Fort Dix History
MAJOR GENERAL JOHN ADAMS DIX, U.S. V. 1. (United States Volunteer)
“In the early morning of June 1, 1917, Captain George W. Mulhern 2. (Offical post return lists Captain George W. Mulheron, Commander of Company C, 1st Battalion Engineers New Jersey, arriving on 25 June 1917) and a small band of 19 officers and privates from Company C of the 26th New Jersey Engineers arrived at the quaint, sleepy, straggling village of Wrightstown.” 3 (Quoted by Camp Dix Pictorial Review, January 1918, p. 1, from William Maxwell, Historical Record of Camp Dix 1917).
This advance detachment was the first unit to look over the area which would one day become the largest military installation in the north-eastern United States. When these personnel arrived at what was to be the cantonment site, no name had yet been given to the Army reservation. During the ensuing weeks, they and the construction workers who soon followed their arrival referred to the site by various names such as “Camp Wrightstown” and “Wrightstown Cantonment.” It was not until 18 July 1917 when construction already had been under way for some weeks that a War Department general order designated the area to be known as Camp Dix in honor of Major General John Adams Dix, soldier, politician, statesman, foreign diplomat and railroad pioneer who had ably served his country for a period of more than 60 years.
Dix was born in the village of Boscawen, New Hampshire, on 24 July 1798. His father, a prosperous storekeeper, was instrumental in the formation of a local militia. Young Dix at a very early age became intrigued by the activities of these hometown “heroes.” In his memoirs, he described how they fired his imagination to the point where he “caught the contagion, and made to myself a sacred vow that, if ever I grew into manhood, I would become a soldier or perish in the attempt.” 4 (Morgan Dix, Memoirs of John Adams Dix, vol. i. p. 21)
Following the death of his mother in childbirth, Dix was sent away to a series of boarding schools including Phillips Exeter Academy and the College of Montreal. His dream of becoming a soldier did not diminish. With the approach of the War of 1812, Dix’ father received an appointment as a major in the infantry and became commander of a battalion in Baltimore. Although his father wanted young Dix to continue his education, the latter succeeded in becoming a cadet in the US Army in 1812 and managed to join his father’s unit in Baltimore.
In 1813, four months shy of 15 years of age, Dix received a commission as an ensign in the infantry. In April of that year, father and son were in Sackett’s Harbor, northern New York, performing duty at what was later to become Madison Barracks. In autumn, their unit joined with a force from Plattsburg for a march up the St. Lawrence River to meet the British at Montreal. The combined force failed to reach its destination, but on the march, they fought several skirmishes with British troops which gave young Dix his first view of battle and death in combat. During the return march to Lake Ontario, the older Dix fell ill with pneumonia and died en route to Sackett’s Harbor.
A succession of military posts and duties followed for Dix including, at the age of 16, an assignment as aide-de-camp to Major General Jacob Brown, commander of the Northern Department of the US Army. In this capacity, Dix came into contact with many important personages of the times. Jefferson, Madison, Calhoun, Van Rensselaer were only a few of the many described by Dix in his memoirs. In 1919, Dix began to read law with an eye to resigning his commission and setting up practice in New York State.
On 29 May 1826, Dix married Catherine Morgan, the daughter of a distinguished citizen of New York, John Jordan Morgan. After a European honeymoon, Captain Dix and his wife were stationed at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, and then West Point, New York. At the latter post, he became increasingly disenchanted with peacetime military life and resigned in 1828.
Dix and his wife settled in Cooperstown, New York, where he pursued the life of a country squire managing his father-in-law’s lands and practicing law. He was appointed adjutant general of New York State in 1830, and in 1833 Dix took on the additional duties of secretary of state and served in these capacities until 1839. During this period, he became a leading member of the so-called “Albany Regency” – the controlling group in the state Democratic Party.
With the victory of the Whig Party in 1838, Dix became politically inactive until 1845, when he was appointed to fill out the term of Senator Silas Wright. In a complicated political maneuver, Wright had been elected in 1844 to governorship of New York State and as governor appointed Dix to fill out his term in the Senate. As US Senator, Dix aligned himself with antislavery Democrats, and the resulting antagonism of the southern wing of the party led to his temporary retirement from politics when his term was completed in 1849.
During the next decade he was active in railroad promotion and law practice in New York City. He continued his contacts with the Democratic Party, and in January 1961, he was appointed secretary of the treasury by President James Buchanan and served until March of that year. In this short period of time, Dix rallied reluctant northern financers to support what they thought was a failing government. While in this post he coined the memorable phrase, “If anyone attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot.” 5 (Ibid,., p. 371)
The words were part of a message sent to treasury agents in New Orleans, ordering the arrest of the captain of a revenue cutter for his refusal to sail his ship to New York.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Dix, as head of the Union Defense Committee, organized 17 regiments and was commissioned a major general of volunteers. Although he saw no fighting, he helped to save Maryland for the Union cause by his active defense measures. Historians have termed the refusal of Maryland to secede crucial to the North’s eventual victory. In May 1663, Dix was sent to Fortress Monroe in Virginia as commander of the VII US Army Corps. The highlight of his tour come when he marched several thousand troops up the peninsula toward Richmond in an unsuccessful move to cut off Lee from his headquarters. General Lee then was preparing for the attack at Gettysburg.
After the New York draft riots in July 1863, Dix was appointed commander of the US Army Department of the East in New York City. He served in this capacity until his retirement on 15 July 1865. Despite his advancing years, Dix continued serving as the first president of the Union Pacific Railroad, United States minister to France (1866-69), and, though a staunch Democrat, was elected governor of New York on the Republican ticket in 1872. Defeated for reelection in 1874, Dix finally retired from the public scene until his death 21 April 1879.
The memory of John Adams Dix and his many accomplishments are largely forgotten. The perpetuation of his contribution to the American heritage rests principally with the Army reservation that now bears his name, as it has for the past 50 years. Fort Dix today continues to train young men for the task of protecting that to which John Adams Dix devoted his entire life – the United States of America.