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Colonel McCormick’s War

June 2024
13min read

The newspaper baron Robert McCormick was a passionate isolationist—yet his brief service in France in 1918 shone for him all his life and gave birth to an extraordinary museum


Why would someone name his mansion after a minor World War I battle that decided nothing? I journeyed to the former estate of Col. Robert R. McCormick, the legendary publisher of the Chicago Tribune , prepared to scoff—despite the fact that several friends had told me the layout included one of the best military history exhibits in the nation. As a lifelong World War I enthusiast, thanks to listening to my father’s tales of his doughboy days, I had explored Champagne’s rolling hills from Soissons to Château-Thierry to Rheims, I had prowled the vast valley of the Argonne and the forested reaches of St-Mihiel. But I had skipped Cantigny. The “battle” there was little more than a one-regiment skirmish, frequently omitted in general accounts of that stupendous war.

As an Easterner and an erstwhile Roosevelt-Truman Democrat, I was predisposed to believe that Col. Robert R. McCormick’s view of history was likely skewed. I had grown up hearing virulent attacks on this ferociously conservative newspaper tycoon, who had opposed the New Deal and our participation in World War II and never ceased railing against the federal “burocracy” (his spelling) and Wall Street’s “Pocketbook Gang.” In the colonel’s staunchly Midwest opinion, these degenerate Easterners persisted in nominating candidates like Dwight Eisenhower on platforms that “threaten[ed] the existence of the Republic.”


Such prejudices left me thoroughly unprepared for the Cantigny that exists on about five hundred green acres some thirty miles west of Chicago. Two of the main buildings are Colonel McCormick’s mansion, preserved more or less exactly as it was when he died in 1955, and the almost brandnew Museum of the First Division. The overall impression is bucolic. The buildings are surrounded with fine old oak trees, and close by lie ten acres of magnificent gardens. The only militaria in sight are a half-dozen tanks around the museum, which visiting youngsters use as jungle gyms.

The first thing I learned, under the benevolent tutelage of Lt. Col. John F. Votaw, the retired West Pointer who is the museum’s executive director, is the intensely personal nature of the name Cantigny. In the ultramodern library I surrounded myself with biographies of Colonel McCormick; every one of them made it clear that his participation in the battle for this French village was a high point of the staunch old isolationist’s life.

The colonel was distantly related to Cyrus McCormick, the genius tinkerer who invented the reaper and thereby turned the Midwest into the world’s granary. A bad run in the St. Louis grain market led to virtual bankruptcy for the colonel’s father, and alcoholism and genteel poverty shadowed the boy’s childhood. McCormick’s father was rescued from social oblivion by his father-in-law, Joseph Medill, owner of the Chicago Tribune , who used his political clout to turn his busted son-in-law into an American diplomat.

The maneuver gave young Robert Rutherford McCormick a chance to spend a good portion of his youth in the great cities of Europe. More important, it allowed him to be named editor and publisher of the Tribune in 1914. He also acquired Grandfather Medill’s Red Oaks Farm in suburban Wheaton—the future Cantigny.


As I dug into the ample source material on the Battle of Cantigny in the museum library, I not only grasped its importance in Robert R. McCormick’s life but began to revise my opinion of its significance. Cantigny was fought in the shadow of the U.S. wrangle with its allies over whether the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) should be amalgamated piecemeal into the French and British forces.

Contemporary Americans, complacent denizens of the world’s only superpower, descendants of the doughboys and GIs who. won two world wars, may find it hard to grasp the importance of this controversy to men of Colonel McCormick’s generation. It was the culmination of a psychological and cultural quarrel between Americans and Europeans that went back to the Revolution.

The thirty-seven-year-old McCormick could have wangled a safe, comfortable niche on Gen. John J. Pershing’s staff, but he had come to France to fight. In Chicago he had acquired the rank of major in the Illinois National Guard’s 1st Cavalry. In Europe he and his men were absorbed into the 1st Division, the first American outfit to reach France. McCormick had a flair for mathematics and swiftly became a first-rate artillery officer.

In May 1918 the 1st Division was rushed north of Paris to help the French and British contain the two great German offensives of that deadly spring. As these German drives ran out of steam, the Americans demanded a chance to demonstrate what they could do on the offensive. Finally they got a one-regiment show, aimed at capturing the ruined village of Cantigny, which sat on top of a ridge opposite the 1st Division’s lines. As the attack approached, McCormick came down with the Spanish flu and had to be half carried to a meeting with General Pershing, where the field-grade officers were exhorted to prove the prowess of the AEF—or else. McCormick reeled back to his dugout and commanded his batteries from a field telephone beside his cot.

