During the interlude marked by the end of the depression of the 1890s and the entry of the United States into the First World War in 1917, Tennesseans as well as other Americans entered the twentieth century. Embracing reformism at home and imperialism abroad, Americans of this era, on the domestic front and in foreign affairs, set the nation’s future course. This was Progressivism at high tide, but the philosophy that shaped it and the ideas that undergirded it spilled over at either end of its loosely established chronological boundaries. Correcting the ills of an American society struggling to make the transition from a rural past to an urban future, Tennesseans as well as other Americans concentrated on domestic issues while international relations commanded less attention. By 1917, however, ominous developments overseas could no longer be ignored.
The faraway assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the chain of events it set in motion, culminating with World War I, eventually reached into the rural communities and remote villages of the Volunteer State. Tennesseans shifted their attention from politics and prohibition to foreign affairs and distant battlegrounds. The principal European nations had been engaged in military conflict since 1914, but the United States managed to avoid direct involvement until 1917. Violations of American neutrality, sympathy for Britain and France, based largely on strong cultural and historic ties, the diplomatic blunderings of the Germans, and economic considerations congealed, and President Woodrow Wilson, a pacifist at heart, led his country into the first global war of the twentieth century.
During the Progressive era, as local and regional economies gave way to the national and international organizational structure of corporate America, a pronounced alteration in federal-state relations occurred. The creation of the National Guard, which swallowed up the old state militia units, represents a case in point. Although the militia could be called up to keep the peace at the local level or to resist a foreign invasion, it was not until after the Spanish-American War that the militia had a permanent place in the federal military. Congress, between 1900 and 1903, routinely approved appropriations for the militia, providing federal money to outfit units of citizen soldiers. With the passage of the Dick Act on January 21, 1903, the U.S. government officially established an organized militia that could be called into the service as a part of the regular army.
Between 1903 and 1916, other congressional legislation tied the state units even more securely to the federal government. The National Defense Act of 1916, which was intended to prepare the nation’s military forces for the possibility of involvement in World War I, represented the capstone for those who had actively sought the integration of the militia into the regular army. It specified that the state units, designated as the National Guard, would pass under complete federal control in time of war or grave public emergency as determined by the commander-in-chief. Shortly after the enactment of this legislation, with revolutionary upheaval in Mexico and chaos along the border, President Wilson ordered the National Guard into federal service. The initial call-up included almost 2,000 Tennesseans, but subsequent enlistments increased the numbers in the mobilization camp at Nashville by another thousand.
Tennessee National Guardsmen, many of whom probably still considered themselves state militiamen, made no secret of their homesickness and general dissatisfaction when they arrived in the Southwest. Both the First and the Third Regiments saw duty on the border as did three troops of cavalry and hospital and ambulance detachments. The Tennessee delegation in Congress and Governor Tom C. Rye lobbied unsuccessfully for the return of the troops by Christmas. War Department plans prevailed, the U.S. Army maintained control of the Tennessee National Guardsmen, and the last of them did not come home and muster out of federal service until March 24, 1917. Two weeks later, on April 6, the United States formally entered World War I. Six days thereafter, the War Department placed elements of the Tennessee National Guard on active duty; others were called up later.
When the war broke out, a relatively small number of Tennesseans already served in the peacetime armed forces, but the activation of the Guard affected hundreds of Tennesseans; still others joined of their own volition. Nevertheless, the Selective Service, commonly known as the draft, provided the greatest number of men from the Volunteer State. Both the North and the South had used the draft during the Civil War, but this marked the first time that the federal government had conscripted Tennessee civilians. The Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917, specified that military and naval forces should be recruited by lot from among adult males between the ages of twenty-one and thirty, later expanded to eighteen and forty-five.
Governor Rye named Major Rutledge Smith of Putnam County, who had been heading up the Tennessee Council of Defense, to direct the state’s Selective Service System. Three registrations occurred on June 5, 1917, December 14, 1917, and August 24, 1918, respectively. A total of 474,347 men reported to the Selective Service, 368,242 of whom actually completed the classification process. (1) The nation eventually drafted 61,069 Tennesseans, 43,730 whites and 17,339 blacks, according to figures given in Stanley J. Folmsbee et al., History of Tennessee (1960). Camp Gordon, Georgia, welcomed many of these hastily created soldiers into federal service. Military and naval authorities had implemented a policy that prevented large groups of men from a single state from serving in any one division overseas. Nonetheless, the Thirtieth Division, nicknamed the Old Hickory Division in honor of Andrew Jackson, was made up of troops mostly from Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The Thirtieth trained at Camp Sevier, South Carolina, prior to service in Europe. Elements of the Thirtieth Division played a major, perhaps even decisive, role in breaking through the famous Hindenburg Line.
