Will Diaz often talks about his army days, and a place that is near and dear to him is Ft. Riley, Kansas. His creator (me) spent three years there and loved every minute of it.
Ft. Riley is one of the posts that either you loved it, or you hated it. There’s no in between.
But if you’re into history, the place is loaded with it. Checking who passed through it is at times like reading a who’s who of military or old west history. I recall reading a story of General George Patton, and there was a scene where he was on horseback playing Polo. I could take you right to the location where the picture was taken. There’s a big grassy area there, where Changes of Command ceremonies are usually held.
The fort was established in 1852 to help protect the wagon trains headed west. Initially it was called “Camp Center” since it was pretty close to the geographical center of the United States. But eventually, the name was changed to honor Major General Bennett C. Riley who died before the fort was finished.
If you’re a fan of old westerns, and if Ft. Riley is mentioned, it almost always shows it as a fort with a wooden wall and log cabins. Nothing was further from the truth. The post was built from local materials, in this case, limestone. Many of the buildings built way back when, still stand today and are in use.
During the years before the Civil War, soldiers were often sent out to protect settlers and mail wagons. The post continued to grow with Captain Edmund Ogden supervising the building of more quarters for troops. The town of Ogden, which lies right outside North Gate is named for him.
But when the Civil War started, the post was pivotal to protecting Union interests in the area. It also became home to the Calvary School and this is where Calvary tactics were developed and trained in. Many of the units that had been stationed there were called back East to enter into the fighting. This left the post in an odd position of patrolling the area to keep problems down as well as keeping protection for wagon trains.
After the war, the post continued to grow, only now it was protecting not only wagon trains and settlers, but the railroads. The Calvary was still king, and the post centered on the horse.
This piece of history is reflected in the MP Barracks we had at main post. In the basements were our day room, arms rooms, and some small storage and training areas. However, on the walls were these rings embedded into the walls. I recall being told that’s where the horses were tethered when the weather was bad. This cemented the old and new.
One of the people stationed there was General (actually Colonel) George Armstrong Custer. He and the 7th Cav were there for a year before leaving for Ft. Hays, Kansas.
It was while he was stationed at Ft. Riley, Custer took the 7th and went out on a campaign against the Native Americans in the area. He waged this through Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado. The campaign really didn’t solve much, but it did show some things about Custer’s character and mental processes that raised some concerns. You can read about his court martial here. Reading this makes me wonder how they trusted him to command more than a latrine detail.
While at Ft. Riley, Custer and his wife lived in officer quarters. These are large, stone structures and are very nice. Many are considered historical, and very little has been done to change them (except for central heat, air, and of course, electricity). I was often invited to functions at some of those homes, and all I can say is, boy, are they nice.
Custers home burnt down years ago, but building 24A on Sheridan Ave closely resembles their home and has become a museum.
Once the Frontier began to settle down, many of the forts scattered across the Midwest were closed. Ft. Riley had already established itself as a training center and was kept open. Thus began the golden age of the Calvary. I was fortunate to have known one of the last of the Calvary soldiers, a man named John Coward from Texas. He’d trained at Ft. Riley, and like me, he thought the duty there was great. He also went into Mexico with General Pershing in pursuit of Poncho Villa. I’m fleshing out his story and will tell his tales in a future Veteran’s Story.
One thing the Civil War signaled, but most missed was that warfare was changing. With the Industrial Revolution, it was becoming obvious that the old ways were becoming obsolete.
World War I proved that. if you’ve seen the movie Warhorse, it shows a Calvary charge into enemy lines defended with machine guns. The result were predictable. The machine guns tore the charge apart and very few survived.
The big problem was it took a lot of people a long time to figure that out. Even as late as the beginning of WW II, the horse was figuring in as a means of attack, and Calvary was still being trained.
But some common sense had started to break out, and Calvary units were soon replaced with light tanks or even heavy tanks. The horse of flesh and blood had been replaced with steel.
The entry of the United States into World War I signaled a change for Ft. Riley. A whole new camp called Camp Funston was built. This included barracks for troops, and ranges for training. Some of the more notable outfits trained there was the 89th Division, the 10th, and black soldiers assigned to the 92nd Division. A historical note but one of the men who went through was future President of the United States, Harry S. Truman.
The Camp also served a detention facility for “conscientious objectors.” Many of the objectors were Mennonites.
Funston would eventually become the United States Army Correctional Activity (USACA). It was a minimum security facility with the goal of providing inmates with the training to either become productive citizens when discharged or even to return to active duty. Many of my old MP buddies who went through basic and AIT with me ended up working the facility.
Another place established in World War I was Camp Whiteside. It was a training facility for doctors and nurses. It was still open when I was there.
Something I should point out that the Military almost never throws anything away. In this picture of Funston during WW I, it’s very possible that the barracks pictured are the same that were there when I was at Riley.
World War II had the camp grow even more, this time with the opening of Camp Forsyth. Forsyth is a place near and dear to me. I went through PLDC (Primary Leadership Development Course, or Sergeants School, as we called it) there. We were housed in the same barracks used by troops in WW II, and Nam.
Now things to check out on Ft. Riley include the Kansas Territorial Capital. It’s been well preserved and well worth a look see.
But to me, the thing to really check out is the 1st INFANTRY DIVISION MUSEUM. It follows the history of the outfit from its founding in 1917 right up to present day. It shows training, uniforms, and has exhibits of notable soldiers who went through. It also chronicles the wars and battles the Division was in. One of the most gut wrenching things they had on exhibit was a simple steel helmet that belonged to a soldier at Normandy. There’s a bullet hole in it.
Just due south of the post is an impressive hill on top of which sits Freedom Park, which has a large cannon that was capable of firing atomic shells a distance of 20 miles. Just a note but the cannon is aimed at the home of John Geary, the man instrumental in bringing the massive gun to and founding the park. It was set up that way as a compliment, no hidden message. The hill is pretty step and it was one of my favorite running paths.
I haven’t been back in over thirty years but hope someday to visit the post again. It means a lot to have worn the 1st ID patch.
Ft. Riley continues to be an important center for training of our Military. It’s a place I’m proud to have called home for three years.