Fort Myer Prepares for War:  1916

By:  M. Callahan

Home to the Army Signal Corps School, the 3rd and 15th Cavalry, field Artillery and Army Aviation, Fort Myer has been on the leading edge of Army life for more than 150 years.  Known first as Fort Whipple in honor of Union General Amiel Whipple who was shot at Chancellorsville. Fort Myer was carved from the 1,100 acre estate of General Robert E. Lee and Mary Randolph Custis Lee, known as Arlington House in 1863. Having lived there for 30 years, Mrs. Lee, in fear of capture, was forced to flee in May of 1861 and given refuge at the home of her grandparents, Ravensworth Plantation in Annandale.

Fort Whipple became apart of the protective ring of defense for Washington, establishing a large presence of artillery which remained after the Civil War.  Early in that war, General Albert J. Myer designed the “wig-wag signaling method” consisting of one flag and a technique that resembled Morse Code.  Signal stations were established on top of city & fort buildings, and in tree houses built to transmit the movements & position of troops.   Later the heliograph signaling technique was developed using mirrors and the sun.  In 1869, the Signal Corps School established residence at Fort Whipple headed by Gen. Myer.  In 1880 upon his death, the fort was renamed in his honor  

During World War I, Fort Myer was a staging area for a large number of engineering, artillery, chemical companies and regiments. The area at Fort Myer now occupied by the Andrew Rader Health Clinic and the Commissary were re-created into a trench system training ground where French officers taught the Americans about trench warfare.  As much as both the US government and most Americans believed the war raging in France was a European war, sentiment began to change with the sinking of American ships.  The Army and Navy slowly began to reorganize and prepare their troops to join the conflict. 

The army, mobilized by horse until WWII, launched Fort Myer into the public eye with the prominent 3rd Cavalry, requiring the acquisition and training of many hundreds of quality equines for the troops, and for transport of artillery and supplies.  The Post maintained a herd of 1,500 horses.  An army of farriers were employed to keep the mounts shod, and a  tack building was erected where harnesses and all forms of tack were made by hand.

General George S. Patton Jr. who was posted at Fort Myer four different times, started the charitable Society Circus after WWI.  One of America’s finest horseman, Patten took every opportunity to ride whether at Fort Myer, or in the Virginia countryside, including Great Falls Park.  He ultimately became Post Commander and led the 3rd Cavalry Regiment from the 1920s to 1942 when the regiment was sent to Georgia to become mechanized. Between the wars, the 3rd Cavalry acted in the defense of the capital as well as ceremonial support for National Cemetery and government displays.

A particularly daring and dangerous display at the Society Circus (think non-Western Rodeo) was a race between at least three riders each reining two horses and standing one foot atop each mount.  They looked somewhat like gladiators driving Roman chariots, minus the chariot.    Some of the most skilled riders would even jump two horses side-by-side over a two bar fence with one of their feet on the back of each mount standing and stooping to avoid throwing the horse off balance.  The fact that the rider could keep his balance demonstrated a mastery of perfect unison between rider and horse (s).

The troopers became creative in showcasing their well honed equestrian skills in humorous ways.  They also displayed the close military maneuvers of the US Calvary, particularly impressive when performed in long lines moving in absolute precision.  The Rockettes would look like amateurs next to these lines of skilled horsemen;  those who viewed often gasped, then applauded wildly, knowing they would never see the likes of such skill again.   The Society Circus had costumed clowns, a clown band, humorous skits, and cavalry soldiers who had served in the American West demonstrating their sharpshooting skills followed by serenading the audience with Cowboy songs.

The equestrian prowess of the 3rd Cavalry became so well known, (Nulli Secundus) that their members formed the US Olympic Equestrian Teams for many years and a championship Polo Team.

For 10 days in early September 1908, The WRIGHT FLYER was based at Ft. Myer while conducting a series of tests in response to the Army’s desire to integrate a heavier-than-air flying vehicle into military service.  Wright had specifically designed this plane to answer the army’s specifications and was paid $25,000.   Some of the specifications were:

  • "It should be sufficiently simple in its construction and operation to permit an intelligent man to become proficient in its use within a reasonable length of time."  
  •   "It is desirable that the flying machine should be designed so that it may be quickly and easily assembled and taken apart and packed for transportation in army wagons.  It should be capable of being assembled and put in operating condition in about one hour."
  •   "The flying machine must be designed to carry two persons having a combined weight of about 350 pounds, also sufficient fuel for a flight of 125 miles."
  •   "The flying machine should be designed to have a speed of at least forty miles per hour in still air..."
  •   "Before acceptance a trial endurance flight will be required of at least one hour during which time the flying machine must remain continuously in the air without landing.  It shall return to the starting point and land without any damage that would prevent it immediately starting upon another flight.  During this trial flight of one hour it must be steered in all directions without difficulty and at all times under perfect control and equilibrium."
  •   "The place of delivery to the Government and trial flights will be at Fort Myer, Virginia."  (1)
  •    "The complete delivery shall be made on or before August 28, 1908."  (2)

Orville Wright soloed the plane during the first many tests then welcomed Lt. Frank Lahm and Lt. Selfridge of the Army’s Aeronautical Division to fly with him on different days.  On Sept. 17th the WRIGHT FLYER crashed killing Lt. Selfridge, the first military aviation fatality, and seriously injuring Orville Wright.  It would later be discovered that a propeller had split clipping a bracing wire that held the tail in place & sending the plane into a lethal dive.  After Wright’s recovery, the Army did extend his contract.    By that point, and with news of German flight development, the Army could envision the practical military use of this machine.


Amiel Whipple
Albert Myer
Philip Sheridan
Charles Summerall
Jonathan Wainwright
John Pershing
Douglas MacArthur
George Marshall
George Patton
Harry Cootes
Dwight Eisenhower

(1)  Signal Corps Specifications, NO. 486, September 23, 1907.

(2)  Articles of Agreement dated 10 February, 1908 with Wilbur and Orville Wright, trading as Wright Brothers of 1127 West Third Street, Dayton, Ohio and Chas. S. Wallace, Captain, Signal Corps, United States Army for the manufacture for and deliver to the United States of America, One (1) heavier than air flying machine, in accordance with Signal Corps Specifications NO 486 dated December 23, 1907.    Brigadier General, Chief Signal Officer of the Army signed approval of the contract on Feb. 28, 1908.

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This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of the ENDEAVOR News Magazine.
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Reviewing Stand at Ft Myer 1916 Parade of Officer Training Graduates







Officers in Training 1916 at Fort Myer

Parade Grounds and parking at Fort Myer 1916


Ralph Coffin jumping horse over Sylvanus Stoke's Rolls Royce at the Society Circus 1916.

 The Army required the WRIGHT FLYER to achieve a speed of 40 mph.  This was accomplished with a higher octane gas.  Wright flew longer each day staying aloft for more than an hour at a time.  WRIGHT Flyer soaring over Ft. Myer.

Wright Flyer approaching White House

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