A Look Back: Camp Humphries and the origins of Fort Belvoir

By Gustav J. Person, Former Fort Belvoir Garrison HistorianMarch 26, 2021

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

In 1911, the District of Columbia had acquired land on the Belvoir peninsula for the construction of a reformatory. Community opposition, however, soon put an end to that idea, and by the following year the land was turned over to the War Department for use by the Engineer School at Washington Barracks for marksmanship and tactical training. The troops bivouacked at a small camp, known as Belvoir, in the southern end of the peninsula.

After the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, it became evident that a large camp was needed for training the engineer replacements that would be called for in ever-increasing numbers for service on the Western Front.

In December 1917, the Secretary of War approved the construction of a cantonment at Belvoir for 30,000 engineer replacement troops.

This was designated as Camp Andrew A. Humphreys, in honor of Major General Andrew A. Humphreys (1810-1883), a brilliant topographic engineer and administrator, who rendered distinguished service during the Civil War as chief of staff of the Army of the Potomac. From 1866 until retirement in 1879, he served as Chief of Engineers.

The tract was selected for several excellent reasons: a large amount of round timber, essential for engineer troops learning how to construct Sapper devices used in trench warfare; Gunston Cove provided an ideal site for pontoon and bridge training; deep water in the Potomac insured a site for a dock for river craft; and the railroad was only four miles from the heart of the camp.

Construction began amid deep snow and the intense cold of the winter of 1917-18 - the hardest Virginia winter in years. In February came the thaw, with roads pounded to pieces, and endless trains of heavily-laden trucks grinding their way through deep ruts over the various routes between Alexandria and Camp Humphreys. A contemporary observer commented on the “miles and miles of mud” which seemed almost bottomless.

The biggest job in terms of man-days was the clearing of land. It was common to see several thousand troops at work on the main parade; chopping trees, driving mules hauling away the logs, uprooting stumps with tractors or blasting out the more obstinate ones. On one day, 10 acres of forest were converted into an open, level parade field.

During the winter months, an average of 1,000 engineer troops was in garrison with the double duties of completing their training, and playing a vital role in the construction program. Few of the Soldiers of these early units found any harder work in France than they did during their brief tour of construction work at the camp.

By September 1918, there were 1,385 officers and 21,400 enlisted men quartered in the camp. Between January and Armistice Day, about 57,000 men received their training there, and then were shipped overseas. Notably, a high percentage of recruits were illiterates, or immigrants who did not speak English well, and evening classes were organized to address this problem.

That same month, the camp – along with Europe and the Americas – was struck by the Spanish Influenza pandemic. Leadership took immediate steps to head off the disease. For two weeks in October all drills and formations were suspended, and Soldiers had to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Everyone attended lectures on the spread of the disease. During the five weeks of the epidemic, 4,237 cases were reported in the camp. The mortality rate among all troops was reported at 35%.

The war ended abruptly on Armistice Day in November. Although the camp did not close, all training was suspended.

Camp Humphreys had proved its worth, and in 1919 was officially re-designated the U.S. Army Engineer School. Three years later, the name was changed to Fort Humphreys, a reflection of the installation’s permanent status in the Army’s organization. That name remained in effect until 1935, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the name to Fort Belvoir, in order to re-establish the installation’s links to the colonial past. Fort Belvoir continues to serve the Army and the nation to this date.