Selling Governors Island

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.

BookReaderImages.phpConner 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.

New Yorkers turned out to see Marshal Joseph Joffre when he, René Viviani, and other French officials visited the United States in spring 1917

New Yorkers turned out to see Joffre when he, René Viviani, and other French officials visited the United States in spring 1917

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.

This photograph of Brigadier General B.H. Wells, Major General Fox Conner (center) and Major General Dennis E. Nolan (right) was taken on March 8, 1926. Connor was Deputy Chief of Staff at the time. Note that the three are wearing business suits. That decade after the war military men wore civilian attire, not uniforms, to work due to isolationist sentiment.

This photograph of Brigadier General B.H. Wells, Major General Fox Conner (center) and Major General Dennis E. Nolan (right) was taken on March 8, 1926. Conner was Deputy Chief of Staff at the time. Note that the three are wearing business suits. In the decades after the Great War military men wore civilian attire, not uniforms, to work due to isolationist sentiment.

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)

Sunday morning coffee

When I first met the Hayfoot way back when I told her that the best thing about baseball is that, though the so much of the game is routine, you never know when you will experience something you never forget. Yesterday’s eighteen inning Giants-Nationals marathon was such an experience. I am still trying to recover. Why did you do it, Matt? Why did you take Zimmerman out with two outs in the top of the 9th? October baseball is cruel in the severity of its justice. IMG_1504 I finally had a chance to check out the New York Public Library’s Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind. It is a small exhibit and so I would not recommend coming all the way into the city just to see it. Still, it covers a lot of ground and would make an ideal addition to a midtown excursion complemented with something else. IMG_1489 Roosevelt figures prominently in the exhibit. It begins with an analysis of the American peace vs preparedness debate. This is why it is important for Americans to be focused on the Great War centennial right now and not just beginning in April 2017 with the anniversary of the United States military involvement. As is fitting for a library exhibit, the show is heavy on books. These two were written by Roosevelt and Jane Addams. As you might imagine, the former president and the social worker fell on opposite sides of the debate. IMG_1491 The photographs here are from the Plattsburgh camps. All four of Roosevelt’s sons spent time in this civilian training center at various times. IMG_1499 Again, more books. As the subtitle indicates the show is about the arguments within American society. When the slaughter began in 1914 Americans tuned in, took sides, and debated. The exhibit contains fiction and non-fiction taking pro-German, pro-Allied, or neutral stances. Titles here include Fair Play for Germany and Defenseless America. I could not help but wonder if Fair Play for Cuba, the group with which Lee Harvey Oswald was affiliated, took its name from the former. IMG_1492The Creel Committee was nothing if not effective. The poster was one of the biggest propaganda vehicles of the Great War. It is a testament to the resources of the New York Public library that its collections contain such gems as these. IMG_1495 IMG_1496 These were my two favorite things in the show. I know from my involvement with the WW1 Centennial Commission that the African American experience will be a focus of the Great War anniversary. Over Here is on exhibit through 15 February 2015. Should you be in New York sometime this fall or winter, make it part of your schedule if you can. I hope the library does a few more of these over the next five years.

Another summer winds down

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.

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.

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)


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)

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)