Some readers know of my fascination with aging soldiers. On Friday another volunteer and I conducted an oral history at Governors Island with a former trumpeter in the First Army Band. He told us that in the mid-1950s he and the band gigged in Vermont at a ceremony for a handful of aging Civil War veterans. This was on my mind a few hours later when I was at the South Street Seaport to see the Hermione. There were many things going on for the July 4th weekend, including something for World War II veterans. There is still a ways to go before the WW2 soldiers are finally no more. Generationally they are at the point where Civil War veterans were in the 1920s-30s. There were then still many thousands, which got down to the hundreds, and then finally just a handful over the next 15-20 years. I am too young to remember that, but I do remember a time when soldiers of the Great War were not that uncommon. Seeing these two being escorted onto the Hermione I could not help but wonder who will be the Frank Buckles of the Greatest Generation.
On my tours at the Roosevelt Birthplace I always told the story of Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s 1921 visit to the site, which was then still under reconstruction. The Great War had been over for three years and Foch was on East 20th Street paying his respects to Theodore and Quentin Roosevelt. Many of you will know that young Airman Quentin died in France on Bastille Day 1918. The wider story is that Foch was in the United States on a goodwill tour modeled in part on Marquis de Lafayette’s goodwill tour of 1824-25. Lafayette arrived in New York and landed at Castle Garden to great fanfare before venturing out across the still-young nation whose independence he had helped win.
This all came back to me yesterday when, after the day at Governors Island, I ventured up to the South Street Seaport to see the Hermione. For those not aware, this is a reconstruction of the frigate that took Lafayette here. The ship sailed into New York earlier this week to mark the 4th of July. Interest was high and there were many people out enjoying the scene.
One of the most symbolic acts of the Great War took place on a Fourth of July. In 1917 members of the 16th Infantry Regiment led a contingent that included General Pershing on a five mile march ending at Lafayette’s tomb at Picpus Cemetery. The arrival of the Americans in summer 1917, though largely symbolic at this point in the war, could not have come a better time for the flagging morale of the French people. It was at Lafayette’s grave that Colonel Charles E. Stanton said the famous line: “Nous sommes ici, Lafayette.”
A few weeks ago I mentioned that I have been reading some of the first-hand accounts of the Great War. Last night I began Robert Lee Bullard’s American Soldiers Also Fought. As it title suggests the book is a response to those, especially those Europeans, who downplayed America’s contribution to the war effort. That is a subject I will tackle in future posts. What I am most interested in here is Bullard’s introductory statement. On page one he writes:
We did not go into the war, as has been contended, to support “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Nor did we go in to support democracy against autocracy: the President of the United States was in that war a greater autocrat than the Kaiser.
Plainly it was because our rights were being violated worse by Germany than by England. If Germany won we’d be “next” on their list.
I find the first paragraph striking on several levels. If I am reading it correctly–and I don’t know that I am–Bullard seems to be taking the Wilson Administration to task for its numerous misdeeds during the war. The zeal with which A. Mitchell Palmer scapegoated German-Americans comes to mind. The Creel Committee did some important work, but it too frequently succumbed to reactionary impulses. Bullard is going deeper though. As he saw it, Wilson’s failures also included the flawed outcome at Versailles and his advocacy for the League of Nations.
What is interesting is that in this small treatise Bullard is looking backward and forward at the same time. In the next line he is warning his readers about the German threat. The timing is important here. Bullard published Americans Soldiers Also Fought in 1936, just over a decade after he retired as commander of the Department of the East on Governors Island. After his retirement Bullard had become head of the National Security League, a preparedness organization begun by Leonard Wood and others just after the outbreak of the Great War. The group was still around decades later, taking on challenges wherever it saw them. By 1936 Hitler was entrenched in power and the Kaiser was still very much alive, living in exile in a manor in Holland. Wilhelm II lived another five years, long enough to see the Germans take Paris in 1940.
(image/The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Corps Commander Bullard” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1860 – 1920. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-b337-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99)
Hey all, I’m sorry about the lack of posts this past week. It was kind of a hectic one. We had a good weekend at Governors Island. On Friday another volunteer and I interviewed a lady who worked as a civilian employee in the Adjutant General’s Office during the Korean Conflict. She was an amazing lady in her eighties who took the LIRR from Long Island and then 4 train from Grand Central to meet us on the Governors Island side of the ferry. It was something for us to interview her and then take her to the building where she once worked. She vividly recalled seeing the harbor from the second story window where she worked for two years just after graduating from high school in 1950.
