I was at the Brooklyn Museum of Art this afternoon to meet with officials about the walking tour I am doing on Sunday 11 June from 12:00 – 1:00 pm for the museum. The idea was to do a walkthrough of the presentation to see if it fits into the time slot and to decide if any changes or additions might be in order. I ran two people though the walking tour, and we had a fun and productive time running though the thing. I got some good feedback as well. There is nothing like the live audience to keep you humble. Grand Army Plaza was laid out by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted in the years just after the Civil War. The area is one of the places of Civil War memory not just in New York but in the United States. So many people walk past it all every day with no idea. I am looking forward to this event.
Decoration Day, what we now call Memorial Day, originated in the years just after the American Civil War. In 1966, just after the Centennial, President Johnson and Congress pronounced somewhat dubiously that Waterloo, New York was the locale where Decoration Day had begun in 1866. In all likelihood it didn’t happen that way; citizens were showing up independently at local cemeteries throughout the North and South in that first full spring after the war’s end. Tending flowers on graves was timed with the planting season. Still, we do know that two years later John Logan, leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, called for all G.A.R. members to reserve 30 May 30 1868 as the official Decoration Day for members of the organization. This imprimatur added to the institutionalization of Decoration/Memorial Day. I say all this because it did not occur to me until yesterday that this made Decoration Day 1917 the 50th such observation. And yes, that means 2017 is the 150th.
It is unclear if local, state, and federal leaders understood all this in May 1917 but, however coincidentally, it worked out well for the Great War effort. While Governor Whitman was reviewing troops with J. Franklin Bell uptown on 30 May 30 1917, Mayor John Purroy Mitchel was in Union Square christening the U.S.S. Recruit. The ship was just that, a scaled-down mock-up of a battleship built to promote recruiting for the Navy. Mayor Mitchel had long been a proponent of Preparedness and as such was an ally of Theodore Roosevelt, Leonard Wood, and Governor Whitman. Mitchel built the Recruit under the auspices of his Committee on National Defense. Decoration Day 1917 appears to have been something of a tag team affair, with Governor Whitman and General Bell reviewing the Army and National Guard troops uptown while the mayor focused on the Navy farther south. To be sure there was some Navy and Marine involvement in the uptown parade, but it was primarily an Army and Guard event.
New York’s ports were more important to the local economy than they are today–and the Brooklyn Navy Yard was still going strong–but the Navy was nonetheless small and removed from the daily lives of New Yorkers. Hence the idea for the Recruit. Remember, there was no television let alone internet in this era. To see what Navy personnel did–and how you might contribute yourself–the mayor and his allies figured a living model might be helpful. One could buy Liberty Bonds there as well. Here are a few images from that event one hundred years ago today.
(Note: all photographs are via the Library of Congress and were taken on 30 May 1917 with the possible exception of the top most image, which did not have a specific date. I included it to give a panoramic view of the U.S.S. Recruit, which ran about two hundred feet long and forty feet at its widest point.)
I wanted to share a few images from Decoration Day 1917. These photographs were taken near the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Monument in Manhattan’s Riverside Park. Turn out was higher than for Decoration Day parades in recent years, which is not surprising given that this was the first Memorial Day since the call for war. The parade route was actually cut shorter in 1917 to accommodate the increasingly infirm veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. About four hundred GAR veterans marched in New York City’s 1917 Decoration Day parade, one hundred and thirty fewer than just a year earlier. Veterans of the Spanish-American War and New York Guardsmen recently returned from Texas fell in behind. All told, 18,000 men and women marched in the parade through the Upper West Side. For the first time ever there was a regiment of Negro troops included in New York City’s Decoration Day parade. Though many would not have grasped it at the moment, the perceptive understood that this was an early sign of the coming of what became the New Negro Movement.
That is Major General J. Franklin Bell, commander of the Department of the East on Governors Island, and Governor Charles S. Whitman on the review stand. In the two middle image, they are there on the right in the box. Conspicuously absent is Leonard Wood, though his spirit in a sense was present. Before leaving New York City several weeks earlier he had given his blessing for a parade of the Public School Athletic League. While the veterans’s event was going on, a separate parade comprised of 40,000 schoolchildren was taking place south of here.
Memorial Day also means baseball. Just north of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Monument in the Polo Grounds Grover Cleveland Alexander of the Philadelphia Phillies lost 5-1 to the New York Giants. He went on to win thirty games that season. The following year Alexander was in France fighting the Germans. The Yankees were in Philadelphia playing the other team from the City of Brotherly Love, the Athletics. The Yankees won a double header and held the A’s scoreless over twenty-four innings. The Dodgers, then still the Brooklyn Robins, lost 2-0 to the Braves in Boston. It’s worth noting that the American League was less than twenty years old at this time and very much a competing association with the National. American League owners consciously put teams in cities were the Senior Circuit already had a presence. It says something about the size and influence of Gotham that unlike Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities New York ended up with not just two but three teams.
Enjoy your Memorial Day, everyone.
