Documenting the American South Logo
 North Carolinians and the Great War Header
Statue of Liberty by Dan Sayre Groesbeck  James R. McConnell  Victory from Yackety Yack of Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen  The Spirit of America: Join  William Bradley Umstead helmet 
Introduction: Carolinians Go To War

Before the War
In the decades between the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction and the beginning of American involvement in World War I, North Carolina had witnessed significant economic, social, and political change. On the eve of the war, North Carolina's 2.5 million citizens lived different, and in most cases better, lives than their turn of the century predecessors. Health conditions, standards of living, educational opportunities, and access to information about the larger world had all improved. The latter included news about the outbreak of war in August 1914 between Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria, popularly known as the Central Powers, and France, Russia, Great Britain, and Japan, known as the Allies. (For more general sources about the beginnings of the war and subsequent American involvement, see the "For Further Research" section.) In the meantime, the degree of change from the nineteenth century varied depending on where Tar Heels lived and what they did for a living. In addition, gender and race still greatly influenced the opportunities available to North Carolinians, as they had in the previous era. Many women, both black and white, and black men seized upon the war as a chance to test those limits. (For more on race and gender before and during the War, see The Home Front/African Americans and Women sections.)

Over 80 percent of North Carolina's population was still rural in the 1910s, and agriculture still dominated the economy. An expanding urban-industrial crescent, however, stretched from Charlotte north to Winston-Salem, then east to Raleigh. The cities of Greenville, Fayetteville, and Wilmington were important commercial hubs in the eastern section of the state, and numerous smaller towns and mill villages also dotted the landscape. Work and life in most of these cities and towns revolved around textile mills, tobacco factories, and other industries, although Wilmington and, to a lesser degree, Fayetteville, remained shipping centers as they had been since the colonial era. Textile magnates, tobacco barons, and other industrialists shaped economics and politics at both the local and state level. These men would play central roles in directing North Carolina's war effort. Many of their sons, such as Robert March Hanes, saw action as Army officers.

Mill hands and tobacco industry workers found greater economic security in the factories than on the farms that they or their parents had left behind, but neither their work nor their lives could be described as profitable or comfortable. As a result, a number of North Carolina workers had made sporadic efforts to unionize since the 1890s. These organizing efforts were largely put on hold during the war as laborers churned out uniforms and Lucky Strike cigarettes for the "doughboys," as American soldiers were nicknamed. Others donned the khaki uniform themselves to serve in France. (For more background on North Carolina industry and labor in the 1900s, see "The North Carolina Experience" Economics & Business section. Consult the General Business, Labor & Unions, Textiles, and Tobacco Manufacturing subsections.)

Agriculture remained the linchpin of North Carolina's economy throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Before World War I, half of all Tar Heels still lived on farms. They supplied the crops that nourished their fellow North Carolinians, as well as the voracious textile mills and tobacco factories. Between 1900 and 1914, North Carolina agriculture became more diverse, modern, and prosperous than it had been in previous decades. (For more background on twentieth Century North Carolina agriculture, see "The North Carolina Experience" Agriculture/20th Century section.) The World War created a boom in agricultural demand and prices, especially for North Carolina's cotton and tobacco growers. Other Tar Heel farmers helped feed the Allied troops while many of their sons joined the armed services. Three of the soldier-authors whose works are included in this site, Paul Green, Edgar Hallyburton, and William Bradley Umstead, grew up on prosperous farms.

Umstead entered the world of North Carolina politics after his service in World War I. Political scientist V. O. Key describes the Southern political realm in the 1900s as a "Progressive Plutocracy," and notes that North Carolina was by-and-large a one-party Democratic state, in which only a minority of Tar Heels had access to the political system. Women and African Americans did not have the legal right to vote and the majority of white men chose not to cast ballots in most elections. (For more, see the Politics & Government/Suffrage section of "The North Carolina Experience.")

While North Carolina's political system remained fairly closed on the eve of World War I, state government was becoming more progressive, that is to say, more active and responsive to the needs and interests of the people. The legislature stepped up nineteenth century efforts to improve public education, especially for white children, through increased spending, equalized funding, and compulsory attendance laws. Progressive reformers also tried to ban child labor in the years immediately preceding the war, though the best they could manage was limited regulation by 1917. The state proved much more vigorous in preventing "the scourge of alcohol." North Carolina voters approved statewide prohibition in 1908.

North Carolina women had been the backbone of most of these reforms efforts before the war. They also fought for more legal and political rights for women, but the North Carolina legislature voted against the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Elsewhere in America, the democratic spirit engendered by the war propelled the amendment to victory that same year, when the necessary three-fourths of the states had approved it.

In the meantime, prominent Tar Heels exercised a good deal of influence over the federal government and America's approach to the war in Europe. First elected in 1912, President Woodrow Wilson, a southern Democrat, peppered his administration with North Carolinians. Raleigh News and Observer publisher Josephus Daniels became Secretary of the Navy and pushed, over Wilson's early objections, to expand the American fleet in preparation for another war. Liberal journalist and expatriate Tar Heel Walter Hines Page served as ambassador to England. After Britain entered the war in 1914, Page rejected the American tradition of neutrality in favor of support for the Allies. David Houston, a Tar Heel native who had moved to Missouri, served as Secretary of Agriculture.

