Back in July I posted about the construction of the second Y.M.C.A. on Governors Island in 1927. That building still stands, though it is boarded up and would need considerable work to be functional. With so many other wothwhile projects underway in the city-managed portion of the island, I don’t know when or if that would ever happen. As I mentioned in that post, the original Y.M.C.A. had its soft opening in July 1900. The ceremony was understated because those who can get out of Gotham during the dog days of summer do so. In other words, all the big shots were out of town. Well today, October 10, marks the anniversary of the grand opening of that first Governors Island Y.M.C.A.
The original Y–the first ever on a U.S. Army base–was funded by William E. Dodge Jr. No one remembers who he was today, but Dodge was a member of one of the 19th century’s great merchant families. He also co-founded the Allotment Commission with Theodore Roosevelt Sr. during the American CIvil War. It says something about how young Roosevelt was when he died in 1878 that his friends and contemporaries were still going strong at the turn of the 20th century. Dodge said a few words on that October day. So did his son, the President of the Young Men’s Christian Association Cleveland H. Dodge.
One of the more interesting characters on hand was Joseph Wheeler. Yes, that Joe Wheeler. Wheeler had retired from the regular Army exactly one month earlier, on 10 September. In between his 1859 graduation from West Point he managed to fight as an officer in the Confederate infantry at Shiloh, command the cavalry of the Army of Mississippi, serve eight terms in Congress after the Civil War, and accept William McKinley’s call to service in the Spanish-American War. He fought in the Philippines as well. It was during the Spanish-American War that he came to know Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had risen like a meteor after San Juan Hill and by 1900 he was McKinley’s running mate. The Y.M.C.A.’s ceremony fell in the middle of the 1900 presidential election. Roosevelt was in Indiana castigating Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan the day of the Y dedication.
It is unfortunate that the original Y.M.C.A. is no longer extant. I am not even certain where it stood–the closest I have gotten to a description is that it stood on the southwest part of the island. That could be anywhere. I have not been able to find any photographs either–and I have looked, believe me. Still, it was just as well that that first Y.M.C.A.–dedicated 114 years ago today–did not last. The Army loved it so much that they outgrew it so quickly. That is why they built the second, bigger and better one in the late 1920s. All told the Y.M.C.A. served its function on Governors Island for over sixty years.
Times were difficult for the Army in the decades between the First and Second World Wars. This was especially true on Governors Island. The American people wanted a quick draw down after Versailles. One of the most distinguished officers in the history of the U.S. Army served on Governors Island during these lean years. Unfortunately, General Fox Conner has largely been forgotten.
Conner was born in Mississippi in the decade after the Civil War and graduated from West Point in 1894. He received an auspicious assignment in 1911; Conner was posted to the French Army’s 22nd Field Artillery. Such assignments had a long history; prior to the American Civil War George McClellan and Richard Delafield were just two American military observers in the Crimea. When American began its involvement in the Great War, René Viviani and Joseph Joffre came to the United States in April-May 1917 to coordinate military and logistical matters with American officials. Conner received orders to coordinate the so-called Viviani-Joffre Mission. His diplomacy and light touch helped make the mission a success all the way around.
General Pershing took Conner to Europe that next month. In France. Conner was the youngest officer on Pershing’s staff and quickly became chief of operations for the AEF. Conner recognized the talents of a young George Marshall and took him under his wing. As the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was grinding along and American victory seemed at hand, Conner advised Pershing against advocating for an armistice. Conner believed the Germans had to be defeated totally or another war would be inevitable. Pershing concurred but the civilian leadership had other ideas. The Armistice came that November, and we will never know how things might have turned out otherwise.
Conner had a number of assignments during the draw down in the 1920s. Budgets were tight and he saw first hand how the cutbacks in funding and personnel were harming the Army. That led to one of the more unusual incidents in the history of Governors Island. In April 1926 Deputy Chief of Staff Conner testified in front of the Senate Military Committee that the War Department should sell the island here in New York harbor as well as the Presidio in San Francisco. Conner estimated the two sites could generate 25 and 26 million dollars respectively. Conner reasoned that with these funds the Army could spend the money in much needed other areas. People were listening. Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia pounced on Conner’s testimony to advocate for an airport on Governors Island.
It may sound sacrilege but Conner had a point. Servicemen on the island were living in dilapidated shacks and old warehouses left over from the buildup during the Great War. A German officer was quoted in the New York Times as saying the Germany provided better quarters to POWs during the war than what existed for soldiers on Governors Island. The savior turned out to be Calvin Coolidge. In January 1928 the president signed legislation authorizing the construction of a new regimental barracks on Governors Island. This would be Liggett Hall. There was much debate over where the barracks for the 16th Regiment would go. Wisely they built it adjacent to the new YMCA.
