Charles P. Sumerall at the Roosevelt Birthplace


The images are not the best–I snapped them on my cell phone–but here are two extraordinary moments in the history of the Roosevelt birthplace. The photos are from the Roosevelt House Bulletin, the newsletter of the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association. The man seated on the left in the first photograph is Major General Charles P. Sumerall. To his right is Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, Theodore’s younger sister. The photo was taken in Fall 1925, just two years after the Birthplace opened as a historic site. Sumerall at this time commanded the Department of the East on Governors Island. He knew the Roosevelts well. For a time during the Great War Sumerall commanded the First Infantry Division. Ted Roosevelt was an officer in the division’s 26th Regiment. Sumerall was later promoted and commanded the V Corps. In the 1920s and 1930s Ted Roosevelt often visited Governors Island to attend social functions at the Officers Club.

The second image here was taken on 7 March 1925, a few months before the one above. Sumerall was a frequent visitor to Roosevelt House. Here Sumerall is inspecting Boy Scout Troop 636. Note the bust of Roosevelt on the stage next to General Sumerall.


The house was not only a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt. Quite consciously the people who founded and operated the site wanted it to support patriotic and civic causes. Thus in the early days especially there were all sorts of events such this. Boy Scout troops, GAR functions with aging Civil War veterans, lectures on currents events, and other things were all common. Commanders of the Eastern Department were in a unique situation because they lived and worked on Governors Island and yet were so close to New York City. Going back well into the early nineteenth century to the time of Winfield Scott himself, the commander performed public duties such as these.

Hunter Liggett and Leonard Wood’s Gettysburg reunion

Hunter Liggett, Secretary Garrison, and Leonard Wood at the Gettysburg reunion, 1913. Note the white uniforms worn in the late June-early July summer heat.

Hunter Liggett (far left), Secretary Garrison, and Leonard Wood at the Gettysburg reunion, 1913. Note the white uniforms worn in the late June-early July summer heat. The man on the far right would seem to be a Civil War veteran.

Here is an example of why I love volunteering at both Governors Island and the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. I was writing and researching my piece on Wood, Roosevelt, and the Preparedness Movement tonight (with the Giants-Royals on the radio), and found some information about the Preparedness camp that General Wood established at Gettysburg in the summer of 1913. This is not to be confused with Camp Colt, the camp that Dwight Eisenhower ran a few years later. 1913 was of course the year of the Gettysburg 50th anniversary reunion. It is still not clear to me if the Preparedness camp coincided with the 50th anniversary. I have a feeling I will be going down this rabbit hole. Incredibly Hunter Liggett, who later served so well in the Great War and for whom Liggett Hall is named, was the brigadier general who commanded the Gettysburg reunion camp. Here he is with Chief of Staff Wood and Secretary of War Lindley Miller Garrison.

Here is one more for good measure. Unfortunately all of the images in the series have Ligget’s name spelled incorrectly.

The Gettysburg reunion was a year almost to the day prior to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

The Gettysburg reunion was a year almost to the day prior to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

(image/Library of Congress)



Cuvée Quentin Roosevelt Brut


Here is something cool you don’t see every day. Chip Bishop showed this to the audience this afternoon during his talk at the Roosevelt Birthplace. Chip was speaking about his important new book, Quentin and Flora: A Roosevelt and a Vanderbilt in Love during the Great War, at the 95th annual Theodore Roosevelt Association conference. In case you didn’t see it, here is the interview I did with him early last month.

Chip explained that he purchased this champagne when he was in France researching his book. Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt, all of twenty, was shot down on Bastille Day 1918. He was engaged to heiress Flora Payne Whitney at the time. As the label indicates young Quentin is still popular in France. Indeed he is the only WW1 veteran buried in the American cemetery in Normandy. Here is more about the champagne. The cork is especially noteworthy.

Hoover’s legacy

I generally refrain from posting youtube clips but here is one I came across today and wanted to share. The U.S. Embassy in Brussels produced the footage in 2012. I know that this is the third night in a row I have posted on Belgian relief and the Great War, but it is a topic of incredible importance. It is funny how are perceptions of the presidents are skewed. We focus on some so much and others hardly at all. This is unfortunate for our national understanding.

It is lost on us today how long Hoover worked in the public sphere. He was going strong well into the Cold War. Some say he cynically did this to save his legacy after his presidency and the Great Depression. I for one have never seen it that way. The video is long at fifteen minutes but take the time.


The CRB begins its work

A Belgian relief soup kitchen

A Belgian relief soup kitchen

Last night I mentioned that the Commission for Relief in Belgium was founded on 22 October 1914. Such humanitarian relief was all new in 1914, at least on this scale. Even more incredible were the diplomatic, logistical and other obstacles the CRB overcame. And oh yes, they were doing it in a war zone amidst chaos and mass slaughter on a scale never before seen in history. Decades later Hoover described the feeling of crossing from Holland into occupied Belgium as “entering a land of imprisonment.” If he had known how hard it would be he might not have taken the job; Hoover was convinced the war would be over by summer 1915.

Herbert Hoover was a forty-year-old mining engineer who had made his fortune and was now yearning for something more. He was in London when the war began and his first task was to facilitate the return of Americans stranded in Europe when the fighting commenced. He managed to ensure the safe passage back to America of nearly 150,000 persons. The Belgian crisis was next. Belgium was especially vulnerable. It was a small, highly urbanized nation hit hard by the German offensive. Allies such as Britain were suspicious because they believed any food stuffs sent to Belgium would ends up in the stomachs of the German occupiers.

Hoover was adept at public diplomacy and used advertising to make sure the Belgian famine stayed in the public consciousness.

Hoover was adept at public diplomacy and used advertising to make sure the Belgian famine stayed in the public consciousness.

