Fort Slocum (2)
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Fort Slocum (2) (1896-1965) - Fort Slocum was a U.S. Army post occupying Davids’ Island (just off New Rochelle and just north of the Bronx line in Westchester County) from 1 Jul 1896 to 30 Nov 1965. Though the largest island in Long Island Sound, it is a scant 80 acres. The fort was named after Henry Warner Slocum (1827-1894), a distinguished U.S. Civil War veteran who commanded the XII Corps at Gettysburg and served later in Congress. Davids’ Island had been occupied by the military, though not continuously, from 1861 until it was designated Fort Slocum in 1896. During the Civil War, and until December 1866, the entire island was known as De Camp General Hospital. From 1862 it served as a hospital for wounded Federal soldiers. After Gettysburg, sometimes it accepted Confederate wounded as well, and thus served simultaneously as hospital and prison camp, combining both Federal patients and Confederate inmate/patients. After De Camp closed, the post was known as Davids’ Island Military Reservation, until it was formally named after Gen. Slocum. After the Army abandoned it for the last time in 1965, it has been known simply as Davids’ Island.
Fort Slocum (2) History
Thus Davids' Island was used by the American military for roughly a century. Over this time it was called upon to reinvent itself in various ways, on numerous occasions. As Walter Millis points out in his classic Arms and Men (Putnam, 1956), Americans have always mistrusted a standing army, so that in times of peace the army is allowed to atrophy until the next war brings emergency mobilization once again. Military history, like combat itself, consists of long periods of boredom punctuated by episodes of sheer terror. Ex bello pax; but, having fought a successful war, the Army must turn around and fight the peace, staving off reductions in force and closure of facilities. To do this requires constant reinvention. The history of Davids' Island and Fort Slocum is of a piece with this larger cycle. Its emergency facilities ballooned during the U.S. Civil War, only to fall quickly into disrepair. It was reinvented several times, then abandoned, almost for good. It was reinvented again as a recruit depot for the end of the Indian Wars (this time though with permanent rather than just temporary buildings), then as a coast artillery post around the Spanish-American War, again as a recruit depot up to and including World War I, then as an Army campus, home to a series of schools, in the interwar period. At several times it was almost abandoned once again. In World War II it reinvented itself several times over (the last of which was to become an Air Force base, without an airstrip) only to close once again. It reopened during the Cold War again as a campus and for coast defense, only to close for the last time at the onset of Vietnam. Subsequent attempts at civilian reinvention, and there were several, have all come to naught; and today the island lies in desolation, almost all physical remains of its history having been removed.
U.S. Civil War and its Aftermath
For most of its history, Davids’ Island/Fort Slocum was not heavily fortified. It had no military use until the Civil War. Although on 22 October 1776, Gen. von Knyphausen landed his 2nd Div of Hessians and a regiment of Waldeckers nearby on Davenport Neck (in the largest amphibious action before D-Day) in an attempt to cut off Gen. Washington's retreat to White Plains, rumors that Davids' Island was involved in any Revolutionary War activity remain unsubstantiated. Even during the Civil War it had no strategic importance. This is so despite the fact that it had a strategic location, controlling the northern approach to New York City, and that there existed coast artillery (notably, the Rodman gun; a sort which later would be emplaced there) of sufficient power and range to defend that approach.
The documentable military history of Davids' Island began in November 1861, when the 63rd Regiment of NY Volunteers (aka the 3rd Irish Regiment, part of the famous Irish Brigade) camped there, at what they named Camp Carrigan, before moving on to Washington DC. (Despite the fact that their CO was particularly notorious for his heavy drinking, the regiment formed a Temperance Society during their encampment.)
