Category Archives: Governors Island

The demotion of General Wood

General Leonard Wood and New York City mayor John Purroy Mitchel inspecting troops in 1915

General Leonard Wood (right) and New York City’s preparationist mayor John Purroy Mitchel (top hat) inspecting troops outside New York City Hall in 1915.

Today marks one of the more dramatic, if lesser-noted, moments in the lead-up to American involvement in the Great War. It was on 25 March 1917 that General Leonard Wood sent acknowledgement of his relief of command of the Department of the East at Governors Island. Though not as well known as Truman’s sacking of MacArthur, Wood’s demotion was equally dramatic. It is probably lesser known because the United States joined the European fray just a month later and the carnage of the Western Front eclipsed the Wood imbroglio. How the war effort would have gone with Wood and not Pershing in command of the AEF is one of the great counterfactuals of World War One.

Wood had been Chief of the General Staff of the Army when President Wilson was inaugurated in March 1913. Some tried to get rid of the outspoken Wood then, but he managed to finish out his term. Afterward, he transferred to New York City where he commanded the powerful Department of the East from Governors Island.

Some of the Wood-Wilson tension came from Wood’s relationship with Theodore Roosevelt. After the Great War began in summer 1914 these two former commanders of the Rough Riders advocated for American preparedness. This ran counter to Wilson’s attempts at neutrality. Wood’s demotion was in part his fault. A former president could criticize the Administration; a current general cannot. Nonetheless, over the next few years Wood’s public statements became more strident and, well, public.

He was also part of the Plattsburg Camp Movement, the semi-official military preparedness experiment in which civilians were trained for military service. Roosevelt’s sons Ted and Archie both attended the 1915 Plattsburg camp. Wood was not easy to get along with. In a letter to his younger brother Archie, Ted Roosevelt later wrote that “Confidentially he give me a pain.”

When Theodore Roosevelt irked Wilson with a rousing Plattsburg speech Wood’s hand in the event was obvious. There were many other incidents over the years but the final straw for Wilson seems to have been a talk that Wood gave at New York City’s DeWitt Clinton High School on 14 March. After consulting with the Secretary of War the following week Wilson decided to make the move. It is revealing to note that his decision to demote Wood came after he decided to ask Congress for a declaration of war, which came in early April.

Wood’s demotion came in the form a division of the Eastern Department into three entities. Wood was given his choice and decided to take the command of the smaller Southeastern Department. Wood put on a brave face stating that “I am a good soldier, and go where I am sent.” The outcry was nonetheless immediate. Roosevelt was outraged, as was New York City mayor John P. Mitchel. Angry letters from Wood allies poured into the New York Times. In a show of support Wood was elected president of the Lincoln Memorial University Endowment Association the day after his demotion.

What would have happened if Leonard Wood had commanded in Europe instead of John Pershing is something we will never know.

(image/Library of Congress)

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The future of New York Harbor

Flying back into New York City last Friday I had one of the best views one can have of the metropolis when the plane flew directly up the harbor and passed over the city on its way to LaGuardia. We were so low it was like getting a helicopter-view of what was below. The buildings were cool, but my favorite part were the islands in the harbor. It gets lost on many New Yorkers that they live and work on an archipelago. Manhattan Island. Long Island. Staten Island. Roosevelt Island. Ellis Island. Liberty Island. Governors Island. Randall’s Island. So on and so forth.

Flying in I could see the outline of Fort Jay on Governors Island, which was all the more dramatic for being covered in snow. I tell people during my tours of the island to think of everything that has happened in the world over the past two centuries and to think that Fort Jay and Castle Williams have been standing watch in New York Harbor all that time. From above, one also sees how exposed the islands are there in the water. National Geographic has a fascinating piece about how Ellis and Liberty Islands were effected by Superstorm Sandy and what might happen to them and the other islands in the future with global warming.

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Governors Island: The final weekend

Fort Jay, Summer 2013

Fort Jay, Summer 2013

If you wanted to visit Governors Island this summer but never did, this weekend is your last chance. Sunday is the last day of the season. It could not be a better weekend to be outside either.

People have been asking me what I will be doing once the season ends. Well, starting in late October, after a few weeks R&R, I will start volunteering at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in Manhattan. This is something I am excited about. Last year I sat idle during the off-season, and seven months without the privilege of providing Interpretation to the public was too long. This will give me the opportunity to engage in public history year round.

It happened by chance. This past February I ventured to the Roosevelt birthplace (TRB) in preparation for my June talk at the New York History conference in Cooperstown. I was talking about the role Theodore Sr (Teddy’s father), William E. Dodge Jr, and their associates played in the Union war effort in the Civil War. When I walked in, I glanced to the information desk on the left–and saw a friend from Ellis Island behind the counter. He and the rest of the Interpretive staff from Ellis Island had been farmed out to the various Manhattan sites after Hurricane Sandy. As you might imagine, I was quite surprised and pleased to see him. Ranger Sam is a special guy and a National Park Service treasure. To make a story short, he encouraged me to come to TRB after the summer ended at Governors Island. And so, that is what is happening.

