Fort Leavenworth: Home of Military Leaders and Losers

April 25, 2023Maggie BenZvi
fort leavenworth

Three prisons reside in the city of Leavenworth, including the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility. The JRCF does not have bars; the two-person cells have solid doors with thick windows. It cost $95 million and was built to comply with American Correctional Association Standards. Photo courtesy Fort Leavenworth Public Affairs.

According to the Army, no one wants to go to Fort Leavenworth.

In 2021, as a way to increase recruitment, the Army began allowing new soldiers to choose their first post. In the first year of the policy, known as Option 19, not a single new recruit designated Fort Leavenworth as their duty station of choice

But that’s simply a function of the specialized nature of the base’s dual missions. 

As the oldest active Army post west of the Mississippi and home to both the US Army Command and General Staff College and the United States Disciplinary Barracks, Fort Leavenworth sees the best and worst of what America’s military has to offer. 

fort leavenworth

New York Army National Guard soldiers assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 102nd Military Police Battalion conduct riot control training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, June 7, 2018. The soldiers were conducting joint training with the 705th Military Police Battalion. US Army National Guard Photo by 1st Lt. Derrick Rocker, HHC 102nd MP Battalion.

“We’re the intellectual center of the Army on one side, but we're also the prison,” George Marcec, Fort Leavenworth’s public affairs officer, told Coffee or Die. “It’s a dichotomy of identities.” 

With its long and storied history, Fort Leavenworth plays a specific and vital dual role for the Army.

Early History of Fort Leavenworth

Fort Leavenworth was built in 1827 and is the oldest permanent settlement in the state of Kansas. Col. Henry Leavenworth, a veteran of the War of 1812, established Cantonment Leavenworth with four brigades of the 3rd Infantry Regiment and the intention of protecting the government’s trade interests at the head of the Santa Fe Trail. 

fort leavenworth

United States Military Prison, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, April 15, 1911. US Army photo.

As the eastern terminus of both the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail, Fort Leavenworth was key to managing conflicts among traders, settlers, and the Native American population. Native American tribes moved through the post in the wake of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

In the 1840s, thousands of settlers began the trek up the Oregon Trail, and the soldiers at the base were tasked with protecting the caravans as they started their journeys. From 1846 to 1848, Fort Leavenworth was the outfitting post for US troops in the Mexican-American War.

As the Civil War began, the Army founded Camp Lincoln at Fort Leavenworth to serve as an initial point of entry for Union volunteers. Confederate troops never reached as far as Fort Leavenworth, though; they were defeated at the Battle of Westport, near Kansas City.

fort leavenworth

A group of officers and enlisted men, most with sabers drawn, at Fort Leavenworth in the 1860s. Kansas Historical Society photo.

During the Reconstruction period, troops from Fort Leavenworth engaged in combat with various Plains tribes more than 1,000 times. Infamously, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe surrendered himself and 418 other Nez Perce men, women, and children to Brig. Gens. Oliver Otis Howard and Nelson A. Miles under the impression that they would be allowed to return to their reservation in Idaho. 

Instead, Commanding Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman ordered the tribe removed to Fort Leavenworth.

The Nez Perce were housed at an old racetrack on the flats of the Missouri River. One official from the Bureau of Indian Affairs described it as “between a lagoon and the river, […] the worst possible place that could have been selected.” Locals came to gawk at them at all hours until the Army created a curfew at the base.

Fort Leavenworth was also home to the 10th Cavalry Regiment, an all-Black regiment formed in the wake of the Civil War known as the Buffalo Soldiers

United States Disciplinary Barracks

fort leavenworth

The original United States Disciplinary Barracks was built around a central structure known as The Castle, with cell blocks radiating like spokes on a wagon wheel. Combined Arms Research Library photo.

Three prisons reside in the city of Leavenworth, including a medium-security federal penitentiary and the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility, a military facility that mainly houses people awaiting court martial. But the oldest and most notorious is the United States Disciplinary Barracks. It was established by an act of Congress in 1874, but the original building was not completed until 1921. Prisoners were used to build their own place of confinement.

The Disciplinary Barracks is the only maximum security men’s military prison in the country. Enlisted service members with sentences of more than 10 years, commissioned officers, and prisoners convicted of crimes relating to national security are all housed at Leavenworth.

“The name Leavenworth is, for good or bad, tied with prison,” Marcec said. “In the movies, if you were in trouble in the Army or the Navy or whatever, you're going to Leavenworth.”

A new prison site became operational in 2002, and the largest original building of the barracks was torn down in 2004. Other original buildings have been repurposed for different uses on the base. 

The original structure was designed such that separate cell blocks radiated off a central building known as The Castle, like spokes on a wagon wheel. The new prison is more modern, with separate low-rise housing pods, two-tiered and triangular, spread around the 51-acre site. There are 515 beds in the facility, and each cell has a solid door and a window. There are no bars in the new prison.

There are currently four inmates on death row at the Disciplinary Barracks, including Nidal Hasan, the infamous mass murderer who killed 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009.

