- 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
The 1,300 men who would sign the Plattsburg roster on the following day were a well-advertised elite. Among the political figures were John Purroy Mitchel, the mayor of New York, and his police commissioner, Arthur Woods; Pennsylvania’s United States senator-tobe, George Wharton Pepper; and Dudley Field Malone, the collector of the Port of New York. Percy Haughton, Harvard’s football coach, was matched by Yale’s great fullback, Frank Butterworth. Episcopal Bishop James De Wolfe Perry of Rhode Island led the clerical contingent. Among the younger recruits were four Roosevelts: Ted, Quentin, Archie, and their cousin Philip, one of the tallest men in camp. From newspaper references to “millionaire rookies”—like Alexander Smith Cochran, owner of the America’s Cup challenger Vanitie —it seemed as if the Social Register had gone into khaki for the summer. Richard Harding Davis noted that in his squad there were “two fox-hunting squires from Maryland, a master of fox hounds, a gentleman jockey from Boston, and two steeple chase riders who divide between them about all the cups this country offers.” The still glamorous if no longer youthful Davis, fresh from his experiences as a war correspondent in France and Belgium, was the most noted notable at Plattsburg. Although by his own request no mention was made of him in the press, everyone was aware of his presence. He was then fifty-one years old, six years above the age limit that could no more apply to him than it could to Mayor Mitchel. Indeed the limit was elastic enough to include one Andrew Pickering of Boston, who was just short of three score and ten.
It was 5:45 in the morning when the Business Men’s Special pulled into a siding beyond the permanent brick buildings of the camp. Though it seemed a strange and unfamiliar world to the new arrivals, Plattsburg was commonplace enough, an army post in the standard pattern of all such built since the Civil War. Ever since the War of 1812 there had been a small infantry detachment there, which had been expanded to regimental strength in 1890.
As the men piled off the train, sleepy but eager, they found themselves facing a long, uneven drill field edged with tansy and melilot. Beyond the field a tentcity waited for them—long rows of brown pyramids extending as far as mist-shrouded Lake Champlain, and large open-sided buildings that looked to be no more than tarred roofs on posts and that turned out to be the mess shelters. A sergeant led them to the adjutant’s tent where each man paid his thirty dollars —five of which he would receive back if he did no damage to government property during the month. At the adjoining quartermaster’s tent he received a rifle and bayonet well smeared with cosmoline, a mess kit, water bottle and cup, web belt and pack. The supply sergeant in the tent beyond issued him three blankets, a sweater, a poncho, half a pup tent, and five aluminum tent pegs. Those without uniforms were now given two pairs of olive-drab breeches, two olive-drab shirts, a pair of leggings, a cotton blouse, and a felt campaign hat with a bright braided cord.
With this overflowing armful, the recruit then stumbled across the field to the orderly tent of the company assigned to him; there the officer in charge measured his height and, according to his measurements, sent him to one of the pyramid tents that bloomed like giant mushrooms down both sides of the company street. Sixteen such streets made up the two battalions of what was now known as the Business Men’s Regiment. The forty Regular officers assigned to the camp referred to their recruits as T.B.M.’s (Tired Business Men). The two hundred or so enlisted-men instructors, unable to suppress their profane amazement that anyone would pay to serve in the Army even for a month, called the eager civilians in uniform “tourists.”
There were eight men to a dirt-floored tent, which was furnished with collapsible canvas cots, a lantern, a water bucket, and several tin wash basins. The newcomers set up their cots, sorted out their equipment as best they could, and tentatively essayed their uniforms. Later, in the clearing evening, they were free to explore the camp and the post beyond. Although men of affairs in their ordinary lives, now, in their temporarily adopted military life, they felt something of the uncertainty of all recruits. Regulars in their close-fitting uniforms and campaign hats with faded cords looked so very regular. The businessmen soldiersto-be, wandering in groups past the post parade ground, were uncertain whether to salute the officers they passed or not, indeed were uncertain as to just who were officers.
Along one side of the trim parade ground stood the heavy brick lumps of the officers’ quarters, duplex for the lieutenants and captains, solidly single for field officers, each marked with name and rank. In the middle distance were the equally solid two-storied enlisted men’s barracks with iron-railed porches running the length of the fronts. Behind lay the stables and workshops. As these most-unmilitary recruits sauntered along the macadam walks they could see the placid lake on the other side of the parade ground, the curve of Cumberland Bay, the Green Mountains across the water to the east. It was a remarkably peaceful setting in which to prepare for war.