It is a more seamless fit than it may seem. Both sites offer plenty of opportunities for creative Interp. My primary focus has always been the Civil War Era, with emphasis on era. I have always maintained that one cannot understand the Civil War without understanding what came before and after. At the TRB I will focus on many things, including the Roosevelts’ lives before the war, how they managed during the crisis, and what they did afterward during the Gilded Age. Theodore Sr was a great friend on John Hay. In fact, he was such good friends with Lincoln’s personal secretary that he had his correspondence delivered to the White House in Hay’s care. Hay, of course, would go on to become Secretary of State in the McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt (Jr) Administrations.

Wheeler, Wood, and Roosevelt (left to right, foreground) in camp, Tampa, Florida, 1898

Wheeler, Wood, and Roosevelt (left to right, foreground) in camp; Tampa, Florida, 1898

When Teddy Roosevelt fought in Cuba two of his superior officers were Leonard Wood and Joseph Wheeler. Yes, the Joseph Wheeler who had fought for the Confederacy decades earlier. Wood and Wheeler both served at Governors Island during various points in their careers. Now, in 1898, he was giving the politically astute but militarily inexperienced Roosevelt guidance as went up San Juan Hill. When the war ended, the Treaty of paris ending the conflict was negated by . . . John Hay. In October 1900 Wheeler himself was back on Governors Island, helping William E. Dodge Jr dedicate the YMCA on the island. These are the types of connections I am hoping to make at the Teddy Roosevelt Birthplace. I think it is going to be a great fall.

(bottom image/National Archives)

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Pic of the day

Manhattan from Governors Island ferry

Manhattan from Governors Island ferry

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September 15, 2013 · 7:05 pm

On genealogy and personal history

My grandmother's Navy Yard pass

My grandmother’s Navy Yard pass

I spent a part of my day today searching records on Ancestry and Fold3 for some upcoming oral history interviews at Governors Island. What makes GI so fascinating is that, given its location in New York Harbor and its longterm importance as a military installation, so much of American history can be traced back to it. The Revolution. 1812. The Civil War. The settling of the West. 1898. Both World Wars. Governors Island played a role in all of these, and I don’t mean tangentially; the island and the people who worked on it were central in all of them. One thing that gets lost on some people, including myself at times, is that the people who served on the island were just that, individuals. It is one thing to say that the First Minnesota rushed from Gettysburg to help put down the Draft Riots in 1863, or that the Big Red One left for Europe from the island after the United States entered WW1 in 1917. It is another thing to examine a Census or Pension record of a son or father who was part of it. That is why I love the oral history project so much, even though my role in it is not as large as some other volunteers’.

My growing interest in these projects runs hand-in-hand with my growing interest in tracing my own family history. Visiting the Frederick Douglass house in Anacostia last week intensified this interest. As I mentioned in a previous post, my mother lived in the neighborhood when she was a little girl. After seeing the Washington Navy Yard from the Douglass estate, I had to dig out the above pass that my grandmother once used to visit my grandfather, a civilian employee at the facility. An aunt had given it to me several years ago, along with some old family photos. My grandparents were originally from Boston but moved to DC during the Depression and stayed until 1945 when the Second World War was winding down. They had two daughters in the process before eventually moving back to New England and staying there for good. I would have gotten back to it eventually, but all this is what inspired me to-re-up my Ancestry account. Searching records has pretty much how I have spent my evenings over the past week. I have also emailed some distant relatives to see what they might be able to add. Thankfully, I have been able to answer questions they have as well.

I am old enough now (46) to realize that part of my interest in my family history is because my brother and sister and I were deprived of it. Taken by our parents from the Northeast to Florida when we were young kids, we lost touch with the extended clan. It was not hard to do in the 1970s and 1980s, when we all lived without the internet, cell phones, and everything else that makes the world more interconnected than it used to be. It is amazing how quickly you can strike up a conversation with family, even family you have never met before or seen in thirty years.

What I find most moving, when searching my own family or oral history subjects, is the capsulation of a life into a few documents. Half a decade ago this would not have meant so much to me. I had my perspective changed when my father died four years ago. You cannot helped being moved seeing the dash (e.g. 1938-2009) and wondering what the story was. Whoever we are, you are part of something bigger than ourselves.

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Pics of the day

I just got back from Governors Island. It was an enjoyable day. I just showered and am now relaxing with a cup of coffee and Miles Davis on the turntable as I squeeze out the last few hours of the weekend. Here are a few quick pics:

Manhattan skyline, 9:45 am

Manhattan skyline, 9:45 am

I took this south of Fort Jay looking north toward Manhattan. The Army and Coast Guard personnel who return talk about how they had the best of both worlds when stationed on the island; the island had the feel and security of small town America, but with the excitement and cultural benefits of New York City just a ten minute boat ride away.

