- 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 recruits’ first day of regular drill began at 5:55 A.M. with the staccato notes of reveille. That day was the muster pattern of the days to follow. Assembly at six and thirty minutes of calisthenics gave way, relievingly, to breakfast. After breakfast came tent-keeping and policing of grounds, rifle-cleaning, and, with first call at 7:25, the long morning of the school of the soldier. Like all recruits, the T.B.M.’s began with the elementals—the position of the soldier at attention; saluting; left, right, and about face. Then came their first fumbling attempts at the manual of arms, soft hands slapping the stocks and slings as the noncoms repeated the ancient “Hit ‘eml You won’t hurt the rifle!” Philip Roosevelt remarked that learning the manual of arms was like learning to tango—you kept on, and all of a sudden you found you could do it!
After forty minutes off for lunch, the newcomers slogged the hardening miles of a route march at the old army pace of three miles an hour. As time went on, such marches were varied by cross-country skirmishes over fences and ditches, past abandoned cemeteries and through swamps, with the unwary tangling themselves in poison ivy. Sometimes, with luck, there was time for a brief afternoon swim in the lake. At 5:15 P.M. , the exhausted men stood in formation to the martial melancholy of the bugle sounding retreat as the flag fluttered down the mast. That daily ceremony, so taken for granted by the old sweats, was to the recruits solemnly new and impressive. They were then given three quarters of an hour free until mess call. After supper there were lectures on various aspects of the military. Tattoo came at nine, call to quarters at nine forty-five, and taps at ten.
The Business Men’s Camp was bounded by a thick grove of oaks and maples. At the edge of the grove, separated from the camp by a rail fence, stood a solitary pyramid tent with a flagstaff in front of it. This was the temporary quarters of the Commanding General of the East, who had come to Plattsburg for the month to watch his preparedness idea take tangible form. Every day General Wood could be seen leaning on the top fence rail watching his civilian volunteers at their drill. Often, as a substitute for their evening lectures, he talked to them informally around a campfire at a natural amphitheatre near the lake. Facing the semicircle of men as twilight faded, he spoke quietly, without rhetoric, of the military history of the United States, of preparedness, of citizens as soldiers, of the imminence of war. What he said was plain, stirring, and, above all, true. Those who attended the camps never forgot that austerely genial man with his riding crop tucked under his arm, the lines of his face etched deeply by the blaze of the logs.
For the first few days the T.B.M.’s drilled as individuals and squads, then as platoons; by the end of the first week they were drilling as companies. The following week saw them parading in battalion formation, and by its end they were ready to appear for the first time on the post parade ground as a regiment. It had taken them only days to absorb what ordinary recruits took weeks and months to learn. With these men, will and intelligence more than made up for the handicap of their years. As much to their astonishment as to that of the Regular Army instructors, they actually began to march and look and feel like soldiers. Suddenly their ordinary life of only a few days back seemed infinitely remote. From his rail fence General Wood looked at them approvingly.
To review the regimental parade, scheduled for August 25, Wood invited President Wilson, ex-Presidents Taft and Roosevelt, Secretary of War Lindley Garrison, and a number of labor leaders and university presidents. Wilson regretted that “public matters” prevented him from coming. Taft and Garrison made excuses, too, but nothing could have kept Roosevelt from Plattsburg. He accepted at once in a telegram in which he announced that he was going to make a speech to the “rookies,” and asked if he might make it when the men were off duty and preferably outside the camp.
If Wood was the chief military advocate of preparedness, Theodore Roosevelt’s was the civilian voice that carried farthest. Those who had enrolled in the camp acknowledged two leaders, the Colonel and the General—and it was as the Rough Rider, not as the ex-President, that Roosevelt came to Plattsburg. After the invasion of Belgium, Roosevelt had turned vociferously pro-Ally. When the Lusitania was sunk, he called for the immediate entry of the United States into the war against Germany. Anything less was for him the coward’s part. Words did not fail him when he thought of the deedless academician in the White House penning his futile notes to’ Berlin. Wilson’s phrase about “being too proud to fight,” made only three days after the Lusitania went down, was for Roosevelt as contemptible as Henry Ford’s remark that anyone who chose to be a soldier was either “lazy or crazy.”