History of Fort Dix – 1917-1967
SELECTION OF SITES FOR MOBILIZATION CAMPS
In the spring of 1917, the US Army had barracks space sufficient to house only troops of the Regular Army. The problem facing the War Department was to provide facilities for the new increments to the Regular Army, then for the 16 divisions of the expanded National Guard when they were called to active service, and finally the additional 16 divisions planned for the National Army of draftees. The camps for the National Army had to be completed by the 1 September date established by the secretary of war as the initial reporting date for the drafted men.
The US Army General Staff had early developed plans to expand the existing facilities for the National Guard and National Army would have to be situated at new sites on newly acquired lands with complete new construction. In order to take best advantage of climatic conditions for training purposes and to utilize tentage already available to the US Army, the southern states were selected as the location for National Guard divisions. Political considerations, population distribution and other factors indicated that the camps for the National Army should be located in areas from which the draftees came.
“The decision as to the camp sites rested with the Secrtary of War. His was the power to say where all the millions of money for construction and camp supplies should be spent; his the power to gratify local pride and civic patriotism, to give government approval to the realtors’ exploiting of suburban subdivisions.” 1 (Frederick Palmer, Newton D. Baker – America at War, vol. I, p. 239)
Secretary Baker early decided that an arbitrary selection of sites would be unwise. He delegated his authority to the US Army Department commanders who were advised to appoint boards of officers to survey locations “known to them or suggested to them and to select for recommendation to the (War) Department the best sites.” 2. (Ibid. p. 240)
Even though no secrecy was attached to the adoption of this procedure, the secretary of war, the War Department and even the President were deluged with delegations, applications and letters from committees and individuals seeking the location of camps near their cities or in their states. In late May 1917, President Wilson received a letter from an old friend in New Jersey suggesting the location of a camp in that state. In his reply, the President advised his friend that “he knew nothing about the War Department’s plans for mobilization camps, but observed that he would like to serve New Jersey in any way practicable.” 3. (Ibid., p. 239)
The letter was referred to Secretary Baker who in a subsequent memorandum to the President advised that he had delegated the authority to the department commanders. He added, however, “Whether New Jersey sites will be recommended I do not know, but I shall be glad to ask General Bell (department commander for the area including New Jersey) to have his board consider carefully any such sites as may be suggested.” 4. (Ibid., p. 240)
It was not until 7 May 1917, when the draft law was well along to receiving congressional approval, that the War Department directed the commanding generals of the seven military departments to select sites for the construction of cantonments for the National Guard and the National Army. Major General J. Franklin Bell, commander of the Department of the East, on receipt of the order, appointed a board of officers under the chairmanship of Colonel W. C. Brown to survey possible sites in his department.
After careful consideration, the board selected several sites, one of which was located in Burlington County, New Jersey, near the village of Wrightstown. This site was recommended to the War Department, and late in May 1917, it was approved as the location of the 78th National Army Division’s mobilization camp. It is not known if political influence played a part in the selection of the site in Burlington County, but the passage of time has revealed the vision and foresight of the men who recommended this location for a military camp.
The area near Wrightstown was only 30 miles from Philadelphia and fewer than 100 miles from New York City with their vast port and rail facilities. Additionally, a spur of the Pennsylvania Railroad connecting both cities ran adjacent to the planned campsite and the city of Trenton, New Jersey, only 18 miles distance by road. Located in the heartland of the “Garden State” (New Jersey) and the extensive agricultural regions of Pennsylvania, the area provided a ready access to markets to feed the anticipated thousands of soldiers. With a good supply of surface water only three miles from the proposed cantonment site and an underground water table at reasonable depths, water posed no major problem.
Other physical characteristics of the area were equally favorable, Extensive cleared land as well as an expanse of Jersey pines lay within short hikes. Terrain of the type needed for training in trench warfare as fought in Europe was easily accessible. The soil of this region – a mixture of clay, sand and gravel extending to depths of hundreds of feet – was ideal for drainage, and the sloping terrain was suitable for the use of a gravity sewage system. With respect to the climate, the survey group concluded that the area was not “cursed with an overabundance of humidity in summertime,” was relatively free of mosquitos, and in general provided “a very healthful location.” 5 (Camp Dix News, vol. i, no. v 1917, 2. )
Historically, the land comprising the modern Fort Dix had been settled by a group of English Friends, or Quakers, from Yorkshire and London, England, in the year 1677. The region was first part of the Province of West Jersey. The nearby city of Burlington frequently served as a meeting place for the provincial assembly until 1702 when the boundaries of New Jersey were established along the lines as they exist today. To hear the sounds of marching feet would not be something new to Burlington County. In August 1757, a draft of Burlington County militia was mustered and reviewed at Mount Holly prior to its service in the French and Indian War. This was the first recorded military information within the county, although a number of men from the area had served within the New Jersey militia in King George’s War against France, 1744-1748.
During the long struggle for independence from Great Britain, Burlington County witnessed the movement of elements of both the British and Continental armies across its soil. Communities, particularly Burlington City and Bordentown, were frequently occupied by British regulars and their Hessian mercenaries. Mount Holly, nearby to present Fort Dix, was occupied on Christmas Eve, 1776, as continental Militia drew Hessian troops away from Bordentown. This action was in preparation for General Washington’s historic crossing of the Delaware River and the defeat of the Hessian troops in Trenton on 26 December 1776. Mount Holly was again occupied for several days in June 1778 by 15,000 British troops with 1500 wagons under the command of General William Clinton. This force destroyed the town’s iron works which had been supplying the Continental Army with weapons.
After the defeat of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, it was a Burlington man, Elias Boudinot, who as “President of the Congress” signed preliminary articles of peace with Great Britain on 30 November 1782.
Since the Revolution, thousands of Burlington County men and women have served the nation with distinction. Captain James Lawrence, commander of the American frigate in the War of 1812 and famed for his dying order, “Don’t give up the ship!,” was born in Burlington City. His home still stands, as does that of James Fenimore Cooper, author of the famous Leatherstocking Tales and The Last of the Mohicians, who was born in the house next door.
In 1917, today’s Fort Dix joined this proud heritage to make its contribution to the history of Burlington County.