The French gave the Americans twelve heavy Schneider tanks, a flame-throwing unit, and no fewer than thirty-seven batteries of additional artillery. Unintentionally, the Germans were also cooperating. They were planning another offensive, this time against the French on the Chemin des Dames, some forty miles south of Cantigny. They needed their crack 30th Division for this drive and withdrew it from the Cantigny lines, replacing it with the 82d Reserve Division, which was full of overage veterans, teenage recruits, and assorted other flotsam, including railway guards.

On May 27 the storm troopers struck on the Chemin des Dames with annihilating force. The French 6th army evaporated. The French artillerymen preparing to bombard Cantigny said they would stay for a day. Then they were heading south to try to stop the Germans before they reached the Champs-Élysées. The Americans decided to attack anyway.

At dawn on May 28, 1918, a torrent of steel came down on the somnolent companies of the 82d Reserve Division. After an hour of fearful punishment, the doughboys of the 28th Infantry Regiment went over the top and captured 255 men. American casualties were fewer than 100.

The next morning the French, eager for a gleam of success, trumpeted this tiny American victory in their newspapers, and the headlines echoed around the world. That same day, the French artillery and tanks departed, leaving the Americans dangerously undergunned and without air support.

Now it was German artillery that came cascading down, and the Yanks were dug into open slopes. By the time the 28th was relieved, on May 31, it had lost 45 officers and 1,022 enlisted men. The German 82d had taken a worse beating though, with 1,408 casualties on the very first day.

For Pershing and his staff, the little clash had vast significance. “I am . . . going to jump down the throat of the next person who asks, ‘Will the Americans really fight?’” Pershing said. Cantigny had not only banished the amalgamation hoodoo but proved to McCormick and his fellow Americans that they could stand up to Europe’s veterans. No matter that the veterans were third-rate soldiers; that is history’s judgment. Cantigny’s importance to the doughboys was a matter of memory, an equally important realm for those who seek to understand history.

Eager for a gleam of success, the French trumpeted the tiny American victory, and the headlines echoed around the world.

As I realized this, I acquired new respect for both Cantignys—and for Robert R. McCormick. By the time the battle sputtered out, he was in a hospital in Paris. He tried several times to get back into action, but the flu continued to sap his strength. Pershing eventually promoted him to colonel and ordered him home to train a new regiment for an anticipated war-winning offensive in 1919. To almost everyone’s astonishment, the Germans collapsed in the fall of 1918, making Cantigny the colonel’s only battle. He soon enshrined it by changing the name of Red Oaks Farm.

The Illinois Cantigny would have remained an idiosyncrasy—and an egotistical one at that—if the colonel had concentrated on memorializing only that one small battle. What has elevated his Cantigny to a major confluence of memory and history is his intense identification with the 1st Division. It had emerged from the carnage of the Western Front with a reputation for fighting prowess second to no other American outfit. As early as 1920 McCormick invited members of the newly founded First Division Association to join him at Cantigny for celebrations. In 1937 General Pershing asked McCormick to represent the division at a memorial service at the original Cantigny. He delivered a speech, full of fervid Fourth of July rhetoric, which he liked enough to have engraved near the fireplace in his mansion and high in the Gothic reaches of the Tribune Tower, the skyscraper he erected in 1925 to proclaim his paper’s dominion over the Midwest.

Between the wars Cantigny was much more a millionaire’s estate than a museum, but the 1st Division remained a spiritual presence to McCormick, and when it distinguished itself again in the war he so bitterly opposed, the idea of creating a museum took root. When the colonel died childless in 1955 at the age of seventy-four, he left his money to the McCormick Tribune Foundation (its 1997 assets were $1.4 billion), and its trustees have assiduously distributed millions to good causes each year since. The colonel also told the trustees that he wanted Cantigny to be preserved “perpetually . . . as a public park and museum.”

In 1960 the foundation opened the Cantigny War Memorial of the First Division. It had collected materials from division veterans in the Chicago area, and the mansion’s stables were converted into a modest museum memorializing the division’s exploits in the two world wars. Things jogged along in fairly satisfactory fashion for the next two decades. Cantigny attracted about 125,000 visitors a year, most of them local.

But by 1982 history—and wear and tear—had brewed up a crisis. The 1st Division had spent five years in Vietnam, and the museum’s directors found it hard to squeeze this story into their already crowded quarters. Also, their artifacts were showing signs of age, and there was no place to store the rapidly accumulating acquisitions of papers and other memorabilia donated by division veterans.

