On November 7, 1848, United States War Department General Order No. 58 ordered the establishment of an army post across from El Paso del Norte (now Ciudad Juárez), the largest settlement in the independent Mexican territory of Santa Fe de Nuevo México. The United States had inherited the unenforced claim to the east bank with the Texas Annexation in 1845. The U.S. Army under Stephen Kearny occupied the territory in 1846 during the Mexican-American War and Mexico recognized its loss to the United States in 1848 with the Mexican Cession in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The new post was first established at the site of Coon’s Ranch (often erroneously referred to as Smith’s Ranch, now downtown El Paso) but was closed between 1851 and January 1854 when it was re-established at Magoffinsville as the Post of El Paso. It was formally named Fort Bliss on March 8, 1854.
Today, Fort Bliss is a United States Army post occupying parts of the U.S. states of New Mexico and Texas, with its headquarters located in El Paso, Texas. Named in honor of LTC William Bliss (1815-1853), a mathematical genius who was the son-in-law of President Zachary Taylor, Ft. Bliss has an area of about 1,700 square miles (4,400 square kilometers), it is the Army’s second-largest installation, behind the adjacent White Sands Missile Range. It is FORSCOM’s (United States Army Forces Command) largest installation, and has the Army’s largest Maneuver Area (992,000 acres) ahead of the National Training Center, (642,000 acres). Fort Bliss provides the largest contiguous tract (1,500 square miles or 3,900 km²) of restricted airspace in the Continental United States. The airspace is used for missile and artillery training and testing.
Fort Bliss is home to the 1st Armored Division, which returned to U.S. soil in 2011, after 40 years in Germany. The division is supported by the 15th Sustainment Brigade. The installation is also home to the 32nd Army Air & Missile Defense Command, the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, the 212th Fires Brigade (now reflagged as the 1st Armored Division Artillery Brigade), and the 402nd Field Artillery Brigade.
The headquarters for the El Paso Intelligence Center, a federal tactical operational intelligence center, is hosted at Fort Bliss. Its Department of Defense counterpart, Joint Task Force North, is at Biggs Army Airfield, a military airport located at Fort Bliss, which is designated a military power projection platform.
Fort Bliss National Cemetery is also located on the post. Other forts in the frontier fort system were Forts Griffin, Concho, Belknap, Chadbourne, Fort Stockton, Fort Davis, Richardson, McKavett, Clark, Fort McIntosh, Fort Inge and Phantom Hill in Texas, and Fort Sill in Oklahoma. In addition, there were “sub posts or intermediate stations” including Bothwick’s Station on Salt Creek between Fort Richardson and Fort Belknap, Camp Wichita near Buffalo Springs between Fort Richardson and Red River Station, and Mountain Pass between Fort Concho and Fort Griffin.
My father was stationed at Fort Bliss during the 1950’s, where he was an instructor in firing guided missiles.
The El Paso region has had human settlement for thousands of years, as evidenced by Folsom points from hunter-gatherers found at Hueco Tanks. The earliest known cultures in the region were maize farmers. At the time of the arrival of the Spanish, the Manso, Suma, and Jumano tribes populated the area and were subsequently incorporated into the Mestizo culture, along with immigrants from central Mexico, captives from Comanchería, and genízaros of various ethnic groups. The Mescalero Apache were also present.
Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate was born in 1550 in Zacatecas, Zacatecas, Mexico and was the first New Spain explorer known to have observed the Rio Grande near El Paso, in 1598, celebrating a Thanksgiving Mass there on April 30, 1598. However, the four survivors of the Narváez expedition, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, and his enslaved Moor Estevanico, are thought to have passed through the area in the mid-1530s.
In 1659, as Spanish explorers sought a route through the southern Rocky Mountains, the Franciscan Friar García de San Francisco founded Ciudad Juárez as Paso del Norte (“North Pass”). The Misión de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe became the first permanent Spanish development in the area. The Native American population was already located there. The Franciscan friars established a community that grew in importance as commerce between Santa Fe and Chihuahua passed through it. The wood for the bridge across the Rio Grande first came from Santa Fe, New Mexico in the eighteenth century. The original population of Suma, Jumano and immigrants brought by the Spanish as slaves from Central New Spain grew around the mission.
In 1680, during the Pueblo Revolt, some members of the Tigua branch of the Pueblo became refugees from the conflict and a Mission was established for them in Ysleta del Paso del Norte. Other colonial era settlements included Senecú, Real de San Lorenzo, and the Presidio de San José. The small village of El Paso became the temporary base for Spanish governance of the territory of New Mexico as a result of the Pueblo Revolt, remaining the capital until 1692 when Santa Fe was reconquered and the governance returned north.