Hoover began working even before the official founding of the CRB, placing orders in the Chicago commodities markets for 10 million bushels of wheat. Over the next four years they also imported rice, peas, cereals, milk, sugar, potatoes and other items. Relief committees were established in nearly American state and in countries around the world, including Japan, India, Australia, and Argentina. Hoover even wrangled fifteen Rhodes scholars to think out the box on how to solve the problem of Belgian starvation. In four years the CRB transported five million tons of food.

It is an incredible story and one that I am simplifying here. One can only be impressed by the task Hoover set for himself and those who worked with him. Literally millions of people owed their lives to him. Reading about it in Hoover’s memoirs however, one can understand why the public is apathetic. It wasn’t just the Depression that fueled the apathy. Hoover lived until 1964 and published his memoirs in three volumes, each one drier than the one before. There is no Undersecretary of This or Assistant to That he cannot rattle off. Hoover was like that in person as well. He had the technical capacities of an engineer but little of the common touch a true politico. It is no wonder that years later President-elect Roosevelt declined to attend the meetings Hoover was having in which he would parse the in and outs of the banking crisis ad infinitum. Hoover knew the technical details; Roosevelt knew what the people wanted and needed to hear. It is all so unfortunate because Hoover was one of the great men of the 20th century.

One group that understood was the Roosevelt Memorial Association. The RMA held its annual dinner at the Roosevelt Birthplace on 27 October 1927. This would have been Theodore’s 69th birthday. Secretary of Commerce Hoover was there that evening as one of three recipients of the Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal. Hoover had been much in the news that year because he had again worked his magic, this time in service of those ruined by the Great Mississippi Flood. The other recipients of Roosevelt medals that year were jurist John Bassett Moore and John J. Pershing. Hoover was the only honoree who could attend the function on East 20th Street. Thankfully New Yorkers got a sense of how the evening went; WRNY broadcast the event live over the radio.

(images/Library of Congress)

“They are starving in Belgium”


I am going to write more about this tomorrow, but I found this poster so striking I had to share. October 22 is the 100th anniversary of Herbert Hoover’s appointment as leader of the Commission for Relief in Belgium. Here is something that the National Archives published for the 75th anniversary in 1989. I have always thought it unfortunate that Hoover’s reputation never recovered from the Great Depression. His work during and just after the World War was one of the great humanitarian efforts of the 20th century. In the 1920s Hoover was justly lauded as one of the great men of the era. One would think Hoover would get a little bump after so many decades, but alas that does not appear to be happening any time soon. Even today the taciturn Hoover cannot compete with the charisma of his successor Franklin Roosevelt.

I am really looking forward to the Theodore Roosevelt Association conference here in the city this weekend. It is going to be an opportunity to meet some people with whom as of yet I have only corresponded via email. My piece on Theodore Roosevelt and the Preparedness Movement is coming along. It is so important here in the United States to focus on the events of 1914-1917, and not just wait for the anniversary of American involvement. Among other things, I am trying to show how Theodore Roosevelt’s endeavors before and during the First World War parraleled what his father did during and after the American Civil War. There is a lot to go and and the pieces are falling into place now.

(image/Library of Congress)

The Great Fair turns 75

I recently began researching a small piece for the World War I Centennial Commission social media page when I came across these remarkable photographs taken during the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. If you do the math you will note that we are currently in the middle of the fair’s 75th anniversary. It was a fascinating historical moment because the Depression was finally starting to lift, while at the same time the clouds of war were gathering in Europe. The fair began on April 30 and the German invasion of Poland was on September 1. Needless to say, these and other events wreaked havoc on the fair and its hope for a batter world of tomorrow. The Second World War also had immediate concerns for event planners from the dozens of participating nations. For instance, which constituency  would represent this or that recently conquered nation in the fair’s pavilions? Would it be the resistance leaders or the representatives of the new regime? Or neither? Perhaps a country’s organizers would be better off shutting down their nation’s pavilion and washing one’s hands of the entire matter. How does one celebrate knowing the news of such death and destruction back home? These are the issues they dealt with.

The photos here are of American Civil War veterans at the fair. I wish I could date the images more precisely but as of yet cannot. I hope to do more with this in the future. In some cursory digging I discovered that Civil War veterans went to the 1939-1940 World’s Fair on several occasions. Helen D. Longstreet, Pete Longstreet’s widow, was at the fair at least twice. In June 1939 she was there to dedicate an exhibit of Confederate artifacts at the Florida Pavilion. A month later–on 2 July 1939, the 76th anniversary of the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg–she appeared again. Her appearance came one year after Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke at the unveiling of the Peace Light Memorial.

The very week the Germans and Soviets were dividing Poland Civil War vets inspected the tanks of the Seventh Cavalry Brigade at the fairgrounds in Queens. Again, it is not clear when these photographs were taken. The one of the soldiers standing in front of the Lincoln statue says it was taken on Lincoln’s Birthday. The heavy coats would seem to corroborate that. I would guess the photograph was taken in 1940 but it could have been 1939 when the final touches were being made in preparation for the opening that spring. Note the photo of Robert E. Lee. This was quite consciously a reconciliationist effort on the part of the organizers.



A young girl admires the medals of a Civil War veteran. One can imagine that Americans found comfort in the presence of these aging soldiers as war was getting underway yet again. The Second World War’s role in the reconciliation process is often overlooked.


Here are our friends in blue and grey yet again. I am not sure of the building in front of which they are standing.


This past August I took this photo of the rear of the New York City Building. This is today the Queens Museum of Art.


Here is a mosaic commemorating the fair. This area today is Flushing Meadows–Corona Park. I took these two photos on my way to a Mets game.

(images of Civil War veterans, NYPL)