Castle Williams, 10:05 am

Castle Williams, 10:05 am

This was the view from the table where I was distributing the free tickets for the castle tour. The courtyard is open to all, but access to the roof is by guided tour only. The first boat of the day had not arrived yet, which is why there is no one here.

Governors Island is one of America’s special places. There is still two full months left in the season.

Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

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Brushing up

Freeman Tilden, dean of Interpretation

Freeman Tilden, dean of Interpretation

This morning I finished re-reading my already well-underlined copy of Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage. Freeman’s small classic is a must read for all who practice the interpretive craft. I re-visited it yet again in preparation for Governors Island’s annual Civil War Weekend, which is now just three weekends away, August 10-11. Last year I wrote  and delivered a program called The Civil War Generation’s Governors Island. That program focused on the many individuals who spent at least some time on the island before or after the war. A short list includes Winfield Scott, Lee, Grant, Sheridan, Oliver Howard, Arthur MacArthur, and, most importantly, Winfield Scott Hancock. Hancock ran the Division of the Atlantic from here; from his arrival in 1878 until his death in early 1886 he received an endless line of former friends and foes eager to reminisce while in town to do whatever business it was that took them to the city. It was from Governors Island that he organized Grant’s funeral, choosing to have Joe Johnston and Simon Bolivar Buckner serve with others as Grant’s pallbearers in a reconciliationist gesture toward the Old South. I felt my talk was pretty good last year. I delivered it three times on both the Saturday and Sunday, getting stronger each time as I figured out what worked and what didn’t. Such is the nature of public speaking. Still, this year I am revamping it to incorporate some different themes and to adjust the segues as we walk from stop to stop.

a New York Arsenal Building, Governors Island

a New York Arsenal Building, Governors Island

A second reason for re-reading IOH was to prepare for a new, second talk I will be doing this year on the 1863 draft riots. This is what I did not post about the riots during their anniversary this week. My talk, which I hope to expand into a post for the Governors Island website, is going to focus on the role the harbor forts, most obviously Governors Island, played in the defense of the city. The attempted seizure of the arsenal is one of the most intense stories of the draft riots. If I do it correctly my talk will tie the military in with the political at the local, state, and federal level. That’s a lot to do in 45-60 minutes; the point, though, is to tell a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Thus, the re-reading of Tilden.

(top image/NPS)

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The Library Lawn

Governors Island Library Lawn, 16 June 2013

Governors Island Library Lawn, 16 June 2013

I did my first interpretive tour of the season at Governors Island this morning. It always feels good to have the first one of the year under one’s belt. Heading to Castle Williams for my shift after lunch, I happened upon something new to the island this season: an outdoor library. Being a librarian myself, I of course had to check it out. The Library Lawn, it turns out, is a coordinated effort of the Uni Project. All three library systems in New York City–New York Public, Queensborough, and Brooklyn Public–are participating in the summer-long effort. People can get library cards, enjoy programming, and other activities. As you can see from the picture above, people are enjoying this pretty cool endeavor. Note Castle Williams and New York Harbor in the upper left hand corner.

The only negative of being in Cooperstown last weekend was that I missed the demolition of Building 877. Everyone was talking about it this week. A friend of mine woke early last Sunday and rode her bike to Red Hook to watch from Brooklyn. Here is some footage I found on Youtube. Enjoy.

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Back on the island

Today was orientation day at Governors Island for all volunteers. It was so good to be back and to see many folks I had not seen since last summer. Here are a few pics, some of which were taken by my great friend Sami Steigmann.

Castle Williams

Castle Williams

The view from atop the circular fort is stunning. Castle Williams opened to the public for the first time in two centuries just last year.

Freedom Tower

Freedom Tower

Here is a closer look at the Freedom Tower, which when finished will be the largest building in the Western Hemisphere. Coast Guard brats who lived on the island in the late 1960s and early 1970s recount watching the original World Trade Center structures going up little-by-little from the island.

Old Coast Guard barracks

Old Coast Guard barracks

This building, on the southern part of the island managed by the city, is set for demolition at 6:00 am next Sunday, June 9. A park is going up in its place.

Camp scene

Camp scene

A living history unit, of high schoolers from Rhode Island no less, is camping out and interacting with the public this weekend.

Fort Jay

Fort Jay

The orientation stopped at Fort Jay. This System Two fortification is at the highest point on the island and so thankfully suffered little damage during Superstorm Sandy, though there was some to the old sculpture atop the sally port.

Modeling with the park's new toy

Modeling with the park’s new toy

Last year there was much excitement that we would be getting a canon in time for the 2013 season. Rangers were unhitching this baby from the truck as we walked by.

It is going to be a great summer at Governors Island. Come see for yourself.

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G.I. Joe to save Manhattan

In the latest twist on everyone’s favorite man in uniform:

The Pentagon relocates the G.I. Joe team to Governors Island in Upper New York Bay and, with their distinctive outfits and code names, they’ll have to deal with the general population, which could be good or bad, depending on the situation.

Maybe he’ll take one of my tours next summer, in disguise of course. Enjoy your weekend.

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