Fort Lesley J. McNair is a United States Army post located on the point of land where the Potomac River and Anacostia River join in Washington, D.C. To its west is the Washington Channel, while the Anacostia River is on its south side. It has been an Army post for more than 200 years, third only to West Point and Carlisle Barracks in length of service.
An arsenal first occupied the site and defenses were built in 1794. The fortifications did not halt the invading British in 1814. Soldiers at the arsenal evacuated north with as much gun powder as they could carry, hiding the rest in a well as the Redcoats came up the Potomac from burning the capitol. About 47 British soldiers found the powder magazines they'd come to destroy empty. Someone threw a match into the well and "a tremendous explosion ensued," a doctor at the scene reported, "whereby the officers and about 30 of the men were killed and the rest most shockingly mangled." The remaining soldiers destroyed the arsenal buildings, but the facilities were rebuilt after the war.
Land was purchased north of the arsenal in 1826 for the first federal penitentiary. The conspirators accused of assassinating President Abraham Lincoln were imprisoned there and, after being found guilty, four were hanged and the rest received prison sentences. Among those hanged was Mary Surratt, the first woman ever executed under federal orders. A hospital was built next to the penitentiary in 1857, and Civil War wounded were treated at what then was called the Washington Arsenal. The arsenal was closed in 1881, and the post transferred to the Quartermaster Corps.
A general hospital, predecessor to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, was located at the post from 1898 until 1909. Maj. Walter Reed found the area's marshlands an excellent site for his research on malaria. Reed's work contributed to the discovery of the cause of yellow fever. The major died of peritonitis after an appendectomy at the post in 1902. The post dispensary and the visiting officers' quarters now occupy the buildings where Reed worked and died.
About 90 percent of the present buildings on the post's were built, reconstructed or remodeled by 1908. In 1901, with the birth of the Army War College, the post, now called Washington Barracks, became the Army's center for the education and training of senior officers to lead and direct large numbers of troops. Its first classes were conducted in 1904. The Army Industrial College was founded at McNair in 1924 to prepare officers for high level posts in Army supply organizations, and to study industrial mobilization. It evolved into the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. The Army War College was reorganized as the Army-Navy Staff College in 1943, and became the National War College in 1946. The two colleges became the National Defense University in 1976.
The post was renamed in 1948 to honor Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, commander of Army ground forces during World War II, who was headquartered at the post and killed in Normandy, France, July 25, 1944. Fort McNair has been the headquarters of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington since 1966.
Fort McNair is fortified and guarded by a combination of members of the Military Police Corps and security guards. There is a large brick wall with security cameras on the northern side. The eastern side has a combination of brick walls and barbed wire fences. The southern side is protected by the Anacostia River, while the western side borders the Washington Channel, part of the Potomac River. There are motion detecting security cameras along the water. Along with video surveillance, military police patrol the area 24 hours a day, often with police dogs. Fort McNair has two main gates, both located on the north side. These two gates provide the only current vehicle access. Drivers and pedestrians can enter Fort McNair from P Street SW. There is a 24 hour gate on the northeastern side, while the northwestern gate is only open during high traffic hours. Access is granted to anyone with valid U.S. identification, but buildings require a building pass to enter. The northeastern gate has a security checkpoint for nonmilitary personnel. Another pedestrian gate exists on the east side of Fort McNair, near V St. SW and the James Creek Marina. This gate is only open to National Defense University employees and residents. The V St. gate has limited hours and is only open during the day.
In 1990, the Information Resources Management College was formed as the capstone institution for Defense Information Resource Management education. As such, it provides graduate-level courses in information resources management.
The National Defense University also features a first-rate research capability through the Institute for National Strategic Studies. This institute, established in 1984, conducts independent policy analyses and develops policy and strategy alternatives. It also includes a War Gaming and Simulation Center and the NDU Press.
The university has several other educational programs. These include the Capstone program, for general and flag officer selectees; the International Fellows program, which brings NDU almost 100 participants from 50 different countries; and the Reserve Components National Security Course, which offers military education to senior officers of the armed forces.
The officers study world alliances and the international situation, the inter-American system and its role, strategic concepts of war and engage in a planning exercise for hemispheric defense. The college has been at Fort McNair since 1962.
In September 1998, the U.S. Army Center of Military History moved from rented offices in Washington, D.C., to Fort McNair in historically preserved quarters remodeled from its previous use as a commissary and before that as Fort McNair's stables. The center dates from the creation of the Army General Staff historical branch in July 1943 and the gathering of a team of professional historians, translators, editors and cartographers to record the history of World War II. That effort led to a monumental 79-volume series known as the "Green Books."
Today, the center operates through four divisions, the histories division being the one most involved in writing the histories and providing historical research support to the Army staff. The field program and historical services guides work done at various posts and installations, as well as the work done by deployed historical detachments for Army operations, ensures historical information is comprehensive and factual.
Another division is responsible for overseeing the Army museum system and preservation of artifacts and artwork that are the Army's historical treasure. One such museum, The Old Guard Museum, is located at Fort Myer. The center's production division generates finished publications and assures access to the center's work through such media as CD-ROM and the World Wide Web.