Cantigny tries to strike a balance, telling the division’s story without glorifying war or suggesting that the exhilaration of battle can offset its destructiveness.

What to do? The trustees debated divesting the museum of everything but a few items that would constitute a nominal exhibit. The rest could be sent to the U.S. Army’s First Division Museum at Fort Riley, Kansas. But then they asked themselves, “What would the colonel want us to do?,” and that ended all thoughts of dismantling things. Instead they committed quite a few of the foundation’s millions to building an elaborate new museum and recreational complex that would ensure obedience to that “perpetually” in the colonel’s final marching orders.

To make the place partially self-sustaining—and in the spirit of the colonel’s stated desire to improve his home state’s recreational facilities—the trustees hired a celebrated designer to convert more than half of Cantigny’s acres into a twenty-seven-hole golf course. When it opened in 1989, Golf Digest promptly rated it one of the top twenty-five public courses in America. By way of adding a Tribune trademark, one sand trap is shaped like the head of the long-running star of the paper’s comics section, Dick Tracy. Overlooking the course is the Fareways Restaurant, where excellent food is available for reasonable prices.

The reconstituted museum opened in 1992. Tourists now arrive at a gleaming visitors’ center where they see a brief introductory film about Cantigny and Colonel McCormick. They can then stroll over to the mansion and continue on to the museum or vice versa. The mansion is full of antiques the colonel picked up in his incessant travels and a wealth of McCormick memorabilia. The most striking room is the library: twenty-two feet high, with tiers of books and portraits of ancestors looking down. The colonel was the author of a dozen books, including two surprisingly good studies of Ulysses S. Grant.

But for those interested in military history, the 37,700-square-foot new museum is Cantigny’s most impressive feature. The skylight-topped lobby is five stories high. On the floor below it is the library-cum-research center, staffed by skilled and helpful archivists. From the lobby, visitors enter the main exhibit and abruptly pass from the tall, pleasant, sunny lobby to a dim, grubby back street in the shattered village of Cantigny on the night of May 28, 1918. On the left is the wreck of a house; ahead, a replica of the gate of the village’s ruined château. In the distance, between desultory rifle fire, a machine gun chatters.

In the walls are tucked small exhibits featuring captured German equipment, American gear, and eyewitness accounts of 1st Division veterans. One man proclaims that the Germans “couldn’t put the fear of God into the American swine, as they called us. We put the fear of God into the German army with the defense we put up at Cantigny.” This is a superb example of memory versus history. The man had conveniently forgotten that Cantigny was supposed to be an offensive, not a defensive, battle. It also shows how the amalgamation controversy affected not only officers but enlisted men.

From the village street the visitor moves into a trench. Above looms a full-scale replica of a Schneider tank. A side exhibit features the clubs, knives, and other simple, brutal weapons used in hand-to-hand combat. I found myself thinking of my father’s memories of such fighting, which were so grim he could not describe them in any detail without choking up.

A few more steps bring the visitor into a command dugout. A life-size figure of an artilleryman calls in ranges over a field telephone. In the shadows lurk two equally life-size rats. Only the stenches and the ubiquitous “cooties”—lice—of this underground world are missing. Another side exhibit features a map of the 1st Division’s other battles. The horrendous casualties it suffered at Soissons and in the Argonne go unmentioned here, but in a final picture, showing the division parading up Pennsylvania Avenue, a soldier on horseback carries a sign: FIRST DIVISION KILLED : 4899, WOUNDED : 21,433, DSC’S AWARDED : 356.

The museum director, John Votaw, says Cantigny tries to strike a balance, telling the division’s story without glorifying war or suggesting that the exhilaration of battle can offset its awful destructiveness. That picture does the job for the 1st Division’s AEF days.

Standing there, I was swept by one of my most vivid memories from the Argonne. At a crossroads I encountered a stone pylon on which is listed all the names of the 1st Division men who died in that gigantic cauldron. Twenty-five years before there was a Vietnam monument, I had the impulse to run my fingers across the names, trying to imagine what it was like for Kelly and Barnes and Cohen to die in that distant, forgotten place, where French farmers now plow their terraced fields. For anyone who has had a father or a grandfather in the AEF, the World War I section of the Cantigny Museum evokes deep feelings. But for most people it will be closer to history than memory.