The U.S. government leased the island and in April 1862 QM Capt Robert Chaffee Morgan (d. 1884) began construction of temporary buildings for use as a hospital. His orders were to "let the hospitals mere barrack shacks at David’s Island be prepared with all possible dispatch. Do not delay for elaborate buildings. Shelter from weather is what is required.” Although the barracks have been described as substantially lathed and plastered on the interior, in fact they were no more than temporary shacks, hastily constructed in an emergency. Such wooden hospital pavilions with adjoining mess halls covered most of the island; remaining space was filled in during warmer weather with tents. It was named De Camp General Hospital, after recently retired Surgeon General Samuel G. I. De Camp (d. 1871). After Gettysburg, Federal patients were joined by up to 5,000 Confederate patients (who were thus also prisoners). As Civil War prison camps went, this one was relatively benign (nothing, for example, like the hell-holes of Andersonville in the South or Elmira in the North); able-bodied prisoners had the run of the island and could fish or gather clams to supplement their diet. Local Confederate sympathizers could visit and bring provisions, and several local female benevolent societies ran kitchens on the island for the benefit of Confederate as well as Federal patients.
As the War ended, hospitals were phased out; but De Camp lasted until December 1866. It was an Army post in search of some use. During this time the island was also used for mustering-out Federal soldiers. From 20 July to 20 October 1866, the 17th Infantry, commanded by Gen. Abner Doubleday, occupied the island on their way to Reconstruction duty in Galveston. (Serving under Doubleday was a young lieutenant, Arthur MacArthur, a Medal of Honor recipient recently returned to the Army after a failed attempt to practice law.) During this time the island was used briefly for recruiting. From 1870 through 1872, the 8th U.S. Infantry used the post to rebuild itself to full strength after its tour of Reconstruction duty, on its way to finish out the Indian Wars. From 1872 to 1874 the island was occupied at various times by units of artillery: Batteries N and L of the 1st, and Batteries H, M and N of the 3rd. In 1874 the post was closed, and almost abandoned entirely.
There was good reason to abandon it, for the emergency buildings thrown up in 1862 already were falling down by the early 1870's, when the 8th Infantry was there. To some surprise, when in 1878 HQ Department of the East was moved to Governors Island, Davids' Island reinvented itself. The Principal Depot, General Recruiting Service, serving all the territory east of the Mississippi, was displaced to Davids' Island from Governors Island. It retained this mission until in 1894 the Army decentralized recruiting, giving this task to the various individual regiments instead of a single general depot.
But the tumbledown Civil War buildings were an eyesore and an embarrassment, especially as a place to welcome new recruits. A survey in 1878 by Col. David Sloane Stanley (1828-1902), followed by that of Maj. Samuel Nicholl Benjamin (1839-1886) in 1879, laid out a permanent post around a central parade field, and set in motion a program of construction whereby wooden and temporary structures would be replaced, gradually, by permanent brick structures. By the mid-1880's all the Civil War buildings had been removed, and under QM Capt. George Hamilton Cook (1846-1889), the core of the new brick post began to be laid out around the parade field from 1886-1889. This core included an innovative consolidated mess (feeding the entire garrison, delivering food by trolley cart) and three barracks of Cook's own design (and completely unique to Davids' Island) the whole complex bookended by mirror-image barracks built around octagonal towers. Cook, "the Christopher Wren of Davids' Island," also exploited an underground fresh-water aquifer to put in the first island-wide water system (including a monumental brick storage tower on the southeast), greatly improving sanitation in the process. Construction on this brick post would proceed in fits and starts of funding, until by about 1910, a permanent post was in place that would last until the very end.
That this "fort" was not heavily fortified for so much of its military history (including the Civil War) is not really paradoxical. In modern usage, an Army post is designated a “fort” when it is more or less permanent, and a “camp” when it is more or less temporary. (“More or less;” because forts, as in this case, may be abandoned; camps may also be abandoned, or as in the case of Gordon or Jackson, may be upgraded to forts.) The simple name “fort” does not however imply that it is heavily armed, or even fortified against attack. For example (as Alison Hoagland's pioneering research in Army Architecture in the West [U Okla 2004] makes clear), despite Hollywood and Disneyland (think of "F Troop"), the typical fort of the American West during the last phase of the Indian Wars was not hidden behind a log palisade, but was quite open. (Plains Indians might raid isolated expeditions, but they would not attack any concentration of troops, not even the single company or two that might garrison the typical Western fort.) As a result, an Army fort in the Indian-fighting West did not look different from one in the more pacified East. (The ideal in all cases, as Hoagland observes, was to recreate the New England village green -- minus the dominating church. Plus infantry, cavalry, artillery of course.)
