After the end of the Mexican War the need to defend the new border, to maintain law and order, to protect settlers and California-bound migrants from Indian attacks, and to survey for a new transcontinental railroad compelled the United States government to establish a military post on the Rio Grande in the area of El Paso del Norte (now Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua). On November 7, 1848, the War Department instructed the Third Infantry to take up quarters at the pass, and Bvt. Maj. Jefferson Van Horne led 257 soldiers, including the regimental staff, six infantry companies, and a howitzer battery, west from San Antonio. They arrived in the area on September 8; on September 14, four companies were quartered on Coons' Rancho, formerly Ponce's Ranch, in downtown El Paso. About one-third of the troops occupied the presidio at San Elizario, an old Spanish garrison twenty miles southeast of El Paso.
The War Department closed the post and presidio in September 1851 and withdrew the troops to Fort Fillmore, forty miles to the north. A military post was reestablished on the Rio Grande in January 1854 when Lt. Col. Edmund Brooke Alexander, with four companies of the Eighth United States Infantry, rented quarters at Magoffinsville, a hacienda three miles east of Coons' Rancho. On March 8, 1854, the official name of the post became Fort Bliss, in memory of Lt. Col. William Wallace Smith Bliss, Gen. Zachary Taylor's chief of staff during the Mexican War and later his son-in-law.
Lt. Col. Isaac V. D. Reeve was in command of Fort Bliss on March 31, 1861, when it was surrendered to the Confederate authorities of Texas. Confederate lieutenant colonel John Robert Baylor then occupied the post with elements of the Second Regiment of Texas Mounted Rifles. Brig. Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley used Fort Bliss as a base from which to invade New Mexico but was repulsed in mid-1862 and driven from West Texas. Elements of the California Volunteers commanded by Col. James H. Carleton reoccupied Fort Bliss for the Union. Under Carleton's protection Mexican president Benito Juárez survived in El Paso del Norte in 1865–66 and received supplies from north of the border before driving the French from Mexico.
In 1867 the post at Magoffinsville was swept away by a Rio Grande flood. The troops moved three miles north and named their post Camp Concordia in March 1868. On March 23, 1869, the camp was renamed Fort Bliss. The War Department closed the post in January 1877, just before the Salt War of San Elizario flared. A military board, however, convened to investigate the reopening of the post as a result of the violence; the board recommended in 1878 that Fort Bliss be reestablished, and the post was moved to downtown El Paso, which soldiers called Garrison Town.
In late 1879 the government purchased land at Hart's Mill, three miles west of downtown El Paso, and Fort Bliss became a way station for troops pursuing renegade Indians. After Geronimo surrendered in 1886, the government began to abolish small, isolated posts and replaced them with new facilities near railroads. Fort Bliss was almost supplanted by Fort Selden, eighteen miles north of Las Cruces, New Mexico, but was kept in El Paso by community leaders, who contributed about $7,000 for the purchase of land on Lanoria Mesa, five miles east of town. Congress then committed $300,000 for new facilities. Fort Bliss moved to its sixth and final home in late 1893.
After the Mexican Revolution started in 1910, the army gradually increased its troop strength at Fort Bliss. Eventually 50,000 men, mostly national guardsmen, were based at the facility. Fort Bliss also changed from an infantry station to the largest cavalry post in the United States. Gen. Hugh Scott commanded briefly in 1914, and Gen. John J. Pershing took charge from 1914 through much of 1916. When Francisco (Pancho) Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916, Pershing led a punitive expedition south, and Fort Bliss became Pershing's primary supply base.
The First Cavalry Division was activated in 1921. With the arrival of the Eighty-second Field Artillery Battalion in 1921, Fort Bliss hosted its first artillery unit. During the 1940s the fort grew from a few thousand acres to more than one million, becoming roughly seventy-five miles long and fifty-four miles wide. Most of its area lies in New Mexico. By June 1943 Fort Bliss had phased out horses, and the cavalry had become mechanized. With the First Cavalry Division's departure in 1943, the fort became primarily an artillery post.
William Beaumont General Hospital opened at Fort Bliss on July 1, 1921. On July 1, 1972, the hospital dedicated a twelve-story facility, and on April 1, 1973, the hospital became the center of a three-state government medical complex known as William Beaumont Army Medical Center. In 1919 the Fort Bliss Flying Field was established. In 1925 it was renamed Biggs Field, an army flying field used by the Border Air Patrol; in 1947 it became Biggs Air Force Base. During its service, the base handled blimps, DH4s, B-17s, B-29s, B-50s, B-36s, B-47s, and B-52s. In July 1966 the air force base reverted to Fort Bliss, becoming Biggs Army Air Field.
Fort Bliss became an antiaircraft training center in September 1940. German rocket experts, including Wernher von Braun, lived and worked there shortly after World War II. In 1946 Fort Bliss became the United States Army Anti-aircraft Artillery and Guided Missile Center and later the United States Army Air Defense Center. The base hosted in succession Nike-Ajax, Nike-Hercules, Hawk, Sprint, Chaparral, and Redeye missiles and other antiaircraft weapons.
Fort Bliss played a significant role in training international military students after World War II. Approximately 10 percent of Fort Bliss Air Defense School graduates were from foreign countries. The Third Armored Cavalry has been stationed at Fort Bliss since 1972. In the 1990s Fort Bliss personnel comprised about 20,000 military people and 8,000 civilians. The fort contributed more than $500 million annually to the El Paso economy. In addition, retired service people and their dependents in El Paso numbered in the thousands. From 1977 until his death in 1981 Omar N. Bradley, latest five-star general of the United States Army, lived and worked at Fort Bliss. A cluster of adobe buildings representing the original 1848 post was built and donated to the post by the city of El Paso during the Fort Bliss centennial in 1948. The replica serves as the post museum.