History of Fort Lesley J. McNair
Fort Lesley J. McNair, DC is located on the point of land where the Potomac
and Anacostia rivers join in Washington, D.C. It has been an Army post for
more than 200 years, third only to West Point and Carlisle Barracks 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 and defenses were built in 1794. The fortifications
did not halt the invading British in 1814. Soldiers at the arsenal evacuated
north with as much gun powder as they could carry, hiding the rest in a well
as the Redcoats came up the Potomac from burning the capitol. About 47 British
soldiers found the powder magazines they'd come to destroy empty. Someone
threw a match into the well and "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 soldiers 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.
The conspirators accused of assassinating President Abraham Lincoln were imprisoned
and, after being found guilty, four of the conspiritors were hanged and the
rest received prison sentences. Among those hanged was Mary Surratt, the first
woman ever executed under federal orders. A hospital was built next to the
penitentiary in 1857, and Civil War wounded were treated at what then was
called the Washington Arsenal. The arsenal was closed in 1881, and the post
transferred to the Quartermaster Corps.
A general hospital, predecessor to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, was
located at the post from 1898 until 1909. Maj. Walter Reed found the area's
marshlands an excellent site for his research on malaria. Reed's work contributed
to the discovery of the cause of yellow fever. The major died of peritonitis
after an appendectomy at the post in 1902. The post dispensary and the visiting
officers' quarters now occupy 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 by 1908. In 1901, with the birth of the Army War
College, the post, now called Washington Barracks, became the Army's center
for the education and training of senior officers to lead and direct large
numbers of troops. Its first classes were conducted in 1904. The Army Industrial
College was founded at McNair in 1924 to prepare officers for high level posts
in Army supply organizations, and to study industrial mobilization. It evolved
into the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. The Army War College was
reorganized as the Army-Navy Staff College in 1943, and became the National
War College in 1946. The two colleges became the National Defense University
The post was renamed in 1948 to honor Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, commander
of Army ground forces during World War II, who was headquartered at the post
and killed in Normandy, France, July 25, 1944. Fort McNair has been the headquarters
of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington since 1966.