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Tour Historic Fort Leavenworth, Best Hometown in the Army

Fort Leavenworth, the Intellectual Center of the Army, is also its prison. Both are part of the fort’s fascinating history. Stories and historic sites, scenic overlooks, picnic areas, and an 18-hole golf course are all on this post. Explore these seven things at Fort Leavenworth for the perfect family day trip. Allow at least a day to do it all.

Visit Leavenworth, Kansas, has hosted me several times, but all opinions are are mine. If you use our affiliate links, including Amazon Associates and Stay22, to make a purchase, we might earn a small commission for our time and website costs (at no additional cost to you).  These links are always disclosed. 

Related: Leavenworth, including Fort Leavenworth, is one of our 12 best places to visit in Kansas.

Table of contents: Introduction | How to visit the fort | Lewis and Clark Center | Frontier Army Museum | Buffalo Soldiers | National cemetery | Prison | Prison cemetery | Fort tourGolf course | Eat and stay

Introduction to Fort Leavenworth

Leavenworth, population 37,000, is half an hour west of the Kansas City International Airport and half an hour north of Interstate 70’s Exit 224 in Bonner Springs. Fort Leavenworth adjoins Leavenworth’s north side.

Related: Visit Bonner Springs.

Marker for Fort de Cavagnial on the Fort Leavenworth military reservation
Fort de Cavignial marker

The Missouri River brought Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery to an abandoned Kaw village near present-day Leavenworth on July 2, 1806. They also found abundant game on the beautiful prairie. They camped on the river’s Missouri side but discovered the remains of the French Fort Cavagnial on the Kansas side. 

Twenty-one years later, the US War Department ordered Colonel Henry Leavenworth to choose a new fort site. The orders specified the site must be on the Missouri River’s east side within 20 miles of the Little Platte River. Leavenworth realized that the east side of the river was prone to floods and likely unhealthy. Instead, he chose a hill on the river’s west side for Cantonment Leavenworth. The soldiers pitched the first camp there on May 8, 1827. The War Department approved the site as a military post four months later. 

After two years, the military nearly abandoned the cantonment because malaria and cholera killed many soldiers. Leavenworth reestablished the historic post six months later. The military turned the cantonment into a fort three years after Leavenworth returned. 

Oregon Trail and Santa Fe Trail travelers passed the fort on their way west. A trail swale (deep rut) is still visible on Fort Leavenworth’s cliffs. 

They also found abundant game on the beautiful prairie. They camped on the river’s Missouri side but discovered the remains of the French Fort de Cavagnial on the Kansas side. 

Related: The Corps of Discovery wintered near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota, in 1804-05.

Henry Leavenworth, founder of Fort Leavenworth
Henry Leavenworth about 1820 (Doane Robinson/Wikimedia)

Leavenworth picks a fort site

Twenty-one years later, the US War Department ordered Colonel Henry Leavenworth to choose a new fort site. The orders specified the site must be on the Missouri River’s east side within 20 miles of the Little Platte River. Leavenworth realized that the east side of the river was prone to floods and likely unhealthy. Instead, he chose a hill on the river’s west side for Cantonment Leavenworth. The soldiers pitched the first camp there on May 8, 1827. The War Department approved the site as a military post four months later. 

After two years, the military nearly abandoned the cantonment because malaria and cholera killed many soldiers. Leavenworth reestablished the historic post six months later. The military turned the cantonment into a fort three years after Leavenworth returned. 

Overland trail swale (rut) leading up the Fort Leavenworth cliff
Oxen and humans struggled to pull freight up Fort Leavenworth’s bluff.

Oregon Trail and Santa Fe Trail travelers passed the fort on their way west. A trail swale (deep rut) is still visible on Fort Leavenworth’s cliffs. 

The fort during the Civil War

Confederate troops couldn’t reach Leavenworth during the Civil War and threatened the fort only once. In the largest battle west of the Mississippi River, they lost the Battle of Westport near Kansas City in 1864. Today, cannons on the cliff point toward Missouri like they would have done during the Civil War. War’s danger is past, and visitors can enjoy the breathtaking views without worrying.

