The United States was all but on a war footing by the last week of March 1917. There had been several sinkings of American ships that month. On March 20 Woodrow Wilson had called for a special of Congress to be held on April 2. In the meantime National Guardsmen were boarding trains and shipping out to various posts. No one therefore thought anything too amiss when on the afternoon of March 24 Wilson left the White House and traveled to Newton Baker’s office in the State, War, and Navy Building. It seemed natural that the President and Secretary of War would discuss the fluid situation. Instead the two made the fateful decision to relieve Major General Leonard Wood of his duties as commander of the Department of the East on Governors Island. Wood was notified that evening and responded the following day, Sunday March 25. The rest of the country found out the following day.
While some claimed at the time that Wood’s transfer was unexpected, more aware individuals had seen the writing on the wall for some time. Wood had been making increasingly passionate pleas for Preparedness for much of the past year, and was never more publicly vocal than in those last winter days of 1917. Remember that then as now New York City was the media capital of the nation. The city had nearly a dozen daily newspapers, most of which were sending reporters around following Wood’s many appearances.
Technically Wood was not demoted. He remained in the Army and kept his rank. Wilson got rid of Wood by dividing the Eastern Department into three separate jurisdictions. The number of military departments went from four to six. J. Franklin Bell was to move from the Western Department to take over in New York. Wood was given the option of taking over in Hawaii, the Philippines or a new Department of the Southeast in Charleston, South Carolina. Wood chose the latter and effective May 1, 1917 would leave Governors Island island for the Southeastern Department. The Wilson Administration said all the right things, publicly claiming that it was merely a lateral move, but everyone new that this was not the case. New York City was obviously going to be the focal point of any American involvement in the Great War. Wood would now not only be far removed from Governors Island and the New York limelgiht but banished out of the Northeast itself, where support for the American war effort was much stronger than in the more isolationist, solidly Democratic South. Wood was stoic and put on a brave face. When the news came down he responded simply “I am a soldier and I go where I am sent.”
(image/New York Public Library)