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On Walkabout At: Ft. Bliss, Texas

The aspect the city of El Paso is most well known for is the fact that it is one of the primary cities along the US-Mexico border.  The decade of drug violence in Juarez across the border from El Paso has only increased the image of the city as a border town.  Another major aspect of the city that most people in the US don’t realize is that El Paso is also home to one of the most important US military installations in the entire country especially with the recent redeployment of the 1st Armor Division from Germany to Ft. Bliss.  The redeployment of this major US Army unit has led to a massive building spree on not only Ft. Bliss to accommodate all these new Soldiers, but in El Paso in general as well.  New construction on highways, homes, business, and apartments can be seen all over the city.  However, new construction is not what interests me in Ft. Bliss; it is actually the old cavalry era buildings that are still used on the post as homes and offices is what interests me.  Long before its current importance as the home of the 1st Armor Division Ft. Bliss was an important military outpost along the US-Mexico frontier:


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After the US defeated Mexico during the Mexican-American War the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in May 1848 that allowed the US to annex the American Southwest to include El Paso.  The settlement that existed at El Paso at the time was important for the US to control because it was the main mountain pass into the American Southwest that was snow free during the entire year.  The first U.S. troops to arrived in El Paso in November 1848 and consisted of six companies of the 3rd Infantry Regiment. The post they established was closed in 1851, but reopened in 1854.  When the new post was opened in 1854 the Army decided to name it after Lieutenant Colonel William Wallace Smith Bliss who was a well known mathematician at West Point that served as the personal secretary to future President Zachary Taylor in Mexico.  Bliss died in 1853 from Yellow Fever at the age of 38, but a year after his death the then dusty outpost along the Rio Grande was named in his honor.  It is an honor that this now massive military installation continues to have today.  This new Ft. Bliss’ primary mission would be to protect settlers in the area from Indian raids, specifically from the Apache.  I wrote about before how troops from Ft. Bliss were ambushed and a number of them wounded by the Mescalero Apache in Dog Canyon north of El Paso.

Here is a picture of the Old Ft. Bliss museum that is a reconstruction of what the old adobe Ft. Bliss would have looked like during this time period:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

The museum has a number of displays around the museum that explain the history of Ft. Bliss:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

Near the museum there is a small cemetery where a few horses were buried:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

The on set of the Civil War saw the mission at Ft. Bliss change yet again when Confederate volunteers occupied the base on March 31, 1861.  Confederate Lt. Col. John Baylor used Ft. Bliss to mount an attack on Union held Fort Fillmore in New Mexico which was located near present day Old Mesilla.  The Ft. Fillmore commander Major Issac Lynde tried to repel the Confederates at Old Mesilla but failed.  He and his men tried to flee across the Organ Mountains to Ft. Stanton but were intercepted by Baylor at San Augustin Pass and taken prisoner.  Ft. Bliss would go on to be used for further Confederate military operations when General Henry Sibley mounted an expedition into New Mexico to capture Ft. Union.  You can read more about Ft. Union at this prior posting:

After capturing Ft. Union he hoped to make move on the Colorado Goldfields.  However, General Sibley and his men were defeated at Glorieta Pass north of Santa Fe on March 28, 1862.  This caused the Confederate forces to flee the El Paso area not before burning down Ft. Bliss.  the First California Cavalry commanded by Colonel J.H. Carleton would enter El Paso and occupy the burned down remains of Ft. Bliss on August 20, 1862.  After the Civil War the US government wanted to re-establish Ft. Bliss in El Paso.  With the old fort burned down a new site near Concordia Cemetery was selected to build the new fort.  Since the fort was constructed near the cemetery it was called at first Ft. Concordia.  In 1869 the fort was renamed back to Ft. Bliss.  As the Indian War began to die down the fort was once again abandoned in 1877.  A year later the US government decided to re-garrison soldiers in El Paso due to the increase in crime and lawlessness once the fort was abandoned.  When US soldiers arrived back in El Paso the old Fort Concordia was in ruins.  The US Army rented quarters in downtown while new land and barracks were acquired and constructed.  The latest reincarnation of Ft. Bliss was constructed near Hart’s Mill along the Rio Grande in 1879.  Some of the buildings from this fifth location of Ft. Bliss can still be seen today right off of I-10 along the border highway:

