Des Moines’ history started with the construction of Fort Des Moines in 1843. It was built right at the joining of Raccoon and Des Moines rivers. As a military garrison in Iowa, it was built to protect the tribes of Sak and Fox. This also opened a path for new settlers in 1845, but Fort Des Moines only numbered 127 residents at the start. It was one of the major bases for the American Civil War. Des Moines still showcases a variety of historical landmarks including a great military history. Fort Des Moines also distinguished itself as a stopping point for Kelly’s army, which consisted of 1,000 unemployed men on their way to Washinton D.C. who were led by Charles T. Kelly. Over the years, Fort Des Moines continued to be an economic influence for the midwest and contributed greatly to the development of Iowa’s biggest city.
History of Fort Des Moines
As the US entered World War I in 1917, training was just beginning for new recruits. For thousands of black Americans enlisted to join the fight against Germany. At this time, the federal government tried to limit the enlistments of black Americans. However, there was increasing political pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to include training for black officers. The answer was Fort Des Moines.
Fort Des Moines became the site for the Fort Des Moines Provisional Army Officer Training School where black Americans received training for the US Army before going to World War I. Only black officers who had completed college were allowed to go to training, which was limited to 1,000 officers. The camp spanned 400 acres at this time and welcomed the 25th Infantry prisoner guard. Eventually the 11th Cavalry arrived in 1904 and the 2nd Cavalry came in 1907. The 6th Cavalry would join in 1910. However, the cavalry shoulders would leave to go to the Mexican border in 1916.
The students came fro Howard, Yale, Harvard and Tuskegee. They numbered 1,250 candidates at first. Each were paid with $75 in gold coin. At this time, Lieutenant Colonel Charles C. Ballou was awarded with the commander for the troops. Many believed that this was a poor decision as most had hoped that a young black officer named Colonel Charles Young would lead the troops in battle. He was forcibly retired, however, for high blood pressure. In response, he rode his horse all the way to Washington D.C. to prove that he was fit to service.
There were race riots happening in several camps at the time including Camp MacArthur, Texas and East St. Louis, Illinois. In response, Fort Des Moines was organized to participate in the “White Sparrow Patriotic Ceremony” at the Drake University stadium in July of 1917. The black cadets marched and sang for a crowd of 10,000.
Fort Des Moines continued to be a highly valued training compound throughout World War I and World War II. In 1949, it would become a post for the US Army Reserve and continued to serve as such until present day. Fort Des Moines became a National Historic Landmark in 1974.
In 1959, Des Moines Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station (AFEES) transferred to Fort Des Moines from their offices in the KRNT Theater. AT this time, the fort increased manpower to help assist with the Vietnam War. Thousands would go through Fort Des Moines en route to Vietnam through 1973.
The fort remained open until 2008 when Des Moines MEPS moved into a new facility at Camp Dodge, which is the location of the Iowa Army National Guard in Johnston, IA.
The Des Moines MEPS offers a network that joins 65 other MEPS located across the US and Puerto Rico. The mission of MEPS and USMEPCOM is to process individuals who are enlisting or being inducted into the armed service. There are three primary parts to acceptance for enlistment including a high aptitude for military service, adequate physical qualification and background screening.
Women also first began training at Fort Des Moines for US Army service in 1942 to join the Women’s Army Corps for World War II. Even before World War I, Fort Des Moines was used for US Army training as early as 1901. The 25th Infantry Regiment started training in 1903 as one of the first all-black US Army units.
Today at Fort Des Moines
Fort Des Moines is now part of Camp Dodge. The area now includes the Fort Des Moines Museum and Education Center, which offers exhibitions on the history of the area as well as photos and artifacts from the earliest days of Des Moines.
The Fort Des Moines Memorial Park was founded by the grandson of cadet James Morris who received training at the original camp in World War I.