The population of the entire district reached some 5,000 around 1750, when the Apache attacked the other native towns around the missions. El Paso remained the largest settlement in New Mexico until 1848.
The Texas Revolution (1836) was generally not felt in the region, as the American population was small; not being more than 10% of the population. However, the region was claimed by Texas as part of the treaty signed with Mexico and numerous attempts were made by Texas to bolster these claims. However, the village which consisted of El Paso and the surrounding area remained essentially a self-governed community with both representatives of the Mexican and Texan government negotiating for control until Texas irrevocably took control in 1846.
During this interregnum, 1836–1848, Americans nonetheless continued to settle the region. As early as the mid-1840’s, alongside long extant Hispanic settlements such as the Rancho de Juan María Ponce de León, Anglo settlers such as Simeon Hart and Hugh Stephenson had established thriving communities of American settlers owing allegiance to Texas. Stephenson, who had married into the local Hispanic aristocracy, established the Rancho de San José de la Concordia, which became the nucleus of Anglo and Hispanic settlement within the limits of modern-day El Paso, in 1844. Given the reclamations of the Texas Republic that wanted a chunk of the Santa Fe trade, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo effectively made the settlements on the north bank of the river a formal American settlement, separate from Old El Paso del Norte on the Mexican side.
In 1846, Colonel Alexander Doniphan led the 1st Regiment of Missouri mounted volunteers through El Paso del Norte, with victories at the Battle of El Brazito and the Battle of the Sacramento. Then on November 7, 1848, the War Department ordered the establishment of the post across from El Paso del Norte. On September 8, 1849, the garrison party of several companies of the 3rd U.S. Infantry (‘The Old Guard’, currently the oldest active duty regiment in the US Army), commanded by Major Jefferson Van Horne, found only four small and scattered settlements on the north side of the Rio Grande.
The “Post Opposite El Paso del Norte” was first established at the site of Coon’s Ranch and, along with Fort Selden and other Southwestern outposts, protected recently-won territory from harassing Apaches and Comanches, provided law and order, and escorted the forty-niners. Van Horne also had nominal command of the Post at San Elizario, the former Presidio of San Elizario, fifty-four miles downstream from Paseo del Norte.
The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established the Rio Grande as the border between Mexico and the United States, separating the settlements on the north bank of the river from the rest of the town. Such settlements were not part of the town at that time; as the military set up its buildings the town grew around it. The present Texas–New Mexico boundary placing El Paso on the Texas side was drawn in the Compromise of 1850.
El Paso County was established in March 1850, with San Elizario as the first county seat. The United States Senate fixed a boundary between Texas and New Mexico at the 32nd parallel, thus largely ignoring history and topography.
With constant Indian raids, garrisons had to be moved frequently to meet the shifting threats. In September 1851, the Post Opposite El Paso and the Post at San Elizario were closed, the soldiers moved 40 miles (64 kilometers) north to Fort Fillmore. The settlement on Coons’ Rancho called Franklin became the nucleus of the future El Paso, Texas.
On January 11, 1854, Companies B, E, I and K of the 8th Infantry, under the command of Lt. Col. Edmund B. Alexander, established the Post of El Paso at Magoffinsville under orders from Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. The post became Fort Bliss on March 8, 1854, in honor of Zachary Taylor’s son-in-law, Colonel William Bliss — a gifted linguist, officer, and former presidential secretary. A year later, pioneer Anson Mills completed his plan of the town, calling it El Paso. However, the various communities never totaled more than several hundred residents with Hispanics and Americans holding an equal percentage of the population.
Fort Bliss remained at Magoffinsville for the next fourteen years, serving as a base for troops guarding the area against Apache attacks. Until 1861, most of these troops were units of the 8th Infantry Brigade.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War, the Commander of the Department of Texas ordered the garrison to surrender Fort Bliss to the Confederacy, which Col. Isaac Van Duzen Reeve did on March 31, 1861. Confederate forces consisting of the 2nd Regiment of Texas, under the command of Col. John R. Baylor, took the post on July 1, 1861, and used the post as a platform to launch attacks into New Mexico and Arizona in an effort to force the Union garrisons still in these states to surrender. Initially, the Confederate Army had success in their attempts to gain control of New Mexico, but following the Battle of Glorieta Pass Confederate soldiers were forced to retreat.