Serial killer Ronald Gray has been on death row the longest, after being convicted in a court martial in 1988 on 22 counts, including murder, attempted murder, rape, robbery, and forcible sodomy. He was a cook in the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg at the time of his crimes, holding the rank of specialist.

The prison is staffed by Army corrections specialists from the Army Corrections Brigade, formerly known as the 15th Military Police Brigade. The unit was redesignated on March 24, 2023, and reports to Army Corrections Command. 

“The previous formation was organized to do many things — in my opinion too many things — and it distracted us from being all we can be,” Maj. Gen. Duane Miller, commanding general of Army Corrections Command, said at the ceremony casing the 15th Military Police Brigade’s colors. “Today officially starts a more focused effort.”

United States Army Combined Arms Center

fort leavenworth

Around 100 riders from various chapters of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club honored the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers by visiting the Buffalo Soldier Monument at Fort Leavenworth. Soldiers from the 10th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Leavenworth were the first black soldiers to be known as Buffalo Soldiers. US Army photo by Russell Toof.

While the name “Leavenworth” conjures up images of a prison to the vast majority of the American public, within the Army it has another meaning: the home of the Command and General Staff College, or CGSC, at the United States Army Combined Arms Center.

“Anyone who's anyone in the Army for the past 150 years has come through here,” Marcec said. “If you envision the officer education system like college at the Academy, at the beginning, and then the Army War College, the Command and General Staff College is kind of the masters level between the two.”

Established in 1881 by Gen. Sherman as the School of Application for Infantry and Cavalry, CGSC “educates and develops leaders for full spectrum joint, interagency and multinational operations; acts as lead agent for the Army's leader development program; and advances the art and science of the profession of arms in support of Army operational requirements.”

fort leavenworth

An inmate studies in his quarters at the military's correctional facility at Fort Leavenworth, 1994. US Army photo by Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds.

There are four separate academic schools at the Leavenworth campus:

  1. Command and General Staff School is the largest and provides masters-level instruction to 5,000 people, mostly Army majors, every year. 
  2. The School for Command Preparation prepares leaders for their roles in formation command, including the Command Sergeants Major course and the Command Team Spouse development course.
  3. The School of Advanced Leadership and Tactics is aimed at first lieutenants preparing for selection to major, developing them as “scholar-warrior-leaders” and resulting in mastery of branch-specific technical and tactical skills.
  4. The School of Advanced Military Studies has three different programs: 
  • The Advanced Military Studies Program is for majors and junior lieutenant colonels, usually coming from Command and General Staff School, to further develop their skills in solving operational problems. 
  • The Advanced Strategic Leadership Studies Program is a 24-month program aimed at developing senior leaders for positions of significant responsibility. The highly selective program usually graduates eight Army officers, one Air Force officer, one Marine Corps officer, one Navy officer, one or two agency reps (typically FBI and USAID), and three international officers (usually from the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany) in any given year. 
  • The Advanced Strategic Planning and Policy Program prepares field-grade officers for roles as strategic planners, combining classes at the School of Advanced Military Studies with doctorate-level studies at a civilian university. 
fort leavenworth

Gen. Paul Funk II, United States Army Training and Doctrine Command commanding general, presents coins to the team leads of the Tiger Teams, part of the US Army Command General Staff College, at the Lewis and Clark Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, May 5, 2020. US Army photo by Audrey Chappell.

The Command and General Staff College is not only the largest part of the larger Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth; it also contains the Combined Arms Center for Training and the Mission Command Center for Excellence, as well as hosts the Army University Press. 

“We often joke that we’re the Training Doctrine Command West,” Marcec said, “because a lot of the guts of TRADOC actually reside here at Fort Leavenworth.”

Life at Fort Leavenworth

“For anyone who likes it here, it's a final destination,” Marcec said, acknowledging that many soldiers, especially those stationed at the prison, spend their whole careers at Fort Leavenworth.

fort leavenworth

Seven-year-old Carrah Garland says hello to paint gelding Spirit during the History with Horses event Oct. 14, 2022, at the Fort Leavenworth Stables. The Fort Leavenworth community prides itself on being family-friendly and offers many outdoor activities. US Army photo by Prudence Siebert.

Relations with civilians in the city of Leavenworth are cordial. Marcec estimates the base brings in about 60% of the income for the area. “They know how their bread is buttered,” he said. The base is also only about 30 miles from Kansas City.

The area offers much to anyone interested in outdoor activities, especially hiking and horseback riding. 

“The installation is small — it’s like a college campus,” Marcec said. “Nothing against troop posts, but you won’t see a tank, you won’t see a Humvee. You won’t see formations of trainees. It’s just a different vibe.”

The base largely runs on a school cycle due to the programs at the Combined Arms Center, which accounts for the majority of the population. 

“It's definitely set up to be as easy as possible and very family-friendly,” Marcec said. “A lot of people say they came here once, and now they’re here forever.”

Read Next: MRE: The Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner of Champions

Maggie BenZvi
Maggie BenZvi

Maggie BenZvi is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, and has worked for the ACLU as well as the International Rescue Committee. She has also completed a summer journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her work at Coffee or Die, she’s a stay-at-home mom and, notably, does not drink coffee. Got a tip? Get in touch!

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