Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Charlie Gibson, Boston, and the War in Europe

This blog post is part of a series about the Gibson family and the lead-up to the 1920 presidential election, which promised "a return to normalcy" after many years of social upheaval. Read about the Gibsons and suffrage here and Boston during the flu epidemic of 1918 here.

Charlie Gibson, a Citizen Soldier: The Plattsburg Movement and the First World War 

On May 7, 1915, a German submarine torpedoed and sank the HMS Lusitania, a British cruise liner traveling from New York City to Liverpool, England. Almost twelve hundred people died in the attack, including 123 Americans. 

Gibson House Museum
For almost two more years, President Woodrow Wilson maintained official neutrality and a policy of American isolation. Others in the United States believed that American entry into the conflict was inevitable and joined the Preparedness Movement, an effort to ready American troops for war. Led by individuals such as former president Theodore Roosevelt and General Leonard Wood, the Preparedness Movement gained much of its membership from upper- and middle-class Americans in the Northeast. 

In 1913 and 1914, Wood oversaw the creation of several small summer camps across the country aimed at training college students for future military service. A month after the sinking of the Lusitania, the New York Times reported that a new summer camp for business and professional men would be held in upstate New York. 

Known as the “Businessman’s Training Camp,” Plattsburg invited social elites to train for war. Ninety percent of attendees had college degrees, and membership included two Roosevelts and the general manager of the Times

Gibson House Museum
Forty-year-old Charles H. Gibson, Jr. (“Charlie”)—a Republican son of one of Boston’s prominent families—may have been at the older end of new recruits. But on September 8, 1915, he traveled to the Plattsburg Barracks for four weeks of citizens’ military training. According to an article in the New Republic, Plattsburg wasn’t meant to militarize the United States. Instead, it would “civilize” the American military; its recruits saw national service as a core element of citizenship. 

Thousands of Plattsburgers eventually served after the United States joined the First World War on April 6, 1917. Charlie would not be among them. There are several possible explanations for his continued presence in Boston during the war, despite his earlier support for it.

First, Charlie was unlikely to be drafted due to his age. More than 65 percent of the American military in the war came from a series of drafts, and the first rounds applied only to men ages 21 to 30. When the age for registration went up to 45 in September 1918, Charlie registered when he was just shy of 44. The draft ended just two months later, on November 11, 1918, when an armistice was signed in Europe. 

Second, the death of Charles Gibson Sr. left the Gibson family without a patriarch. On his draft card, Charlie listed his mother Rosamond as his nearest relative. With his sisters both married and his mother widowed, he may have felt as though he needed to stay close to home. Years later, in 1934, Charlie would return to his childhood home to care for his mother, signaling the responsibility he felt towards her. 

Third, Charlie’s status as a native, upper-class Bostonian may have insulated him from the pressure to enlist, something not true for immigrants and new citizens. Foreign-born soldiers composed over 18 percent of the Army during the First World War, likely including friends or relatives of the predominantly Irish staff of the Gibson House. 

As a member of the Republican Party, Charlie likely remained a supporter of the war. While his and his family’s day-to-day affairs may not have changed significantly as a result of the war effort, it had a broad impact in Boston and the Commonwealth. 

Massachusetts at War 

The “Yankee Division,” officially known as the Twenty-Sixth Infantry Division of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, drew roughly 60 percent of its 28,000 infantrymen from cities and towns across the Bay State. 

As the Boston Red Sox won their final World Series of the twentieth century (a competition permitted by special order after the government was persuaded it would help with the sale of Liberty Bonds), thousands of Massachusetts men were assembled in trenches on the western flank of the St. Mihiel Salient in France. The Twenty-Sixth Division’s participation in what would be a key victory for the American Expeditionary Forces was well documented in Boston’s newspapers and served as a source of pride for many New Englanders. 

Other Massachusetts regiments also served in France, including the Boston-based Fourteenth Engineer Regiment and the Seventy-Sixth National Army Division. The Boston Navy Yard (now known as the Charlestown Navy Yard, two miles northeast of the Gibson House) outfitted almost every ship headed to fight in the Atlantic. 

The city also exported food and critical supplies to Europe, and manufactured armaments, uniforms, shoes, and boots for the American and Allied armies. During the war, Boston served as a haven for political dissidents from other nations, including Ireland, Armenia, Poland, and Greece.

Less than 100 miles from Boston, a German submarine sunk several coal barges and fired shells at the town of Orleans on Cape Cod on July 21, 1918. This attack made Massachusetts the only part of the country to come under enemy fire in the First World War. 

The End of the War: Boston Celebrates

Bostonians waiting for Peace Day Parade, 1918.
National Archives
Float in the Peace Day Parade, 1918.
National Archives

“Scenes riotous beyond attempt of description, but riotous to a degree that thrilled the heart of every liberty-loving, proudly patriotic, boatful inhabitant of the most intensely loyal city of the world, took place in Boston’s streets yesterday.”

In the November 12, 1918, edition of the Boston Globe, numerous articles followed the city and state’s reaction to the end of the First World War. Calling November 11 an “unofficial holiday,” the Globe described how “restraint was unknown” and Americans went “insane with joy.” The paper mocked “unhappy, despised Kaiser”: 

“...and poor old Bill would have seen himself, in effigy, dragged through the streets of the city: he would have seen his image, soaked in oil, burning fiercely to the intense delight of the populace.”

In a November 10, 1918, editorial titled “When It’s Over, Over There,” the Boston Globe warned that while the fighting was over, the war was not. “The war is not over. The real war is just beginning—the war against ignorance, the war against poverty, the war against prejudice, the war against disease....The world of 1914 was one thing. The world of 1920 will have to be something radically different.” 

—Kathrine Esten, Intern (UMass-Amherst)

Visit the Gibson House Museum to see our outdoor exhibit, "1920: The Gibsons' New Normal," on view from October 1 through December 17, 2020.

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