Commemorating WWI in Minnesota: Fort Snelling

In the shadow of the Mall of America and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport stand two very different kinds of memorials to Minnesotans’ participation in the two world wars and other conflicts: one the product of design, the other the victim of neglect.

First, Fort Snelling National Cemetery, the final resting place of over 180,000 men and women.

Fort Snelling National Cemetery
Fort Snelling National Cemetery

While relatively few victims of World War I rest here, that war lent impetus to a movement to establish several new national cemeteries for veterans. In 1937 Congress authorized part of the grounds of nearby Fort Snelling to be used for this purpose.

Mallon's Grave at Fort Snelling National CemeteryThe first former soldier buried was one of Minnesota’s two Medal of Honor winners from 1917-1918: Army captain George Mallon, who was cut off from his company with nine soldiers during the Meuse-Argonne offensive of September 1918 yet proceeded to capture eleven German machine guns, a four-howitzer battery, and 100 Germans. (The other Minnesotan so honored, Army private Nels Wold, won his Medal of Honor posthumously, as he was killed the same day the Mallon performed his exploits.) Mallon survived the war, to die in August 1934 and be reburied at Fort Snelling in July 1939.

Ten minutes’ drive north of the cemetery on Highway 5 (separated by MSP International Airport) is Fort Snelling itself. The part of it that most Minnesota schoolchildren visit at some point (“Historic Fort Snelling“) is a well-designed museum and living history center administered by the Minnesota Historical Society. I last went there this past August, on the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, but I was more interested in the fort’s connection to the two world wars. While there was a small exhibit on World War II (more than 300,000 recruits were inducted into the military at the fort, which later housed a language school for Japanese-American soldiers preparing for postwar duty in Japan, Korea, and China), I found almost nothing about its prequel save a note that a part of the fort’s grounds was used for trench warfare exercises. (It’s now part of the airport.) And a copy of Martin Gilbert’s magisterial book on WWI in the bookstore.

But a colleague of mine at Bethel had once worked at Fort Snelling as a historical interpreter and told me to ask the visitor center about something called the Upper Post. I did, and the reaction from the volunteer staffing the desk was striking. “Oh,” she sniffed, “That’s not part of Historic Fort Snelling. That’s on the other side of the highway. I think the Minneapolis Parks Board runs it.”

A couple of wrong turns later, I found the place where thousands of recruits were processed, 2500 junior officers were trained, and wounded soldiers were treated during 1917-1918.

Fort Snelling's Upper PostOvergrown, boarded up, and fenced off, the former barracks, officers’ quarters, training facilities, and other buildings of the Upper Post make a striking contrast with the immaculate cemetery they overlook. Part of a tract of land ceded to the state of Minnesota by the federal government in the early 1970s, efforts to redevelop the Upper Post foundered on a restriction that it be used “for recreational purposes.” While the Minneapolis Parks board did convert some land to athletic fields and still makes use of the fort’s golf course (during the interwar period, Fort Snelling was regarded as a rather cushy assignment), most of the former Upper Post fell into such serious disrepair in the last quarter of the 20th century that it was placed on endangered places lists by both the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. Since then, the old cavalry drill hall (used to train artillery horses during WWI, according to my colleague Mark) has been renovated and converted into a base camp by the Boy Scouts (click here to see before and after pictures), and parts of the former hospital and prison have been rebuilt. (This Minnesota Public Radio story on the Boy Scout renovation nicely summarizes the challenges facing those seeking to redevelop the Upper Post area.)

Memorial plaque at the golf course clubhouse

But most of the structures are simply mothballed, given minimum maintenance through a Hennepin County work-release program for convicts learning construction skills. I hope I’m not serving as an accessory after the fact to breaking and entering, but… According to this report by a local group of “urban adventurers,” conditions vary considerably, with one building the home to a gaze of raccoons.

Part of me simply enjoys the fact that, in 2012, there’s still an unincorporated section of Minnesota’s most heavily populated county, and that even 21st century America has its ruins. And there’s a kind of brutal honesty in the sight of the Upper Post — a reminder that, left to their own devices, an innately ahistorical people tend to forget their past (or build around it).

But as a historian of the World Wars, I do wish that more Minnesotans would recognize that — as they rush to and from their international airport and megamall — they routinely pass the place where so many of their forebears prepared for participation in the two worst conflicts in human history.

View of Upper Post from the Fort Snelling golf course

UPDATE: On March 17, 2013, the Minneapolis StarTribune reported that the Department of Veterans Affairs has agreed to a $15 million plan that would convert five Upper Post buildings into housing for homeless veterans, to be administered by a St. Paul nonprofit, CommonBond.

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5 thoughts on “Commemorating WWI in Minnesota: Fort Snelling

  1. I remember looking at some of the old post newspapers from the WWII period (in the MHS archives), which were really interesting, since one of the functions of the post in that time was as a Japanese language school, so a lot of Japanese American servicemen were posted there. It was crazy to look at the back page, which was the army “wire service” propaganda page, going on about the “slant-eyed devils,” while, on the earlier pages, half the bylines and subjects of news pieces (who won the post beauty context, etc.) were all Japanese names!

    1. I am trying to find a particular Panoramic photograph taken at Fort Snelling in December 1918, of a platoon of recruits that were in training, and they have smokeybear hats on. Any thoughts?

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