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)