The Confederate garrison abandoned Fort Bliss without a fight the next year when a Federal column of 2,350 men under the command of Colonel James H. Carleton advanced from California. The Californians maintained an irregular garrison at Fort Bliss until 1865 when 5th Infantry units arrived to reestablish the post, who were subsequently relieved by the 25th Infantry, Buffalo Soldiers, on August 12, 1866, followed by the 35th Infantry two months later.
After May 1867, Rio Grande flooding seriously damaged the Magoffinsville post, Fort Bliss was moved to a site called Camp Concordia in March 1868. Camp Concordia’s location was immediately south of what is now Interstate 10, across from Concordia Cemetery in El Paso. The Rio Grande was about a mile south of the camp at that time; water was hauled daily by mule team to the camp. On March 11, 1869, the old name of Fort Bliss was resumed. Water, heating, and sanitation facilities were at a minimum in the adobe buildings of the fort; records reveal that troops suffered severely from dysentery and malaria and that supplies arrived irregularly over the Santa Fe Trail by wagon train. The Concordia post was abandoned in January 1877, and after troops left in January, El Paso was without a garrison for more than a year. By that time, the town and its environs on the north side of the river had swelled to a population of almost 800.
On New Year’s Day,1878, Fort Bliss was established as a permanent post. Company L Buffalo Soldiers of the Ninth Cavalry and Company C of the 15th Infantry, were sent to Fort Bliss to prevent further trouble over the salt beds and the usage of Rio Grande water for irrigation purposes. Prior to this date, the government had had a policy of simply leasing property for its military installations. Now, however, a tract of 135 acres (0.55 km²) was purchased at Hart’s Mill on the river’s edge in the Pass, near what is today the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).
With a $40,000 appropriation, a building program was begun. The first railroad arrived in 1881, and tracks were laid across the military reservation, thereby solving the supply problems for the fort and the rapidly growing town of El Paso. By 1890, Hart’s Mill had outlived its usefulness, and Congress appropriated $150,000 for construction of a military installation on the mesa approximately 5 miles (8.0 kilometers) east of El Paso’s 1890 city limits. Although no money was appropriated for the land, $8,250 was easily raised by the local residents, who realized the economic benefit to the area.
The present site of Fort Bliss on La Noria Mesa, was laid out by Captain John Ruhlen from 1891 to 1892 and was first occupied by four companies of the 18th Infantry in October 1893.
In January 1914, John J. Pershing arrived in El Paso to take command of the Army 8th Brigade that was stationed at Fort Bliss. At the time, the Mexican Revolution was underway in Mexico, and the 8th Brigade had been assigned the task of securing the U.S.-Mexico border. In March 1915, under the command of General Frederick Funston, Pershing led the 8th Brigade on the failed 1916–1917 Punitive Expedition into Mexico in search of outlaw Pancho Villa.
As American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) commander (1917–1918), John J. Pershing transferred to Fort Bliss and was responsible for the organization, training, and supply of an inexperienced force that eventually grew from 27,000 men to over 2,000,000 — the National Army of World War I. From December 10, 1917 until May 12, 1918, the wartime 15th Cavalry Division existed at Fort Bliss. Similarly, the Headquarters, 2nd Cavalry Brigade was initially activated at Fort Bliss on December 10, 1917, and then deactivated in July 1919, but then reactivated at Fort Bliss on August 31, 1920. Predominantly a cavalry post since 1912, Fort Bliss acquired three light armored cars, eight medium armored cars, two motorcycles, and two trucks on November 8, 1928.
During World War II, Fort Bliss focused on training anti-aircraft artillery battalions (AAA). In September 1940, the Coast Artillery’s anti-aircraft training center was established, and in 1941 the 1st Tow Target Squadron arrived to fly target drones (the 6th, 19th, & 27th Tow Target Squadrons were at the nearby Biggs Field). On August 3, 1944, the Anti-Aircraft Artillery School was ordered from Camp Davis to Fort Bliss to make the training of anti-aircraft gunners easier, and they became the dominant force at Fort Bliss following the departure of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division. On September 15, 1942, the War Department made space available for handling up to 1,350 POWs, while POW camps could be constructed. During the war, the base was used to hold approximately 91 German and Italian Americans and Japanese from Hawaii, who were arrested as potential fifth columnists but, in most cases, denied due process.
