Governors Island's Nolan Park

Governors Island’s Nolan Park

It must be fall because I am listening to post-season baseball on the radio.

A few minutes ago I hit send and emailed in the last of my oral history reports for the season at Governors Island. Another volunteer and I spent the last few Sundays of September interviewing individuals who served on the base. These former Army and Coast Guard uniformed service persons have some incredible stories to tell. It is a privilege to speak to them and record their memories for posterity. With the GI season over, that leaves just the Roosevelt Birthplace until next Memorial Day Weekend. I am turning my attention next to an article about Theodore Roosevelt, Leonard Wood, and the Preparedness Movement prior to America’s involvement in the Great War. My goal is to get it done before the Hackensack Toy Soldier show in early November. As this project moves along I will share some things. I have wanted to tell this story for awhile now. For one thing it ties in neatly with Governors Island and the Roosevelt Birthplace.

I was wondering before I turned up at the TRB this past Saturday what the public response would be to the Ken Burns/Geoffrey Ward documentary. Many visitors had indeed seen it and the response was positive. Not surprisingly, attendance was a little higher that day as well. There is nothing like sharing history with the public, which I was not doing so much in the last week’s at Governors Island. There is nothing like going where history was made.

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The Meuse-Argonne campaign begins

This past weekend marked the anniversary of the start of the Meuse-Argonne campaign, which would continue on through the end of the war in November 1918. The American Battle Monument Commission just published this video that captures the essence of what it was all about. I cannot emphasize the quality of the work the ABMC has been doing during the Centennial, though that is no surprise given the organization’s rich history and institutional memory.

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A Vanderbilt and a Roosevelt in love and war

Author Chip Bishop has released  a book about the relationship between Quentin Roosevelt and Flora Whitney. Quentin & Flora: A Roosevelt and a Vanderbilt in Love during the Great War may read like fiction but the story is all the more poignant for being true. Mr. Bishop tells us more in this interview.

The Strawfoot: Tell us who Quentin and Flora are.

Chip Bishop: Quentin was the youngest and favored son of Theodore Roosevelt and his wife, Edith. He is remembered best today as a heroic aviator during the Great War who lost his life in combat over German-occupied France. Flora Payne Whitney was the great-great granddaughter of the industrialist, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. Quentin and Flora met in New York during their mid-teens, and began a relationship that evolved into a romance. It is revealed through their many letters. In the spring of 1917, they were secretly engaged. She went on to finance and direct the development of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City.

1910 image of The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island

The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island

Flora was not only a Vanderbilt but a Whitney. Was her upbringing as gilded as one would imagine?

It was. She was brought up in multiple homes including The Breakers, her grandmother’s “summer cottage” in Newport, RI. She traveled abroad extensively and went to the posh Foxcroft School in Virginia. But Flora survived that extravagance to live and long and productive life, mostly in New York. She married twice and had four children.

How did that differ from the Roosevelt children’s experience?

The Roosevelts were comfortable financially but not super wealthy. Quentin grew up understanding that those who are given much are obliged to put their energy and resources to work for the benefit of others.

Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt

Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt

Quentin had a mechanical bent and always had a love for aircraft as well. His mother even took him to La Grand Semaine de l’Aviation de la Champagne, the big 1909 air show in France. Did his father encourage his interest in machinery and gadgetry?

Theodore was not a mechanic necessarily, but he marveled at his son’s aptitude for machinery. Remember that Theodore was the president with an impressive list of “firsts:” the first to fly in an airplane (Oct. 1910); the first to ride publicly in an automobile (Aug. 1902); and, the first to be submerged in a submarine. He appreciated the products of the industrial revolution and enjoyed their benefits. Of his first flight he remarked, “It was the finest experience I have ever had.”

All four of the Roosevelt sons, and even daughter Ethel, served in the Great War. What was their WW1 experience like? Was there extra pressure on Quentin as the youngest?

