100 Years Ago: Rappahannock answers the Call to Arms

This is the second of a three part series

Exactly 100 years ago a young man from Rappahannock County likely sat on the edge of his bunk and marveled how his life had changed in just one year. Back in January 1917 he did pretty much as he wanted. Now, he had to be at a specific place at a specific time, dressed a particular way, doing what he was told, and usually not speaking except to say, Yes, Sir! . . . No, Sir!

For this newspaper series on Rappahannock County in The Great War (as WW1 was then called), the training of the 318th Infantry Regiment at Camp Lee, near Petersburg, will be described. It is the unit to which a great many Rappahannock draftees were assigned. As to how they got there, the answer begins with the president of the United States.

When the United States entered the Great War on April 6, 1917, the reason given by then-President Woodrow Wilson was so the world could “be made safe for democracy.” At that time, the U.S. had only 133,000 Regular Army troops. This was less than the number Greece had in its army at the start of the Great War in 1914.

Of course there was the National Guard from each state, territory, and the District of Columbia, and they were mobilized on Aug. 5, 1917, adding 67,000 men to the Regular Army. But the Regular Army did not think too much of the National Guard: not well trained, lacking discipline, officers fraternizing with their troops, etc.

To solve the manpower crisis, Congress instituted a draft on May 18, 1917. This caused many men to voluntarily enlist in the Regular Army or join the National Guard — organizations where an individual could choose his buddies (in a draft, a man was placed where he was needed). Congress implemented the draft, but remembering the draft riots of the Civil War, they cleverly called it the Selective Service System. It still exists today. “Selection” was to be made by a man’s friends and neighbors; his “Service” was held in high regard locally; and it was a “System,” an increasingly popular term of the time.

Those drafted also entered a brand new military entity called the National Army. This National Army provided for an unlimited number of men for as long as the Great War lasted. And this National Army was formed to meet the specific needs of General Pershing and his American Expeditionary Force (AEF), then in France. Soon, Regular Army and National Guard units were merged into this National Army, with many such entities losing their historical identities, a real sore point with them. At one camp, a National Guard unit, in a mock funeral, buried their distinctive uniforms before becoming an entirely different group. In any event, the U.S. now had just an Army. But first, men had to be selected and then trained.

Rappahannock’s Draft Board

As noted above, some men voluntarily joined the Regular Army, the National Guard, other services, etc., and this was true of a few Rappahannock County men, but the vast majority of those involved in WW1 were drafted. There were three draft calls: the first on June 5, 1917 for all men between the ages of 21 and 31, the second on June 5, 1918, for those age 21 after June 5, 1917, and the third on Sept. 12, 1918, for men ages 18 through 45.

In the first draft on June 5, 1917, Rappahannock men between the ages of 21 and 31 appeared before the local registration board consisting of H. J. Miller, Sheriff; W.C. Armstrong, clerk; and J. G. Brown. Sheriffs usually knew the exact ages of young men by checking school reports, or checking when they registered to vote, or by a marriage record, or if they had sworn to be 21 to receive a quart of liquor each month under prohibition law, etc. It wasn’t easy to lie about your age.

Credit: Thompson Illustragraph Co., Camp Photographers, Camp Lee, Va.;
Library of Virginia; Library of Congress.

There was also a Legal Advisory Board for Rappahannock County: F.C. Baggarly (chairman), C. H. Keyser, Washington; and Geo W. Settle, Flint Hill. In addition, there was a local Government Appeals Agent: Wm. F. Moffett, Washington. Moffett had succeeded F. C. Baggarly, who served July 1917 to April 1918, when he was released to enter government service in Washington, D.C. And finally, there was a Medical Advisory Board for Rappahannock County, No. 21, based in Culpeper.