Most Tennesseans in the military served in the infantry, but others entered the Marine Corps, the Army Air Corps, and the U.S. Navy. Indeed, Admiral Albert Gleaves (1858-1937) of Nashville, one of the most notable sailors of this era from the landlocked Volunteer State, commanded the United States Navy Cruiser and Transport Force, which had the responsibility of convoying American and allied troops to the continent. In 1919 Gleaves was commander-in-chief, Asiatic Fleet. He held the Distinguished Service Medal and the French Legion of Honor. Another Tennessean, Admiral William Banks Caperton (1855-1941) of Spring Hill became commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet during 1916 and subsequently was involved in naval operations in the South Atlantic. World War I also featured daring young men in their flying machines, and Tennessee claimed flying aces, among them Lieutenant Edward Buford of Nashville. Two other aviators, Lieutenant Claude O. Lowe and Lieutenant McGhee Tyson, lost their lives in the line of duty. Yet another Tennessean, Colonel Luke Lea, staged one of the most colorful escapades of World War I, leading what American Expeditionary Commander John J. Pershing officially labeled “an amazingly indiscreet” raid into Holland in a futile attempt to capture the exiled German Kaiser Wilhelm II and bring him to justice.
The most celebrated common soldier of World War I–a Tennessean–hailed from Fentress County in the Upper Cumberlands. Of humble origin, Alvin C. York had little formal education and as a young man had indulged in the not uncommon vices of drinking, gambling, and brawling. After a religious conversion in 1915, he became a devout fundamentalist Christian who opposed war and violence. After struggling with his convictions, he was drafted and later assigned to the 82nd Division of the 328th Infantry Regiment, where he won international acclaim for his single-handed shoot-out with a German machine gun battalion in the Argonne Forest. York purportedly killed 25 Germans, captured 132 prisoners, and silenced 35 machine guns, a feat which earned him a promotion to sergeant and won him the Congressional Medal of Honor.
As warfare siphoned manpower out of Tennessee, it poured dollars into the Volunteer State. The U.S. Army Signal Corps Aviation Section, for example, established an aviation school near Millington in Shelby County. On November 30, 1917, the first thirty students arrived from the University of Illinois; three days later, another seventy-five from Princeton joined them. Most of the would-be pilots were college graduates. Student aviators trained in the JN4, known as the “Jenny,” a biplane that carried two passengers. The plane featured a Curtiss OX-5 engine, a wooden propeller, and fabric covering. Park Field, the WWI training facility, not only contributed to the economy of Memphis and Millington at the time but continues to do so today, having become in 1942 the site of the Naval Reserve Aviation Base, the forerunner for the Naval Air Technical Training Command presently located in Shelby County.
The World War I era also gave rise to the “war babies” in various locations around the state–industries that owed their existence to the defense effort and either ceased to exist or went into major retrenchment when the armistice came. Numerous small factories producing war materiel made their short-lived appearances. The most important facility of these years was the powder plant at Hadley’s Bend–later called Old Hickory–on the Cumberland River near Nashville. It cost $80 million to construct and E. I. DuPont de Nemours Company operated it. The project brought 20,000 new workers to the Nashville area and caused a crisis in housing and transportation.
On the home front, state residents responded to the patriotic fervor of the times and organized for victory. Cooperating fully with the national government, the Tennessee State Council of Defense modeled itself after the National Council of Defense. Every county had its own council as did some six to seven thousand communities. Home Guards kept a watchful vigil over railroad trestles and bridges although saboteurs seemed to have posed no serious threat. Newspaper editors across the state rallied to promote patriotism, and nearly every county claimed “Four-Minute Men,” so called because they could deliver brief, enthusiastic orations in support of the war effort. The wonders performed by the federal food and fuel administrations and their state counterparts, which encouraged and fostered voluntary conservation of precious commodities, warded off rationing. Dr. Harcourt A. Morgan, dean of the College of Agriculture of the University of Tennessee, directed the Tennessee Food Administration. Meanwhile, public officials urged farmers to grow more crops and property owners to set aside vacant lots in urban areas for food production. Educators encouraged high school students to cultivate “Victory” gardens.
Historically, warfare has been dominated by men, but armed conflict has always impinged on women’s lives as well. Some females from Tennessee entered the armed forces. Many others, black and white, worked in factories or contributed to a variety of private agencies, among them the Young Women’s Christian Association, the American Red Cross, and the Tennessee Division and Davidson County Liberty Loan Organizations. The influenza epidemic of 1918-19 inspired some of the most heroic and self-sacrificing service. Women, trained and untrained, nursed the afflicted; others drove cars and ambulances to assist physicians and public-health authorities in their efforts to combat the disease. Government officials specifically commended the emergency work of the Motor Corps Department of the Nashville Chapter of the American Red Cross. Approximately 20 million people died worldwide, including more than 500,000 Americans. The undertakers of Nashville as well as other Tennessee towns and communities found it difficult to cope with the victims. Chattanooga, for example, had experienced as many as 5,848 civilian deaths by October 19, 1918, and soldiers encamped at nearby Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, and Chickamauga Park succumbed to influenza as well.