Grant, Sherman, and Wagner Halls with a clock tower at Fort Leavenworth
The original School of Application buildings were Grant, Sherman, and Wagner Halls.

Fort Leavenworth becomes the Army’s premier education destination

General William T. Sherman founded the School of Application for Infantry and Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth in 1881. He had lived in Leavenworth before the Civil War, working with his brother-in-law Thomas Ewing’s law firm. The territorial Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Samuel Lecompte gave Sherman a law license because of his intelligence. He left Leavenworth to become the head of present-day Louisiana State University. As the army’s post-war commanding general, he incorporated his ideas about modern warfare into the curriculum. 

Related: Lecompton, the permanent Kansas Territorial Capital, was named for Lecompte. Lecompte’s relatives lived in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

How to visit Fort Leavenworth

The fort’s visitors must enter at Grant Gate’s security checkpoint, which opens onto the fort’s main road. Adults with Department of Defense (DOD) identification may present it at the checkpoint. Don’t have a DOD ID? Register no more than 10 days ahead of time at the online registration portal. You’ll receive an approval text.

Otherwise, go to the Visitor Control Center (VCC) at the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and Fourth Street. The vehicle driver must produce a valid driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. All passengers, 16 years of age and over, must have a photo ID card. The staff will run a routine background check, which requires about 5 or 10 minutes. Approved visitors will receive a temporary pass to enter the fort.

The VCC is closed on weekends and federal holidays. During those times, request a pass at the Grant Gate Commercial Lane (far right lane). 

Lewis and Clark Center, Fort Leavenworth
A flag waves above the Lewis and Clark Center.

1. Lewis and Clark Center

The army completed the Lewis and Clark Center in 2007 to house the Command and General Staff College (CGSC). Lewis and Clark were the first Army officers to visit Leavenworth. Famous officers like George Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley, Douglas MacArthur, George S. Patton, and Colin Powell took the college’s 10-month course. Eisenhower finished first in his class, helped by Patton’s notes. 

The institution enrolls 1,500 students each year. Students include officers from all the US military’s services, civilian programs like Homeland Security, and more than 100 countries. The CGSC is under the US Army’s Combined Arms Center; its graduates earn a master’s degree. (Fort Leavenworth is also the home of the Army University.)

Meriwether Lewis in bronze wearing a full uniform and carrying a spontoon at Fort Leavenworth.
Sculpture of Meriwether Lewis carrying a spontoon, a short pike.

The building is full of exquisite military art, including paintings, sculptures, and stained glass. It houses the Fort Leavenworth Hall of Fame, Presidential portraits, and the International Hall of Fame. One hall honors the Corps of Discovery with paintings of their epic journey.

Roxie’s reliable report: Harry Truman was the only President other than Eisenhower to serve at Fort Leavenworth. 

CGSC coat of arms stained glass window
PIctures do no justice to the stained glass windows.

The international hall’s honorees have led their nation’s military or become heads of state. International students have donated ancient uniforms and military artifacts. Display cases also hold American military artifacts, including a tribute to Leavenworth’s Roger Donlon. Donlon was the first Vietnam War and Special Forces Medal of Honor recipient. Another gallery displays paintings of the Corps of Discovery’s journey to the West Coast. 

Eisenhower and Fitzgerald

Before Eisenhower became a CGSC student, he trained provisional lieutenants (PDF) at Fort Leavenworth for three months during World War I. The Great Gatsby’s (ad) author F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of Eisenhower’s students. At the time, Fitzgerald was writing his first novel, This Side of Paradise (ad). Someone, perhaps Eisenhower, ordered Fitzgerald to redirect his efforts. Obviously, Fitzgerald didn’t obey.

Neither Eisenhower nor Fitzgerald saw combat because the war ended before their regiments could fight.

