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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

The Early Years of Camp Benning - Politics and Persistence (Part 1 of 3)

This month, we will be celebrating the early years of Fort Moore - first known as Camp Benning and then Fort Benning. I am utilizing the 1998 publication of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence Directorate of Public Works Environmental Management Division, Fort Benning: The Land and The People. I have taken one chapter and separated it into three emails to showcase over the next three weeks.


SOURCE: Fort Benning: The Land and The People by Sharyn Kane and Richard Keeton, 1998.

 

Camp Benning's future became doubtful soon after the signing of the peace agreement in November 1918 ending World War I. There was no need to continue building a school for the infantry when the war was over, some argued. In Washington, D.C., and even in Columbus, Georgia, voices, some quite powerful, contended that Camp Benning should be abandoned. Those against the post won for a time. On January 9, 1919, the War Department, acting in concert with the powerful Committee on Military Affairs of the United States Senate, ordered construction stopped. An enterprising officer at the post, however, found some convenient ambiguity in the wording of the command. While the order called for an end to building and for stopping all condemnation procedures to acquire land, it also stipulated that construction materials and structures partially completed should be salvaged in ways that best served the government. Major John Paul Jones, the quartermaster corps officer in charge of construction, chose to interpret that to mean that work on unfinished buildings could continue. Without official sanction from Washington, he kept construction crews toiling at the post.


This wasn't the only instance when the major showed initiative to keep Camp Benning moving forward. When the Army needed a way for trains to transport construction supplies to the post, the solution was to lay tracks from Camp Benning to a connection with the Central of Georgia Railroad, which passed through Columbus. There was a wrinkle in the plan, however. The track would have to intersect another railroad owned by the Seaboard Line, a Central of Georgia rival. The local Seaboard Line superintendent objected strenuously to the Camp Benning scheme.



Nonetheless, Jones pushed forward with the laying of railroad tracks. He even had the framework for a crossing built that would be placed over the Seaboard Line tracks so that the Camp Benning trains could pass over them. When the Seaboard Line superintendent heard about the crossing construction, he stormed into court to stop it and won a temporary restraining order.


The major, however, wasn't easily deterred. He collaborated with a local attorney, Frank Garrard, and somehow managed to finagle a bearing before a sympathetic judge at four in the morning. This judge quickly nullified the restraining order, and within two hours, before anyone from the Seaboard Line could object, the crossing was in place. A train, loaded with rails and ties, chugged over the crossing, and construction of the new track resumed on the other side. There were no more legal challenges to the new railroad.


But the War Department's command to cease construction posed a much more serious problem. The post was just beginning to take shape. Only about 2,000 acres had been acquired. Efforts to buy more land were snarled in bureaucratic red tape or contested in court cases.


About 4,000 troops were stationed at Camp Benning, most housed at the original site near Columbus while they waited for the new facilities to be finished near the Chattahoochee River. Building progress was slow. The railroad track to the post was incomplete, and construction materials from Columbus had to be carted in by wagon.


Example of one of the quarters built by an officer due to short supply of housing.


Construction, however, had begun on a two-story building designated to be the original camp headquarters. There was also an assortment of warehouses, mess halls, and other buildings either ready or near completion. But though Jones was able to keep crews working, it was doubtful he could continue building for long without authorization from the powerful Senate Committee on Military Affairs.


The Senate committee had voted unanimously against Camp Benning continuing, but within days of the vote, committee member Senator Hoke Smith of Georgia had a change of heart. He transformed into one of Camp Benning's biggest advocates. Why be switched sides is undocumented, but intense lobbying by the Columbus Chamber of Commerce perhaps was a factor.


Once he became a champion of the post, Smith vigorously pursued the slow, delicate process of changing other senators' minds. His first victory was convincing committee members to reconsider their Camp Benning vote and hold public hearings on the matter.


Proponents and opponents of Camp Benning flooded the committee with their views, sent by mail, telegram, or delivered in person. Colonel Henry Eames, post commandant, was the first witness to testify. He described the extensive national search for an infantry school site, stressing, "Columbus was decided upon in preference to anything we saw." The terrain and climate made the location superior for the year-round training the Army required; Eames explained.


Some of the most crucial testimony came from Columbus civilians, with partisans both for and against the military reservation. Columbus residents had once seemed unanimously in favor of the post, lobbying hard to have the military choose their city. But after the patriotic fervor stirred by World War I subsided, some had second thoughts. Some members of the business community, once seemingly united in favor of a post, now complained that the military caused upward pressure on wages. If they had to pay workers more, they would just as soon have the Army pack up and leave.


Tents were also used for housing.


Landowners had also turned hostile to Camp Benning. Some were angered because they were ordered off their property but hadn't been paid. Others didn't want to leave, no matter how much they were compensated. Still, others disgruntled over the amount of money the government had offered, had taken their complaints to court.


Some citizens voiced fears that the influx of young, unmarried men would threaten the well-being or moral uprightness of their daughters and wives. As one telegram writer to the committee pleaded, "Save our homes, our churches, and our schools." Another complaint concerned spending tax dollars on the military when the United States was no longer at war. "My motto after the war, ‘More to eat and less guns,’” wrote the opponent.


Advocates for Camp Benning matched foes in their fervor. Many landowners were eager to sell, which was not surprising considering declining farm prices and the devastating impact of the boll weevil on cotton crops. The Columbus Chamber of Commerce also continued to offer a spirited defense of the post. Business Leaders testified that the military brought substantial economic benefits to the community. Among the last and most pivotal witnesses was Colonel Morton C. Mumma, Camp Benning's assistant commandant. Mumma proposed that 17,000 acres of expensive property be dropped from planned purchases, saving the federal government $1 million. He also recommended that money allocated for building be slashed by more than half, from $13 million to $6 million.


His compromise won over the senators. They could now proclaim fiscal responsibility to those concerned about costs and still satisfy the post's supporters. They voted in March 1919 to resume building at Camp Benning and buying land. The tighter budget led military officials to lower the proposed capacity of the school from 25,000 to 5,000 troops. Colonel Mumma explained why he was willing to reduce the scope of the building program. "I was prompted...by my great desire to save...this very important school."


NEXT WEEK: The second part of the early years of Camp Moore. The battle was far from settled.

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