Ethel served early on during the Great War in Europe, as a nurse beside her surgeon husband, Dick Derby. Ted and Archie were seriously wounded in battle during the Great War. Both returned to service during World War II. Archie was injured again, and Ted was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery during the D-Day invasion of Europe. Quentin certainly felt the pressure of being a Roosevelt; he understood his family obligation in wartime and his duty to his country. He once remarked, “After all, it is up to us to practice what Father preaches.”

Gertrude, Flora’s mother, found a sense of purpose during the Great War, didn’t she?

Yes, she journeyed to Europe in the early days of the war and used her own resources to organize a hospital for injured warriors in France. Not only that, she “got her hands dirty” doing the kinds of menial jobs necessary to see that soldiers had a facility where they would receive quality care for their injuries.

QF-Cvr-200x300Tell us the circumstances of Quentin’s death.

Quentin lost his life in aerial combat with German forces over occupied France on July 14, 1918, Bastille Day as it turned out. He and other members of his reconnaissance mission were attacked by enemy fighters. Quentin suffered two bullet wounds to his head while airborne. His French-made Nieuport bi-plane crashed in a farmer’s field at Chaméry where he was given a ceremonial burial by occupying German forces. He laid at Chaméry for 37 years until his remains were relocated in 1955 to the American Cemetery in Normandy where he rests aside his brother, Ted, on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. Quentin is the only serviceman from World War I to be buried in the American Cemetery.

What was life like for Flora after 14 July 1918? How long did she live and what civic projects was she involved in?

As you can imagine, Flora was wracked by “unspeakable grief” at Quentin’s loss, but she rebounded to marry and raise a family. She devoted much of her adult life to advancing her mother’s passion for American art at the Whitney Museum. She died peacefully in her late 80s and rests not far from her family’s former Westbury estate on Long Island.

Tell us about yourself. How were you drawn to the story of Quentin and Flora?

In researching my first book, “The Lion and the Journalist – The Unlikely Friendship of Theodore Roosevelt and Joseph Bucklin Bishop,” I was struck by how deeply Theodore was affected by Quentin’s death. He had great plans for that boy, but was himself dead within six months of Quentin’s passing, in part from a broken heart. I just knew I had to write Quentin’s tale. I was later urged by my literary agent to add his love fort Flora to the story. It was a wise recommendation.

I enjoy hearing from my readers. You can reach me at and on Twitter @QuentinandFlora.

(images/The Breakers, Menuett; Quentin Roosevelt, US Armed Forces)


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The Grants’ Governors Island

Many of America’s leading military figures spend at least part of their careers on Governors Island. Three generations of Grants served here.

The Block House

The Block House

Of all the Grants, Ulysses S. spent the least amount of time on the island. Captain Grant was here for all of a few weeks in the summer of 1852 just before he and the 4th Infantry went to the Pacific. A very pregnant Julia returned to Ohio while her husband lived briefly here in the Block House, which was officers’ housing in 1852. Grant visited Washington DC for a tried period and his trip to the capital coincidentally coincided with the death of Henry Clay. It was out West, far from his family, that he got into his drinking trouble.

Commanding officer's house

Commanding officer’s house

His son Frederick Dent Grant spent the most time here. He did two stints commanding the Department of the East in the 1900s and 1910s. As commander, he lived in this house. The plaque is a who’s who of the late 19th and early 20th century Army. IMG_1410 Here are a few interior shots. The city did a great job rehabbing this structure over the past year. This is also where Reagan met Gorbachev in the late 1980s. IMG_1413 IMG_1414Here is Major General Frederick Dent Grant at a garden party. We know that this image was taken in 1907 or later because the younger lady standing up is identified as Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant III. This was Frederick’s daughter-in-law. Her maiden name was Edith Root and she was the daughter of powerbroker Elihu Root. As Secretary of War in the Roosevelt Administration, Elihu Root returned Fort Columbus to its original name, Fort Jay. We know the photo is from 1907 or thereafter because Edith married Ulysses S. Grant III that year in a big Washington ceremony. 09434r Look closely at the image and you see that it was taken in front of the commanding officer’s house. This is evident because they are situated next to one of the canons, which you can see in the image of the house I took last week. Grant died the same week the Titanic went down in 1912. After he passed on in Manhattan, he was lay in state here in St. Cornelius. His good friend President Taft came to pay his respects.