Related: Visit Eisenhower-themed sites in Abilene, Kansas, his hometown.

Fort Leavenworth is No. 82 in my book 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die (ad).

Frontier Army Museum exterior at Fort Leavenworth
The exterior of the Frontier Army Museum

2. Frontier Army Museum

Fort Leavenworth is the army’s oldest continuously operating post west of the Mississippi River, and the Frontier Army Museum preserves its soldiers’ legacy. Its galleries honor the army’s role in the nation’s exploration, expansion, and protection. The fort’s wagon shop closed in 1938, and the museum inherited its vehicles. The museum became official in 1960, and its collection contains over 6,000 artifacts. After Henry Leavenworth’s uniform, the galleries start with the Corps of Discovery’s expedition from 1804 to 1806. 

A pair of horses pulling a red stagecoach with Buffalo Soldiers on top at the Frontier Army Museum, Fort Leavenworth.
Buffalo Soldiers exposed to the elements while guarding the mail.

The vehicle gallery includes some of the museum’s original collections. See oxen pull a wagon on the Oregon Trail, pack horses, and Buffa Soldiers guarding the mail while riding atop a stagecoach. President James Polk ordered General Stephen Kearny to conquer New Mexico and California. The Personality Vehicles gallery includes the carriage Abraham Lincoln used during his 1859 Kansas visit.

Mexican War artilleryman with a cannon beneath an American flag at Fort Leavenworth
Mexican War-era artilleryman sponging out his cannon.

Fort Leavenworth and the West

Maps and associated artifacts show how Fort Leavenworth affected American history. Learn about the Buffalo Soldiers’ role in the West. Marvel at General Stephen Kearny and the Army of the West’s long march from Fort Leavenworth to Los Angeles via Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

The 500-man Mormon Battalion marched 180 miles to Leavenworth from Kanesville (present-day Council Bluffs), Iowa. It was the only US Army unit named for its religion. In 1846 and 1847, they marched 2,000 miles from the fort to San Diego to support Kearny. Some escorted Kearny on the Oregon-California Trail. However, the largest group marched to the present-day Mexican border with Arizona and New Mexico. The wagon road they blazed was the first practical route south of the Gila River and led to the 1854 Gadsden Purchase. The land deal fixed the US southern border.

The last gallery includes airplanes used during the Punitive Expedition, General John Pershing’s 1916 chase of Pancho Villa. That expedition nearly caused a second Mexican-American War. 

Related: Read more about Lincoln’s time in Kansas.

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Buffalo Soldier sculpture above a waterfall at Fort Leavenworth.
The Buffalo Soldier statue in the Buffalo Soldier Commemorative Area.

3. Buffalo Soldier Commemorative Area

The Buffalo Soldiers began at Fort Leavenworth in 1866. Black freemen, formerly enslaved people, and Civil War veterans, enlisted in the Ninth and 10th Cavalry regiments and the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry. 

Related: The Buffalo Soldiers left Fort Leavenworth for Fort Riley, next to Junction City.

Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a white Civil War veteran, formed the cavalry on September 21, 1866. They protected settlers, built roads, and guarded the mail. The soldiers fought in the Indian Wars, the decades-long battles with the Native Americans. They were even Yellowstone National Park’s first park rangers. Eventually, 18 Buffalo Soldiers earned the Medal of Honor. Their performance undermined prejudice and paved the way for Black men to become officers. The Army deactivated the 10th Cavalry on March 20, 1944.

Honoring the Buffalo Soldiers

Brigadier General Powell jogged on gravel roads named for the Ninth and 10th Cavalry in 1982. He wondered why these were the sole commemorations for the Buffalo Soldiers. Powell became the first Black person to be a National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of State. As such, he was well placed to push through the 13-foot-tall Buffalo Soldier Monument. Ten years later, in June 1992, Powell returned to Leavenworth for its dedication.

Colin Powell bust in the Circle of Firsts
Colin Powell’s bust in the Circle of Firsts.