Thus it was that Fort Slocum was heavily fortified only for two brief periods during its century-long military history. The first of these occurred during what are called the Endicott and Taft Era, when high-profile masonry forts (made obsolete during the Civil War) were being replaced with low-profile reinforced concrete -- and when guns were becoming breech-loading, rifled, and capable of ever-longer ranges. (To understand these successive eras in context, cf. E. R. Lewis, Seacoast Fortifications of the United States: An Introductory History [Annapolis, 1979].) The second would occur during the Cold War with introduction of a Nike Ajax missile defense.
For the first 16 years since it reopened in 1878, Davids' Island served as a holding area for new recruits. Recruiters were detailed to major Eastern cities; when a sufficient number of recruits were selected, they were escorted to Davids' Island, usually by a sergeant. In turn when enough were collected to be sent to their regiments, usually in the West, they would be escorted, usually by one of the officers stationed there on recruiting duty. Company-grade officers were detailed there from their regiments on temporary duty of two years, on a rotating basis beginning in October. "Companies of Instruction," into which new recruits were received, were commanded by a captain, but (unlike regular companies) had no other officers. Despite the designation "of Instruction," in fact Davids' Island was a recruiting depot rather than a training center; if recruits remained long enough to receive any training at all, it was only in the very rudiments of the school of the soldier: saluting, facings, etc. (In this respect it was not at all like the more intensive basic combat training which the Army has used in recent decades, since the Second World War.) As quickly as possible, they were escorted by officers (on a rotating basis), by boat or by train, to their assigned regiments, usually out West. Only when they reached their regiments did they receive the bulk of their training. (This pattern incidentally would last until the start of WWII.)
Endicott and Taft Periods
In 1885 the Endicott Board was convened to study US coastal defenses. It released its report the next year; and although its ambitious recommendations were never entirely realized it did result in a massive program of construction that left the United States with the world's most formidable coastal defenses of the day.
Davids' Island Military Reservation was first fortified and heavily armed as a coast artillery post during this Endicott Period. The story of Davids' Island as an armed fortress is quite astounding: its armament was formidable, but the fortification soon became obsolete, and the armament in turn was scrapped.
The mortars were the most formidable, and the first of the heavy armament to be emplaced. From 1891, construction was begun on an "Abbot quad." This contained sixteen 12” breech-loading mortar emplacements (four in each of four pits on the extreme SE corner of the island). In 1901 the entire quad was named Battery Haskin, after Brevet Brig/Gen Joseph Haskin of the Civil War (whose son, Maj. William Lawrence Haskin, commanded Davids' Island 1894-96). In 1906 the quad was divided into Battery Haskin (the southern two pits) and Battery Overton (the northern two pits, named after Capt. Clough Overton, a cavalry officer of the Spanish-American War). The mortars were put into service in 1897.
At some point during the construction of the mortar batteries, from about 1896, Battery Practice, a direct-fire concrete and earthenwork battery, was emplaced. At first Battery Practice mounted a 15” smoothbore Rodman gun (which was moved in 1899 to the south central part of the island, where it has been displayed ever since). The same battery also mounted a 10” Rodman sleeved to become an 8” muzzle-loading rifle, and an 8” Model 1888 breech-loading rifle that replaced the 15” Rodman. It is not clear whether the rifle ever was installed, and Practice seems to be out of service by 1903.
In the midst of this construction, a small flash in the pan occurred, known as the Spanish-American War. By the time it broke out, the mortar batteries were operational, plus the direct-fire guns at Battery Practice. Except that the Spanish fleet was hard-put to cross the Atlantic much less concentrate an attack on New York City, the northern approach to New York City was impregnable.
From the time Davids' Island ceased to be the Principal Depot of the General Recruiting Service, in 1894, the post was garrisoned by the 1st, and then the 5th, Artillery. With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War early in 1898, the 5th was transferred, and the 7th Artillery was formed on what was now called Fort Slocum, and its Battery L assigned to the mortars there. During that War, Slocum was briefly home to one battalion of the 22nd NY Volunteers, local companies from Brooklyn, Manhattan and Long Island who (like so many units) were mobilized for the war but never deployed. With the reorganization of the artillery into Field and Coast divisions in 1901, Battery L of the 7th became the 81st Coast Artillery Company, and remained at Slocum for several years.