This morning we spoke to another woman who lived in Fort Jay itself when her father was a colonel in the First Army. This woman lives in Texas and was in town for a wedding. She was nine when the family moved here and thirteen when they left; so, her recollections were very strong. Sitting in for the interview were her husband, children and grandchildren. It was obvious how much admiration her family had for her and what the trip meant to all of them. I love meeting people like this because it makes the story of Governors Island that much more immediate. It is one thing to hear that people served in Liggett Hall. It is another to walk the grounds with someone whose father worked in the building and have her tell you all about it. At one time she was pointing to individual homes on Colonel’s Row and recalling the names of those who lived there in the early Fifties. This was really a privilege.
This woman’s father was a career man and an officer on Patton’s staff during WW2. After that war the lived in Paris when she was still very young. Sadly most of his military paperwork was lost in the National Personnel Records Center fire of 1973. This terrible event destroyed the records of generations of uniformed service persons going back to the years just prior to World War 1. I have always known a little bit about the Records Fire, but had never met anyone touched by the event. It was all so unfortunate.
So, that was my weekend. You never know what you might see at Governors Island National Monument. If you know anyone who lived or worked there. we’d love to hear their story.
We had a pleasant surprise at Governors Island this afternoon when the Bowery Boys themselves came into Castle Williams. They are currently working on a piece about the island. As you might imagine if you are familiar with the BB, these guys are as winning and engaging in person as they are on their podcasts. I had to share with them that a good friend of mine in San Antonio is one of their biggest fans. They got a kick out of this information. If you have never listened to or read the Bowery Boys before, do yourself a favor and check them out here. These guys put the love into what they do.
I was at a history-related gathering earlier this week, present at which was a representative of a New York-based military heritage organization. This gentleman was in his seventies and had obviously been involved in his organization’s activities for many years, if not decades. What struck me was that as he was discussing his group’s plans for the WW1 centennial in 2017-18 he made reference to the 1960s. Specifically he was explaining what a tough sell the Great War was at the time given the events of the period. One can imagine that it was.
Those who followed the Civil War sesquicentennial are aware that the 150th was a conscious effort to correct the failures of the centennial. The pageant that such organizers as Ulysses S. Grant III envisioned quickly collided with the realities of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead of a Cold War celebration of national strength and unity, it all turned into a convoluted mess. And for good reason. The same thing happened, in a slightly different way, for the Great War 50th. Nineteen sixty eight was the year of the Tet Offensive, the MLK Jr. and RFK assassinations, the rioting at the Democratic National Convention and so much else. The 50th anniversary of the Armistice fell obviously on November 11, 1968, less than a week after the election that put Richard Nixon in the White House.
France too was turned upside down at this time. The Events of May brought down Charles de Gaulle and nearly the Fifth Republic. What is more, in the late 1960s the French were only just grappling with the occupation–and the collaboration–they had lived through under the Germans during the Second World War, less than twenty-five years earlier. The Great War has a larger place in the memory of the French than the Americans; this is understandable given that most of the fighting on the Western Front took place in France. Given all that was taking place at the time however, I don’t know if the French had the heart to look back and commemorate the Great War. Maybe they did, finding in it some unity and solace. Again, I don’t know. It would be interesting to have a compare-and-contrast between how the Americans and the French looked back at the war through the lens of the turmoil of the late 1960s.
(image by Marion S. Trikosko / Library of Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
An interesting piece from Curbed NY about long-standing New York City social clubs came through my in-box. This is something I am especially interested in because the Union League Club plays an important part in my manuscript about Civil War New York. The article traces the history of such clubs all the way back to the colonial period where bewigged men socialized in coffee shops. Soon such meeting places were soon privatized to keep out the rabble. Subtly is sometimes the price for brevity. I think the author simplifies the story of the ULC’s creation in 1863. At the risk of further quibbling, I don’t know if such clubs have “fallen” either. Though it is true that some are doing less well than others, it is difficult to imagine these staid institutions going anywhere anytime soon. New ones are even cropping up to meet the needs of twenty-first century New Yorkers.