The Circle of Firsts and the Walkway of Units

The commemorative area has since grown to include the Circle of Firsts and the Walkway of Units, sculptures that honor Black military pioneers. For example, Roscoe Robinson Jr., was the first Black lieutenant (four-star) general in the Army.

Slabs and chunks of the Berlin Wall at Fort Leavenworth
Powell served President George W. Bush as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the Wall came down.

Tearing down the Berlin Wall

The fort dedicated Powell’s bust in 2014. He was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time the Berlin Wall went down. The American commander of the Berlin Brigade gave President Ronald Reagan some Wall sections. Fort Leavenworth received three sections because of the worldwide influence of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Fittingly, a piece of the Wall is near Powell’s bust.  

Related: Henry O. Flipper of Thomasville, Georgia, was the first Black West Point graduate. 

Triple Nickels bust
The Triple Nickels were America’s first smoke jumpers.

Smoke jumpers and mail sorters

The 555th “Triple Nickles” Parachute Infantry Company was the Army’s first all-black airborne unit. They were the world’s first smoke jumpers, parachuting into Pacific Northwest forest fires. First Sergeant Walter Morris, the first black paratrooper, is the bust’s model.

The 6888th “Six Triple Eight” Central Postal Battalion processed millions of pieces of mail in World War II’s European Theater. They were the only Women’s Army Corps battalion sent overseas during the war. A bust of their commander Charity Adams Earley tops the marker. 

Roxie’s reliable reportLieutenant General Milton Beagle Jr. became the first Black general to command Fort Leavenworth in 2022.

Ad: The 6888th’s story is in my book Secret Kansas: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure (ad).

Tom Custer's Medal of Honor recipient stone in Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery
Double Medal of Honor recipient Tom Custer rests between three other officers who died at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Algernon Smith and George Yates are to the left and Custer’s brother-in-law James Calhoun is on the right.

4. Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery

Fort Leavenworth’s cemetery became one of 14 national cemeteries in 1862. The oldest burial is Clarinda Dale, who died on September 21, 1844. The oldest military burial is Captain James Allen of the First U.S. Dragoons. He died in August 1846. 

Related: Fort Scott National Cemetery is National Cemetery No. 1.

Brigadier General Henry Leavenworth died near Kingston, Oklahoma, in 1834. Leavenworth had earned a promotion from colonel to general but died before notification reached him. His body rested for 10 months in Oklahoma, then went to the Woodland Cemetery in Delhi, New York. Fort Leavenworth petitioned to inter his body, and in 1902 the Army brought it to his namesake national cemetery. A 12-foot-tall granite monument marks his final resting place.

Related: The enlisted men and indigenous guide who died in the Kidder Massacre are buried in a common grave at the cemetery.

The officers who died at the Battle of Little Bighorn

Nine Medal of Honor recipients rest in the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, including Thomas W. Custer. George Armstrong Custer’s brother earned two Medals of Honor during the Civil War. He died at the Battle of Little Bighorn with his brothers George and Boston, brother-in-law James Calhoun, nephew Autie Reed, and friends Algernon Smith and George Yates. Tom Custer, Calhoun, and Yates’s graves stand in a row at Fort Leavenworth. (George rests with his wife Libbie at West Point, and the other Custers are in the family plot in Monroe, Michigan.)

Related: Visit the Battle of Little Bighorn in Southeast Montana.

John Kile earned the Congressional Medal of Honor with the Fifth Cavalry in July 1869. Sheriff James B. “Wild Bill” Hickock killed Kile a year later in Hays, Kansas.

Related: Kile’s death is on the Hays Walking Tour, one of our things to do in Hays.

Remnant of native stone wall and guard tower at Fort Leavenworth
Inmates built the original US Military Prison, later named the Disciplinary Barracks. Its exterior wall and guard towers remain.

