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When Gentlemen Prepared For War

July 2024
18min read

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

Few recall now those Plattsburg training camps of 1915 and 1916 where, during the dog days of late summer, several thousand sweaty, earnest businessmen-volunteers in unaccustomed khaki learned the manual of arms and how to form fours at a sleepy army post on the shores of Lake Champlain. The memory of their amateur soldiering—existing still in the minds of a few elderly men—has been obscured and overlaid by the mass levies of three intervening wars. Yet the Plattsburg idea was, for all its naïveté, the beginning in the United States of the twentieth-century conception of the citizen-soldier, the genesis of the officers’ training camps of the two World Wars, a psychological preparation for the drafts that were to follow.

Until 1914 the Plattsburg idea was inconceivable. If there was one general reaction in the United Stales to the European war that broke out in mid-summer of that year, it was that Americans wanted to have no part in it. President Wilson appealed to his countrymen to be “impartial in thought as well as in action … neutral in fact as well as in name.” Even ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, who never believed in keeping his belligerency under a bushel, felt at the outbreak that the United States should remain entirely neutral.

The invasion of Belgium soon made impartiality of thought impossible. To most Americans the complicated military and diplomatic issues involved reduced themselves to the simple imagery of Punch ’s cartoon showing Belgium as a small boy, stick in hand, defiantly blocking the pasture gate against a cudgelswinging German. Other circumstances soon turned American sympathy toward the Allies—the ties of English language and literature, the Anglomania of the upper-class East, Allied skill and German ineptness in propaganda. Sympathy for ihc Allies, however, was a far cry from any wish to join the slaughter. Even after the torpedoing of the Lusitania in May, 1915—probably the crucial incident that determined the entry of the United States—Wilson could still be re-elected on the slogan: “He kept us out of war!”

A few American leaders felt from the war’s outbreak that United States participation was inevitable. Most outstanding and authoritative of these was the Army’s Commander of the Department of the East and former Chief of Statt, Major General Leonard Wood. For years Wood had been preaching preparedness to an indifferent public and an uninterested government. And to his dismay, as the millions mobilized in Europe, the strength—if one could call it that—of the United States Army was only 80,000 men.

Wood—without whose zeal the Plattsburg idea would never have taken form—was not only the Army’s senior general but its outstanding one. His career was extraordinary in that he had come to the Army from Harvard Medical School rather than the generals’ way, from West Point. As a young medical lieutenant he had first served in Arizona with an army detachment that captured Geronimo and ended the Apache War. During this campaign he had shown so much courage, military skill, and readiness to take command in emergencies that he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He did not get a chance to prove this capacity on a more expanded stage, however, until the Spanish-American War. Although only a medical captain at the outset, he was soon appointed colonel of one of the three volunteer regiments of frontiersmen—the Rough Rider Regiment—with his friend Theodore Roosevelt as second-in-command. It was like releasing a powerful spring. By the end of the war Wood’s energy and ability had made him a major general of volunteers.

Subsequently, while military governor of Cuba’s Santiago City and then of Santiago Province, he ruled as America’s first proconsul, showing himself a brilliant administrator. He became as popular with Cubans as he was with his own men. In 1899, President McKinley appointed him military governor of the whole island, and some months later raised him to the permanent rank of brigadier general. Xo such rapid advance by a nonprofessional had ever before been known in the Regular Army. His success in Cuba was followed by equal success in the Philippines, where he became governor of the Moro Province and, in 1906, Commanding General of the Philippines Division. In 1908, he returned to the United States to take command of the Department of the East. In the spring of 1910 he was appointed Chief of Staff and ranking officer of the army he had joined twenty-five years before as a contract surgeon. He was to hold the post until 1914.

With his imperious yet somehow gentle face and proud, hawk nose, Wood looked every inch the general, from his chain spurs to the dog-headed riding crop that he always carried with him and that became his identity tag. There was no bombast about him, nothing of the martinet; he did not need to assert an authority that was innate. What has been said falsely of many generals could be said truly of him: he was loved by his men.

