by Alexander Barnes
Most collectors of WWI US Army militaria tend to focus their efforts on gathering items, uniforms, photographs, and correspondence from the doughboys assigned to the combat divisions serving in France. This is understandable because much of this material can be attributed to the famous units that were fighting on the Western Front. What tends to be forgotten, however, is that many of these same units, and most of the soldiers in them, spent as much time in training camps in the US as they did in France. Given this, it opens an under-appreciated part of the United States’ WWI effort. What is equally appealing; The collecting of photos and material from the time when the American Forces werestill in the States is very economical. Collectors will find most objects are reasonably priced.
Before digging into the potential areas to collect, it is important to understand why and how the camps were established in 1917. When the decision was made to establish thirty-two divisional-sized training sites throughout the country, the War Department had to take a number of factors into consideration. First and foremost was that some camp space was going to be required to assemble and train the regiments of the Regular Army divisions. Similarly, it was important to keep the training camps somewhat regionally based to minimize as much as possible any large-scale movement of soldiers around the country. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the War Department expected the National Army divisions would require a longer training period than the Regular Army or the National Guard divisions.
The obvious reason for the longer training period was that many of the Regular Army and National Guard divisions already had a number of trained soldiers in their ranks. The time spent on the Mexican border had gone a long way to preparing those soldiers for arduous campaigning.
Conversely, for the National Army divisions, the manpower pool was expected to come almost entirely from the draft. Thismeant the men designated to serve in these units would show up to training camps with no prior military experience whatsoever.
Ultimately, however, the most deciding factor of all turned out to be financial. After receiving the mission to build the thirty-two sites, the officers charged with constructing these camps completed a cost estimate. They then reported that the funding appropriated by Congress for the construction of training camps was only enough for half of the desired camps. Therefore, it was decided to build wooden barracks and training facilities for the 16 National Army camps and have the National Guard divisions and Regular Army units use their own unit tents for billets at their 16 camps.
Again, this made sense because the plan was for the these same units to spend less time in their camps. Since all of their training camps would be in the southern half of the US, the tents would likely be sufficient housing due to the milder weather in that region. What no one expected was that the winter of 1917-1918 would be one of the most severe in living memory and the Guardsmen and Regular Army soldiers would spend a lot of time and effort just to keep warm.
One of the most common misconceptions among collectors and some historians is that the camps in the South were named for Civil War Confederate generals while those in the north were named for Union generals. The actual naming convention was quite simple — a camp was to be named for either a soldier with historical ties to that area or to the troops who were to be trained there.
As a result, of the 32 divisional-sized training camps, the only ones named for southern generals were Lee (Virginia), Wheeler (Georgia), Gordon (Georgia), and Beauregard (Louisiana). Two of the camps in Texas were named for heroes of the Alamo (Bowie and Travis) and two for Union officers of significance to National Guardsmen training there: MacArthur (Michigan and Wisconsin), and Logan (Illinois). The same was repeated throughout the South with National Guard camps named McClellan, Sheridan, Hancock, Wadsworth and Meade. Other camps were named for presidents with a military background: Zachary Taylor (Kentucky) and Jackson (South Carolina). From the pre-Civil War period came the names of famous military heroes and explorers: Lewis (Washington State), Fremont and Kearny (California), Cody (New Mexico), Pike (Arkansas), Greene (North Carolina) and so on. Even the recently deceased General Frederick Funston had a divisional training camp named in his honor in Kansas.
COLLECTING CAMP-RELATED MATERIAL
Now that we have all this knowledge of the training camps, why should we be interested in collecting militaria from these sites and soldier who trained there? Simple. It’s both fascinating and readily available.
The American soldiers and Marines of the Great War were prolific letter writers and souvenir collectors. As a result, their correspondence makes fascinating reading and provides a wealth of information about what they thought about the war, the Army, their training camps, and each other. Making it even more interesting to the militaria collector, each camp had its own post office and so you can easily determine where the soldier was writing from.
A subset of collecting this correspondence is specifically collecting letters and postcards written in foreign languages. With some 20 percent of the Army born in a foreign land, this is much easier than you might expect. Over a short period I was able to find letters and cards written in Russian, Greek, Danish, German, Spanish, Italian, Czechoslovakian, and Polish. The much harder part is finding someone who can translate early 20th century Danish or Greek into English for you.
Each camp also produced a large number of souvenirs for the soldier to send home. Therefore, you can collect camp guidebooks, salt and pepper shakers, handkerchiefs, dishes, pillow cases, banners, pennants, etc. This list of possibilities is endless.
If you live in Ohio you may want to focus solely on items from Camp Sherman where the National Army’s 83rd Division trained or you could focus on materials from camps that are still in existence today such as Dix, Meade, Gordon, and Lee. One note of caution, today’s Fort Gordon is not located at the same place that WWI’s Camp Gordon was built, but they do share the name. Other possible collections include photographs of soldiers posing with their rifles, their wives or girlfriends, with the automobiles and trucks of the day, or in their barracks.
So with all of this in mind, take a look at some the pictures here and develop your own collection plan for the National Army training camps. If nothing here catches your interest, perhaps the next installment of this article which will talk about collecting the National Guard training camps, might be the answer. Either way, you can build an interesting collection with only a modest outlay of money.