There has been a military presence in San Antonio from the very beginning. In 1718, when Spanish padres came to start a mission, they were accompanied by soldiers who built barracks and established a military post. San Antonio’s geographic location has made it a strategic spot for military installations ever since.
In 1858, the U. S. Army chose San Antonio as the location for a permanent arsenal. It would be a facility large enough for the army to store arms and munitions to supply all the frontier forts and outposts in Western Texas. Up until that time, the army’s ordinance department had used rented buildings, principally the Alamo complex to conduct its arsenal operations.
In July, 1858, the army sent Captain R. H. K. Whiteley to San Antonio to select a suitable site for the new U.S. Arsenal. Upon his arrival, he was invited by city officials to inspect a tract of land that was being offered by the city as a potential site. The property, which was located north of the city at the head of the San Antonio River, was not acceptable to Whiteley as it was “subject to flooding, conducive to disease, and being of low elevation, difficult to defend.” Twenty-three years later, in 1881, the Sisters of Charity would choose this same location as a place to establish Incarnate Word Academy, now University of the Incarnate Word.
It was not until October 1858 that Captain Whiteley settled on a site located south of the city on the west bank of the San Antonio River. It was actually two contiguous tracts; one being 7¾ acres belonging to ex-governor Thomas E. Bell and the other, 8 acres belonging to Gregory Devine. Bell’s acreage was the site of the old homestead of Dr. James Devine, a former city treasurer and mayor of San Antonio.
Whiteley received approval in December 1858 to conclude the purchase of the two tracts but it was almost a year before construction actually began. By then, Whiteley had taken up residence in the Devine house where he planned to live while overseeing the planning and construction of the Arsenal buildings. The following progress report was issued March 22, 1860:
“The Arsenal buildings, under the superintendency of our industrious fellow townsman, John Campbell, are going ahead rapidly and beautifully….all of the materials are of the best quality. The rocks are beautifully dressed and well laid. Capt. Whiteley has had the plans and specifications all submitted to the Department of Washington and approved of, and nothing now stands in the way of their completion. Uncle Sam has a long purse and there is no danger of the bills being protested. Let the work go ahead, we say.”
Work, however, would soon come to a halt.
After months of controversy and contentious wrangling, a convention of Texans met in Austin in late January 1861 and voted to secede from the Union in spite of opposition from Governor Sam Houston. The rogue convention formed a Committee of Public Safety to act on its behalf. They sent seven delegates to Montgomery,Alabama to participate in the establishment of the Confederate States of America and then authorized the seizure of all federal property in Texas. That included the arsenal at San Antonio.
U.S. Army Brevet Major-General David Twiggs was commander of the Department of Texas which comprised almost 3,000 federal troops. While San Antonio was the Department’s base city, most of these troops were strung out among West Texas’ many frontier and border forts. Before dawn on February 16, 1861, Ben McCulloch, a frontier hero and a Colonel of Cavalry, led a force of about 1,000 Texas volunteers into San Antonio. After uniting with Captain William Edgar and his local secessionist militia, they surrounded the three garrison installations which contained about 200 U.S. soldiers.
A detail, which was sent to General Twiggs’ house on the outskirts of San Antonio, intercepted him as he was driving his buggy to work. He was escorted at gunpoint to Main Plaza where Ben McCulloch demanded that Twiggs surrender the garrison. At first, Twiggs refused but later agreed with the condition that his troops be allowed to retain their sidearms and be allowed to march to the coast near Corpus Christi for safe passage to the North.
For this act of surrender, General Twiggs was accused of “treachery to the flag” and dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army. Being a Georgian and a Southern sympathizer, he promptly joined the Confederate service but died of pneumonia six months later without ever having taken an active part in the Civil War. Ben McCulloch rose to Major-General and division commander and was killed in action at the battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas in March 1862. He is buried at the State Cemetery in Austin. Governor Sam Houston was deposed after refusing to swear allegiance to a secessionist government. He also died during the war. The Arsenal complex suffered during the Civil War years. When the Confederates took over, the only structure that had been completed was the office building. Several other buildings were in various stages of completion and those were finished by the Confederates using “rough stone” and “a lesser quality of construction”. Some of the buildings added during the Confederate occupation were “built of rough boards, without floors and not waterproof”.
In November 1865, the Arsenal was re-acquired by the U.S. Army and placed under the command of Capt. J. W. Todd. Among his first actions was to submit a request to Washington for funds since all the buildings were “very much in need of repair; all the fences have been destroyed and of all the buildings, only the magazine is suitable for storage purposes”. The old Devine house needed repairing at once as it was “in sorry condition”. For the next several years, the Arsenal was the primary supplier of arms and ammunitions for Texas forts such as Fort Stockton and Fort Davis. One of the major functions of these frontier forts in the late 1800’s was to protect wagon trains making their way to California. In the 1890’s, saddles and other horse equipment was manufactured at the Arsenal to outfit Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
The complex continued to be enlarged and by the end of WWI, the Arsenal comprised thirty-eight buildings. During both world wars, it served as a major supply depot. The Arsenal was closed in 1949 but the buildings continued to be used as federal government offices. In 1954, the gazebo which was located near the Commander’s House was saved from demolition by being relocated to the King William Park. In 1972, two acres and three buildings were declared surplus and deeded to the City of San Antonio. One of those buildings, the Commander’s House, has served as a popular Senior Citizen’s Center since 1978.
In 1984, H-E-B bought the remaining ten acre complex and after major remodeling, selective demolition and additions to the existing buildings, a beautiful facility was created to house the grocery company’s corporate headquarters. Hartman-Cox, the Architects for the project, received a major award for their work. It is often cited as an excellent example of adaptive reuse.