It was in Germany in 1902 that he began to reflect on the need for American preparedness, when, as a military observer, he stood beside the Kaiser and watched the field maneuvers of the German Army. That magnificently formidable machine might some clay become a threat to the world, as his fellow observer, the old English marshal Lord Roberts, remarked to him. But Wood knew the absurd impossibility of trying to create any American equivalent. What he conceived of was the formation of a citizen army, a vast, trained reserve on the Swiss model, militarily efficient yet not militaristic.

For years he tried to make his laggard countrymen aware of the need of increased national defense. He talked preparedness night and day. He wrote articles and gave interviews. He spoke to clubs and colleges all over the country. He encouraged the formation of preparedness groups like the National Security League and the American Defense Society. When clouds were gathering over Mexico in 1913, and German officers in their messes were drinking toasts to the Day, Wood took a first practical step by setting up two small summer camps for college students. Through such camps, he felt, young men would not only introduction to army life, but—more importantly—would become concerned with the problem of national defense.

At Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Monterey, California, 222 students from ninety colleges spent five weeks at their own expense, drilling, parading, firing on the range, and finally—after a sham battle lasting a week—making a sixty-five-mile forced march. The camps were endorsed by educators as well-known as ex-President Eliot and President Lowell of Harvard, President Hibben of Princeton, and President Hadley of Yale. Even the pacific Wilson gave his approval. In 1914 three times as many students enrolled, and additional camps were held at Ludington, Michigan; Asheville, North Carolina; and Burlington, Vermont.

By the time of the sinking of the Lusitania most Americans had begun to reconcile themselves to the need for increased military preparedness, and an articulate minority demanded the entry of the United States on the side of the Allies. Sternly voluble spokesman for the war hawks was Theodore Roosevelt, who felt that after the loss of so many American lives on the Lusitania it was “inconceivable we should refrain from action.” Increasing numbers of venturesome Americans had drifted north to join the Canadian Army. Others like Henry Beston, Robert Hillyer, and John Dos Passos were paying their passage across the ocean to serve as volunteer ambulance drivers with the French.

Two days after the Lusitania went down, a group of fifteen romantically indignant young Harvard graduates—among them Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Hamilton Fish, Jr., Elihu Root, Jr., and Robert Bacon, Jr., son of the former U.S. Ambassador to France—met in New York and sent a telegram to President Wilson demanding that adequate military measures, “however serious,” be taken. But Wilson, engaged in dispatching notes to the Imperial German Government, still did not consider preparedness a pressing question. Young Ted Roosevelt and two others then approached General Wood to ask if he would hold a summer camp, along the lines of the student camps, for business and professional men who wanted military training. They thought they could produce at least one hundred volunteers. Wood was enthusiastic. He promised to hold such a camp at Plattsburg in August if even twenty-five men should enroll.

Young Roosevelt and his friends—who later formalized and expanded their impromptu organization as the Military Training Camps Association—sent out over 15,000 applications to a selected group of businessmen, bankers, lawyers, doctors, college professors, and sportsmen. At first the response was slow, with only two or three applications a day coming in, but after Wood addressed a large group at the Harvard Club of New York in June there was a rush to apply. By August over a thousand had enrolled, and 1,300 were on hand for the camp’s opening on August 10.

No funds for the new venture were forthcoming from the War Department. The recruits paid their own way—thirty dollars, which included the cost of the cotton uniform. Wood had to raise extra money to take care of such necessary amenities as screens for the mess halls. Bernard Baruch gave $10,000 and persuaded others to contribute. Wood took particular pains in the selection of his training officers. All of them were West Pointers, under the command of Major Halstead Dorey. The sergeants and the corporals were old-line army noncoms.

On the evening of August 9,1915, the Business Men’s Camp Special pulled out of Grand Central Station for Plattsburg. About half those aboard had bought their uniforms in advance and were already wearing them with all the awkward self-consciousness of recruits. Officially, these somewhat overweight men, most of them in their late thirties and early forties, were motivated by undiluted patriotism and the spirit of selfsacrifice. Actually, they felt they were off on a great adventure. To them the ponderously styled United States Military Instruction Camp—known more familiarly and readily as the Business Men’s Camp—was a chance to learn man’s oldest trade, to say nothing of allowing them to leave the world of banks and offices behind with full public approval. Also there was the tacit understanding that if America should enter the war, camp attendance would be the first step toward a commission.

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.

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.”

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.

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 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.

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