5. US Disciplinary Barracks

Congress established the United States Military Prison (USMP) in 1874, and the fort’s prison opened on May 15, 1875. The inmates completed their prison in 1921. “The Castle” later became the US Disciplinary Barracks (USDB), the nation’s only maximum security men’s military prison. The USDB offered the first inmate vocational training program. Private John A. Bennett, in April 1961, was the last inmate executed.

The government built a new prison in 2002 and tore down the USDB’s core two years later. Some of the Old USDB’s walls and guard towers are still extant. A glass etching shows the former prison’s appearance, and interpretive panels around the courtyard tell its story. 

Roxie’s reliable report: Eat at The 12th Brick Grille nearby. When the inmate made the original prison’s bricks, they stamped every 12th one with “USMP.” The classic deli sandwiches have prison-themed names like “Jailhouse Rock” and “The Warden.”

Related: The territorial government started at Fort Leavenworth. The governor’s office was somewhere in the eventual prison’s footprint.

White gravestones of executed military prisoners, Fort Leavenworth
These stones mark the graves of executed prisoners of war.

5. US Disciplinary Barracks Cemetery

At first, the USMP interred inmates in the national cemetery, but the quartermaster general criticized that in 1883. In response, the prison established a separate half-acre cemetery in 1884. The cemetery held inmates who had no next of kin – or their next of kin refused their remains. The prison buried 75 inmates there from 1884 to 1929. When the Army changed its prison’s name to the United States Disciplinary Barracks, it closed the cemetery until 1940.

Five years after the reopening, the Army executed 14 German prisoners-of-war for murdering fellow POWs in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Arizona camps. They believed their victims had betrayed their country. The executed men’s bodies rest next to the cemetery’s north fence.

6. Fort Leavenworth Wayside Tour

The Wayside Tour (PDF) has 23 stops, including the state’s oldest bachelor pad and its first capital.

No. 14, The Nez Perce, is one of the tour’s saddest stories. General Nelson Miles and Chief Joseph agreed that the people would live on an Idaho reservation. Instead, the Army overruled the agreement and sent 438 Nez Perce to Fort Leavenworth for the winter of 1877. Like the Buffalo Soldiers’ experience, the Nez Perce camped in a former racetrack built on malarial, cholera-infested Missouri River flats. It seemed like a human zoo because people came to gawk at them.

After they left Leavenworth, they lived in Oklahoma for seven years. They finally returned to the Pacific Northwest in 1885. By that time, their population had declined to 286 people.

Related: Experience Leavenworth’s history on the city’s Wayside Tour.

7. Trails West Golf Course

Hone your game at Trails West Golf Course. The 18-hole course spreads over 190 acres of meadows, tree-lined Zoysia fairways, and bentgrass greens. Relax in the clubhouse, stock up in the pro shop, and prices on the lighted driving range and the pair of practice putting greens. Eat one of the gourmet burgers at the Fairway Grille while enjoying a golf course view.

The Leavenworth Local 's entrance at night
The Leavenworth Local’s accessible entrance is to the side of the main entrance.

Where to eat and stay

We’ve already talked about the 12th Brick Grill and the Fairway Grille. However, if you’re on the post on Tuesdays or Fridays, partake of the dishes at the Solarium Buffet at the Frontier Conference Center. Tuesday is home-style cooking with chicken noodle soup. Entreés are slow-roasted carved beef and chicken-fried steak. Friday’s theme is seafood with clam chowder, baked fish, and breaded shrimp. Both days offer a soup du jour and Southern fried chicken. The buffet also includes vegetables, soft dinner rolls, homemade desserts, and ice cream. Sit by the windows for a beautiful view.

Stay in town at The Leavenworth Local. The owners turned the former Leavenworth Immaculata High School into a boutique hotel. Its minimalist design preserves some school architecture while providing roomy suites filled with amenities and storage space.

RVers may camp at Suncatcher Lake RV Park south of Leavenworth. It’s next to the lake, with full hookups at each site. For the freshest meal possible, catch your dinner in the lake.

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