The year was 1917, and Europe was embroiled in World War I. The United States was reluctant to join the conflict. President Woodrow Wilson was hesitant to join the war effort overseas.
Then a missive known as the Zimmermann Telegram came to light. In this document recovered by British Intelligence, the Germans had promised Mexico to return territory lost during the Spanish American War to them if they joined the war. Between German U-Boats sinking American merchant ships and the Zimmermann Telegram, Wilson saw no choice but to ask Congress to declare war against Germany. On April 6, 1917, the United States officially entered in a war against Germany. Later in 1917, the U.S declared war on Austria-Hungary, and by the summer of 1918, large groups of American Soldiers were being deployed to the Western Front in Europe.
Warfare had changed over the years, and bigger artillery pieces were being used more often on the battlefield. The U.S. was largely unprepared for this when it entered the war in 1917. Additionally, at the time of the declaration of war on Germany, the U.S. Army was outnumbered 20 Soldiers to one by the Central Powers.
To counteract these problems, the Selective Service Act in 1917 saw four million men drafted into the Army, and by 1918, two million of those trained Soldiers had been deployed to the Western Front. The War Department also began building training grounds for artillery.
With such a large influx of Soldiers coming into the Armed Services, the logistics and reality of training and housing became an issue. Artillery was the main focus of training. With newer technology and better weaponry on display in Europe, the U.S. knew that they would need to step up their game and train their Soldiers on the newest technology available. They needed an artillery training ground.
Chief of Field Artillery, Gen. William J. Snow, began a search for suitable terrain for artillery exercises, and discovered the Sandhills of North Carolina. With a location close to railways, good drainage and soil, water and terrain requiring very little build up to get it training ready, the areas of Cumberland and Hoke counties seemed like the perfect spot to begin.
The first step was to discover who owned the approximately 120,000 acres that the War Department hoped to purchase. The task was daunting. Capt. Gilbert S. Woods, a surveyor and land appraiser, was sent out to determine the lay of the land and to identify land owners. He photographed and sketched the land and identified various structures in an effort to help assess how much each tract of land would be worth.
Buying the land
About 170 Families lived on the 108 farms in the specified region, and another 62 people were tenants or farm workers. In addition to these Families, 742 owners of 614 tracts of land were also identified in this survey of the land. The land owners were often difficult to track down; land ownership in the Sandhills wasn’t always formal, often passing from hand to hand within a Family. The Army had to identify who owned these 614 tracts of land, the exact boundaries of these tracts and the property value.
At this time, three maps were drawn up to reflect data that the Army was compiling — a topographic map, a soil survey map and a cadastral map that became known as the Property Owners Map. These three maps helped lay out a clear picture of property boundaries, the topography of each tract and the soil composition in each area. Using this compiled data, the Army began to make offers to property owners.
The Army set aside $1.5 million ($24,316,490 today) for the acquisition of land. Some Families took the initial offer. Others held out for better offers. Vance Blanton, a landowner with 70 acres, took the Army to court along with several other landowners, among whom was Neil S. Blue, the largest landowner in the area. He and his Family owned 23,000 acres at the time.
Construction began on the land on Sept. 16, 1918, despite the court case. The Army expended $6 million ($97,265,960 today) for the total land purchase, the building of cantonments and an airfield.
Construction was completed on Nov. 1, 1919. They chose the name Bragg for the new camp and artillery training ground. Braxton Bragg had been a native North Carolinian and an artillery specialist during the Mexican-American war in the 1840s.
The court case continued into the 1920s. Some of the Families involved in the case were interested in saving their churches and cemeteries. These landmarks became part of the agreement to sell the land; the Army would not move the churches or disinter the cemeteries. Long Street and Sandy Grove Presbyterian Churches are part of this agreement and are maintained as part of that agreement today. The 27 historic cemeteries are maintained by the Directorate of Public Works and the Cultural Resources Management Program.
World War I officially ended with an armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, a year before the completion of Camp Bragg. However, the War Department decided that this artillery training ground was important to the United States Army as a whole and continued working on finishing it. Camp Bragg remained as a field artillery training ground, but threats of closure were coming on the horizon.
(Editor’s Note: September 2018 is the 100th anniversary of Fort Bragg, and to celebrate it we are covering pieces of Fort Bragg history from the 1910s to the present day. Every month, we are singling out a decade in the history of Fort Bragg and sharing different aspects of life surrounding the installation during that time. Information for this article was provided by Dr. Linda Carnes-McNaughton, Cultural Resources Management Program, Directorate of Public Works; Fort Bragg’s 1918 Genesis: Historic Communities Lost and Found by Dr. Linda Carnes-McNaughton and Carl Steen; the historical synopsis of Camp Bragg, N.C., National Archives; and the Property Owners Map, 1918.)