The History of Cincinnati’s Military Base

Successor of Old Newport Barracks Built in 1893 at
Cost to Government of $3,500,000


San Franciscans look upon their Presidio as the nation’s best armed, most beautiful fort.  Chicagoans use only superlatives in describing the merits of their Great Lakes Naval Training Base, and you can’t walk down a Louisville street these days without seeing hearing and knowing the mighty wallop of Ft. Knox.  In Cincinnati, of course, Fort Thomas represents the ultimate in local military achievements.  Today, Fort Thomas is a reception center – one of the nation’s largest, in fact.  Yesterday it was the home of a crack infantry outfit and before that a place to keep British prisoners.  A few days ago the Fort’s salute cannon was moved to a new location.  In 1898 the whole place became a great hospital for the care of soldiers stricken with jungle fevers.  Properly, Ft. Thomas begins its history more than a century ago. 

On July 28, 1803, the government bought five acres of land in Newport and promptly built a few stone buildings to serve as a supply depot.  Some nine years later, the “shootin’est soldiers God ever made” established their training quarters at the Newport Barracks.  A year later these same soldiers, the Fourth Infantry, marched to the Battle of Tippecanoe [Wikipedia] .  In the years of peace that followed, the Newport Barracks were a sad sight – only crumbling souvenirs of the glory of another day.  For a time you could go to the barracks, present your credentials as a citizens, and obtain a British prisoner of war who would work on your farm for about $1 a month.  As Kentucky and the nation concentrated on the art of living in peace, the barracks were mentioned more often in the tales of aged grandfathers than in the public press.  Then there was the “incident” of Harper’s Ferry, [Wikipedia] and in a few short months, the barracks were transformed.  This time they became a recruiting center, and within their walls were trained some of the soldiers who contributed most to keeping the nation united.  The Eighth, the Thirteenth, the Sixteenth, and the Seventeenth Regiments marched away from the little fort on the Ohio River to battle their brothers so that the democratic idea would survive.

A Familiar Role

 As peace came again to the nation, the barracks assumed their familiar role as just another reminder of a bloody chapter in American history. It took a typical Cincinnati tradition, a record flood, to move the barracks from the river bank to a new name and a new location.  Three years after the Ohio reached 70 feet in 1884, the Government bought 114 acres of land in Ft. Thomas, and spent $3,500,000 on buildings and equipment.  To get some idea of the spectacle of military might that was presented to the crowd who witnessed the forts dedication in the spring of 1899, you need only to visit the fort today.  All of the dark red brick buildings that are standing now were there when the fort’s first garrison, two companies of the famous Sixth Infantry, took over.  Characteristic of all of these buildings is their Victorian architecture, their wood porches which seem to have no relation to the brick structure. 

The fort, incidentally, takes it name from Gen. George H. Thomas, [Wikipedia] the Civil War general who earned the cognomen, “The Rock of Chickamauga. [Wikipedia] ” Joseph Buenger, president of the Fort Thomas Bank, has in his possession a prospectus of the Fort Thomas Land Co., issued in 1893, which gives an excellent description of life at the military post during the years before the turn of the century.  In part it reads:  “We wish to call your attention to the peculiar advantages which residents of these lands will enjoy in connection with the fort.  “This is a regular regimental post now occupied by the Sixth U. S. Infantry.  There are now at the fort six companies, with headquarters, commissioned officers, and their families.  The social advantages here presented are of first importance to those seeking homes.  The magnificent military band of the regiment gives regular out-of-doors concerts during fine weather and in winter months the military hops are events in the social world of the three cities.  There are also the dress parades, the inspections, guard mounts, skirmish, and other drills, presenting a round of attractions not to be seen elsewhere within 300 miles of Cincinnati.

 First to become commander of the Ft. Thomas post was Col. Melville Cochran.  He was there when the nation went to war with Spain.  Later there were other commanding officers and new tenants: a battalion of Philippine soldiers, the fighting Second, Third, Fourth, Ninth, and Tenth Regiments – all of them infantry.  Gloomiest Days  Early in the twentieth century the fort witnessed the gloomiest days.  The nation was enjoying the calm and quiet of peace and prosperity and was in no mood for a large armament.  When the Second Infantry walked out of the memorable gate for assignment elsewhere three caretakers took over the job of guarding land and buildings that once had all the sacred significance of a patriotic shrine. 

For more than a year, the government left the fort to the caretakers and the neighborhood children.  To reclaim the glory of another era the fort needed another war and the Kaiser was not too long in supplying it.  In the days when the nation believed it could give Europe the blessings of democracy, the post was again used as a recruit depot.  There were some new buildings and many of them still stand, although there was nothing so permanent this time as bricks and mortar.  The fort’s history from World War I to World War II is almost a repetition of like periods of peace that went before.  Each summer, for a few brief weeks, it was a scene of brisk activity as Civilian Military Training Corps units took over.  Everybody seemed pretty confident that all of the world’s ills could be cured at the conference table rather than on the battlefield.  On October 23, 1922, the fort received a group of some 2,000 soldiers who were destined to be on hand for a long time.  They were the Tenth Infantry and any Cincinnatian who did not know their record on the field of battle knew them by the music of a band that seldom missed an Armistice Day [a.k.a. Veterans Day] or Memorial Day parade.

Another Chapter  

When the Tenth left Ft. Thomas,in December, 1940, another great chapter of American history was in the making.  The nation embarked upon a program of national defense and the old fort was again to undergo a revitalization process that will not end until Johnny comes marching home again.  Years before the war between the States, Gen. Robt. E. Lee inspected the supply depot on the banks of the Ohio, and later wrote to a friend: “We all went to the Colonel’s house and had a good drink of Bourbon.” During the early days of the Civil War, or shortly before Gen. Grant visited the post, and some years after that conflict, Gen. Philip Sheridan, [Wikipedia] riding his famous horse made an inspection.  On November 27, 1940, Lieut. Gen. Ben Lear, [Wikipedia] commanding officer of America’s Second Army, came to Ft. Thomas to give the post an official inspection.  There was only a handful on hand to witness the spectacle occasioned by the General’s visit.  In addition to being a demonstration of martial showmanship it was also proof that the weather in the Ohio Valley could be very, very, bad in November.  The rain-soaked ground, over which the Tenth paraded for the General’s inspection now holds a community of barracks called Splinter City.  On that gloomy day, a year and a half ago, it served as the world’s most slippery parade ground.  On one occasion, the general came within one-sixteenth of an inch of providing newspaper photographers with a notable picture of himself seated in a mud puddle.  

Endless Process

Currently at Ft. Thomas the seemingly endless process of changing citizens into soldiers goes on with the monotonous regularity of the Army.  While each man is pretty well convinced that the event is important enough in his own life to merit a brass band, there are practical considerations which make it a routine business. Despite all this, however, there are thousands of men fighting their nation’s battles throughout the world who will never forget the few tumultuous days they spent at Ft. Thomas.  Today, yesterday and thousands of days that have gone before have been filled with fleeting seconds that spell drama for the men who fight their country’s battles. Just as there are men who can’t remember the date of their first child’s birthday, but can recall every emotion of buying a wedding license, there are countless soldiers who will always be able to describe minutely their army induction, although they might well forget the career that followed.  If Greater Cincinnati can describe any place as “memorable,” that place is Ft. Thomas.  


By E. Leo Koeste. Mr. Koester’s article appeared in the July 4, 1942 issue the Cincinnati Times-Star.