By February 1946, over 100 Operation Paperclip German scientists had arrived to develop rockets and were attached to the Office of the Chief of Ordnance Corps, Research and Development Service, Suboffice (Rocket), headed by Major James P. Hamill. Although the scientists were initially “pretty much kept on ice” (resulting in the nickname “Operation Icebox”), they were subsequently divided into a research group and a group who assisted with V-2 test launches at White Sands Proving Grounds. German families began arriving in December 1946, and by the spring of 1948, the number of German rocket specialists (nicknamed “Prisoners of Peace”) in the US was 127. Fort Bliss rocket launches included firings of the Private missile at the Hueco Range in April 1945. In 1953, funding cuts caused the cancellation of work on the Hermes B2 ramjet work that had begun at Fort Bliss.
In late 1953, after troops had been trained at the Ft Bliss Guided Missile School, field-firing operations of the MGM-5 Corporal were underway at Red Canyon Range Camp, in the White Sands Proving Grounds. In April 1950, the 1st Guided Missile Group named the Republic-Ford JB-2 the ARMY LOON.
Fort Bliss trained thousands of U.S. soldiers during the Cold War. As the United States gradually came to master the art of building and operating missiles, Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range became more and more important to the country, and were expanded accordingly. On July 1, 1957 the U.S. Army Air Defense Center was established at Fort Bliss. Located at this Center, in addition to Center Headquarters, are the U.S. Army Air Defense School; Air Defense; the 6th Artillery Group (Air Defense); the 61st Ordnance Group; and other supporting elements. In 1957 Fort Bliss and its anti-aircraft personnel began using Nike Ajax, Nike Hercules, Hawk, Sprint, Chaparral, and Redeye missiles. Fort Bliss took on the important role of providing a large area for troops to conduct live fire exercises with the missiles.
Because of the large number of Army personnel enrolled in the air defense school, Fort Bliss saw two large rounds of construction in 1954 and 1958. The former was aimed at creating more barracks facilities, while the latter was aimed at building new classrooms, materials labs, a radar park, and a missile laboratory. Between 1953 and 1957, the Army also expanded McGregor Range in an effort to accommodate live fire exercises of the new missile systems. Throughout the Cold War, Fort Bliss remained a premier site for testing anti-aircraft equipment.
Fort Bliss was used as the Desert Stage of the Ranger School training course to prepare Ranger School graduates for operations in the deserts of the Middle East. From 1983 to 1987, Fort Bliss was home to the Ranger School’s newly formed 4th (Desert Ranger) Training Company. This unit was later expanded in 1987 to form the newly created Ranger Training Brigade’s short-lived 7th Ranger Training Battalion, which was then transferred to the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. The deserts of Utah proved to be unsuitable so the 7th Ranger Training Battalion was returned to Fort Bliss from 1991 until the Ranger School’s Desert Phase was discontinued in 1995.
While the United States Army Air Defense Artillery School develops doctrine and tactics, training current and future soldiers has always been its core mission. Until 1990, the post was used for Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT), under the 1/56 ADA Regiment, part of 6th ADA. Before 1989, 1/56 had three basic training companies and two AIT batteries. After 1990, 1/56 dropped basic training, that mission assumed by Fort Sill. The unit now had four enlisted batteries for enlisted AIT, one battery for the Officer’s Basic Course and Captain’s Career Course (added in 2004) and one company that trained army truck drivers (MOS 88M).
In 1995, the Department of Defense recommended that the U.S. 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment be relocated to Fort Carson, Colorado. Efforts to consolidate units from another post with those units that remained at Fort Bliss were overruled by the Base Realignment and Closing Commission, leaving Fort Bliss without any armored vehicles. Units operating the U.S. Army’s MIM-104 Patriot Missile Defense System relocated to Fort Bliss during the 1990’s. The Patriot system played an important role in the Persian Gulf War/Operation Desert Storm in 1991. In commemoration, the US 54 expressway in northeast El Paso was designated the Patriot Freeway.
After the September 11, 2001, attacks, Fort Bliss provided ADA Battalions for U.S. and NATO use in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has served as one of the major deployment centers for troops bound for Iraq and Afghanistan. This mission is accomplished via nearby Biggs Army Airfield, which is included in the installation’s supporting areas. In 2001, Fort Bliss began training Afghan security forces at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy, with the hope that these newly trained soldiers would eventually be able to take control of their own national security.
In 2005, the Pentagon recommended transforming Fort Bliss into a heavy armor training post, to include approximately 11,500 new troops from the U.S. 1st Armored Division — at that time stationed in Germany — as well as units from Fort Sill and Fort Hood. An estimated 15,918 military jobs and 384 civilian jobs were planned to be transferred to Fort Bliss, brought the total number of troops stationed at Fort Bliss under this alignment to a total of 33,500 by 2012. Officials from Fort Bliss and the City of El Paso were thrilled with the decision; the general mood of the city government was perfectly captured by May 14, 2005, edition of the El Paso Times, which boldly proclaimed “BLISS WINS BIG”.
