- 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 ex-President disliked the President with all the scorn of a man of action for a man of the library. Wood, aware that his old friend was not likely to err on the side of tact, asked to see an advance copy of Roosevelt’s speech and eliminated most of the derogatory references to the professorial Wilson. Roosevelt arrived at camp the morning of August 25, every inch the Rough Rider, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a riding jacket of military cut, breeches, and leather leggings. He watched with field glasses while the second T.B.M. battalion worked out a tactical problem on the drill ground. In the afternoon he observed a sham battle between the first battalion and the Regulars, where the T.B.M.’s drove the enemy into the Saranac River and ended the maneuver with a bayonet charge. At the glint of steel, the Colonel showed most of his thirty-two teeth and shouted “Bully!” He was moved almost to tears at retreat when the recruits paraded as a regiment. I have never seen a more inspiring sight,” he told Wood.
At supper Roosevelt joined the rookies, many of whom he knew personally, for an old-time army meal of beans and brown bread. Afterward the whole regiment moved down to the amphitheatre by the lake to hear the Colonel’s speech. The T.B.M.’s were joined there by six hundred Regulars of the post and several thousand men and women from the countryside. Colonel Roosevelt was introduced by General Wood.
Seeing the row on row of citizen-soldiers squatting attentively on the ground in front of him in the fading light, the old Rough Rider felt himself inspired. He sneered at the ignoble part the United States had played in the world for the last thirteen months. He told them resoundingly that no man was fit to be free unless he was not merely willing but eager to fit himself to fight for freedom; and he denounced “the professional pacifist, the poltroon and the college sissy.”
As the light dimmed across the lake and the Green Mountains turned to gray, a lantern was fixed on a photographer’s tripod and the uneven rays illuminated the Colonel’s martial features. None of his hearers could possibly miss the reference to Wilson when he told them that “to treat elocution as a substitute for action, [to rely] upon high-sounding words unbacked by deeds, is proof of a mind that dwells only in the realm of shadow and of shame.” Then, just as he was concluding, a half-grown Airedale wandered into the fringe of light, nudged against him, and rolled over on its back, its paws in the air, amidst much laughter from the uniformed audience. “That is a very nice dog,” Roosevelt remarked, “and I like him. His present attitude is one of strict neutrality!”
Although Wood had edited out the saltier parts of the Roosevelt speech, unedited copies had been sent to the press earlier and the text was printed intact in the next day’s papers. Roosevelt, waiting for the train after he had left the camp and the reservation, talked with reporters and felt free then to attack Wilson in much blunter language. On reading the accounts of the Plattsburg day, Wilson was as furious with Wood as he was with his perennial critic, Roosevelt. By the President’s order the Commanding General received a sharp rebuke from Secretary Garrison, to which was added a warning against providing any further opportunity for such “unfortunate consequences,” at Plattsburg or any other camp. Wood accepted the rebuke in soldierly silence. But Roosevelt’s speech and Garrison’s reply echoed from coast to coast. The incident stirred the public and raised preparedness to a portentous national issue.
During the latter part of their course the T.B.M.’s divided according to aptitude or physical condition into infantry, cavalry, artillery, and signals. Mornings they still drilled together, but mimic warfare more and more supplanted drill. Companies marching outside camp learned to send out Cossack posts, combat patrols, and advance and rear guards. Each man spent two days firing on the range, found out the bone-shaking way about tightening slings and squeezing triggers, came to recognize the sight of a white disk hoisted over the target’s face as indicating a bull’s eye, and the dismal red flag—Maggie’s drawers, in newly acquired army lingo—as a clean miss. In the evening after lectures, most of the recruits would gather in their company tents to listen to the company commander elucidate the tactics laid down in Drill Regulations. At taps, when the lanterns were extinguished and the camp, except for the brown glow of General Wood’s tent, lay dark, the sergeants making bed-checks from tent to tent down each company street never found a single AWOL. The T.B.M.’s were too serious, and too tired.
The climax of the Business Men’s Camp came when the regiment spent nine days of war games in the field matched against Regulars. Their mock battles ranged over the Adirondack country, west as far as Dannemora, north to Chazy and Coopersville and the Canadian border. Each night the recruits pitched their pup tents at some new site. They learned to make up their packs, roll their blankets in the dark, cook a meal in a mess-tin, break camp in five minutes. Their rifles loaded with blanks, they tramped through the browning countryside, over stone walls and across fields now bright with goldenrod, always on the alert for enemy scouts and patrols identifiable by white hatbands. Already there was the first hint of scarlet in the maples, the crickets were shrill at night, and mornings the dew lay heavily on tent and poncho. In this roughing-it the men found a curious happiness, a feeling of being old campaigners at last.