 1920s, encouraged installations to turn away from more formal, traditional planning practices, particularly the use of straight lines and rigid geometric patterns. He advocated creating useful and aesthetically pleasing environments that took advantage of natural vistas and used irregular lines. Quartermaster Corps officer, First Lieutenant Howard B. Nurse, also influenced Army planning at this time. Like Ford, he advocated the integration of natural topography in the design and layout of streets, especially in residential areas. The results of Nurse's and Ford's philosophies are most apparent in the configuration of the officers' housing sections at Belvoir today.

These new planning concepts were implemented at installations nation-wide, including Fort Humphreys. The elaborate new layout for Fort Humphreys called for separate functional areas united in a formal plan. Administrative and instructional buildings were arranged along one side of the parade ground, with barracks, theater, gymnasium, post exchange, and post office in two squares on the opposite side of the parade ground. Non-commissioned officer housing was arranged in two blocks behind the barracks area, while the officers' housing was placed along a picturesque, curving road in a park-like setting, Warehouses and support buildings were located at the edge of the new post plan.

Another development at the post during the inter-war period was a renewed interest in the history of the area, particularly of William Fairfax's Belvoir Plantation. During the 1920s, two lieutenants at the post, Karrick and Kohloss, surveyed and described the ruins of the old Fairfax mansion, and attempted to reconstruct its historic appearance and layout. At about the same time, Fairfax Harrison, a locally-prominent historian and President of the Southern Railroad, sponsored the construction of the monument obelisk that today marks the graves of William Fairfax and his wife. In 1931, Colonel Edward. H. Schulz, Commanding Officer of Fort Humphreys, initiated the first archeological project at the plantation ruins. Vegetation was cleared, and excavation revealed the foundations of the large mansion, its outbuildings, and the outline of an elaborate walled flower garden with two garden houses that overlooked the Potomac River from the 100-foot bluff.

While Schulz' excavation techniques were somewhat primitive by modern standards, the archeological project generated a tremendous amount of public interest. There was some talk of reconstructing the manor house to serve as the commanding officer's quarters, and, in 1935, the name of the installation was changed from Fort Humphreys to Fort Belvoir. It is said that the name change occurred after President Franklin D. Roosevelt's visit to neighboring Gunston Hall, whose owner informed the president of the post's historic past.


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