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

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Georgia, U.S.A. in the Great War: Part I

The 106th Field Signal Battalion marches near Camp Wheeler in Macon, circa 1918

Georgia played a significant role during America's participation in World War I (1917–18). The state was home to more training camps than any other state and by the war's end had contributed more than 100,000 men and women to the war effort. Georgia also suffered from the effects of the influenza pandemic, a tragic maritime disaster, local political fights, and wartime homefront restrictions.

War Sentiment in Georgia

As newspaper headlines around the world reported the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on 28 June 1914, Georgia papers paid very little attention to the news. The assassination provoked an immediate response from several European countries, however, all of whom were concerned about the growing political instability and the possible shift in power on the continent. In early August, hardly a month later, war broke out in Europe after Germany attacked Belgium. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson was determined to keep the United States out of the conflict. On 19 August he delivered a speech defining America's stance on the war. "Every man who really loves America," he said, "will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned...The United States must be neutral in fact as well as in name."

Nearly a year later, the torpedoing of the transatlantic liner Lusitania on 7 May 1915 caused little outcry in Georgia, although voices from the North were quick to call for America's entry into the war. Hoke Smith, a U.S. senator from Georgia, said that war was not needed to avenge the deaths of a few "rich Americans" who had gone down with the ship. Local newspapers in Savannah and Athens also warned the public against hastily supporting the case for war, which had already hurt the state's economy. A curtain of Royal Navy ships, forming the British blockade of Europe, prevented Georgia cotton, tobacco, timber, and naval stores from reaching potentially lucrative German and Austrian markets.

The events of the war also contributed in large part to what is known as the Great Migration, during which black Americans moved from the South to urban areas in the North. New war-related jobs suddenly available in northern cities, coupled with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and mass lynchings across the South, spurred this flight. The Great Migration reached its peak between 1915 and 1930, by which time Georgia had lost more than 10 percent of its black population.

The Declaration of War and the Selective Service Act

On 6 April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, thereby entering World War I. For about two years, Georgia's newspapers had been writing against the war because of its negative impact on the state's economy. Yet almost overnight the media changed their tune, becoming anti-German and strongly patriotic.

War fervor in Georgia sometimes raged to the immediate detriment of common sense. Soon state newspapers were warning readers to be on the "lookout for German spies." The loyalty of some Georgians suddenly became suspect: state labor leaders, teachers, farmers, and foreign immigrants were scrutinized for their "patriotism." Dirt farmers, especially the ones who still professed Populist leanings, were pressured into buying war bonds, signing "Declarations of Loyalty," and draping American flags over their plows while they worked. The state school superintendent encouraged all students and teachers to take a loyalty oath and to plant and tend what would become known as "liberty gardens." Teachers stopped covering German history, art, and literature for fear of being thought disloyal.

Loyalty pledges and flag-waving aside, President Wilson soon realized that volunteerism alone could not sustain an army capable of defeating Germany, so on 18 May 1917, he approved the Selective Draft Act (popularly known as the Selective Service Act) to remedy the problem. On 5 June all of Georgia's and the nation's eligible men, ages twenty-one to thirty, were required to register for the draft.

Many white men in Georgia sought to prevent black men from being drafted. As in the Civil War, when some planters refused to lend their slaves to the Confederate government for various kinds of war work, some land-owning whites in 1917 refused to allow their black sharecroppers to register for the draft or to report for duty once they had been called. Many black men were arrested and placed in camp stockades for not heeding draft notices that they had never received from landowners. Selective Service officials blamed Georgia's white planters for many such delinquency issues; for most of the war, local draft boards "resisted sending healthy and hard-working black males" because they were needed in the cotton fields and by the naval stores industry.

The very idea of conscription was abhorrent to many Georgians, including U.S. senator Thomas Hardwick, Rebecca Latimer Felton, and Thomas E. Watson. Watson even challenged the Selective Draft Act in federal court, when he announced his intentions of defending two black men who were jailed in Augusta for failing to register for the draft. Donations poured in to help support the case. On 20 August 1917, the trial took place outdoors in order to accommodate the large crowd that came to hear the old Populist's oratory. In the end the judge upheld the constitutionality of the act and more than 500,000 men were registered in Georgia.

Federal Installations and War Camps

The state had five major federal military installations when the United States entered the war in 1917. The oldest garrison was Fort McPherson, located south of Atlanta, which opened in 1889; the newest was Fort Oglethorpe, constructed near the Tennessee border just a few years after the Spanish-American War in 1898. Fort Screven, a large coastal artillery station on Tybee Island, guarded the entrance to the Savannah River. Augusta housed both the South's oldest federal arsenal, the Arsenal at Augusta, and the army's second military airfield, Camp Hancock.

Two soldiers from the Pennsylvania's Twenty-eighth National Guard Division stand guard in 1917
at Camp Hancock, just outside Augusta.

Georgia had many war-training camps as well. The large national army cantonment at Camp Gordon, which opened in July 1917, was located in Chamblee, northeast of Atlanta, and was the training site of the famous 82nd All-American Division. The division included men from several different states, including the AEF's most famous Doughboy, Alvin York of Tennessee, but Georgians made up almost half its number. National Guard training camps were based in Augusta and Macon; Augusta's Camp Hancock was home to the 28th Keystone Division, while Camp Wheeler in Macon hosted the 31st Dixie Division, which was entered by almost all of Georgia's National Guard. Eventually more than 12,000 Georgians were active in the 31st. Specialist camps, such as Camp Greenleaf for military medical staff, Camp Forrest for engineers, and Camp Jesup for Transport Corps troops, were scattered around the state. At Souther Field, located northeast of Americus, a flight school trained almost 2,000 military pilots for combat in the skies over France.

Part II tomorrow.  The men trained in Georgia head "Over There" for the "Big Show".

Source:  The New Georgia Encyclopedia, (Link)

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