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Fort Sam Houston, nestled in the center of San Antonio just a few miles north of the Alamo, is both a historical jewel and a current pillar of U.S. military operations and preparedness. Within its gates stand more than 900 historical structures, as well as the current headquarters of outfits that conduct operations and training daily in areas as diverse as natural disaster response, military recruitment, soldier basic training, and medicine. Let’s take a look inside the post — both its history and its present.
The Army’s presence in San Antonio dates back to 1845, when parts of the Second Dragoon Regiment arrived during the annexation of Texas. For the Army, San Antonio represented an ideal outpost location, as it could support a defense against both the Mexicans to the south and the Native American tribes to the west. The city was also well located logistically, being an intersection of trade routes from the coast and East Texas, as well as a population center of several thousand.
After leasing sites in San Antonio for decades, the Army finally moved its operations to Government Hill, which in 1876 saw construction of its first building, a quartermaster supply depot that came to be known as the Quadrangle. The Post of San Antonio, as it was called then, grew and was renamed Fort Sam Houston, after the military hero and past President of the Republic of Texas. By this time, it had seen its mission to support the campaigns against American Indians diminish, but the threat from Mexico was still very real. The fort saw significant growth in the late 1800s and early 1900s as the Army sought to consolidate its installations, and became the largest Army post in the U.S. by 1912.
The Army conducted significant training at Fort Sam Houston for its combat units, and many leaders who would gain fame during two World Wars received training there: Pershing, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur, and others. Over 112,000 soldiers were sent to Fort Sam Houston prior to service in World War I, including the entire 18th and 90th divisions.
The Army Housing Program of 1926 brought an Army-wide end to scattershot building design, and established for each post an architectural style based on the local culture. For Fort Sam Houston, this would be Spanish Colonial Revival, with its stucco walls and red tile roofs, which is seen in a significant portion of the buildings still standing today.
Fort Sam Houston played a major role in World War II, providing three entire divisions, as well as units specializing in medical, communications, intelligence, supply, and police functions. One of those divisions, the 2nd Division, was a long-time Fort Sam resident (from 1919 to 1942), and pioneered a new divisional organization, as well as airborne and glider tactics, prior to its employment in the Second World War. In 1944, the Quadrangle became home to the Fourth Army, which was charged to equip and train about half of the U.S. units leaving for combat theaters. And the fort provided the same kind of service, but in reverse, when the war ended: More than 500,000 soldiers transitioned from military service into civilian life at Fort Sam Houston.
Fort Sam Houston continued significant support of the military through the wars in Korea and Vietnam, serving as a mobilization and training platform for scores of units and thousands of individuals. In 1971, Fifth Army replaced Fourth Army as the chief occupant of the Quadrangle, and took on a new mission focused on ensuring the combat readiness of Reserve Component forces. The 1970s saw a continued emphasis at Fort Sam Houston on the medical realm, too, including the institution of the Health Service Command and increased training at the Medical Training Center. In this decade, the historic value of Fort Sam Houston was recognized, with three buildings individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places (the Quadrangle, the Pershing House, and Gift Chapel), and nearly 500 acres designated as a National Historic Landmark and/or Historic Conservation District.
As on any Army post, change is a theme at Fort Sam Houston. Recent years have seen shifts in mission and the organizations that now reside there.
Though Fifth Army still occupies the Quadrangle, its mission has changed fundamentally. Now known as U.S. Army North, it has shifted focus from the training of the Reserves to a combination of tasks concentrating on North America: cooperation with Mexico and Canada, homeland defense, and disaster response. Notably, U.S. Army North commanded more than 1,400 service members from across the United States in its support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
The Fort has also become known as the center of military medicine. More than 21,000 officers and enlisted personnel cycle through the fort as medical students annually in more than 50 medical fields. Brooke Army Medical Center (commonly known as BAMC and pronounced “Bam-see”), is a state-of-the-art hospital that specializes in the care of wounded warriors and also functions as the military’s only stateside Level I Trauma Center, receiving almost 6,000 emergency room visits monthly. BAMC’s campus also includes the Center For the Intrepid, which is dedicated to the rehabilitation of wounded warriors, and the Army Institute of Surgical Research, which operates the Department of Defense’s only burn center.
U.S. Army South retains responsibility for Army engagements, planning, and operations in Central and South America. The headquarters conduct ongoing humanitarian and partner-building missions there, and it figured significantly in emergency operations after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The U.S. Army Installation Management Command, or IMCOM, is responsible for the base support responsibilities on Army installations, to include environmental concerns, on-post morale and welfare activities, and other support to military families. And a number of smaller units possess a variety of specialties, from logistics to military intelligence to communications.
A trip to Fort Sam Houston can take in both the history of this historic place and its vibrant present. The Quadrangle has been a tourist destination for years for its historical significance, the beauty of its manicured grounds, and its stock of deer and peacock. The Gift Chapel, dedicated by President Taft in 1909, features a beautiful copper dome and 22 stained glass windows, and is currently used for Christian and Jewish worship services. Fort Sam Houston also boasts two museums: the Army Medical Department Museum and the Fort Sam Houston Museum (which is currently closed as it relocates into the Quadrangle, with an anticipated fall reopening).
A walk around Fort Sam Houston is a walk through history. You may stumble upon the quarters once inhabited by the newly married Eisenhowers, training fields for troops preparing for deployment to World War II, or even the site of the “birth of military aviation,” where Benjamin Foulois conducted his first solo flight on March 2, 1910. It is also a walk through a vibrant military installation, home to cutting-edge military medicine, active Army headquarters, and thousands of trainees preparing to take their place in the military’s next generation.
A note for visitors: access to the Post has become more restrictive since 9/11. Visitors with a military ID will have no problem getting on to Fort Sam Houston, but others will want to check with the Visitors Center (210-221-2650/2651) before they come for a sightseeing tour, as they will want to verify the requirements for access. Also, I advise against the use of a GPS to find your way into post, as many past entry points have been closed off. For civilian visitors, Walters Gate, an exit off I-35, is the best way to get in.
*Featured image: A colorized postcard of Gift Chapel’s 1909 dedication.