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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
It was in Germany in 1902 that he began to reflect on the need for American preparedness, when, as a military observer, he stood beside the Kaiser and watched the field maneuvers of the German Army. That magnificently formidable machine might some clay become a threat to the world, as his fellow observer, the old English marshal Lord Roberts, remarked to him. But Wood knew the absurd impossibility of trying to create any American equivalent. What he conceived of was the formation of a citizen army, a vast, trained reserve on the Swiss model, militarily efficient yet not militaristic.
For years he tried to make his laggard countrymen aware of the need of increased national defense. He talked preparedness night and day. He wrote articles and gave interviews. He spoke to clubs and colleges all over the country. He encouraged the formation of preparedness groups like the National Security League and the American Defense Society. When clouds were gathering over Mexico in 1913, and German officers in their messes were drinking toasts to the Day, Wood took a first practical step by setting up two small summer camps for college students. Through such camps, he felt, young men would not only receive.an introduction to army life, but—more importantly—would become concerned with the problem of national defense.
At Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Monterey, California, 222 students from ninety colleges spent five weeks at their own expense, drilling, parading, firing on the range, and finally—after a sham battle lasting a week—making a sixty-five-mile forced march. The camps were endorsed by educators as well-known as ex-President Eliot and President Lowell of Harvard, President Hibben of Princeton, and President Hadley of Yale. Even the pacific Wilson gave his approval. In 1914 three times as many students enrolled, and additional camps were held at Ludington, Michigan; Asheville, North Carolina; and Burlington, Vermont.
By the time of the sinking of the Lusitania most Americans had begun to reconcile themselves to the need for increased military preparedness, and an articulate minority demanded the entry of the United States on the side of the Allies. Sternly voluble spokesman for the war hawks was Theodore Roosevelt, who felt that after the loss of so many American lives on the Lusitania it was “inconceivable we should refrain from action.” Increasing numbers of venturesome Americans had drifted north to join the Canadian Army. Others like Henry Beston, Robert Hillyer, and John Dos Passos were paying their passage across the ocean to serve as volunteer ambulance drivers with the French.
Two days after the Lusitania went down, a group of fifteen romantically indignant young Harvard graduates—among them Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Hamilton Fish, Jr., Elihu Root, Jr., and Robert Bacon, Jr., son of the former U.S. Ambassador to France—met in New York and sent a telegram to President Wilson demanding that adequate military measures, “however serious,” be taken. But Wilson, engaged in dispatching notes to the Imperial German Government, still did not consider preparedness a pressing question. Young Ted Roosevelt and two others then approached General Wood to ask if he would hold a summer camp, along the lines of the student camps, for business and professional men who wanted military training. They thought they could produce at least one hundred volunteers. Wood was enthusiastic. He promised to hold such a camp at Plattsburg in August if even twenty-five men should enroll.
Young Roosevelt and his friends—who later formalized and expanded their impromptu organization as the Military Training Camps Association—sent out over 15,000 applications to a selected group of businessmen, bankers, lawyers, doctors, college professors, and sportsmen. At first the response was slow, with only two or three applications a day coming in, but after Wood addressed a large group at the Harvard Club of New York in June there was a rush to apply. By August over a thousand had enrolled, and 1,300 were on hand for the camp’s opening on August 10.
No funds for the new venture were forthcoming from the War Department. The recruits paid their own way—thirty dollars, which included the cost of the cotton uniform. Wood had to raise extra money to take care of such necessary amenities as screens for the mess halls. Bernard Baruch gave $10,000 and persuaded others to contribute. Wood took particular pains in the selection of his training officers. All of them were West Pointers, under the command of Major Halstead Dorey. The sergeants and the corporals were old-line army noncoms.
On the evening of August 9,1915, the Business Men’s Camp Special pulled out of Grand Central Station for Plattsburg. About half those aboard had bought their uniforms in advance and were already wearing them with all the awkward self-consciousness of recruits. Officially, these somewhat overweight men, most of them in their late thirties and early forties, were motivated by undiluted patriotism and the spirit of selfsacrifice. Actually, they felt they were off on a great adventure. To them the ponderously styled United States Military Instruction Camp—known more familiarly and readily as the Business Men’s Camp—was a chance to learn man’s oldest trade, to say nothing of allowing them to leave the world of banks and offices behind with full public approval. Also there was the tacit understanding that if America should enter the war, camp attendance would be the first step toward a commission.