Conner’s involvement is a little fuzzy, but he may have had something to do with Liggett Hall’s construction; ironically the man who had advocated Governors Island’s sale was stationed here in 1927 as commander of the First Infantry Division. It is interesting that just eight months later Coolidge authorized the spacious new barracks.
Conner is forgotten today because he was wedged in between generations. Military glory eluded him during the First World War because he was so important to Pershing as a staff officer. Subsequently, Conner was hugely influential in the intellectual development of a generation of young military officers who played prominent roles in the next World War. Conner alumni included the aforementioned Marshall, George Patton, and Dwight Eisenhower. Conner retired from active service in 1938 and was too old when Pearl Harbor came.
Still, he did prove helpful. Eisenhower, for one, wrote frequently for advice. How to keep a fragile allied coalition together during wartime was something Ike wanted to know. This was a sensitive topic and one that Conner knew a little about, having handled such irascible characters as Joseph Joffre and Douglas Haig so well thirty years earlier. The Second World War was the conflict Conner and Pershing warned about in October 1918. At least he lived to see its conclusion. Fox Conner died in October 1951.
(image/Wells, Conner, and Nolan photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress)
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.
Many of America’s leading military figures spend at least part of their careers on Governors Island. Three generations of Grants served here.
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.
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. 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. Here 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. 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.
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.
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.
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)
It is Labor Day Weekend and here I am with a rare two days off in a row. In the spirit of a relaxing three day weekend I thought I would share the photos I took last week at the Volkswagen show on Governors Island. I don’t know much about cars and so am submitting these pics without comment. Remember, Governors Island is open seven days a week this season. What’s more, there will be Park Service activities for Holiday Monday tomorrow. Get out to the island while you still can this season. Enjoy your weekend.
It was a fun and exhausting day on Governors Island. There was a lot going on, which I will talk more about as the week progresses. You never know who or what you will see. Today there was an old Coast Guard member who had served on the island for twenty years. He was even there on 9/11 as part of the skeleton crew left over after the closing of the base in the late 90s. That would have put him just half a mile rom the Trade Center. One of my favorite things about the island is seeing which flag the Park Service has decided to fly over Fort Jay. It varies depending on the occasion and/or the mood of the personnel doing the hoisting. It is one of those neat little things I like to point out to visitors. Some thought has always gone into it. This week it is the Grand Union flag in recognition for the Battle of Brooklyn, the anniversary of which is in a few days.
I was in Boston earlier in the week visiting relatives and we went to Concord and Lexington. I had never been there before and feel I now have a sense of the Shot Heard Round the World that I did not have previously. As with Civil War sites, one must visit and walk the battle grounds of the Revolutionary War to get a sense of the action. I had a good talk with Park personnel about the hows and whys of the construction of the visitor center in the early Seventies in preparation for the Bicentennial. Over the past few day I have been reading the Cultural Landscape Report for Minute Man National Historic Park. The evolution of historic sites is fascinating in and of itself. I read an article a few years ago, for the life of me I cannot remember where, in which the author argued that New York State lags behind Massachusetts and Virginia in the Revolutionary War tourism industry because the Empire State was late to the game at the turn of the 20th century. It certainly sounds feasible and would explain why New York’s role in the Revolution is under-appreciated. That is why I was glad to see the Grand Union flying today.
Comedian George Burns liked to say that golf is a good walk spoiled. This adage comes to mind when looking at the remnants of what was once the Governors Island nine-hole course. It was a short executive style set-up laid out on the glacis to the south and west of Fort Jay. The course measured about 1,900 years and played to a par thirty. It is easily recognizable today if one knows what to look for. The sand traps, putting greens, and tee boxes look almost like archaeological ruins. These are now choice spots for picnickers and sunbathers. Note how close the golf course is to both Fort Jay and the neighboring residential houses and apartments. Army officers stationed on the island liked their golf course and played frequently. Still, golf being what it is, even the best of them sometimes had their off days. According to one account it was on the links here at Governors Island that “young West Pointers were taught to swear.”
The course dated back to 1903 and was in use through the Coast Guard years in the 1990s. It was the only golf course in Manhattan’s jurisdiction, as the island is technically part of that borough. The course received considerable use. The 1920s seemed to have been a particularly busy time; with the Great War over and the army downsizing to pre-1917 levels there was more time for leisure. The course was sometimes called “the world’s crookedest” because it was shoe-horned into such a small area with lots of twists and turns.
When General Robert Lee Bullard commanded the Department of the East from Governors Island he received a serious eye injury when his shot ricocheted off Fort Jay, bounced back, and struck him in the eye. He had survived Cantigny and Chateau-Thierry unscathed, but the bunkers on Governors Island proved too much. In 1927 Gene Sarazen, Francis Ouimet, Walter Hagen, and Jess Sweetster played a fundraiser here to raise funds for the Army Relief Society.
(images/Sarazen and postcard from Digital NYPL)