Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall is made up of Fort Myer and Henderson Hall in Virginia, and Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D.C.
Fort Myer, Virginia, traces its origins to the Civil War and since then, has been a Signal Corps post, a showcase for Army cavalry and site of the first flight of an aircraft at a military installation.
The acreage that is Fort Myer and Arlington National Cemetery was once called Arlington Heights when owned in the late 1850s by Mary Anna Randolph Custis, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson.
Mary Anna married young Army Lt. Robert E. Lee in 1831. Lee, who had graduated second in his West Point class of 1829, later helped rescue the estate from financial ruin in 1860. The Lees left the area in the spring of 1861, and Lee became military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and later, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. He never returned to Arlington.
The government confiscated the land in 1864 when Mrs. Lee did not pay her property taxes in person. Part of the estate became Arlington National Cemetery. The remainder of the estate consisted of Fort Cass (named by the Union Army’s 9th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry soldiers for their commander Col. Thomas Cass), built in 1861 where the Fort Myer Thrift Shop now stands; and Fort Whipple – built in May 1863 – now Whipple Field. Fort Whipple was named in honor of Maj. Gen. Amiel Whipple, a West Point graduate of the class of 1841. A Union officer, Whipple fought in the Civil War battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in Virginia. He died of wounds sustained at Chancellorsville in 1863.
Fort Whipple was one of the stronger fortifications built to defend the Union capital across the Potomac River. Units stationed there lived in tents and temporary frame structures. The fledgling post’s high elevation made it ideal for visual communication, and the Signal Corps took it over in the late 1860s. Brig. Gen. Albert J. Myer commanded Fort Whipple and, in 1866, he was appointed the Army’s first chief signal officer, a post he held until his death in 1880. The post was renamed Fort Myer the next year in his honor.
In 1886, Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, the Army’s commanding general, directed Fort Myer to become the nation’s cavalry showplace. Signal Corps personnel moved out and cavalrymen moved in, including the 3rd Cavalry Regiment between World Wars I and II, supported by the 16th and 55th Field Artillery Battalions. Some 1,500 horses were stabled at Fort Myer in 1940, and Army horsemanship had become an important part of Washington’s official and social life.
Most of the buildings at the north end of Fort Myer were built between 1892 and 1908. Quarters One was completed in 1899 as the post commander’s house, but since 1908, it has been the home of Army chiefs of staff, including Generals George C. Marshall, Omar N. Bradley, Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The first military test flight of an aircraft was made from the Fort Myer parade ground on Sept. 9, 1908, when Orville Wright kept the Wright Flyer in the air for a minute and 11 seconds. The thirteenth test flight ended in tragedy when, after three minutes aloft, the aircraft crashed. Wright was severely injured, and a passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, became the first powered aviation fatality.
Defense troops were stationed at Fort Myer during World War II, when it also served as a processing station for Soldiers entering and leaving the Army. The U.S. Army Band (Pershing’s Own) and the U.S. Army School of Music moved to the post in 1942, joined later by the U.S. Army Chorus. The Army’s oldest infantry unit, the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) was reactivated in 1948 and assigned to Forts Myer and McNair (D.C.) to become the Army’s official ceremonial unit and security force in the Washington metropolitan area.