Sending off the 27th

The Biltmore as it was in 1917

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.


Reading Hackworth

The late Colonel David H. Hackworth, December 1995

Late last week I began Colonel David H. Hackworth’s About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior. For those who may not know Colonel Hackworth’s life story, I have gotten to the part where he has finished his post-WW2 service in Italy and has just begun his time in Korea. Hackworth was only fifteen when he joined the Army in May 1946, lying about his age to get in. He does a god job of explaining the starvation and chaos in postwar Europe and shows how the Second World War did not end as neatly as our general consensus has it. Events are always more complicated than we believe. There is a human need to find simplicity in things.

Hackworth was stationed in Trieste in the late 1940s, arriving as a private and leaving in 1950 as a sergeant. I have read a good deal about Hackworth online. Some commentators argue that he was too self-serving and held himself in too high regard in his memoirs. I suppose it amounts to a truism: memoir by definition is self-serving. The writer always sees himself as the center of events, just as we all see ourselves as the center of events as we go about our daily lives. The reader must be cognizant of this going in. Hackworth does a good job of explaining how hard his unit trained and how difficult it was. His premise is that TRUST was the last of the Old Army units and that training, expectations, and discipline were meted out in ways that would no longer be permissible even a few years later. The postwar drawdown in the late-1940s thinned the Army ranks back almost to their early-1920s size. The WW2 soldiers had returned home and were using the GI Bill and low-interest home loans to get on with their lives interrupted by the war. With those citizen-soldiers gone, there were still enough regulars left in the service to carry on in the old ways. Korea ended that.

Trieste itself was a complicated place. The city had been part of the Austro-Hungary Empire until the First World War and was given to Italy as a prize at Versailles for being on the winning side. Tito wanted it for Yugoslavia in those years just after World War 2. That is why there was such a strong Allied presence there in the late 1940s. All of this is preliminary to Hackworth’s expositions on Korea and Vietnam, and his public denunciations of the civilian and military leadership that led to his forced resignation from the Army in the early 1970s. I intend to have more to say on this in the coming weeks as I go deeper.

(image/Dale Cruse via Wikimedia Commons)

Remembering the Camp Logan riot

24th U.S. Infantry Regiment, Philippine Islands 1902

On the afternoon of Thursday 23 August 1917 Private Alonzo Edwards, Company L, Third Battalion, Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment, was arrested for interceding with two white police officers in the arrest of Houston resident Sara Travers. That incident triggered a series of events culminating in a night of spectacular violence that would leave almost twenty people dead and many more wounded, some of them mortally. It led to three trials over the next seven months that gripped Americans and challenged assumptions about race and Jim Crow segregation. It required the attention of local law enforcement officials, military authorities, the Secretary of War, and ultimately President Woodrow Wilson himself. Finally, it led to the hanging deaths of nineteen African-American soldiers and life sentences for scores of others. I wrote this piece in different form for a class almost fifteen years ago and wanted to share it on the anniversary of one of worst days in American history.

The Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment

The Twenty-Fourth’s baseball team in an undated photograph

The Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment had a long history of service. In the decades after the Civil War these Buffalo Soldiers protected communication and supply lines during the Indian Campaigns, and in 1898 went up San Juan Heights with Theodore Roosevelt. They fought in the Philippine Insurrection and in 1916 were stationed in New Mexico under the leadership of Brigadier General John J. Pershing, protecting supply lines between Columbus, New Mexico and Ojo Federico, Mexico. The Third Battalion of the Twenty-Fourth arrived in Houston on 28 July 1917. Things got off to a bad start. The Twenty-Fourth had less than half the officers assigned to a full regiment, and two of its companies were commanded by first lieutenants, not captains. The quality of this leadership was poor, as many white officers did not want a commission leading negro troops. Conditions were spartan and the soldiers were camped on the outskirts of town between the city limits and a more established base for whites called Camp Logan, where the men pulled guard duty. Cramped conditions in a hot and humid Southern city, far away from the action in Europe was bad enough. Dealing with the Jim Crow restrictions was worse. Relations between the soldiers and the local civilians were tense. The presence of the Twenty-Fourth, however, raised expectations in the local African-American community.

