The Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park was created by federal legislation in 1890. Foreseeing the need in a national emergency for open land on which to train national guard units and the Army, federal legislation in 1896 permitted the national military parks to be used for such training. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Army took advantage of this authority and installed Camp Thomas which encompassed almost the entire Battlefield. After this war of 109 days, Camp Thomas was removed and the Battlefield restored. The park engineer at that time questioned the placement of an active military camp on the land which had been dedicated to the memory of those men who had fought and died at Chickamauga. With his assistance, the War Department obtained land for a permanent post north of the battlefield park.
The Army purchased 814 acres adjacent to the northern boundary of the Chickamauga Battlefield. The new army post was first known as Chickamauga Park (New Post). From 1902-1904, a new army post was erected and officially named Fort Oglethorpe in 1905. During the life of the active post, many units were assigned here, most of them cavalry. In the earlier years, cavalry units rotated assignments overseas and here in the United States. While stationed at the Post, the cavalry units maintained their performance level by carrying out their field exercises on the grounds of the battlefield.
Fort Oglethorpe, with its impressive officers’ residences around Barnhardt Circle and rows of stables located north and east of the parade grounds, became a major military post during World War I and World War II. The Post, too small to contain all of the additional housing and necessary military training during the national emergency, continued to utilize the open spaces of the Chickamauga Battlefield.
Fort Oglethorpe became an important training center when the United States declared war on the Central Powers in 1917. As a result of this national emergency, the Post quickly expanded to meet the needs of the Allies who fought the “war to end all wars.” Three camps were established: Camp Greenleaf, Camp Forrest and Camp McLean for officers’ training. By 1918, over 1,600 post buildings were on the expanded Fort Oglethorpe and over 60,000 troops had been mobilized through the post.
At Camp Greenleaf the Army established a medical and sanitary corps. Many of the horses and men assigned to the horse drawn ambulances which brought the wounded from the battlefield to the field hospitals and the doctors who manned those field hospitals had their training at Fort Oglethorpe. At Camp Forrest, engineers trained recruits in trench warfare and artillery practiced their long-distance firing. The procedures prescribed for health and safety in trench warfare and trench life were developed in the Sanitary Corps work done here. Camp McLean hastened to meet the need for leadership, training officers and using college Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) members, businessmen at its core.
Fort Oglethorpe became the largest detention camp for the German prisoners of war and enemy aliens east of the Mississippi and housed over 3,400 prisoners. To the west of Barnhardt Circle was the post hospital, a state of the art facility which served the military, their dependents and local civilians.
The 1918 “Spanish” influenza arrived in March and fell many soldiers, citizens and staff in this area. Eighty-eight prisoners died from the disease and were buried together at the National Cemetery in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Combined with the few POWs who died while held here during World War II, the Chattanooga National Cemetery is the only cemetery on American soil which holds both World War I and World War II German soldiers. Their area is marked by a monument placed there by the German government and is decorated each year in November during National Day of Remembrance celebrated by the German nation.
World War I ended. The wooden barracks and tent camps were removed from the Chickamauga Battlefield. The trenches dug in and around Snodgrass Hill were filled and, once again, the Park administration worked to restore the military park to the 1863 presence. The last of the enemy aliens were released in 1920 and the country embraced the peace. Units returned to the States and the Sixth Cavalry called Fort Oglethorpe home from 1919 – 1942. During this period of peace, the men and their horse remained in fighting condition. They continued their field exercises in the area and went on frequent maneuvers to other states. Special activities which attracted local citizens were polo matches on the parade grounds at Barnhardt Circle, mock war games, horse shows, parades and other military forms of recreation.
By 1941, mechanization had become a way of life for the old horse soldiers and Fort Oglethorpe saw the addition of “Bantam Cars” to the post. With the news of the Sunday, December 7, 1941 attack Pearl Harbor, leaves were cancelled, units were called together and our servicemen here at the Post were assigned security duty, guarding the TNT Plant in Chattanooga, railroads, bridges and other vital resources in the area.
Once again, the post was enlarged to accommodate the national emergency. An induction center was established and many men and women of the greater Chattanooga area can recall their induction into army life at Fort Oglethorpe. Again, prison barracks and stockades were erected on the post, and some 400 prisoners of war, mostly from Rommel’s Afrika Corps, were held at Fort Oglethorpe. Some traces can be seen among the homes in the neighborhood within blocks of the present Post Office and Fire Hall on Forrest Road.
The “Fighting 6th” left behind their horses and Fort Oglethorpe in February, 1942 for overseas duty. After time at Camp Blanding, Florida, they were to board ships to join Gen. George S. Patton in North Africa. Their ship was sunk off the coast of New Jersey by German submarines and all their supplies lost. They spent the next year at Fort Jackson, Columbia, South Carolina, awaiting their new ship and supplies.
Other units and specialized schools came to the Post during 1942. Among these schools at the Post were the Provost Marshal School which trained both men and women in their work as military police (MPs).
Barracks which had been built on the Battlefield for the men became the South Post and, on January 3, 1943, the women arrived. Fort Oglethorpe became home to the third and largest training center of the Women’s Army Corps (WACs). By September of 1943, all men had been removed from the post and the women were being prepared to serve their country in traditional men’s work. 5,000 women a week underwent basic training. In April of 1943, President Roosevelt conducted a surprise visit to the post to inspect the women’s training program. The men’s induction center continued to receive new recruits as the war effort soon focused on the action in the Pacific theater.
In July 1945, the WAC Center was closed and the post was turned into a redistribution center for processing thousands of GI’s to their new assignments and to assist in discharging other servicemen and women back to civilian life.
At midnight on December 31, 1946, the flag over the Post was lowered for the last time, ending the military presence in the area. The Army determined that modern military maneuvers using tanks, other vehicles and many more men could no longer be conducted on Chickamauga Battlefield. The space was simply inadequate. The Post was declared surplus property and sold to the public in 1947.
Over 100 buildings of the old post remained, many dating back to 1904 and many were serviceable for immediate use as residences and business sites. The sale of houses north and east of the post and the opportunities for new construction attracted buyers. And the Army had left behind the water and sewer system, a power plant producing electricity and fire fighting equipment.
The new property owners recognized that they had the core of a new town. A committee of local civic leaders developed the papers required by the state legislature and in February 1949, the civilian city of Fort Oglethorpe was formally incorporated, making it the first new town in Georgia in 25 years