Pictures of Old Ft. Bliss Buildings

These remaining historic buildings are now used as apartment buildings:

Pictures of Old Ft. Bliss Buildings

Pictures of Old Ft. Bliss Buildings

Here is a historic 1885 picture of Ft. Bliss:

Ft. Bliss would remain at this location until 1893 when encroachment by both the city and the railroads forced another move.  The railroad was actually given permission to build track right across the post’s parade field.  If that isn’t a sign that a military base needs to be moved I don’t what is.  It was decided that Ft. Bliss would be moved to the outskirts of the city on La Noria Mesa.  This would be the final and present day location of Ft. Bliss.  The historic buildings that can be seen on Ft. Bliss today sit near the edge of the mesa with nice views of El Paso.  The large brick and stone buildings for the officers was built near the very edge of the mesa:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

The most famous historic house on the base would be the Pershing House:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

The Pershing House is over 100 years old since it was built in 1910 and was home to the well known commander of US Expeditionary Forces during World War I General John J. Pershing.  General Pershing took command of Ft. Bliss in 1914 and lived in the house with his son, Warren, and sister, Mae, until 1916.  Before leading American forces during World War I General Pershing would lead the effort to capture the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa who raided the American border city of Columbus, New Mexico.  You can read more about Pancho Villa and the attack on Columbus at the below link:

All during this time Ft. Bliss continued to expand and office space and barracks for the increasing number of cavalry troops that were being stationed on Ft. Bliss. These brick buildings appeared to be old barracks for cavalry units that sat across a parade field from the officer’s quarters:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

Next to the barracks was larger buildings that were l guess used as headquarters for major units on the base:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

These large buildings are still used as office space for various units on Ft. Bliss today:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

Various old brick & stone buildings can be seen scattered throughout the historic district of Ft. Bliss that are still used today as office space, stores, storage, and housing:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

In the middle of the historical area of Ft. Bliss there is a large green parade field that I guess is probably the largest grass field in the normally very brown El Paso:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

The military buildings were on one side of the parade field with officer housing lining the other side:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

These large buildings pictured below are at the very far end of the parade field from the historic brick buildings and currently used as administrative offices for the Army:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

There was no markers to denote the age and what these buildings were originally used for though I would guess they were probably used as headquarters buildings for various cavalry units:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

The main post church is Center Chapel which was built in 1926 and was originally the first movie theater on Ft. Bliss before being converted into a church:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

Considering all the historic cavalry era architecture on the historic area of Ft. Bliss it is a bit surprising to see a beautiful Japanese garden on this area of the post:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

The garden was built by the Japanese military in 1972 as a symbol of friendship with the US Army.  What few people know is that there is a small contingent of Japanese soldiers stationed on Ft. Bliss and Japanese air defense units regularly rotate to Ft. Bliss for live fire training every year:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

Besides being home to Japanese soldiers a number of German Air Force personnel also stationed on Ft. Bliss.  There is in fact so many German military personnel on the base that they have their own German school for the children of the personnel.  Finally just a short walk from the Japanese Garden is the main flagpole on Ft. Bliss:

Picture from Ft. Bliss, TX

This historic district of Ft. Bliss is actually a very small area of the now expansive military base that has grown significantly in recent years due to the previously mentioned redeployment of the 1st Armored Division from Germany to Ft. Bliss.  This redeployment along with the nearby White Sands Missile Range will ensure that for many more years to come that El Paso is going to continue to be one if not the most important military city in the entire country.

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