By the time Practice (with its older armament) was phased out, along the north end of the east coast of the island, were erected two direct-fire batteries, known as Battery Kinney (to the north; operational by 1904) and Battery Fraser (to the south; operational by 1901). The former was named after Capt. Joseph Kinney, killed in 1814 at the Battle of Lundy's Lane in Canada; the latter, after Capt. Upton S. Fraser, massacred by the Seminoles in 1835. These batteries mounted two 6”, and two 5” breech-loading rifles, respectively.
Fire from Fort Slocum would have triangulated with that of Fort Schuyler (1) and Willet's Point, later Fort Totten (3) to the south, defending together the northern approach. The mortars in particular were a very formidable defense but during the brief period this defense was in place, there were no serious naval threats. Within about a decade of first being placed into service, the entire complex of fortifications was becoming outmoded. In March 1906, the 81st CAC was transferred to Ft. Schuyler, and the guns placed under a caretaker detachment of between 10-15 men. In 1907, Fort Slocum was withdrawn from the Artillery District of New York. In Feb. 1910 the caretaker detachment itself was withdrawn. The guns were maintained, and there was even some discussion about upgrading them; but the defenses were never again fully manned and finally the big guns were removed (and, in the case of the mortars, destroyed) around World War I.
Kinney and Fraser were completely demolished after 1930 to provide space for barracks. Pit A of Overton was partly demolished in 1942-43 in order to create space for a small-arms range. The rest of Overton, plus Haskins, plus Practice, remain on the island. So does the 15" Rodman gun, in its display location. Except for the Rodman, as is typical, none of the other ordnance survives. The direct fire guns were relocated, and the mortars sold for scrap. Some of the 15" Rodman rounds survived, mostly as nuisances: rain puddling around them bred mosquitoes; Army brat rolled them downhill, making a chore of continual roundup of 400-lb. balls. Eventually they were turned into "lawn balls," placed on pedestals to decorate Officers' Row. They seem to have disappeared in WWII, probably for a scrap metal drive. Five of them survived into the Cold War as decorations for the Rodman display itself, but they too are gone, no one knows how or where.
|Battery Overton||8||12"||Mortar||1897-1919||Pit A Destroyed|
|Battery Practice||2||8"||Rodman||1896-1899||Heavily overgrown|
|Battery Kinney||2||6"||Pedestal||1904-1917||Destroyed; guns to Battery Tilden|
To World War I
As the twentieth century opened, Slocum was still being fortified, though as we have seen this would not last long. During this time the post was home to various activities. In 1904 the 8th Infantry was back again, this time one battalion composed of Companies A, B and C. They departed for the Philippines in 1905. By 1907 the coast artillery phase was effectively over. There was a large stable on the south end of the post for horse infantry and cavalry. But once again the post seemed to serve mainly as a depot for recruits, perhaps in default of any better ideas.
In this light it is somewhat puzzling that, at the same time, a third major spurt of construction occurred. As a result of the second major wave (the one commencing in the 1880's that began the first permanent post on Davids' Island), by 1900 Officers' Row was about 2/3 complete (from Quarters 1 northward to the Officers' Club); and there was a consolidated mess hall, three brick barracks, as well as the first part of a new brick hospital. From 1906-10 appeared 4 more barracks, 5 duplex NCO quarters, an apartment building for officers, various quartermaster & engineer buildings, a drill hall/gymnasium, a PX, a YMCA, a chapel and a new post HQ. (The YMCA was a donation from Margaret Slocum Sage, the richest woman in America at the time; the Chapel of St. Sebastian -- the post's first chapel since the Civil War -- was donated likewise by Blessed Sacrament Parish nearby in New Rochelle with the express permission of President Theodore Roosevelt.) In addition both docks were rebuilt, and electric and telephone service was added to the mainland.
In short, the Army at least doubled its investment in post infrastructure. At the same time the artillery mission was declining and there was no clear replacement for it.