(images/Library of Congress)
I read with sadness yesterday about the death of Greg Allman. He was the second from the Allman Brothers Band to die in 2017. Drummer Butch Trucks committed suicide in January. I am listening to Live at the Fillmore East as I type this. Personally I never thought the band was the same after the 1971 death of Duane Allman in a motorcycle accident. The band was still tight and had its moments but Duane was the true artist. The death of his younger brother is nonetheless sad. Seeing them play during one of their annual month-long stints each March at the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side was something I always thought about but never got around to doing. Now that will never happen.
I was in Green-Wood Cemetery yesterday playing tour guide for a friend. Afterward we had lunch in an Italian restaurant near the 5th Avenue entrance. The cemetery was buzzing with activity. There were at least three funerals happening all at once. Perhaps there were so many because the officials and families usually do not hold burials during the winter months. Instead the departed are kept in a temporary resting place before final interment come spring. I came across the trailer you see above on my way through the cemetery to see my friend. It’s a hearse on motorcycle. I had a ten minute talk with the fellow responsible for the vehicle. He said that about eighty people on motorcycles were to be in the procession. Sure enough, we saw the motorcade go by about an hour later.
Leaving the house yesterday, I ran into my neighbor walking her dog. I explained that I was meeting a friend in the cemetery and that Green-Wood has been a focus of Decoration/Memorial Day observations going back almost a century and a half. I saw teams of Boy Scouts putting flags on veterans’ headstones. One of them even offered me a flag but I said no thank you, figuring the banners were meant for the veterans themselves. I wanted to take a picture of the flag planting but it didn’t seem appropriate. When I got to the other side I saw that cemetery workers had already set up the tents for tomorrow’s Memorial Day program. As I said remembrance events in Green-Wood date back to the Grand Army of the Republic’s call for a Decoration Day in the late 1860s. GAR veterans were joined by soldiers from the Spanish-American War, the Great War, and our other engagements in subsequent decades.
One thing I have always wondered is if there was a drop-off in Memorial Day ceremonies in such New York City places as Green-Wood Cemetery in previous decades. There was a demographic shift from New York City to the suburbs and the Sun Belt in the 1950s-1990s, which took many veterans and their families away from Brooklyn and the other boroughs. It would seem too that the hard years of the 1970s and 1980s would have led to a drop-off in heritage tourism and public ceremony even in gated places like Green-Wood. New Yorkers found their history again in the 1990s when the city itself began revitalizing and became safer. I myself am part of these trends.
Remember that Memorial Day is more than barbecues and a day off.
One does not find it in the drill-book that the way to keep coffee and slum hot after it left the rolling kitchens is to take out the boilers with the food in them, wrap these boilers in old blankets, put them on the two-wheeled machine-gun carts, which can go nearly anywhere, and work forward to the troops in this way. This is just one instance, one trick of the trade. It is something that only training and experience can supply, and yet it is of most vital importance. I have known divisions to help feed the more recently arrived divisions on their right and left, when all have the same facilities to start with. I have known new troops, fighting by an older division, to be forty hours without food when men of the older division had been eating every day.
–Lieutenant Colonel Theodore (Ted) Roosevelt, Jr.
Average Americans, 1919
(image/Library of Congress)
They say an army moves on its stomach and no one understood this more than the U.S. War Department in May 1917. One hundred years ago today the Quartermaster Corps on Governors Island issued a joint statement along with the Navy asking trained cooks to join the ranks. Pay for a trained military cook could come to as much as $45 a month, or just over $1,100 in today’s dollars. It was not just cooks that were in short supply. Equally scarce were butchers and bakers. Recruiting qualified candidates was no small task. One general estimated in 1918 that a single regiment of a thousand or so men required as many as forty-five trained cooks to keep the unit properly nourished. The general continued that more than 11,000 cooks would be necessary to feed what was becoming the American Expeditionary Forces. It was an immediate problem; people must eat every day and hundred of thousands of men were enlisting across the country.
The Army could train men in the culinary arts as well. Cooks’ and Bakers’ Schools had been a common feature of military barracks in the Regular Army for some time. With the United States now in the war the Army, Navy and Marine Corps were expanding their culinary schools, which were usually a four month program covering the basics of food preparedness. Recruiting food preparers proved slow going and further pleas went out over much of the summer of 1917, usually to little avail. Apparently the men were not interested because they preferred the glory of shouldering a rifle and fighting the Hun than they did the alleged ignominy of ladling soup and potatoes to hungry doughboys.
(image/New York Public Library)
It was a gorgeous day today and I took advantage of the spring weather to visit Green-Wood Cemetery. While there I came across this headstone for one Mary M. Aitkin. When I got home I checked Ancestry and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle but found nothing on this veteran of the First World War. Aitkin’s headstone seems to be part of the plot for the Donnelly’s. Here below is a wider view. I searched for a Mary M. Donnelly as well but found nothing. I was struck by the sandy ground, which seems to have been recently tilled. This is not uncommon in Green-Wood which is still very much a working cemetery. Still, the bronze plaque protruding from the ground seemed striking.
if one looks closely at the Donnelly headstone one notes that there are names engraved for individuals who have not yet passed on. That leads one to believe this is very much a living cemetery plot, no pun intended. Coincidentally or not there is also a Mary on the larger headstone, for an individual born in 1956. Part of the power of visiting cemeteries is wondering about the lives of those one comes across. I would love to know the story here. It is interesting to note that Ms. Aitken died forty-six years ago this week. Also, she was older than most uniformed service persons who served in the Great War. Born on 8 November 1888, she turned thirty three days prior to the Armistice.
