NEW ROCHELLE, NY — “Fort Slocum sounded its last retreat tonight as the military establishment formally ended a century of occupation.”
Thus the New York Times for 1 Dec. 1965. In fact, a century plus a little. A series of civilian real estate deals put its roughly 80 acres in the hands of Thaddeus Davids. He raised Jersey cattle there. By the late 1850’s most trees had been cleared, and a dock accommodated large picnic excursion boats. It was thus pre-adapted when, in mid-1861, the 3rd Regiment of the nascent Irish Brigade organized its first military use, Camp Carrigan. The Irish left for the front in December. The next year Simeon Leland leased it from Davids, with an option to buy. Leland quickly struck the same deal with the War Department, which quickly threw up a makeshift hospital, De Camp General. With post-War draw-down, the site was nearly abandoned. In 1867, however, the War Department exercised its option to buy, and the post became Davids’ Island Military Reservation.
In effect, then (during the year of Ft. Sumter) Davids’ Island seceded from Westchester County and the civilian real estate market. When (at the outset of Vietnam) it returned to civilian life, its reemployment prospects would be diminished greatly.
The Camp was a hospital; after Gettysburg, also a prison camp for Confederates. (It was relatively benign: the original “Club Fed,” when most were, in the words of the standard history, “Portals to Hell.”) By the early 1870’s the 8th Infantry was rebuilding itself there, headed West for the end of the Indian Wars. Its commander was complaining already that the wooden buildings, thrown up during wartime emergency, were falling to pieces. The Army closed the post in 1874.
It reopened in 1878, as the Principal Depot of the General Recruiting Service. All the soldiers who enlisted for the Indian Wars from east of the Mississippi passed through. From the 1880’s a permanent post was built, deliberately in brick rather than in wood, under the supervision of QM Capt. George Hamilton Cook. He was the Christopher Wren of Davids’ Island; his construction remained the architectural core of the post until its final closure.
The island became a Fort in 1896, named for Gen. Henry Warner Slocum. From 1890 it was included in the national program of massive coast artillery fortification. The big guns soon became obsolete, and were deactivated in 1907. Ft. Slocum continued to recruit. In Dec. 1917, the little island post was overwhelmed by last-minute enlistees hoping to stay ahead of the draft. New Rochelle pitched in to house the overflow.
After the Great War, Ft. Slocum was almost closed once again in 1922; it survived by a combination of recruiting activity and the New Deal. The Civilian Conservation Corps (“Roosevelt’s Forest Army”) and the Works Progress Administration were accommodated there. So was every soldier sent overseas to the foreign territories acquired in the wake of the Spanish-American war. Look at any photo of Hawaii being bombed in 1941, or of Corregidor or Bataan: every one of those men passed first through Ft Slocum, NY.
By WWII the Army had learned from Slocum’s experience in WWI. It was no longer overwhelmed by recruiting responsibilities. More spacious mainland recruit camps (such as Kilmer and Shanks) were cloned from Slocum, while the island itself became a specialized cog in the massive New York Port of Embarkation: both a processing center for troops being sent to the European Theatre, and the training center for NYPOE itself. Typical of WWII, Slocum saw the future, and it worked: from 1943 its WAC detachment integrated women into the Army (from which women never subsequently have reported absent); in 1944 a Black soldier, Pvt. Duckworth, devised the Jody Call (an enduring piece of military culture, “I don’t know, but I’ve been told…”). The post fielded a very gifted musical ensemble, the 378th Army Service Forces Band.
Prior to the permanent military-industrial complex identified by Eisenhower, the US Army faced the problem that once it won the war, it lost the peace. Victory brought drastic reductions-in-force. Davids’ Island faltered after 1865, and did close in 1874; it was threatened with closure in 1922; and this happened again in 1946. The Army Air Corps (soon to become the Army Air Forces and then the US Air Force) swooped in (like New Rochelle’s own Mighty Mouse) to save the day. Fort Slocum morphed into Slocum Air Force Base, headquarters of the First Air Force. But in 1949, the USAF left too, and the post closed once again.
“FORT SLOCUM TO BE REACTIVATED” read the headline in the New Rochelle Standard-Star, 16 Nov. 1950. This was good news, for New Rochelle and Westchester County; because many of the civilian employees who had run the post during the War, could now continue to do so during the Cold War. The joint-services Armed Forces Information School, along with the US Army Chaplain School, moved over from Carlisle Barracks, PA. AFIS almost closed in 1954, but was reorganized instead into the US Army Information School. The addition from 1955 of a battery of the 66th Artillery, NY-15, equipped with the new NIKE Ajax missiles gave additional raison d’être. But Ajax became obsolete, there was too little room for the new larger Hercules missiles, and the battery left in 1960; organizational expansion of the Chaplain School from 1958 drove it likewise to seek more space at mainland Ft Hamilton in Brooklyn in 1962; and by 22 March 1963 JFK’s Pentagon announced closure. It did close, 50 years ago, on 30 November 1965, as the (once again) joint-services Defense Information School moved to Ft Benjamin Harrison, IN.
This closure proved final. Various ambitious development dreams and schemes all fell by the wayside. A ferry was impractical; a bridge, impossible. The physical plant fell into ruin. A series of fires including the Great Fire of 22 April 1982 damaged much of what was left. Historical status notwithstanding, from 2005 to 2008 the US Army Corps of Engineers, at the behest of the City of New Rochelle, demolished almost all that remained.
The Irish Brigade and the Civil War, the Indian Wars and the World Wars, the New York Port of Embarkation, powerful artillery defenses of New York Harbor and America’s rise to globalism after the Spanish-American War, from black powder to nuclear deterrence, gender and racial integration, New Rochelle’s major link to the abolition of slavery, the closing of the frontier and American national expansion beyond: 50 years on, Fort Slocum is barely a memory; and whatever will it be 50 years hence?
NOTE: Monday, 30 Nov., marks the 50th anniversary of the last closure of Ft. Slocum. The only known commemoration will be that day at 1700 hours (5 PM) EST. At that time the Fort Slocum Alumni & Friends will check in together at the Fort Slocum Friends FaceBook page and raise glasses in a virtual toast to a place that exists now only in virtual form. Readers are welcome to join us (https://www.facebook.com/groups/99872544271/). You can learn more about Davids’ Island and Ft. Slocum at the Westchester County Virtual Archives (http://davidsisland.westchesterarchives.com) as well as the FSA&F website (www.home.earthlink.net/~michaelacavanaugh).