Editor's note: This is the first of a series of columns on the Front Royal Remount Depot.
By Patrick Farris
The United States Army Remount Depot in Front Royal originated in the hills along the western flank of the Blue Ridge as the landscape descends from Chester Gap. Roughly halfway between the gap and the intersection of Criser Road and Highway 522 - Remount Road - lies the center of the old Army base. It is situated on both sides of the highway just after the entrance to Harmony Hollow.
During the reinvention of the system of remount depots at the turn of the last century, three main bases with satellite depots were organized in the United States; one in Nebraska, one in Oklahoma and the Front Royal Remount base here in Warren County.
The two western bases took advantage of their location in the heart of the Great Plains to breed, raise, train and stable large numbers of horses and mules, so one must naturally wonder why the Army selected the more crowded and hilly country of this part of Virginia for its third base, as opposed to a more open and less populated area. This part of the Remount's history begins with the Spanish American War of 1898.
Students of American History familiar with the Spanish American War may recall several aspects of the war and its results, the reverberations from which had implications for the ensuing decades for American military, political and international policy decision making. Having become rather suddenly concerned - thanks to the advent of "yellow journalism," the tabloid-writing of the 1890s - with the plight of the Cuban people under the yolk of Spanish rule, Americans increasingly called on their government to pressure the Spanish to give Cuba its independence. When the USS Maine blew to pieces in Cuba's Havana harbor, although judged to be an accident, war hawks were able to convince President McKinley to ask for a declaration of war, and within a few months the United States had seized not only the Spanish colony of Cuba, but her colonies of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and several small islands in the South Pacific. The United States went from a nation to an empire with overseas colonial holdings almost overnight.
Although the war was considered a raving success by the general population, military planners and leaders saw the inadequacies of the U.S. military preparation, such as soldiers fighting in the tropics wearing woolen uniforms, as the previous conflicts involving the Army had been the Indian wars fought on the High Plains.
A shortage of trained and available animals also plagued the U.S. armed forces, which were still reliant upon animal power in the field, as full mechanization was still a few decades away. The U.S. Army's Quartermaster Division decided that a system of remount depots was necessary. A remount depot was a base at which soldiers could receive a fresh mount - essentially, a new horse - as needed, the base then being responsible for feeding, resting and refreshing mounts turned in for future reuse; the motor pool equivalent of the horse-and-buggy age.
During the Civil War some 35 years before, an expanded and reliable system of remount depots was created and maintained by the Army as it fought to conquer and then control the rebellious Southern states, but by the end of reconstruction in the 1870s these depots were closed as their need declined. Now the need had arisen anew, especially if the United States should find herself at war with a larger and more prepared military power than Spain.
Since the 1890s, the U.S. Cavalry had practiced training maneuvers, fully loaded marches and camping in the Shenandoah Valley. The reason was simple: proximity to Washington, D.C., where the War Department (now the Department of Defense) was located, and officers were stationed. Bringing by rail their gear, men - and some horses - cavalry units would disembark in Front Royal and march pre-planned routes from Front Royal to Double Tollgate in Clarke County, or from Front Royal to Strasburg and Woodstock in Shenandoah County. The men would camp alongside the road at prearranged campgrounds, and cavalrymen could become accustomed to carrying their loads and maintaining their animals.
Following the Spanish American War, when the Quartermaster Division began planning for a new Remount Depot system, this location was already a known entity to the U.S. Cavalry, which had trained here, and as a base was needed convenient to the nation's capital and on the East Coast near major ports, Front Royal was a natural location for the Army to choose. Having settled upon the location, the Army now needed to acquire the land necessary to support what would be a substantial operation, requiring sufficient room for the housing of men and animals, training grounds and grazing pastures, all centralized and convenient to a road, railhead, and town.
Read more in Saturday's Daily.
Interested in local history? Come visit the Warren Heritage Society in Front Royal. Refer to warrenheritagesociety.org for contact information, hours and location. Patrick Farris is executive director of the Warren Heritage Society.