The Riot

In action prior to the transfer to Houston

Tensions simmered for weeks in the summer heat and when the riot came it happened quickly. In the early afternoon of 23 August Private Edwards asked two police officers why they were arresting Ms. Travers and for this was himself detained. A few hours later Corporal Charles Baltimore of the Twenty-Fourth’s Third Battalion went to police headquarters in his capacity as a military policeman to check on Private Edwards’ status. A scuffle ensued in which Baltimore was shot at, apprehended, beaten, and taken into custody. A rumor spread quickly to the base that Baltimore had been killed. By nightfall a contingent of 125-150 soldiers of the Twenty-Fourth had amassed and began marching from their camp into Houston. In the succeeding hours, the armed soldiers killed four policemen and eleven residents, wounded an additional dozen, and caused intense panic in the city. Four men from the Twenty-Fourth Regiment lost their lives.

The Aftermath

Generals Pershing and Bliss inspect the 24th camp during the Punitive Expedition, 1916

News spread rapidly throughout the country of the Houston incident. The New York Times had a small article, way below the fold, on page one of the 24 August edition sketching out the still-hazy details. A day later the newspaper had a significantly larger article, this time above the fold. Over the seven months there were no less than three trials relating to the Houston riot. The first court-martial was in November 1917 and led to the hanging of thirteen soldiers and life sentences for forty-one others. The next two trials concluded in December 1917 and March 1918. The punishment called for a total of sixteen death sentences and prison sentences of varying lengths for thirty-six other individuals. This time the government’s position was more cautious. Secretary of War Newton Baker wrote to President Wilson counseling that the number of death sentences in the two cases be reduced to six, with the remaining commuted to life sentences. Wilson acted on Baker’s recommendations.

(images/Baseball & Old Mexico, NYPL; Philippine Islands & Pershing/Bliss, LOC)


The Smithsonian digitized Horace Pippin’s notebook in the mid-2000s.

It’s a rainy Friday. I’m going to stay in a get some writing done. The academic year starts a week from today. Next week will be full of meetings and preparation. I had a meeting earlier this week with a faculty member in the English Department for a module we are doing this fall semester based on the World War One grant our library received from The Library of America and the Gilder Lehrman Institute. This past February The Library of America published World War I and America: Told By the Americans Who Lived It, an anthology edited by the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Woodrow Wilson, A Scott Berg. We received a copy of the book as part of the grant. Over four class sessions students will first watch the film we are producing and then for homework read various passages from the LOA anthology. We are choosing a cross-section of fiction and non-fiction, as well as poetry and even some music by James Reese Europe. The lyrics to at least one song are included in the book. Students will read the lyrics and we will then listen to the song. We will then discuss how the war brought jazz to Europe and led to the Lost Generation in Paris and the Harlem Renaissance here at home.

When I was at the New-York Historical Society last week taking in the WW1 exhibit, I was touched to see that they had included a few works by Horace Pippin. The LOA anthology includes an excerpt from Pippin’s journal, which he composed immediately after the war. The students will read Pippin and learn about the Harlem Hellfighters. The LOA and Gilder Lehrman Institute provided a number of themes for exploration, to which we intend to hew closely. Why invent the wheel when someone has done it for you? At the end of the module students will write brief essays about what they learned and what they might like to know about moving forward. I think this is going to be a fun project.

(image/Smithsonian Institution)

One man’s trash . . .

Brooklyn street scene, Monday afternoon

I was going down the street earlier today and had to stop and take this photo of an abandoned Singer Sewing Machine. When I was going back in the other direction a few hours later the board was still there but the Singer was gone. I was glad someone took it. Hopefully its new owner will ether bring it back to life or salvage its parts for use in other machines.

Artists and the Great War at the N-YHS

Hey all, blogging will continue to be light between now and the start of the academic year a week from this Friday. August and the end of the year holiday season are the times when I slow it down a bit. This past Friday I finally got up to the World War I: Beyond the Trenches exhibit at the New-York Historical Society. I did not realize that Childe Hassam was active in the Preparedness Movement prior to the war. I now see his Flag Series of paintings in better context. I have a feeling this might entail a deeper dive sometime in the coming months.

Dazzle camouflage drawings from the Rhode Island School of Design with ship models, part of the New-York Historical Society exhibit W​orld War I Beyond the Trenches​

These dazzle camouflage models from the N-YHS collection are a reminder that they didn’t fight the war in black and white.

