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From the Autumn 1997 Issue, Volume Six, Number Four:

The Plattsburg Movement and its Legacy

by Donald M. Kington

The story is told of a French officer, just after the Armistice, complimenting an American officer on the United States having raised in excess of three millions of men in ten months. "That's good," he said. "but I am told that, although you had no officers' reserves to start with, you somehow found 200,000 new officers, most of them competent." That, he added, was astonishing and he wanted to know how it was done.

The American, who himself was a product of the system, was able to describe the famous "90-day" Officer Training Camps in 1917. Had there been time, and the French officer patient enough to listen, the American probably could have described the genesis of that program. 1

It all began in the summer of 1913 with the idea of establishing a training program for young civilians. That year the army conducted two experimental camps for college men. General Leonard Wood was chief of staff. It was Wood's political and public-relations savvy that launched the fledgling attempt at military preparedness. 2

The idea of summer military training for civilians was not new. For years the militia had conducted camps of instruction. A supplement to the 1912 War Department Annual Report had recommended summer camps along with a proposed national reserve organization. 3

The inspiration for Wood's actions in 1913 came from a situation that is unimaginable in modern-day Army protocol. During Cornell University's spring break Lieutenant Henry T. Bull, the university's professor of military science, took the train from Ithaca, New York, to Washington and quickly obtained an appointment with the chief of staff. 4

Bull had learned of the navy's plan to offer college students a two-month summer cruise aboard battleships and thought the idea could be adapted by the army. He proposed to Wood that qualified students be attached to regular army units for four or five weeks in the summer, but strictly as volunteer civilians, with no enlistment involved.

Wood liked the idea but believed special camps should be established for the training. He assigned Bull to a three officer committee to prepare a detailed program. The other two officers were Captain Robert van Horn and Captain Douglas A. MacArthur. More than 20 years later MacArthur would again play important roles in the army's summer training program for young civilians.

With the backing of Lindley M. Garrison, secretary of war in the new Wilson administration, Wood sent the following circular to the presidents of colleges and universities throughout the nation:

  1. The secretary of war has decided to hold two experimental military camps of instruction for students of educational institutions during the coming summer vacation period. Should these camps prove a success, it is intended to hold them annually, one in each of the four sections of the country.
  2. The object of these camps is, primarily, to increase the present inadequate personnel of the trained military reserve of the United States by a class of men from whom, in time of national emergency, a large proportion of the commissioned officers will probably be drawn, and upon whose military judgment at such time, the lives of many other men will in a measure depend.5

Despite the short notice and limited time for preparation, two successful camps were conducted that summer in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for the eastern sector, and one for the west in Pacific Grove, California, near the Presidio of Monterey.

There were no extra appropriations for the camps, nor did Wood attempt to obtain any. In addition to transportation costs to and from camp, the training cost for each young man was $27.50: $10 for uniforms and $17.50 for food. 6

The camps were so successful that the next year four camps were scheduled. The 1914 camps were located in Ludington, Michigan, near the shores of Lake Michigan; Asheville, North Carolina, near the Pisgah Mountains; and Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont, on Lake Champlain. The camp in the west remained in the Monterey area. 7

By 1914 the European continent was engulfed in war, causing the idea of military preparedness to take on a new urgency for Americans. This concern was particularly strong in New York and other urban areas of the northeast. Influential young eastern executives and politicians became so anxious about the issue that they, almost spontaneously, helped create what became known as the "Plattsburg Movement."

Hundreds of distinguished and not-so-distinguished public and private leaders in their thirties and forties, including the 36-year-old mayor of New York City, John Purroy Mitchel, volunteered for a summer camp at Plattsburg Barracks in upstate New York. 8 Two Roosevelts also attended, Quentin and Theodore Jr., as did Julius Ochs Adler, general manager of the New York Times and nephew of Adolph Ochs, the newspaper's publisher. Adler's pro-national defense attitude would favorably influence the Times coverage of defense issues for years to come.

This Plattsburg camp was in addition to the camps for college men, which continued in 1915. The four-week training at Plattsburg (despite what today's atlases and ZIP Code books show, that is the way the city's name was then spelled) was officially known as the Business Men's Camp but was branded early and irrevocably by the press as the "Tired Businessmen's Camp."

Although the camp's extensive publicity, particularly in the New York newspapers, concentrated on the lighter side, it sharpened the nation's new awareness of the preparedness movement. One of the nation's most vocal and distinguished proponents of military readiness took to his "bully pulpit" to express his enthusiastic support of summer military training for young men. Theodore Roosevelt said: "The military tent, where boys sleep side by side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democracy." 9

As a captain in 1916 George C. Marshall was cadre for the West Coast's version of Plattsburg's "Tired Businessmen's Camp" conducted at the plush grounds of the Del Monte Hotel in Monterey, California. According to Marshall's boss, General J. Franklin Bell, headquartered at the Presidio of San Francisco, the volunteer trainees were "all the hot bloods of San Francisco. I saw more Rolls-Royces and other fine cars around there than I have ever seen collected." It was Captain Marshall's job to whip them into shape, which he did with a firm effectiveness that earned him the respect of the "hot bloods" and won him the nickname "Dynamite." 10

The graduates of the 1915 and 1916 camps gave the spark for the formation of the Military Training Camps Association (MTCA), with the core of its membership principally alumni of Plattsburg training. " 11