The emergency mobilization in 1917 for WWI brought a rapid influx of recruits, which in turn triggered a fourth spurt of construction -- massive, but this time temporary, much like the Civil War. A total of 56 long wooden shacks, most used as barracks, were erected to cover remaining open spaces on post. Many of these were removed over the next decade; but by the 1930's some were still being used as sub-standard NCO housing, and the last one did not disappear until 2006. (It may have been the last of its kind anywhere in the U.S.)
What space remained was filled with tents in warm weather. This was necessary to house the flood of volunteers. Space and housing became particularly acute in Dec. 1917, as Congress moved to end voluntary enlistments and rely solely on the draft. This rush coincided with one of the most bitter winters ever in the region. Fortunately the churches and private citizens of neighboring New Rochelle and the rest of Westchester County pitched in to house and feed the overflow that could not be accomodated on post. Some 5,000 soldiers who passed through from 10-20 Dec. contributed a dime per man to raise a monument to the local citizens (which still stands in New Rochelle City Hall).
Estimates vary. Before the War, the normal garrison would have been 300-500 men. Obviously the temporary buildings, and tents, could expand that capacity. One figure goes as high as 140,000 men processed during the entire war. Another has 15,000 during the emergency of Dec. 1917, of which those 5,000 mentioned were an overflow.
Interwar: Drifting Along as One Big Campus
As with the conclusion of any major war, after WWI the Army began a reduction in force. By 1922 . . . It was proposed to close Fort Slocum again at this time. Instead the post limped along. It housed the 1924? U.S. Olympic Team. Football training. Civilian Conservation Corps. Forestry program. Cooks and Bakers School.
Once again, although the post seemed to lack clear direction, there was more major investment in infrastructure. From 1930-39, three fireproof barracks, The Trivium, was added (in part, as previously noted, by destroying the Endicott-era direct fire batteries). Four duplex quarters were built on NCO row, as well as a 6 apartment building (later used for officer housing). The first sewage system was put in place (previously, sewage was simply run off into the Sound). In 1929 steel water tower of 100,000 gallons was installed at the NW corner of the island, and the original brick water tower built by Capt. Cook in 1884 was demolished. Telephone and electric lines were buried, and piping and conduits were improved. Recreational facilities in the form of tennis courts and swimming piers were added or augmented. Major repairs were done to existing buildings as well. This was paid for by the standard Army socialism (detailing soldiers for labor) as well as the presence on post of WPA workers during the New Deal. As a result, when WWII came, the infrastructure of the post was in good shape, and very little needed to be added.
World War II and its Aftermath
While the civilian population was trying to avoid anything to do with a forthcoming war, the U.S. Army was preparing. Previously Slocum had been, in the words of its recruit handbook, "the principal station to which all foreign service recruits from the eastern part of the United States are sent to await shipment overseas," to the American empire resulting from the Spanish-American War: Puerto Rico, the Canal Zone, the Philippines. Now it would be reinvented for a role in invading new territory across the Atlantic. In anticipation of the war, on 16 May 1941, GO 9 transferred Slocum from the Second Corps, to the command of the New York Port of Embarkation and the Transportation Corps. Fort Slocum became one of several staging areas within NYPOE. Trained and experienced cadre from Slocum would hive off to form Camp Kilmer in June, and Camp Shanks in September 1942. Together with the Brooklyn Army Base and Fort Hamilton (1), and the Indiantown Gap Military Reservation, these staging areas would feed convoys supplying troops and material to the European Theater of Operations. Because after WWI, BAB had been opened in anticipation of future mobilization, and because Kilmer and Shanks were considerably larger, during the early years of WWII Fort Slocum did not experience the sort of extreme overcrowding that it did during the emergency mobilization of 1917-18.
