Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Fort Slocum, New York--Civil War through the 20th Century

Occasionally, a setting in history is a perfect microcosm of the bigger picture, a stage if you will for the theater at large. Just outside of New York City, on Davids' Island, a military fort named for Major General Henry W. Slocum, offers that slice of historical pie in American and even global history. New York City has served as a port since the Dutch colonial times, and as such, also held important military significance. Davids' Island offered a battery of defense for many of the years between the Civil War and the Vietnam War, and its situation lent itself to military presence.
Davids' Island, former site of Fort Slocum
From 1861, the island was used as a training ground for Irish troops from the 3rd corps of the Irish 63rd Brigade for the Civil War. "Camp Carrigan" as it was called, mustered, housed and trained infantry. A year later in 1862 the regular army assumed control of the real estate and set up the largest regular army hospital during the war.
dubbed "Camp Fed" for amenities
De Camp General Hospital housed over 2,000 patients at a time, including both Union and Confederate wounded after Gettysburg. As these Confederates convalesced, the island soon held 2,500 prisoners of war until they could be shipped to proper prison camps elsewhere, such as nearby Hart Island. After the war, the US government retained Davids' Island as a military reservation and moved its chief recruiting station there from Governor's Island. In 1878 Davids' Island became the principle depot of the general recruiting service, in fact enlisting all recruits who would serve in the Indian wars of the next decade from here.

In the 1880's new brick structures replaced the aging wooden ones, including officers' quarters, a hospital, mess halls, and regular recruit housing, plus ancillary use buildings, like the landmark water tower in the north of the island. These would remain until demolition in 2008. Through the end of the nineteenth century the island was used as a coastal artillery defense post, and officially named Fort Slocum in 1896.

For a brief time Fort Slocum was a critical component of the coastal artillery program, then the guns were deactivated late in the first decade of the 20th century. Still the fort continued to be a recruiting station of great importance to the army. In 1917, at the onset of American troop recruitment for WWI, this little island processed more than 100,000 enlistees, with an overflow spilling into New Rochelle. In the years between the two world wars, Fort Slocum survived by various supplemental roles such as housing the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, as well as a US Olympics Team. For a brief time, an army bakers and cooks school was stationed here as well. Recruiting for foreign service during this time was done exclusively through this post. So anyone deployed abroad between WWI and II would have passed through this island first. 
WACS in Central Park
Then came Word War II. In order to avoid the overflow situation of the former war's enlistment, new recruit posts were made, but Fort Slocum remained a critical New York Port of Embarkation, as a training and processing center for those bound for the European theater. During the years the fort served in WWII, it integrated women into the regular army in the WAC program. Fort Slocum was also the place of origin for that quintessential army march, the "Jody Call".  I don't know but I been told.... sound off one, two. Sound off three, four was first sang by Private Jesse Lee Duckworth in 1944 here. Aside from troops, the fort was also key in moving equipment oversees during this time. And then, after a few years of war, the fort became the place where tired troops returned and fresh ones were sent. A "provisional training center" sprang up on the island to address the need to deprogram battle-hardened GI's and reorient them to civilian life. A school to integrate civilian transportation workers to army applications was also housed at Fort Slocum during the thick of the war activity. Add to this USO dances and programs, and you had a buzzing hive of activity on these 80 acres outside of New York City.

In the years after WWII, Fort Slocum struggled to maintain its usefulness to the government. For a short time it was the headquarters for the Air Force. It also served from 1951-1962 as the Army Chaplain School, and in the early fifties passed through a few names essentially as a school for army communications and information. Military Journalism, TV and Radio broadcasting, and photography were all taught here for a time. Finally, in November 1965 the fort was decommissioned by the government and left to neglect and deterioration. 