the Chapel of St. Cornelius the Centurion

the Chapel of St. Cornelius the Centurion

10388r And here is his funeral. This is 26 April 1912. I did not know until discussing it with one of the rangers at Governors Island this summer that Frederick had a large funeral procession much the way his father had. Frederick Dent Grant is buried at West Point.

Ulysses S. Grand III as a young officer

Ulysses S. Grand III as a young officer

Last but not least there is Ulysses S. Grant III, grandson of the Civil War general and son of Major General Frederick D. Grant. Grant was a young officer during the Great War, holding many positions of responsibility at a very tender age. In the 1930s he was part of the II Corps stationed here in Pershing Hall.

Pershing Hall, rear

Pershing Hall, rear view

Pershing Hall, front view

Pershing Hall, front view

This was a difficult time for the American military. Officers such as Grant, Marshall, and Eisenhower toiled away in the 1920s and 1930s for the war that many knew would come. Having been so close to the negotiations at Versailles, Grant III knew that better than anyone. It is interesting to note that he and Edith’s daughter died in March 2014. It’s a good reminder that we are not talking ancient history here.

(the two Frederick Dent Grant images, Library of Congress; US Grant III portrait, Archive of U.S. War Department)

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Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, cont’d

I wrote the post below last summer. This morning, as I often do on Sunday mornings on my way to Governors Island, I stopped in to this church for a few minutes. It is a quiet respite from the city and a place to gather one’s thoughts before the day gets underway. I noticed there were a larger number of flowers spread about. It turns out that today is the anniversary of 1975 canonization of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. IMG_1464 One of the most intriguing things about Lower Manhattan, at least to me, is its juxtaposition of the old, often very old, and the new. Judging by the photograph in the previous post, one could be forgiven for not grasping this. In the midst of all those skyscrapers, however, right there on tip in fact, is the St. Elizabeth Seton Shrine. From afar one cannot see it amidst the much taller buildings, but it is there. Here it is close up, as I took it last week. The skyscrapers are clearly visible behind it. All of this is right across the street from the Staten Island ferry.

Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Anne Seton, 7 State Street

Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Anne Seton, State Street, New York City

Saint Elizabeth was beatified by Pope John XXIII in 1963 and canonized in 1975. In fact, she was the first native born American so designated. Seton was born Elizabeth Ann Bailey in New York CIty in 1774 just prior to the American Revolution. Her family bounced around a great deal during and after the war, living in Pelham, Staten Island, and in different spots in Lower Manhattan. At one time they lived next to Alexander Hamilton at 27 Wall Street. (Hamilton is buried in nearby Trinity Church, in an unmarked grave. ) She and her husband even fêted George Washington, on his sixty-fifth birthday no less. Legend has it that the structure above may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, though evidence proving so has not surfaced. It was used for the Union War effort during the Civil War. Here is the plaque  on the exterior wall. Watson House plaque Many of these buildings were torn down in the mid-twentieth century to make way for office space. That is New York City for you. Here are a few more details. Seton hanging plaque

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

The story is more detailed than I am writing here, but Elizabeth ended up converting to Catholicism, moving to Maryland, and founding the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s in Emmistburg in 1809 . She died there in 1824. Those who know their Gettysburg Campaign may know where I am going with this. The First and Eleventh Corps both passed through Emmitsburg hurrying on their way to the battle. The Sisters of Charity, with other locals, gave assistance to the Army of the Potomac in the form of food, rest, and information about the surrounding area. Here is the view of the terrain.