There is a tendency to snub one’s nose at such institutions but they played, and still play, an important role in the fabric of the city. Just to stay with the Union League Club for a minute, it is difficult to imagine how New York City could have contributed so much to the Civil War effort without the ULC. It was important, albeit to a lesser extent, during the First World War as well. The Union League Club sponsored many of the Negro regiments in the Great War, just as it had fifty years earlier during the Rebellion. Many members themselves also served in uniform from 1917-19.
Today in the twenty-first century the clubs that remain are important cultural centers. They also provide a sense of continuity. You may recall my writing about visiting The Players NYC on the anniversary of Appomattox.
(image/Underwood & Underwood, Photographer (NARA record: 1123804) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Another early Sunday here. It’s going to be a hot one today; summer is kicking in here in the city. One of the great things about Governors Island is that there is always that great breeze coming off the harbor. Remember, the island is open seven days a week this season.
I was at the New York Public Library doing some research yesterday when I saw the attention-grabbing title you see above.
It is hard to believe that the WW1 Centennial Trade Show in Washington was a year ago today. That was a fun and productive session. It has been interesting seeing many of the things discussed come to fruition. The next few years are going to offer even more exciting projects and events. Attending that conference was one of the best things I have done. There were so many dynamic people there doing interesting and creative things.
Enjoy your Sunday.
Last night I finished Ernest B. Furgurson’s Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave. My interest in reading the book was two-fold. First, I am trying to get a better sense of what the New York regiments dealt with during the Civil War. One of my objectives in the Roosevelt Sr. book is to explain how the homefront and the battlefront intertwined. Also, I am trying to nail down my Roebling history a little tighter for my volunteer work at the museum. I was always aware of Gouvernor K. Warren and Washington A. Roebling’s place on Joseph Hooker’s staff. Furgurson’s book fleshed that out a little more. Warren was Roebling’s immediate superior and eventual brother-in-law. After the war Roebling was the younger half of the father-son team that built the Brooklyn Bridge.
Less than a year after Chancellorsville and Gettysburg Warren was placed in command of the V Corps after Meade’s restructuring of the Army of the Potomac. Roebling followed. Until the Overland Campaign the battles in the East were primarily campaigns of movement. The trench warfare of 1864 was closer to what took place on Europe’s Western Front a half century later. Roebling lived until 1926 and would have been conscious of the parallels between the two. We know he didn’t think too much of Ulysses S. Grant, whom he called Useless Grant. The Roebling business was active in helping the Allied cause during the Great War, primarily in the making of submarine netting. Roebling knew war intimately. I cannot help but wonder what he thought about the carnage in Europe after having gone through it himself all those decades earlier.
(sketch by Edwin Forbes, courtesy Library of Congress)
Early this afternoon, as per most Wednesdays, I sat in on the World War One Centennial Commission weekly conference call. I can tell you that many exciting things are being planned for the coming years. One initiative that is moving along quickly is the creation of a national WW1 memorial in Washington. Such projects tend to come in waves. Over the past 35+ years we have seen the creation of the Vietnam War memorial, followed by the Korean War memorial, and then the WW2 memorial.
There is currently no national monument for veterans of the First World War either on the Mall or anywhere in the District of Columbia. What many believe to be a monument to the veterans of 1917-19 is actually a site dedicated to veterans from the District of Columbia. Tourists always walked past this monument, which is happily getting more recognition due to its proximity to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. Still, there has never been a national monument for veterans of the Great War.
That brings me back to the Centennial Commission. One of the Commission’s efforts is to convert Pershing Park into a national monument. The park has a number of aesthetic and bureaucratic challenges. For one thing it falls under the jurisdiction of several different local and federal agencies. Nonetheless the project is proceeding smoothly, which is a testament to the dedication and hard work of the Centennial commissioners and staff.
Pershing Park has a lot going for it. It is on Pennsylvania Avenue not far from the White House. Look closely at the image above and you can see the Treasury Building in the background. This will be a real addition to our cultural memory within our nation’s capital. The design competition opened last week. The deadline for phase one submissions is Tuesday July 21, 2015. If you or anyone you know are interested in submitting a proposal check out the details here. You have six weeks.