When Gentlemen Prepared For War


Richard Harding Davis—naturally in a cavalry troop —described one of their evening bivouacs: “Back of us was a forest of magnificent pines and overhead a harvest moon. When the work was done and each man began to cook, and the hundreds of tiny fires burned red in the moonlight and were reflected in the lake, the picture was one of great beauty. Nor did the odors of frying bacon and steaming coffee in any degree spoil it.”

Many of the men kept diaries and notebooks. One of them, sitting in a clump of joe-pye weed and jotting down a few lines at the edge of a field just before a bayonet charge, remarked on the serenity of the blue Adirondacks and the hard puffs of cumulus moving across the sky. “Ahead of me an officer with fieldglasses,” he pencilled in his book. “Three brown figures beyond wearing cartridge belts and carrying slung rifles. A whistle blows, there is a shout—and from every bush and hollow a khaki jack-in-the-box springs up rifle in hand until the long field swarms with them.”

Camp ended on Saturday, September 4, at the beginning of the Labor Day weekend, the same day that Henry Ford gave a million dollars to a campaign “for peace and against preparedness.” From New York had come rumors of a mustering-out parade of the Business Men’s Regiment down Fifth Avenue—a gesture that would have appealed to Roosevelt but which Wood quietly and quickly shelved. When reveille sounded on the last morning there were a few moments of silence in the tent city. Suddenly the post band, assembled in secret near the camp flagpole, crashed forth with “Hail! Hail! The Gang’s All Here!” With yells, and cheers the T.B.M.’s swarmed out of their tents to snake-dance after the band as it marched in and out of the company streets. The gang was all there—for the last line-up, the last mess, the last packing, and then the last look at Plattsburg.

A second course was held two days after Labor Day, but this off-season camp drew only 600 recruits. By the following summer, however, there were nine additional camps on the Plattsburg model attended by i G.ooo men. Some of the original Plattsburgers who re-enrolled in 1916 received reserve commissions at the end of their course. Ted Roosevelt became a major, his brother Archie, a first lieutenant. By the war summer of 1917, Plattsburg had evolved into an officers’ training camp where the “ninety-day wonders” emerged from a three-months course with gold second-lieutenant’s bars on their shoulders. In the sterner light of that later training the T.B.M.’s seemed the merest playsoldiers.

Looked at in a strict military sense, the effect of the initial 1915 Plattsburg camp was negligible, the lessons learned there almost useless to the minority of T.B.M.’s who later saw active service in the First World War. Nevertheless, Plattsburg as an idea was large and compelling, surviving long after the war in the Citizen’s Military Training Camps and the summer encampments of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. (As late as 1940, just after the fall of France, there was a brief revival, when another generation of businessmen-volunteers, impatient at their country’s laggard preparations, spent a month of basic military training at their own expense at the camp by the lake.) In a time of confusion the Plattsburg idea clarified the issues by visibly bringing home to America the idea of preparedness. It helped prod a reluctant President into a more active defense policy. In 1917, it did much in laying the groundwork for willing acceptance of the draft that had been so riotously resisted during another national crisis in 1863. Welcomed by most, dreaded by some, the Plattsburg idea was twentiethcentury America’s first tentative step toward universal military service.