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Fort Lesley J. McNair

Fort Lesley J. McNair is a United States Army post located on the tip of Greenleaf Point, the peninsula that lies at the confluence of the Potomac River and the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. To the peninsula's west is the Washington Channel, while the Anacostia River is on its south side. Originally named Washington Arsenal, the fort has been an army post for more than 200 years,[1] third in length of service, after the United States Military Academy at West Point and the Carlisle Barracks. The fort is currently named for Lesley J. McNair, a U.S. Army General who was killed in action in World War II.

Fort Lesley J. McNair
Washington, D.C.
Fort McNair aerial 2019.jpg
Aerial view of Fort McNair in 2019
United States Army Military District of Washington CSIB.svg
Military District of Washington insignia
TypeMilitary base
Site information
Controlled byUnited States of America
Site history
In use1791–present
Garrison information
MG Jeffrey S. Buchanan, Commanding General, Military District of Washington
Colonel Patrick M. Duggan, Joint Base Myer–Henderson Hall Commander
GarrisonMilitary District of Washington
National Defense University


Execution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt on July 7, 1865 in the courtyard of Washington Arsenal (now Fort McNair). Photo by Alexander Gardner.
Military District of Washington Distinctive Unit insignia with the motto Haec protegimus (This we'll defend)

Early HistoryEdit

The military reservation was established in 1791 on about 28 acres (110,000 m2) at the tip of Greenleaf Point. Major Pierre (Peter) Charles L'Enfant included it in his plans for Washington, the Federal City, as a major site for the defense of the capital.[2] On L'Enfant's orders, Frenchman Andre Villard, a follower of Marquis de Lafayette, placed a one-gun battery on the site. In 1795, the site became one of the first two United States arsenals.[3]

An arsenal first occupied the site and defenses were built in 1794. However, the fortifications did not halt the invasion of British forces in 1814, who burned down many public government buildings in Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812. Soldiers at the arsenal evacuated north with as much gunpowder as they could carry, hiding the rest in a well as the British soldiers came up the Potomac River after 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 from 1815 to 1821, with eight buildings arranged around a quadrangle, and named the Washington Arsenal. In the early 1830s, four acres of marsh land were reclaimed and added to the arsenal, and a seawall and additional buildings were constructed. Between 1825 and 1831, the U.S. penitentiary was constructed on the arsenal with a 3-story block of cells, administrative buildings, and a shoe factory for teaching prisoners a trade. In 1857, the Federal Government purchased additional land for the site. By 1860, the arsenal had used one of the first steam presses, developed the first automatic machine for manufacturing percussive caps, and experimented with the Hale Rocket. A large civilian workforce manufactured ammunition at the arsenal, and the site included a large military hospital.[4]

1864 Arsenal ExplosionEdit

During the Civil War, women worked in an ammunition factory at the Washington Arsenal. Many lower-class women (including Irish immigrants) needed wages, especially after male relatives went to war. Women were believed to have nimble fingers, attention to detail, and a tendency to neatness suitable for rolling, pinching, tying, and bundling cartridges with bullets and black powder. On June 17, 1864, fireworks left in the sun outside a cartridge room ignited, killing twenty-one women, many of whom burned to death in flammable hoop skirts. The War Department paid for their funerals, and President Lincoln attended the joint funeral procession. A monument at Congressional Cemetery commemorates these women. In memory of the many Irish victims, the Irish Foreign Minister laid a wreath at Congressional Cemetery memorial during 150th anniversary commemorations in 2014.[5][6][7]

Lincoln Assassination Conspirators' TrialEdit

The conspirators accused of assassinating president Abraham Lincoln were imprisoned there, tried by military commission and, after being found guilty, four were hanged and the rest received prison sentences. Among those hanged was Mary Surratt, the first woman ever executed under federal orders.[1]

One of the buildings on the complex, Ulysses S. Grant Hall, is the location of the 1865 military tribunal of the conspirators of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The Hall periodically holds public open houses, where each quarter of the Hall is open to the public and people can visit the courtroom and learn more about the trials. A hospital was built next to the penitentiary in 1857 and wounded Civil War soldiers were treated at what then was called the Washington Arsenal. The arsenal was closed in 1881, and the post was transferred to the Quartermaster Corps.[1]

Walter ReedEdit

A general hospital, the predecessor to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, was located at the post from 1898 until 1909. Major 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. Reed 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.[1]

20th CenturyEdit

About 90 percent of the present buildings on the post's 100 acres (0.40 km2) 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.[1] Its first classes were conducted in 1904 in Roosevelt Hall,[1][8] the iconic building designed by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White.[8] 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.[1] The post was renamed Fort Humphreys in 1935 (a name previously assigned to today's Fort Belvoir in Virginia).[9] 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 in 1976.[1]

The post was renamed in 1948 to honor Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair, commander of army ground forces during World War II, who was headquartered at the post and was killed during Operation Cobra near Saint-Lô, France, on July 25, 1944. He was killed in an infamous friendly fire incident when errant bombs of the U.S. Eighth Air Force fell on the positions of 2nd Battalion, 120th Infantry, where McNair was observing the fighting. Fort McNair has been the headquarters of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington since 1966.[1]

Current statusEdit

Fort McNair, a part of the Joint Base Myer–Henderson Hall, is the headquarters of the Army's Military District of Washington and home of the National Defense University, as well as the official residence of the U.S. Army's Vice Chief of Staff.