For the early part of World War II, its Overseas Staging Area remained the key activity at Slocum. Although shrouded in secrecy, as were all troop movements, it now appears that several Polish and British Commonwealth units (including 4th BN The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, and 2nd BN The King's Shropshire Light Infantry) were staged through Ft. Slocum, in addition to American troops bound for such destinations as Iceland and Britain. Slocum was also the home of several training schools. Throughout the war, it provided basic and refresher training to permanent party from the NYPOE staging areas. (It was the policy of NYPOE, and of the wartime Fort Slocum CO Col. Bernard Lentz, that all troops, chairborne rangers included, should be proficient in the basics of military courtesy, dismounted drill, and the use of standard infantry small arms.) From October 1942 to October 1944 Fort Slocum was the site of ACTCOTS, the Atlantic Coast Transportation Corps Officers' Training School. The mission of the school was not to teach transportation skills, but to mint lieutenants (and soldiers) out of railroad men and other transportation specialists.
As the Allies began winning the war, need to ship new transportation officers and other new troops to the ETO decreased; priorities at Slocum shifted accordingly; and Slocum had to reinvent itself yet again. Troops who had served stateside for more than a year were to be rotated overseas; troops with experience in the ETO were rotated back to replace them. As ACTCOTS was being phased out, the same staff began to run the Provisional Training Center, this time to insure that returning troops understood their jobs in NYPOE as well as the military basics. It was during one of these PTC classes at Ft. Slocum, in May 1944, that a Black soldier, Pvt. Willie Lee Duckworth Sr., on detached service from Camp Kilmer, first devised the famous "Duckworth Chant," a marching (and later, jogging) cadence also known as "the Jody" or "the Jody Call" and still in widespread use in the U.S. Army and elsewhere.
Part of the movement to get more men overseas was the introduction of female soldiers to do the "overhead" tasks in their stead. On 27 May 1943 a detachment of the original WAAC auxiliaries (soon renamed WACs) arrived on post. This was the condition, beginning early the next year, for the first of a series of "soldier-soldier" weddings conducted in the post chapel. By May 1944, M/Sgt Maria Farley was serving as post Sgt/Maj. It is difficult to tell if such a development was unique; but by dint of Black and female troops on post, Fort Slocum was coming to prefigure the sort of integrated military that would be the face of the immediate future.
As 1944 moved on, the training and staging missions were becoming redundant. Slocum took on a few more tasks. For example, "Project R" in September of that year involved the rapid demobilization of Army Air Corps troops who had been shot down in the raid over the Ploesti oil fields and had been taken prisoner by the Axis. After the fall of Italy, Slocum took on certain Italian POWs as laborers on post. With the culmination of ACTCOTS later that year, Slocum once again reinvented itself as a center to rehabilitate American soldiers court-martialed in and returned from the ETO. GO 34 HQ NYPOE, 20 November 1944, reclassified Fort Slocum from a Class IV installation under NYPOE to a Class I installation under the Second Service Command. At first there was opposition to the project, especially NIMBY sentiment on the part of the local populace and politicians; but it was overcome and this reinvention kept Ft. Slocum open through the end of the war.
Once again the post faced closure outright. Head of the Manhattan Project Maj/Gen Leslie Groves (whose wife, Grace, had grown up on post in Quarters 1, daughter of 1904-06 post CO Maj. Richard Hulbert Wilson) considered it briefly for a center of nuclear research. (Instead, former Camp Upton at Yaphank on Long Island, now known as Brookhaven, was chosen.) At the last minute, it was reinvented as an Army Air Force base. HQ 1st AF moved there from Mitchel Field on Long Island. (This, despite the fact that the island was too small for an airstrip. Slocum AFB, as it came to be known, was the only AFB in American history that could be reached routinely only by boat.) But the USAF abandoned it late in 1949; and for the second of three times in its history, the post on Davids' Island was definitely abandoned by the U.S. military.
The first abandonment (from 1874) lasted 4 years; this one was much shorter. By the next year, the Army took back the post, and began work on its renovation. This gave Fort Slocum a new lease on life, one that would last for 15 years until the third and final abandonment in 1965.
