- Historic Sites
When Gentlemen Prepared For War
In the summer of 1915, 1,300 blue bloods played soldier for thirty days at Plattsburg. A bully time was had by all—even though it was a far cry from the real thing
April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
Few recall now those Plattsburg training camps of 1915 and 1916 where, during the dog days of late summer, several thousand sweaty, earnest businessmen-volunteers in unaccustomed khaki learned the manual of arms and how to form fours at a sleepy army post on the shores of Lake Champlain. The memory of their amateur soldiering—existing still in the minds of a few elderly men—has been obscured and overlaid by the mass levies of three intervening wars. Yet the Plattsburg idea was, for all its naïveté, the beginning in the United States of the twentieth-century conception of the citizen-soldier, the genesis of the officers’ training camps of the two World Wars, a psychological preparation for the drafts that were to follow.
Until 1914 the Plattsburg idea was inconceivable. If there was one general reaction in the United Stales to the European war that broke out in mid-summer of that year, it was that Americans wanted to have no part in it. President Wilson appealed to his countrymen to be “impartial in thought as well as in action … neutral in fact as well as in name.” Even ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, who never believed in keeping his belligerency under a bushel, felt at the outbreak that the United States should remain entirely neutral.
The invasion of Belgium soon made impartiality of thought impossible. To most Americans the complicated military and diplomatic issues involved reduced themselves to the simple imagery of Punch ’s cartoon showing Belgium as a small boy, stick in hand, defiantly blocking the pasture gate against a cudgelswinging German. Other circumstances soon turned American sympathy toward the Allies—the ties of English language and literature, the Anglomania of the upper-class East, Allied skill and German ineptness in propaganda. Sympathy for ihc Allies, however, was a far cry from any wish to join the slaughter. Even after the torpedoing of the Lusitania in May, 1915—probably the crucial incident that determined the entry of the United States—Wilson could still be re-elected on the slogan: “He kept us out of war!”
A few American leaders felt from the war’s outbreak that United States participation was inevitable. Most outstanding and authoritative of these was the Army’s Commander of the Department of the East and former Chief of Statt, Major General Leonard Wood. For years Wood had been preaching preparedness to an indifferent public and an uninterested government. And to his dismay, as the millions mobilized in Europe, the strength—if one could call it that—of the United States Army was only 80,000 men.
Wood—without whose zeal the Plattsburg idea would never have taken form—was not only the Army’s senior general but its outstanding one. His career was extraordinary in that he had come to the Army from Harvard Medical School rather than the generals’ way, from West Point. As a young medical lieutenant he had first served in Arizona with an army detachment that captured Geronimo and ended the Apache War. During this campaign he had shown so much courage, military skill, and readiness to take command in emergencies that he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He did not get a chance to prove this capacity on a more expanded stage, however, until the Spanish-American War. Although only a medical captain at the outset, he was soon appointed colonel of one of the three volunteer regiments of frontiersmen—the Rough Rider Regiment—with his friend Theodore Roosevelt as second-in-command. It was like releasing a powerful spring. By the end of the war Wood’s energy and ability had made him a major general of volunteers.
Subsequently, while military governor of Cuba’s Santiago City and then of Santiago Province, he ruled as America’s first proconsul, showing himself a brilliant administrator. He became as popular with Cubans as he was with his own men. In 1899, President McKinley appointed him military governor of the whole island, and some months later raised him to the permanent rank of brigadier general. Xo such rapid advance by a nonprofessional had ever before been known in the Regular Army. His success in Cuba was followed by equal success in the Philippines, where he became governor of the Moro Province and, in 1906, Commanding General of the Philippines Division. In 1908, he returned to the United States to take command of the Department of the East. In the spring of 1910 he was appointed Chief of Staff and ranking officer of the army he had joined twenty-five years before as a contract surgeon. He was to hold the post until 1914.
With his imperious yet somehow gentle face and proud, hawk nose, Wood looked every inch the general, from his chain spurs to the dog-headed riding crop that he always carried with him and that became his identity tag. There was no bombast about him, nothing of the martinet; he did not need to assert an authority that was innate. What has been said falsely of many generals could be said truly of him: he was loved by his men.