Davids' Island parallels the story of many American towns that have struggled in recent years with the downturn in the economy. Empty dilapidated buildings were razed after the new turn of the century, and the property has not been redeveloped. Investors have nibbled on the island over the years, including NYC real estate mogul Donald Trump, but no one has bit. The wonderful history that happened here is hidden from view, except in the memories of its witnesses and the writings and photos they leave behind. 
Aunt Dorothy Cronin

On a personal note, the history of Fort Slocum plays a part of my family story. My mother's only sister, ten years her senior, was of courting age during WWII. My aunt--Dorothy Cronin, and her cousins Dolores and Marion, comprised the singing group the Croonin' Cronins, who visited Fort Slocum and performed for the soldiers. My aunt met many war-bound soldiers who sent tokens of their admiration. According to family legend, on the eve of her engagement to my uncle who served in the Construction Battalion (CB or the Sea-Bees as they were affectionately called) my aunt on the advice of my grandfather burned many a letter from these admirers. What history must have been contained in them! I can only imagine. But as a young bride about to wed the love of her life, how could she do anything less? Talk about romantic conflict! I am currently writing a novella inspired by their story.  I hope to be able to share it with you all one of these days. 

Now it's your turn as the reader. Do you have any favorite WWII family stories you would like to share? Leave them in the comments below. Thanks for stopping by today, and don't forget to share our blog with your friends.

Kathleen L. Maher’s first literary crush was Peter Rabbit, and she’s had an infatuation with books and fictional heroes ever since. She has a novella releasing with Barbour in the 2018 Victorian Christmas Brides collection, featuring her hometown of Elmira, NY. Her debut historical “Bachelor Buttons” was released in 2013, and incorporates her Irish heritage and love of the American Civil War. She won the American Christian Fiction Writers' Genesis Contest for unpublished writers, historical category, in 2012.
Kathleen and her husband raised their three children in an old farmhouse in upstate NY, along with a small zoo of rescued dogs, cats, and birds. They run an art business in their spare time and enjoy spoiling their grandchildren on the weekends.

Find Kathleen on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mahereenie
And on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/author/kathleenlmaher


  1. This was so interesting! I don't know any stories of the war from my family. Thank you for this post!

    1. Hi Connie. Thank you for visiting so faithfully

  2. Hi Kathy: Wonderful article. Enjoy the details you've written. My mother was a Rosie the Riveter on the wings of a bomber in Detroit during the last two years of WWII. So proud of her efforts on behalf of winning the war. I have a precious letter she wrote my dad who was stationed in France on the eve of Germany's surrender. She poured out her heart to him, how much she missed & loved him that it brought on the tears. She had the radio on, listening/waiting for the big announcement that the war was over. Her penmanship changed throughout as her excitement built. Then they said the war was officially over! She wrote that horns and factory whistles blew, neighbors were in the street laughing and hugging one another. People poured out of businesses and factories. She was sooo excited. She told me numerous stories about life during WWII and the hardships. Maybe one day I'll write a story for that time period.

    1. Wow Diane. Your mother’s story gave me chills! You shared a powerful moment in world history with such an intimate view. Thank you! You are a beautiful writer.

  3. Great and interesting post. I had an uncle in WWII but no specific tidbits of his to share. Thankful to be friends with a couple of WWII veterans in my hometown. They are amazing strong Christian men.

    1. Thank you for sharing. Please tell your friends my thanks for their service.

  4. My father drive supply trucks in China, Burma and India. He was also a cook. The story he told was of a USO tour with Pat O’Brian. They were so excited to see him that the mess tent accidentally caught on fire.

  5. Great post Kathleen! What an interesting story about your family that will be. Thanks for sharing the pictures, I love looking at pictures.
    Blessings, Tina

  6. Hi Kathleen,
    Interesting blog! I am the historian of Ft Slocum & would like to know more about the Croonin’ Cronins in WWII. You seem to have lots of detail about the post on Davids’ Island; I wonder if you know my full-length history? It is on-line at https://archive.org/details/BiographyOfARockDavidsIslandFtSlocum1861to2008.
    Chapter 2 treats the Irish Brigade during the Civil War; chapter 6 treats WWII (including musical topics such as the Duckworth Chant, the 378th Army Service Forces Band, and performances and recordings in Raymond Hall, the post auditorium [no doubt where the Croonins crooned]).
    Michael Cavanaugh
    PS there is a Ft Slocum alumni group on FaceBook: Fort Slocum Friends