National Defense UniversityEdit

The National Defense University represents a significant concentration of the defense community's intellectual resources. Originally established in 1976, the university includes the National War College and the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy (formerly the Industrial College of the Armed Forces) at Fort McNair, and the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia. These and other schools are separate entities, but their close affiliation enhances the exchange of faculty expertise and educational resources, promotes interaction among students and faculty and reduces administrative costs. The National War College and the Eisenhower School concentrate on preparing civilian and military professionals in areas of national security strategy, decision-making, joint and combined warfare and the resource component of national strategy. The Joint Forces Staff College, established under the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1946, prepares selected officers for joint and combined duty.

In 1990, the iCollege was formed as the capstone institution for Defense Information Resource Management education. As such, it provides graduate-level courses in information resources management.

The National Defense University also features a first-rate research capability through the Institute for National Strategic Studies. This institute, established in 1984, conducts independent policy analyses and develops policy and strategy alternatives. It also includes a War Gaming and Simulation Center and the NDU Press.

The university has several other educational programs. These include the Capstone program, for general and flag officer selectees; the International Fellows program, which brings NDU almost 100 participants from 50 different countries; and the Reserve Components National Security Course, which offers military education to senior officers of the armed forces.

Inter-American Defense CollegeEdit

The Inter-American Defense College is an advanced-studies institute for senior officers of the 25-member nations of the Inter-American Defense Board. Up to three students of the rank of colonel or the equivalent may be sent to the college by each member nation. The students' backgrounds must qualify them to participate in the solution of hemispheric-defense problems.

The officers study world alliances and the international situation; the inter-American system and its role; strategic concepts of war; and engage in a planning exercise for hemispheric defense. The college has been at Fort McNair since 1962.

United States Army Center of Military HistoryEdit

In September 1998, the United States Army Center of Military History moved from rented offices in Washington, D.C., to Fort McNair in historically preserved quarters remodeled from its previous use as a commissary and before that as Fort McNair's stables. The center dates from the creation of the Army General Staff historical branch in July 1943 and the gathering of a team of professional historians, translators, editors, and cartographers to record the history of World War II. That effort led to a monumental 79-volume series known as the "Green Books."

Today, the center operates through four divisions, the histories division being the one most involved in writing the histories and providing historical research support to the Army staff. The field program and historical services guides work done at various posts and installations, as well as the work by deployed historical detachments for Army operations, ensures historical information is comprehensive and factual.

Another division is responsible for overseeing the Army museum system and preservation of artifacts and artwork that are the army's historical treasure. One such museum, The Old Guard Museum, was located at Fort Myer until it was closed. The center's publishing division generates finished publications and assures access to the center's work through such media as CD-ROM and the World Wide Web.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i   One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a work in the public domain: "Fort McNair History". US Army. Archived from the original on 6 October 2017.
  2. ^ L'Enfant identified himself as "Peter Charles L'Enfant" during most of his life, while residing in the United States. He wrote this name on his "Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of t(he) United States ...." (Washington, D.C.) and on other legal documents. However, during the early 1900s, a French ambassador to the U.S., Jean Jules Jusserand, popularized the use of L'Enfant's birth name, "Pierre Charles L'Enfant". (See: Bowling (2002).) The National Park Service identifies L'Enfant as Major Peter Charles L'Enfant and as Major Pierre (Peter) Charles L'Enfant Archived 28 February 2010 at the Wayback Machine on its website. The United States Code states in 40 U.S.C. 3309: "(a) In General.—The purposes of this chapter shall be carried out in the District of Columbia as nearly as may be practicable in harmony with the plan of Peter Charles L'Enfant."
  3. ^ Fort Lesley J. McNair, National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form, p. 5.,
  4. ^ Fort Lesley J. McNair, National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form, p. 5.,
  5. ^ LeDoux, Julie (24 June 2014). "The Washington arsenal explosion". U.S. Army. Retrieved 7 October 2019.
  6. ^ "Fireworks, Hoopskirts—and Death: Explosion at a Union Ammunition Plant Proved Fatal for 21 Women". Prologus. 44. Spring 2012 – via National Archives and Records Administration.
  7. ^ Carswell, Simon (18 June 2014). "Tánaiste lobbies for immigration reform in unpredictable US political scene". The Irish Times. Retrieved 7 October 2019.
  8. ^ a b "Images of America - Fort Lesley J. McNair" by John Michael ISBN 1439651167
  9. ^ Decisions of the United States Geographic Board, Google Books

External linksEdit