Artists at the Rhode Island School of Design drew the sketches you see above during the war. They are examples of dazzle camouflage, in which paradoxically the goal is not to hide the subject but to highlight it in such a manner and degree that disorients the enemy. In my article about the USS Recruit I briefly mentioned how the National League for Woman’s Service sent its Camouflage Corps to paint that wooden vessel in Union Square as a demonstration of the technique. I don’t pretend to know that much about it, but camouflage has a more involved history than most people realize. It was very much part of the 20th century modern art movement. It wasn’t just a matter of painting disjointed shapes and varied colors. That is why they brought in the artists and graphic designers. Today designers are using digitization to take camo to a whole new level.

A leaf from Ivan Albright’s sketchbook during his service with Base Hospital No. 11. He drew these while the surgeons were working.

Ivan Albright sketched this medical drawing. The young artist was all of about twenty at the time of his service in the Great War and went on in the 1930s to become a renowned artist in the Magic Realism vernacular. During the war he was a draftsman with Base Hospital No. 11 stationed in Nantes. His job was to draw medical sketches in the operating rooms, which the surgeons could later reference in their work. It would be interesting to know how many of artists were used in the base hospitals and if their work survives today.

The exhibit is running through September 3, Labor Day, and so if your are interested you had better hurry. It is your last chance too to see John Singer Sargent’s Gassed before it returns to the Imperial War Museum in London.

The 27th readies

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.

O’Ryan had a great deal on his mind in early August 1917 as he planned the logistics of sending his division to South Carolina. He also waited Senate confirmation of his Federal commission in the National Army that would allow him to remain in command.

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)

The Base Hospital No. 9 contingent sails

The Finland took the doctors, nurses, and medical staff to France.

I’m sure many remember my posts of a few weeks back about about Dr. Robert D. Schrock and the physicians and staff of Base Hospital No. 9. The men drilled for several weeks time at Governors Island through a brutal heatwave in July-August 1917. As far as basic training goes, they got off easily; it could have been much longer. There was just no time to waste in getting this medical contingent to Europe however. They were that needed and time was of the essence. Plus military authorities figured that hospital staff could train aboard the transport ship, honing the skills they would need in the hospitals tending the wounded.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the doctors, nurses and corpsmen setting off. The doctors left Governors Island at about 4:00 am on 7 August 1917. Their ferry crossed the harbor and picked up the nurses at Ellis Island before cruising into the North (Hudson) River. There, the Finland was docked at Pier 11. The New York and New Jersey docks were filled with spies, and authorities did all they could to keep the departure as secret as possible. There is no mention of it in either the New York Times or the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It was an uneventful day but represented over a year’s worth of work on the part of New York Hospital, getting permission, raising the funds, and choosing who would go to Europe. The Finland sailed in the early afternoon, made quarantine, and was off in the Atlantic to face any potential u-boats on the way to France.

(images/Base Hospital No. 9, A.E.F.)

Three years and counting

Kaiser Wilhelm II and Emperor Franz Josef

August 1, 1917 marked the three-year anniversary of Germany’s declaration of war on Russia. Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia on July 28, but Kaiser Wilhelm II’s announcement of hostilities took things to a new level. Armies across Europe were now mobilizing with even greater urgency. For the most part Europeans and Americans were not reflecting too much in the early dog days of August 1917. The British and their allies were fully occupied against the Huns in Flanders. Austro-Hungarian troops were driving the Russians back on the Eastern Front in Galicia. Meanwhile the Wilson Administration was doing all it could getting up to speed, which was taking more time than anyone would have liked. One can imagine that the fighting in Ypres, especially for the Germans, had taken on a sense of urgency with the realization that the Americans were already trickling in. Pershing was in Paris for a full month by this time.

Still, people did pause and meditate on the events of the past thirty-six months. Much had happened and millions were already killed. Franz Josef had died in 1916 after sixty-eight years on the Austro-Hungarian throne. By August 1917 Nicholas II of Russia had been deposed; he and his family were in exile in Tsarskoye Selo, the royal palace in St. Petersburg, where the  Romanoffs were a tourist attraction for curious gawkers who came to watch them garden. The Germans seemed to be the most invested in the third anniversary. Kaiser Wilhelm II was out in public a fair amount. By this time he had a collection of 10,000 books on the Great War to go along with his trove of photographs. If contemporary accounts are to believed, Berlin’s Royal Library now held 50,000 books on the Great War published just since the war began. Despite everything, optimism in Germany was apparently holding. At the time of the third anniversary enthusiasts in Germany formed a society within the Hindenburg Museum in Posen for members to share photographs, monographs, and Great War-related memorabilia.

(image/New York Public Library)