Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Plattsburg Movement
Where General Pershing Found His Officers

General Pershing's full expeditionary force was to be over four million men by 1919, requiring hundreds of thousands of officers. This number was greater than the size of the entire United States Army when America joined the war in April 1917. Where were these officers to be found? It all began in the summer of 1913 with the idea of establishing a training program for young civilians. That year the army conducted two experimental camps for college men. General Leonard Wood was chief of staff. It was Wood's political and public relations savvy that initially launched the fledgling attempt at military preparedness. Then, prior to America's entry into the war, one of the most famous journalists of the day stepped up. An immensely popular writer in his day, Richard Harding Davis is chiefly remembered now as an outstanding example of the roving foreign correspondent. Prior to the United States entering World War I, Davis gave the nation's military capacity a boost when he published an article in Colliers magazine, “The Plattsburg Idea,” to encourage the spread of the voluntary training camps from which he was a graduate. Contributor William Glidden takes the story from there.


G. William Glidden, MAJOR ( R ) USA
Deputy Town of Plattsburgh, New York, Historian

The training camps, designed to be seminaries for propagandists who preached preparedness to the civilian population, developed the cause of patriotic service to the extent that military training became highly acceptable. One result, the draft riots of the Civil War became unheard of during World War I.

Chief of Staff Leonard Wood, Supporter of the Camps


In Colliers Richard Harding Davis published the article “The Plattsburg Idea” to encourage the spread of voluntary training camps. He defended the aims in preparedness against such opponents as Henry Ford, whom he quoted: “any man who chooses to be a soldier is either lazy or crazy and should be placed in an asylum.” Davis further remarked, “should war come, Ford may be among the first to run shrieking to those lazy and crazy officers to protect his life and millions.” Direction for the training camp movement came from a young New York lawyer, Grenville Clark. Clark’s ideal of the citizens’ obligations for public service became the essence of the Plattsburg Idea. With a few associates he agreed to recruit a hundred volunteers from business and professional men. Their military training would be at their own expense, if the War Department cooperated by furnishing proper instruction. On 22 June 1915 General Order No. 38 authorized young businessmen and professionals to pay their own way to the training camps. They planned the strategy and organized the civilian groups. In August 1915 strenuous efforts and a public rally in New York City produced a first training class of 1,200 at the Plattsburg Barracks. A year had passed since the German entry into Brussels.

Both influential younger leaders of the community and immature undergraduates from colleges came to the camp. The muster rolls at Plattsburg sounded like Who’s Who and the Social Register combined. The Roosevelts came with the Chandlers, Fishes, and Milburns. Among the first noted to train with them were: Robert Bacon, former Secretary of State and Ambassador to France; John Purray Mitchell, young reform mayor of New York City; Arthur Woods, New York City police commissioner; and Richard Harding Davis. The public read of millionaires doing "kitchen police," digging trenches, and caught the message behind the incongruity. The sort of men who went to Plattsburgh, the publicity that occurred, and the emphasis on officer training gave a distinct elitism to the movement. This would change in the camps of 1916, and especially the camps of 1917 and 1918. Upon return from training in 1915, the Military Training Camps Association (MTCA) became organized. During the fall of 1915 and the early months of 1916, the MTCA began to apply more pressure upon Congress, as Congress debated the National Defense Act. The organizers of the MTCA chose to work within the system instead of fighting it and in so doing salvage what they could of the controversial bills. They managed to secure the result in the passage of Section 54 of the act.

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., at Plattsburg
He Would Be a Distinguished Officer in Both World Wars

On 11 April 1916 Richard Harding Davis died. Upon his death General Leonard Wood remarked, “The Plattsburg Movement took a very strong hold of Davis. Davis saw in this great instrument for building up a sound knowledge concerning our military history and policy, also a very practical way of training men for the duties of junior officers. He realized fully that we should need in case of war tens of thousands of officers with our newly raised troops, and that it would be utterly impossible to prepare them in the hurry and confusion of the onrush of modern war. His heart filled with a desire to serve his country to the best of his ability. His recent experience in Europe pointed out to him the absolute madness of prolonging and disregarding the need for doing those things which cannot be accomplished after the trouble is upon us.”

Richard Harding Davis, 1914 Passport Photo

A year later, in April of 1917, by a request to Congress, President Wilson declared war. The Plattsburg Movement became the basis of recruiting influence in military policy. By the signing of the Armistice in 1918, approximately 100,000 officer candidates, nearly one half of the officer corps, graduated from the Plattsburg Movement. The birth of "the 90-day wonder" had taken place.

1 comment:

  1. The Plattsburg Movement was designed to make officers for the U.S.Army but it also created young men who never wanted to be an officer. One of them is named Edmund Wilson Jr. from New Jersey. After attending a summer camp he decided he was not officer material. When war came he enlisted in Detroit with Base Hospital 36, once in France, he hated seeing the death and destruction of war and got transferred to be a translator. He became a famous writer/editor/critic etc.