View from St. Joseph's College and Mother Seton Shrine, Emmitsburg, MD

View from St. Joseph’s College and Mother Seton Shrine, Emmitsburg

One of the most touching vignettes about the Battle of Gettysburg is the death of General John Reynolds. Reynolds of course died on July 1st, killed instantly by a bullet to the head. Unbeknownst to his family until just after his death, Reynolds was secretly engaged to a woman named Kate Hewitt. He was even wearing something like an engagement ring, engraved “Dear Kate”, when he died. After his death, Kate Hewitt joined the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg but disappeared mysteriously three years after the war. The Hayfoot and I had wanted to stop here for several years and finally did this past June during the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Campaign. Gettysburg itself is about 6-8 miles up the road. It is an incredible story on so many levels.

Saint Elizabeth Anne Seton's final resting place, St. Joseph’s Cemetery

Saint Elizabeth Anne Seton’s final resting place, St. Joseph’s Cemetery

(St. Joseph’s College image/Mike Rakoski, NPS)


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Sunday morning coffee

It is another early Sunday morning, though I did roll over and sleep in a bit. I figured I’ll get the 10:00 rather than the 9:00 boat. These weekends where I double up on the sites are fun, but they do take it out of you. The crowds were big at the TRB yesterday. It was a combination of the rain and anticipation for the Ken Burns/Geoffrey Ward documentary that starts tonight. Alas, I myself will miss the beginning unless it is streamed online. Such are the hazards of not having a television. I will probably order the dvds and watch at my own pace. I am especially interested to see what they do with part one, which is going to cover aspects of the book I am writing.

Today is also the anniversary of the death of William McKinley and ascension of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency. Roosevelt was hunting and hiking in upstate New York when he received the news. A few sharp tacks even knew this when I threw out the hint yesterday during my tours. In a small irony McKinley died on the anniversary of the Battle of South Mountain, where he had fought as a young officer during the Maryland Campaign in 1862. It would be interesting to know if Burns and Ward knew this and scheduled part one for this occasion.

The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, 28 East 20th Street

The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, 28 East 20th Street

The resting places of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Hyde Park

The resting places of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Hyde Park, NY

(images/The Strawfoot)


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Bon weekend

3f04112rI am sorry about the lack of posts. It was a busy week. The semester at my college is now in full swing. I also gave a talk at a Civil War roundtable on Wednesday, which took some time to put together. The talk went well and it was a great time. The group may come to Governors Island for a field trip next summer.

Today is the anniversary of the battle of St.-Mihiel. The memory of St.-Mihiel parallels the battle of South Mountain; both were largely overlooked because of the larger fighting at Antietam and in the Meuse-Argonne that took place shortly thereafter. I am hoping that misconceptions like these are changed during the Great War centennial. My news feeds have pulled in quite a bit of centennial coverage from Europe over the past two months. I hope Americans don’t wait for three years for the anniversary of the U.S. declaration of war to start paying attention.

During a Centennial Commission conference call on Wednesday someone mentioned the reconstruction of a WW1 monument right here in Brooklyn. I must say I was surprised and had missed this story entirely. Apparently in the early 1970s vandals desecrated the Saratoga Monument in Bed-Stuy, stripping it of its bronze plaque and selling it for scrap. Such vandalism was not unusual during NYC’s Dark Years. Grant’s Tomb, for instance, was covered with graffiti and even bullet holes in some of the structures on the exterior grounds. If my friend Charles Hirsch were still alive I would have gone with him on an excursion to check out the Saratoga Monument. It won’t be the same but I will still make it out there in October, with pictures and commentary.

It is going to be a bust weekend, TRB tomorrow and Governors Island on Sunday. It should work out well because it is supposed to rain tomorrow and be nice Sunday. There are three more weeks to go in the GI season.

(image/Library of Congress)

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