The MTCA soon gained sufficient political clout to influence congress's approval of a full appropriation for the 1917 camps. In April, however, the nation declared war against Germany, wiping out any possibility of summer camps for volunteer civilians. The MTCA quickly suggested to the secretary of war that the proposed civilian camps be converted into officers' training camps. The association and the War Department carried on a nationwide recruiting campaign, and by 27 August, 341 candidates had been graduated from the first series of of fleer training camps. This, wrote the secretary of war, was "a number sufficient to meet the immediate needs of the Army." 12

The Officer Candidate Schools ran from May 1917 through November 1918 at locations across the nation. Officer candidates, after careful screening, were given three months of intensive training. By May and June of 1918, 57,307 graduates from the first three series of schools had been commissioned and enrolled in the new national army. At the time of the Armistice in November about 46,000 candidates were enrolled in the fourth and last series of officers' schools. Because of the need for officers of all grades, commissions were granted up to the rank of colonel in the first two series. The secretary of war reported a total of 297 graduates being commissioned as field grade officers, including two full colonels. The camps also provided a sizable number of captains and first lieutenants. 13 It appears that many of those who had attended the earlier "Tired Businessmen's" camps reentered the 1917 officer training camps where they earned commissions. The tragic hero of the legendary "Lost Battalion," Charles W. Whittlesey, and Captain George McMurtry, Major Whittlesey's right hand in that operation, were among the graduates.

An officer candidate camp for African-Americans also was opened in June 1918 at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. By October of that year the camp had commissioned 639 black officers, all in the infantry. 14

Marked indelibly with the sarcastic sobriquet of "90 Day Wonders," a nickname later inherited by the graduates of Officers' Candidate Schools during World War 11, graduates of this quickly improvised World War I training program provided the army with a cadre of combat leaders unsurpassed in any of the nation's previous wars.

As essential as this military-preparedness training was to the army's success -- actually its very survival in Europe -the concept would always have its detractors. In The Top Kick, Leonard H. Nason's gritty and often darkly humorous novel set on the battlefields of France, two of the Regular Army doughboys, both of whom apparently had been cadre at Plattsburg Barracks, have the following conversation:

" I aim to get a commission out of this scrap and it's time I was after it."

"Well, you would a got one at Plattsburg if you hadn't gone givin' your opinion on them sheep-herdin' jaspers they called reserve officers. You wouldn't expect to get a commission after tellin' a bunch o' millionaires they wouldn't make a pimple on a good soldier's nose, would yuh?" 15

How many millionaires attended Plattsburg or were members of the MTCA is problematic and beside the point. The MTCA was an organization made up of individuals from all over the nation who were sincerely dedicated to the idea of military preparedness, some of whom were in high enough positions to influence the army and the Congress.

Shortly after the Armistice, in his annual report for 1918, Secretary of War Baker lauded the army's of officer training program. "Thousands of our young men," he wrote, "left positions of responsibility and profit, dropped their personal affairs and devoted themselves wholeheartedly to the new business of war." 16

After being mustered out, many of those citizen soldiers who survived the war remained active with the MTCA, or joined it for the first time. Dedicated MTCA members who were either too old or physically unfit to join the army had served the country well as recruiters. At the war's end the organization again took on its principal mission of convincing the country and Congress of the need for universal compulsory military training.

Even with the considerable influence the MTCA had by 1920, it was unable to overcome the political realities brought on by the tide of isolationist and pacifist sympathies engulfing the nation two years after the "War to End All Wars." The MTCA's vigorous campaign for universal military training was doomed. 17 Although the Senate passed a bill establishing such a program it was rejected by the House and failed to survive in conference. The compromise bill did, at least, provide for a summer training program for American youth, the volunteer, no-further-obligation Citizens' Military Training Camps (CMTC).

Although CMTC wasn't precisely the program the MTCA had fought for, the association acknowledged its parental obligation. For the next 20 years the association would promote, protect, and fight for CMTC, accepting it as something of definite value, if not quite the creation of its dreams.

Although some World War veterans attended CMTC perhaps for the purpose of pursuing a reserve commission the history of the 20-year program is beyond the scope of this article and not relevant to Relevance. For those readers interested in pursuing that history, the author immodestly refers them to his book, Forgotten Summers: The Story of the Citizens' Military Training Camps, 1921-1940.

  1. . John Cary Clifford, The Citizen Soldiers: The Plattsburg Training Camp Movement, 1913-1920 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1972), p.228.
  2. Jack C. Lane, Armed Progressive, General Leonard Wood (San Rafael: Presidio Press, 1978).
  3. War Department Annual Report (Washington, D.C., War Department, 1912), p.l21.
  4. Major General Preston Brown, "The Genesis of the Military Training Camp," Infantry Journal, December, 1930), p.609.
  5. Clifford, op.cit., p. 12.
  6. Ibid., p. 16.
  7. Ibid, pp. 25-26.
  8. Ibid, pp. 72-73.
  9. Military Training Camps Association, The Mess Kit (Camp Knox, Kentucky, Military Training Camps Association, 1923), p.13.
  10. Leonard Mosley, Marshall, Hero for Our Times (New York: Hearst Books, 1982), pp.45-46.
  11. Clifford, op. cit., p. 92.
  12. War Department Annual Report (Washington: War Department, I 917), p.121.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid, pp. 189.
  15. Leonard H. Nason, The Top Kick (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Doran and Company, 1928).
  16. War Department Annual Report op.cit., p.l9.
  17. Clifford, op. cit. p. 193

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