Fort Benning, home of the U.S. Army Infantry, is adjacent to the city of Columbus in southwest Georgia. Since it was moved to this location during World War I (1917-18), its mission has been to “produce the world’s finest combat infantrymen.” The U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning has confirmed its place as the premier school of arms, developing such military leaders as five-star generals Omar Bradley, George Marshall, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. George Patton and Colin Powell also trained at Fort Benning. About 35,000 military and civilian personnel work on the installation, and it contributes more than $750 million to the area’s economy. Fort Benning also spends more than $190 million in purchasing and contracting annually. Built on the area originally occupied by the Dawson Artillery during the Civil War (1861-65), the post encompasses 287 square miles of Chattahoochee and Muscogee counties.
Origins of the Infantry School
Efforts to establish an infantry school date to 1826, when Major General Edmund P. Gaines persuaded the War Department to establish an infantry school at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri, but the school closed after two years. No further attempts to establish a similar facility were undertaken until 1881, when General William T. Sherman, commanding general of the army, established the School of Application for the Infantry and Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to educate officers. In 1907, at the urging of Lieutenant General Arthur MacArthur, the army established the School of Musketry at the Presidio of Monterey, California, to train soldiers in marksmanship. This training program is often referred to as the origin of the infantry school and led to the creation of Fort Benning.
The Establishment of Fort Benning
The School of Musketry was transferred in 1913 to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, but its development there was interrupted by the decision to send troops to the Mexican border to fight outlaw raiders. The school’s operations were curtailed, and the army overall suffered from a severe manpower shortage. At the entry of the United States into World War I, government officials recognized that Fort Sill was not large enough to accommodate the training of both infantry and the artillery units also housed there. A board was convened in May 1918 to select a new, larger site for an infantry school. Because of its climate, terrain, and transportation outlets, Columbus, Georgia, was chosen to house the new school.
Congress authorized the establishment of the camp in the fall of 1918, and the army immediately began construction of the Infantry School of Arms. At the request of the Columbus Rotary Club, Camp Benning was named in honor of Confederate brigadier general Henry L. Benning, who had commanded a Georgia brigade in General John Hood’s division of the Army of Northern Virginia. Benning, who fought with General Robert E. Lee, earned the nickname “Old Rock” because of his coolness in battle. As a young man Benning moved from Harris County to Columbus, and after the Civil War he practiced law there until his death in 1875 at the age of sixty-one.
The camp was first located south of Columbus on a plantation site owned by Arthur Bussey. Bussey’s land featured terrain deemed ideal by army infantry leaders for training infantrymen. The plantation land served as the core of the camp, and the large frame house on it, known as Riverside, served as quarters for many of the installation’s commanders. The new camp originally encompassed roughly 115,000 acres, and the cost of construction was about $5,315,000. Troops began arriving at the new post in October 1918. The post was made permanent in 1922, and the name was changed to Fort Benning.
Throughout the 1920s Fort Benning struggled for appropriations and attention from Congress and army policymakers, but by the mid-1930s the post was booming with construction because of the federal works projects initiated during the Great Depression. Fort Benning became even more significant after the United States became involved in World War II in 1941. Troop strength soared with the arrival of the First Infantry Division, as well as with the establishment of an officer candidate school and airborne training center.
World War II to the Present
At the war’s end in 1945 Fort Benning was used not only to train infantry but also to demonstrate innovations in tactics and weapons to civilian and military leaders from home and abroad. In 1963 the Eleventh Air Assault Division was formed at Fort Benning to test the concept of “air assault.” Those tests resulted in the creation of the airmobile concept adopted by the First Cavalry Division during the Vietnam conflict. The School of the Americas, established in Panama after World War II to train military forces in the Western Hemisphere, was moved to Fort Benning in 1984. Amid controversy over its graduates’ activities, the school was closed permanently in December 2000.
Since the 1970s new missions have been assigned to units located at the Columbus post. Among them are the airborne school, where soldiers learn to engage in battle from the sky, and the Ranger school, where soldiers are taught advanced tactics and skills. Additionally, instructors of the Twenty-ninth Infantry Regiment teach soldiers how to operate and maneuver the M-2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle in combat, and the post’s BattleLabs organization provides cutting-edge technology to instruct soldiers about warfare in the twenty-first century. In January 2005 Fort Benning opened a 75,000-square-foot air terminal that holds up to 1,500 troops.
The National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center, which opened in 2009, stands just outside the gates of Fort Benning. The facility includes a museum that houses thousands of unique artifacts relating to the U.S. Infantry’s role in shaping the nation’s history. These artifacts were formerly housed in the base’s National Infantry Museum, which received a Governor’s Award in the Humanities in 1991.