When hostilities ended, the home front prepared to celebrate. Women across the state, particularly in the capital, played a preeminent role in homecoming festivities. They arranged parades, block dances, patriotic tableaux, and banquets. In Middle Tennessee alone, Mrs. W. H. (Betty Lyle) Wilson, a nationally renowned cake-maker, headed a drive for the homecoming dinner that garnered ten thousand cakes. After the armistice in 1918, the 114th Field Artillery became the first of the large units to return to the state. Traveling by train from Newport News, Virginia, the troops crossed the state line on March 29, 1919. They paraded in Knoxville where more than 30,000 cheering people lined the route. Then the 114th entrained for Nashville and arrived several hours later at a siding adjacent to Centennial Park. In Nashville, when the veterans passed in review, an estimated 100,000 to 250,000 people turned out to greet them. Governor A. H. Roberts delivered a welcoming address. The troops then traveled to Chattanooga where they also received an enthusiastic welcome before being demobilized in Georgia. Other Tennessee soldiers returned to less fanfare, but citizens in towns and cities across the state, from Johnson City to Memphis, officially greeted their returning veterans. At Jackson, a local committee of black citizens planned the largest celebration that they had ever conducted to show their appreciation for the African American soldiers from Madison and adjoining counties.
The general assembly voted a bonus for all who had served in the ranks, and the state legislature, city of Nashville, and Davidson County funded the War Memorial Building in the capital. One source indicates that Tennessee furnished as many as 130,915 men and women for the armed forces and suffered 3,836 deaths and 6,190 casualties. The Volunteer State also provided 3,690 officers, 110 of them female nurses. Only 288 individuals registered as conscientious objectors; citations for bravery abounded and the state claimed six Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. Among them was Edward R. Talley of Appalachia, Virginia, who apparently had some Tennessee connections. Four of the other recipients survived the war and claimed residence: Joseph B. Adkinson of Atoka; James E. Karnes of Knoxville; Calvin J. Ward of Morristown; and Alvin C. York of Jamestown. Milo Lemert of Crossville died in service to his country, but his body was retrieved from France for final burial. Citizens of the Volunteer State had also done their share to finance the war. Every loan drive, which involved war bond sales, including the very difficult Victory Loan of 1919, was oversubscribed in Tennessee. In the aftermath of battle, a group of representatives from division and service units of the American Expeditionary Force had met in Paris, France, from March 15 to 17, 1919, and organized the American Legion. By August 1919, Memphis Post, No. 1, set out to enlist every discharged soldier, sailor, and marine, which in Shelby County amounted to an estimated 10,000 men. Other posts soon developed around the state, and ladies auxiliaries likewise appeared.
The superpatriotism of the World War I era, fueled by such organizations as George Creel’s Committee on Public Information, of which the “Four-Minute Men” were a part, encouraged a social climate that was ripe for bigotry. Intolerance, racism, and nativism ran rampant during the war years and into the next decade. Individuals of German origin suffered wartime harassment in both the state and the nation, the reborn Ku Klux Klan increased its membership in Tennessee and across the country, and race riots occurred in East St. Louis, Illinois, and Houston, Texas, during 1917, anticipating those two years later that the African American writer James Weldon Johnson dubbed “Red Summer.” During a sixteen-month period from April to October 1919, twenty towns and cities in both the North and South experienced disturbances that left blood in their streets. Race riots occurred in such far-flung locations as Longview, Texas, Washington, D.C., Omaha, Nebraska, and Chester, Pennsylvania. Elaine, Arkansas, and Chicago, Illinois, claimed the most violent riots of 1919, but they were exceeded in intensity by the Tulsa, Oklahoma, riot of 1921–the most serious of the post-WWI years. One of the 1919 riots transpired in the East Tennessee Republican stronghold of Knoxville.
Reese Amis, History of the 114th Field Artillery: First Tennessee Field Artillery (1920); William James Bacon, History of the Fifty-fifth Field Artillery Brigade (1920); James A. Crutchfield, Tennesseans at War: Volunteers and Patriots in Defense of Liberty (1987); Stanley J. Folmsbee, Robert E. Corlew, and Enoch L. Mitchell, “The Volunteer State Goes to War, 1917-1918,” in History of Tennessee, vol. 2 (1960); Rose Long (Mrs. John G.) Gilmore, Davidson County Women in the World War, 1914-1919 (1923); Paul E. Isaac, Prohibition and Politics: Turbulent Decades in Tennessee, 1885-1920 (1965); Lester C. Lamon, Black Tennesseans, 1900-1930 (1977); David E. Lee, Sergeant York: An American Hero (1985); Elmer A. Murphy and Robert S. Thomas, The Thirtieth Division in the World War (1936); Margaret Ripley Wolfe, “The Border Service of the Tennessee National Guard, 1916-1917,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 32 (1973): 374-88