In The Mystic Chords of Memory , his fine analysis of the relationship of memory to history, the historian Michael Kammen has noted a major trait of American historical memory: the tendency to depoliticize the past and minimize the bitter quarrels that once raged around the history now being remembered. So, in the World War I section of the museum, you will find no mention of Colonel McCormick’s publishing what some people consider the single most important newspaper story in history, the June 9, 1919, “leak” of the Versailles Treaty, accompanied by a wholesale attack on it and President Woodrow Wilson. From that moment the treaty and Wilson’s Presidency were doomed, and America’s attitude toward World War I began a surprisingly swift slide toward disillusion. Not the least of Cantigny’s many paradoxes is its celebration of American heroism in foreign wars that Colonel McCormick concluded were colossal mistakes.

In the other sections of the museum, the 1st Division’s operations in World War II, Vietnam, and Desert Storm are evoked with the same flair for dramatic detail and with the same careful excision of any hint of the blunderbuss style of McCormick’s politics. In many respects the World War II section is the high point of the tour. Visitors are asked to sit down in what at first seems to be a small theater. Then they glance up and see looming over them the hull of a ship, covered with thick-roped cargo nets. A film begins on the front wall, and they are suddenly in a landing craft, heading for Omaha Beach on D-day. It is as close to the reality of battle as anyone is likely to come without actually getting shot at.

There are glimpses of the beach, the sound of an officer’s voice ordering his soldiers to keep their heads down, narration by men recalling how seasick they were, how scared, the sounds of big guns and small arms. Finally, as the film ends, the screen lifts, and the visitors walk across the front of the landing craft onto a replica of Omaha Beach as it looked a few hours after the men of the 1st Division’s 16th Infantry Regimental Combat Team had fought their way inland. The hushed newcomers stand beside marooned landing craft and gaze at a litter of discarded helmets, guns, and other equipment in a tangle of barbed wire. Just ahead stands the interior of a German blockhouse. Only the bodies—there were some twelve hundred casualties and wounded on that murderous strip of sand—have been omitted.

It was here that the 1st Division became the Big Red One, that name so full of lethal overtones for the enemy and for the men in its ranks. Throughout history armies have had elite units on which generals could rely when the going got especially tough. Again and again throughout the 1st Division’s fighting march across Europe, from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge, it played this role. General Eisenhower called it “my Praetorian Guard.” The price it paid for this acclaim was a casualty rate of almost 50 percent.

From Europe’s blasted landscape visitors move to the green underbrush and half-light of South Vietnam’s triple-canopy jungle. In glass cases are lifesize figures of an American infantryman and a Vietcong guerrilla, their clothing and equipment exactly reproduced. In the tradition of excising politics, there is little mention of the terrific acrimony and anguish this war created on the home front.

There is also no hint of criticism of the blundering attrition strategy the U.S. Army employed against the elusive enemy. One must turn to such books as James Kitfield’s Prodigal Soldiers to discover what thinking officers now admit about American military mistakes in this cruel war. But these bitter thoughts cannot be banished or ignored. Vietnam, even after a quarter-century, is still too fresh, too recent, for memories to subside into the apolitical collection of weapons and battlefields that the older wars have become.


Out of Vietnam’s dimness the visitors finally advance into the glaring daylight of the Persian Gulf War. The 1st Division, which returned from Vietnam in 1970, had in the interim become mechanized. Audiovisual programs contain stunning films of the division’s M1A1 tanks racing across the darkened desert to do battle with Iraqi armor, with devastating results. Before the fighting ended, the Big Red One destroyed more than five hundred of the Iraqis’ Soviet-made machines, without losing a single M1A1. Only eighteen division soldiers died.

The audio program ends with a Desert Storm officer proudly reporting that his men were “compassionate”; they did not kill the beaten enemy indiscriminately. It is a startling, yet strangely moving comment.

The wall above the exit door bears the motto of the 1st Division: “No Mission Too Difficult. No Sacrifice Too Great. Duty First.” The words recall the stark realities of Cantigny and Soissons, Omaha Beach, and the Iron Triangle. Sobered, the visitor emerges to the sunny serenity of the lobby and gazes out the window at the sculpture by Donald Delue called The Spirit of American Youth —a muscular figure leaping skyward. The original is in the Normandy Cemetery in France.

Suddenly the peroration of Colonel McCormick’s 1937 speech no longer seems grandiloquent. This visitor, at least, was almost ready to recite it: “March on, then First Division! . . . March on to everlasting glory!” Such is the power of memory when it is evoked by museum creators of the first rank. Forget about the colonel’s retrograde politics. Cantigny is worth the trip.


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