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)