As August 1917 wound down the officers and men of what was now the 27th Division prepared to leave for Spartanburg, South Carolina. They were supposed to go several weeks earlier but bureaucratic snafus in the War Department prevented that from happening. Things were now as in place as they were going to get. Before the division left, the people of New York prepared a three-day fête to see the men off. On Tuesday 28 August about 500 people showed up at the Biltmore Hotel to honor Major General John F. O’Ryan, the division’s commander. There seemed to be a conscious attempt to play up the Irish aspect of the evening. Mayor Mitchel was one of the organizers and T.P. O’Connor gave the keynote. Broadway turned silent film star William Courtleigh was the master of ceremonies. The evening was quite reserved and understated; organizers were trying to Hooverize–conserve in the name of the war effort–as much as they could.
It had been a hectic few days. Later the past week New York State’s attorney general had placed O’Ryan on the New York National Guard inactive list. This was because President Wilson and the Senate had appointed O’Ryan, and most all militia officers, in the National Army a few weeks back. That had put O’Ryan’s militia status somewhat in question. O’Ryan had spent much of this time visiting his regiments out in the field. Many of them were camped out in municipal parks. Brooklyn’s Twenty-Third Infantry Regiment for instance was training in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. The time to move on was near and people were gathering. All of O’Ryan’s staff were on hand at the Biltmore dinner as well. The dinner was just the lead-up to what was to come over the following two days.
I wrote yesterday that the staff of Base Hospital No. 9 sailed for France one hundred years ago. There was a great deal of activity throughout New York City in the first days of August 1917. On August 5 all of the units of the New York State Militia were finally federalized, becoming the 27th Division. What made the 27th distinct during the Great War was that it was the only fully-formed division to have existed in whole prior to the war. The 28th Pennsylvania existed prior to the war too, but did not have all of its constituent units at that time. July and August were difficult months for the men of the New York Division. An engineering regiment of some 2000 men had traveled to Spartanburg, South Carolina to begin construction of Camp Wadsworth in late July. A lack of running water hndered their task. Back home, the division was already planning a going away parade for Thursday August 9, with the mayor, governor, and others to be in attendance. On August 6 the War Department called off the parade.
The division’s departure was being postponed for three weeks, perhaps even into early September, due to shortages of guns, blankets, uniforms, and other accoutrements necessary to provision 27,000 men. Also, there was still a shortage of men to fill the ranks. Mayor John Purroy Mitchel and his Committee on National Defense were holding rallies across the boroughs to raise men for the Army and other service branches. Part of the problem was that many men from New York State had rushed out and joined the Regular Army, not the state militia that would eventually be federalized and made part of the National Army. It gives a sense of the challenges that Newton Baker and the War Department had to contend with.
Even the 27th Division’s senior leadership was tenuous. Major General John F. O’Ryan had commanded the unit since 1912, but that was when it was still the 6th Division and part of the state militia. Once Wilson federalized the militias, the generals of these state units had to be confirmed by the United States Senate. Wilson planned to send the names of these 120 or so senior officers to Capitol Hill sometime in mid-August. Most people assumed O’Ryan would remain in command, but until the Senate voted that was not a certainty.
(image/The Pictorial Record of the 27th Division)
Secretary of War Newton Baker announced the fate of several state militias one hundred years ago today, releasing details of where certain state troops would be sent for training before being mustered into the National Army. One of the organizations Secretary Baker mentioned was the 6th New York Militia. The 6th, Baker said, would soon leave for Spartanburg, South Carolina. I have heard it argued that the Wilson Administration intentionally placed Great War training camps in Southern states as a way to appeal to his base and to co-opt any hesitant, isolationist Democrats within his party. That same day Baker also announced that state divisions would train in Texas (3 divisions), California (2 divisions), Alabama (2 divisions), Georgia (2 divisions), North Carolina, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Mississippi, and one additional division in the Palmetto State.
The theory about intentionality is entirely conjecture on my part, but based on these states this educated guess seems credible. Remember that this is just two generations removed from the American Civil War; any Southerners who fought in France would be the grandsons of Confederate veterans Yes, some of them had fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, but this was to be something on another scale entirely. I am going to do a dive on this in the coming weeks. If anyone knows any authors/titles about the planning and placement of these training facilities, please let me know.
(image/Library of Congress)
I mentioned to someone connected to the WW1 Centennial Commission last week of my intention to “adopt” the 27th Division during the Great War 100th anniversary. I intend to blog about the division, especially its 23rd (106th) Infantry Regiment, a great deal over the next two years, from its basic training in Spartanburg, South Carolina through its coming home after the Armistice. The 27th is a natural choice for me; it was the only division sent to France comprised of units from only one state, New York. Its 23rd Regiment was from Brooklyn and its armory is today on the National Register of Historic Places. The 23rd served on the Texas border during the Punitive Expedition in 1916. Its unit chaplain was the Reverend S. Parkes Cadman. When the regiment was called into federal service during the Great War it became the 106th. There were so many men, regiments, and divisions that fought in the war that it seems the best way to tell a doughboy story is by finding the general in the particular. That’s why I selected the 27th. Plus, they fought with the British, which gives me a chance to better explore the international aspects of the war.
Yesterday when we were at the Library of Congress I saw a man standing in front of a wooden trunk outside the exhibit hall. As it turned out, he was a volunteer and the trunk held the accoutrements of a Brooklyn doughboy named Christian F. Stensen, a private in the 23rd. I had an interesting conversation with the man from the Library of Congress, who graciously showed me Private Stensen’s belongings. We did not know for sure, but we were speculating that the Indian was adopted as a logo because the division’s Orion symbol looks something like a tomahawk. I’ll have more on the Orion symbol itself in a future post. You never know what you will see if you get out there. Whether it is the Park Service, the Library of Congress, or some other institution, yesterday’s experience was testimony to the special role that volunteers play in the telling of our history.