I could not figure out what the “Y2” indicates. I am guessing she was a Yeoman in the Naval Reserve but that is my speculation. If anyone knows, please enlighten me.
Last night I finished Through the Valley: My Captivity in Vietnam, former POW William Reeder Jr.’s unflinching but in the end hopeful memoir of his experiences. I hope more first-person accounts of the Vietnam War are released in the coming years; veterans of this era are now in the late stages of middle age and if they don’t tell their stories now the accounts may be lost forever. Each narrative is another tile in the mosaic. Now is actually an opportune time because each year through 2025 marks the 50th anniversary of the events. The New York Times is running a yearlong account of the events of 1967 which one can read here if so inclined. It will be interesting to see if they do the same for 1968, which was the year the war turned after the Tet Offensive, Walter Cronkite’s visit, and the growing intensity of the protests leading up to the presidential election that November.
Reeder’s account is a harrowing one but ends with his hard-earned lesson that whatever situation one may in there can always be reason for hope if one chooses. Daily or the now almost half century since his return he reminds his children, now grown and some with kids of their own, that every day offers an opportunity and something to treasure. Remember during this Great War centennial that other events worthy of recognition are taking place as well.
(image/National Archives and Records Administration)
In Sunday’s post I mentioned Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts to raise four divisions to fight the Germans in the Great War. Two of the major players in that episode were Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and his son-in-law Augustus Peabody Gardner. Lodge and Peabody were Boston Brahmins, part of a world that Roosevelt came to know in the late 1870s while attending Harvard. The names say it all: Lodge, Peabody, Gardner. I am not sure how Augustus is related to Isabella Stewart Gardner, the founder of the museum that bears her name, but the connection is there somewhere. I intend to do a deeper dive on A.P. Gardner later in the centennial, but today I wanted to pause and note something I found to be of great interest: it was one hundred years ago today that he left the United States House of Representative to return to military service.
Augustus Gardner had been a congressman for fifteen years. Before that he had served in the Spanish-American War. Gardner resigned on May 16 and returned immediately to the Officers’ Reserve Corps. Apparently the original plan was to join Major General Leonard Wood’s command in Charleston, South Carolina before going on to France. He was wasting no time. Less than ten days after stepping down, Gardner was stationed for the time being not in the Palmetto State but in New York Harbor at Governors Island. He wrote his wife on May 25 from the Department of the East explaining that he had a small billet in the officers club. He seemed eager to back in uniform but complained that the Army Band was having a soirée just outside. The noise chased him out of his quarters and back to the desk in the Adjutant’s office. Gardner was one of the earliest proponents of Preparedness and knew most of the major players in the movement, including obviously Wood and Roosevelt. With the United States officially in the war and the American military apparatus now gearing up, he was again in an officer’s uniform. He seemed eager to get down to it. In the letter to his better half he explained that he probably would not be leaving the island much because he wanted to focus on the tasks at hand.
(image/Library of Congress)
By the second week of May 1917 Woodrow Wilson and both houses of Congress were furiously negotiating and ironing out the details on an Army Selective Service Bill that would institute a draft. It may surprise some to realize that almost a month and a half after the U.S. declaration of war Theodore Roosevelt’s plans for creating his own force were part of that process. In early May the Senate approved a Draft Bill, with an amendment that would have allowed the Rough Rider to create a volunteer force of up to four divisions. Roosevelt had powerful champions and detractors. Old friend and mentor Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was a reliable ally. Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio also backed Roosevelt’s wish to fight overseas. Lodge’s son-in-law, Congressman Augustus Peabody Gardner of Massachusetts, too was on board. Field Marshal Joseph Joffre, who was in the United States on a diplomatic and goodwill tour, also supported Roosevelt and his plan. Back in France, Clemenceau too wanted Roosevelt to join the fight. This is not surprising; the French were desperate and wanted as many boots on the ground as America could provide.
The situation reached a new phase when the House scheduled for May 12 a vote on the Army Bill. Roosevelt telegraphed Harding and Gardner on the 10th that he had not intended his division plan to impede the greater need for conscription. He could not help adding a dig, however, that had his wishes been granted a month ago things would not have come down to this. The situation was so tense because sentiment was so divided. Opponents of Roosevelt’s plan were equally powerful and included Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, most of the senior military leadership, and President Wilson himself. On May 12 the House of Representatives voted 215-178 to approve Roosevelt’s four division plan, sending the Army Bill back to conference where the House and Senate would further debate Roosevelt and the other complicated issues involved in raising the American forces needed to fight in the Great War.
(image/Library of Congress)