The news that El Paso had been selected to receive major elements of the 1st Armored Division was met with joy, but at the same time many expressed surprise at the panel’s recommendation to transfer the Air Defense Artillery School, 6th ADA Brigade, and its accompanying equipment (including the MIM-104 Patriot Missile Anti-Aircraft/Anti Missile defense system) to Fort Sill. On August 25, 2005, officials representing Fort Bliss went before the BRAC Commission to plead their case for maintaining the ADA school and its accompanying equipment at Fort Bliss, citing among other thing the size of Fort Bliss and the history of the ADA school in the region. The BRAC Commission ultimately ruled against Fort Bliss, and the roughly 4,500 affected soldiers were transferred to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The entire transfer of soldiers to and from Fort Bliss was completed by September 15, 2011.
Today, training missions are supported by the McGregor Range Complex, located some 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the northeast of the main post, in New Mexico. Most of Fort Bliss lies in the state of New Mexico, stretching northeastward along U.S. Route 54 from El Paso County, Texas to the southern boundary of the Lincoln National Forest in Otero County, New Mexico; in addition, much of the northwestward side of Highway 54 is part of the Fort Bliss Military Reservation, ranging from the northern side of Chaparral, New Mexico to the southern boundary of White Sands Missile Range; the main facilities are within the city limits of El Paso, Texas. According to the city zoning map, the post officially resides in Central El Paso.
Separate from the main post are the William Beaumont Army Medical Center (which also serves the warrior transition battalion for the post’s wounded warriors) and a Veterans Administration center at the eastern base of the Franklin Mountains. All of these supporting missions serve the military and retired-military population here, including having served General Omar N. Bradley in his last days. A new warrior transition complex, located at Marshall and Cassidy roads, was opened in June 2011 to replace the older facility serving the warrior transition battalion.
The installation is also close to the El Paso Airport (with easy access from the post via Robert E. Lee Road — soon to be renamed Buffalo Soldier Road), Highway 54, and Interstate 10. There is a replica of the Magoffinsville site for Fort Bliss on post, simulating the adobe style of construction. Other items of interest include the Buffalo Soldier memorial statue on Buffalo Soldier Road, at the Buffalo Soldier Gate of entry to the post, and a missile museum on Pleasanton Road. The walls of the old Fort Bliss Officers Club contains adobe bricks that are more than a century old. The building now houses a Family Readiness Group, where new personnel can learn about the post’s activities and support groups. The Fort Bliss Welcome center, for new arrivals, is nearby, in the Building 500 area.
Scott #976 was released by the United States Post Office Department on November 5, 1948, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Fort Bliss and to call attention to its role as a rocket testing center. The 3 cent henna brown stamp was perforated 10½x11 and was the first of many U.S. stamps picturing rockets or spacecraft. The stamp’s designer, Charles R. Chickering of the Bureau of Engraving & Printing, wanted the stamp to depict the old and the new and portray some of the highlights of Fort Bliss’s hundred-year history. Chickering cleverly used the border of the triangle to engrave a long line around the three sides of men and vehicles, representing “the military of Fort Bliss and the civilians of El Paso and the Southwest” walking down the road together in the hundred-year period. There is a covered wagon drawn by oxen at the lower left, motorized heavy military equipment at lower right, and a camel appears on the upper left near the point of the triangle, just ahead of the horse-drawn stage coach.
The central design portrays a combination of the WAC Corporal missile with a V-2 launch vehicle. Below the “3c” on the left appears a mountain scene, and below the “3c” on the right appears an old mission. The color of the stamp suggests a desert sunset, while the rocket ship symbolizes modern military operations. C.A. Brooks engraved the vignette, and A.W. Christensen engraved the border, the lettering, and the numerals. A total of 64,561,000 copies of the stamp were printed by the BEP on the rotary press.
Third Assistant Postmaster General Joseph L. Lawler dedicated the stamp in El Paso on November 5, 1948. The Bureau Specialist of December 1949 notes that there were numerous sources for the design, including a photograph of the mountain from a booklet entitled El Paso, Texas published by the El Paso Sunland Club and a photograph of the mission from the book entitled, This is Texas: A photographic tour of the Greatest State by Michael Scully.