From 1951 it housed the Army Chaplain School, until 1962; and the Armed Forces (later Army, later Defense) Information School until 1965. During the Cold War, though again briefly, Fort Slocum became part of the coast defense system when it housed the Integrated Fire Control for Battery NY-15, Battery D, 55th Artillery (Anti-Aircraft) beginning in 1955. The truncated battery of 8 Nike Ajax missiles it controlled were housed off-post, for safety reasons, nearby on Hart Island. The missiles were not themselves nuclear. However the battery’s mission was to defend NYC against attack by Soviet bombers, potentially armed with nuclear weapons, by intercepting them over central Long Island. This defense too quickly became obsolete, when ICBMs displaced long-range bombers in the Soviet arsenal.
With the two large schools, Slocum was once again a campus -- a most un-bellicose fort. The schools were different. The Chaplain School was like ACTCOTS in WWII: it took fully-formed professionals (in this case, clergymen rather than transportation experts) and finished them into soldiers. The Information School, on the other hand, took soldiers (and at points, when it was a joint-service school, sailors and airmen too) and taught them the basics of public information, journalism, and radio/TV broadcasting. And then the other component (the Nike battery) sometimes doubted that those passing through the schools were REAL soldiers, since unlike the missilemen, they were not warriors.
Thus Fort Slocum’s position as an active fortification was brief and ineffective, although its history was long and it served the Army in various other ways over little more than a century. For most of its history it was less bellicose: hospital, recruit depot, and campus.
After the Army left, the island changed hands several times among those interested in developing it. These parties included the Job Corps of the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, The Citizens Committee for Residential Facilities for the Retardees of Westchester, the City of New Rochelle (several times), Con Edison (which wanted to build a nuclear power plant there), a development group from Honolulu (which wanted to build an exclusive high rise community there), and most recently Donald Trump (who wanted to rename it Trump Island and build a Trump Tower there which would have been visible from Manhattan). Development plans consistently were thwarted, mainly by the inability to build a bridge which would provide ready access to the island. In the meantime, a series of arson fires, particularly the Great Fire of 21 April 1982, destroyed most of the buildings. Wooden buildings were leveled into ashes; brick buildings left shells; those not burned were tumbling down. The island became sort of an Eastern ghost town (though it was still possible to walk the island and to recognize most of the remnants). In 2004 Congresswoman Nita Lowey provided an ongoing stream of federal money for the abatement of environmental hazards. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was charged with this abatement; which culminated, at the command of the current property owner, the City of New Rochelle, in Dec. 2007, to destroy almost all that remained. As a result most of the remains were demolished in 2008, culminating with the destruction of the iconic 1929 water tower on 9 Sept.
As a result all that remains to mark the U. S. Army’s more than a century-long tenure at Davids’ Island Military Reservation/Fort Slocum, is the road system; the flagpole; the 15” Rodman gun display; and the mortar batteries and Battery Practice (which were deemed too difficult to destroy). (In fact the direct fire batteries had been destroyed in the 1930’s to build barracks, and one of the four mortar pits was destroyed during World War II to build a small arms range.) From 2008, for the first time since before the U.S. Civil War, there is nothing visible from shore that would indicate that Davids’ Island was ever inhabited, by the Army or anyone else. Although technically the island is not posted, it is forbidden by the City to visit without special permission (and its Harbor Patrol will enforce this prohibition); though there has been some discussion that it may be sold to Westchester County for use as a park.
If and when that happens it will be possible for the public to walk the site, though there will be almost nothing to indicate its colorful history. This is in contrast to various other abandoned forts, such as Fort Worden (and the nearby coast artillery batteries), or Vancouver Barracks or Madison Barracks or Fort Adams (1) or Governors’ Island which have been preserved substantially while at the same time they have been converted to other uses. On the other hand, because the demolition was part of a public process (rather than left to the whims of private developers) there has been considerable documentation, including archaeological digs, extensive photography, GPS positioning, and the prospect of a "Virtual Archive and Online Exhibit" operated by New Rochelle and Westchester County; so that some of the history has been preserved even as the site has been destroyed.
Location: Davids' Island, Long Island Sound, Westchester County, New York
Maps & Images Lat: 40.88336 Long: -73.770212
- Roberts, Robert B., Encyclopedia of Historic Forts: The Military, Pioneer, and Trading Posts of the United States, Macmillan, New York, 1988, 10th printing, ISBN 0-02-926880-X, page 580
- CDSG Fort Slocum
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