As a result of the first draft call for men between ages 21 and 31, selected Rappahannock men were sent to Camp Lee. At Camp Lee (now Fort Lee), men were mostly from Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The initial draftees, including those from Rappahannock County, went to Camp Lee mainly by train in three increments so as to not overwhelm the new facility: 30 percent on Sept. 5, the next 30 percent on Sept. 15, another 30 percent on Sept. 30, and the last 10 percent later. Farming communities were to consider local crop conditions in scheduling departures. Draftees from Rappahannock were accepted at Camp Lee in September, October, and November and they became part of the 318th Infantry Regiment.

In 1917, an infantry regiment had close to 3,600 men and officers (this is about half the current population of Rappahannock County: men, women, and children). The regiment was composed of four rifle companies, each with 256 men and officers. Not including officers, a company had four platoons, each with 59 men. A platoon had four squads of 10 men each. In addition, there were other, specialized, elements in an infantry regiment.

Another point: men in an infantry regiment were the ones trained to come face-to-face with the enemy, right down to shoving a bayonet into his gut after crawling in mud through barbed wire, firing his own rifle and lobbing grenades on the way, while possibly seeing his buddies nearby blown apart, or finding himself gagging on poison gas. You, as a draftee, went to Camp Lee to train to do and endure this. But you didn’t really understand this at the time.

Unfortunately, Camp Lee itself was far from finished. In a history of the 318th Infantry Regiment, written after the Great War, the first officers arriving by train on Friday, Aug. 17, and described the situation: It was a hot day, in the mid-80s, windy, and the place looked like a desert. Camp Lee was supposed to handle 32,000 men, but it was still being built. The officers had to speed up the work of carpenters and plumbers during the day, and attend schooling on Infantry Drill Regulations and Field Service Regulations for themselves in the evening. They had two weeks to get everything ready.

On Sept. 5, a Wednesday, in the late afternoon, the first batch of 230 of 690 recruits arrived by train at Petersburg’s train station. Shuttle cars got them to Camp Lee, where three tents had been set up with signs on the front saying Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Virginian men entered their tent and saw a map of Virginia spread out on a table. Each county had a number, 317 or 318. Any men from Rappahannock County were to be assigned to the 318th Infantry Regiment. The men were next marched to their barracks, where, by 7 p.m. carpenters, plumbers, and other mechanics had wrapped up their day’s work, and the new recruits moved in.

Once in a barracks, in its mess hall, the men answered to a roll call, and then were sent to shower stalls. It might be noted that the latrines, with shower baths and wash troughs, were located 50 feet from the barracks. After a shower, the men returned to the barracks mess hall where they were weighed, their “pedigree” taken (father, mother, etc.), and a physical exam made. Next, they moved to the recreation room of the barracks. Each recruit was supposed to be supplied with a “khaki uniform, army hat, shoes, leggings, blanket, rifle, ammunition belt, and other accouterments of a soldier,” but uniforms and other supplies had not yet arrived. They donned their old clothes and slept in them.

The next day, Thursday, Sept. 6, they were vaccinated and given typhoid prophylaxis. A newspaper account tells of a storm that Thursday night, which tested the water-tightness of the new barracks. Most barracks kept the rain out, but the wind blew down a YMCA tent. The newspaper also described how men took off their clothes and went out into the rain for a bath. It noted how the camp’s water system used wooden pipes and they burst at points under the increased pressure of servicing so many new buildings. Thus later, some men had to wash or shave using ditches or rivulets. Metal pipes were needed. On Friday, Sept. 7, the man began to drill, marching to and fro.

The first batch of men from Rappahannock County was processed as described above at Camp Lee, but this was done in the third week of September, the men being accepted on Sept. 22 and 24. Another batch was called and accepted on Nov. 2, 6, and 23. In that fall of 1917, three Rappahannock men died in camp (one of pneumonia), there were two conscientious objectors, and two deserted, with one being later captured. It wasn’t until the spring and summer of 1918 that more Rappahannock men were called.

In Part 3, to be published later this month, the training begins

Don Audette
About Don Audette 29 Articles
Don Audette has a place in Sperryville, is a longtime member of the Rappahannock Lions and writes about local history in his "Yesterdays" column for the Rappahannock News.