Friday, March 22, 2019

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

A recruiting poster utilized during World War I to encourage
men to enlist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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 toWashington Barracks (now Fort McNair) inWashington, D.C. AlthoughWashington 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 theWar 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 GeneralAndrew A. Humphreys, began in January 1918 under very difficult conditions. TheWinter 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.”

Panorama of Camp Humphreys.

Portrait of Major General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys.

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.

Route 1,Winter 1918: Soldiers worked in cold and snowy conditions during the construction of Camp Humphreys.

Barracks of the Engineer Officer Training School at Camp Humphreys, 1918.

St. Martin’s Chapel, Fort Humphreys, 1920.

[ Belvoir Enters the Twentieth Century | Inter-War Period: 1919-1939 ]

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