During the War

North Carolina had a powerful congressional delegation, whose views on American involvement in the war diverged. Senator Furnifold Simmons chaired the important Finance Committee and came to share Page's view that the U.S. should join the war. In the House of Representatives, Claude Kitchin reigned as Majority Leader. Unlike Simmons, Kitchin remained a steadfast proponent of American neutrality in the European war. In 1916, Kitchin and one other North Carolina congressman, Robert N. Page, voted against a large increase in army and navy appropriations. North Carolina editorialists criticized Kitchin, but most citizens were not ready to go to war, though they sympathized with the suffering of the French and Belgian people at the hands of the German army. The federal government produced posters urging Americans to "Remember Belgium." North Carolina Governor Locke Craig made an official appeal for Belgian relief in March 1916. A year later, when it seemed clear that the United States would be drawn into the war by German submarine attacks on American shipping, Kitchin still opposed American intervention.

On April 2, 1917, President Wilson delivered his war message to Congress and envisioned a fight, not to preserve old European empires, but to protect American interests and to "make the world safe for democracy." The majority of Senators and Representatives, including all members of the North Carolina delegation with the exception of Kitchin, were swayed by events and Wilson's idealism and voted to declare war on Germany. Kitchin was one of fifty House members who opposed the measure. In a dramatic speech, he explained that his conscience had charted a "path of my duty and I have made up my mind to walk it, if I go barefooted and alone." Kitchin won favor with his colleagues and constituents back home for his conviction and for his resolve to "work with all of my soul and might in defense" of the country after the declaration passed.

In Washington, Kitchin and other North Carolinians played important roles in the war effort. Kitchin and Simmons pushed through a new federal income tax bill to help pay for the war. Senator Lee Overman sponsored early legislation to give the President new powers to regulate business in the name of war production. North Carolina Congressmen, such as James H. Pou, delivered rousing, patriotic speeches in the House chamber and to military and civilian audiences in North Carolina. State officials gave similar orations, and all of this rhetoric was widely circulated in the North Carolina press. (For more, see the Home Front/Patriotism & Politics.)

At the federal level, Josephus Daniels continued to oversee the American navy, while Ambassador Page conferred with British officials and visited Allied and later American troops in the field. The stress of work proved so great, however, that Page was forced to resign in 1918. Angus McLean, a successful Lumberton banker and a future governor, became a member of the new War Finance Corporation. The WFC issued war bonds and used the proceeds to provide loans to defense-related industries. McLean also took on the job of assistant Secretary of the Treasury. Walter Clark, chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and a long-time champion of the rights of labor, women, and African Americans, served on the new National War Labor Board. In the meantime, Clark's son, Walter Jr., served as an infantry captain in France. (For more on the role of the federal, state and local government during the war, see The Home Front/Mobilizing Resources.)

Back home, North Carolinians quickly rallied around the flag and prepared for war. Governor Thomas Walter Bickett assumed the helm of North Carolina government in 1917, less than one month before the United States entered the war. Bickett had campaigned as one of North Carolina's leading Progressives, a record built in two terms as Attorney General and a stint in the General Assembly. On the one hand, America's declaration of war overshadowed Bickett's ambitious agenda of tax restructuring, educational expansion, and prison and public health reform. On the other hand, the demands of World War I forced the state to become more involved in the economy and the private lives of its citizens than most Progressive reformers had ever imagined or than conservative Democrats would ever have tolerated during peacetime.

The state's first task was to muster a military force. Actually, several Tar Heel men and women already had begun serving as volunteers in France in the Allied armed forces and medical corps shortly after the start of the war in 1914. Kiffin Yates Rockwell and James R. McConnell flew for the French air force and were shot down and killed. Benjamin Muse volunteered for the British Army in 1916 and became a prisoner of war of the Germans in November 1917. Once the U.S. declared war, President Wilson also called North Carolina's National Guard into service. Waves of propaganda posters drew in additional volunteers with masculine slogans, such as "Wanted: Husky Young Americans." The biggest surge of recruits, however, came from a new draft instituted in May 1917, covering all healthy black and white men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five. (For more about the history of Tar Heel servicemen and women between 1914 and 1919, see The Soldiers' Experience.)

While nearly 87,000 Tar Heel men and two hundred women left home for training and combat, Governor Bickett, state and local governments, and private charities such as the Red Cross undertook an ambitious campaign to mobilize the financial and material necessities for war. Public school teachers and college and university faculty and students, especially at the University of North Carolina, also devoted themselves to the war effort. (For more, see The Home Front/Educational Institutions and Mobilizing Resources sections.)

The American military needed massive amounts of food, fuel, armaments, and other material and the money to pay farmers and private industry for their production. Where production fell short, North Carolinians made up the difference by finding creative ways to conserve everything from potatoes to coal to socks in order to donate the surplus to the military. African Americans and white women in particular contributed vigorously to the war effort to express their patriotism and prove to white men they were worthy of greater citizenship rights. (See The Home Front /African Americans and Women sections.)

Public and private groups attempted to mold public opinion as well as manage resources. One set of tools was editorials and public addresses, many examples of which are included in this site. Governor Bickett proved to be an especially inspiring orator, as illustrated by a speech he delivered in Ashe County. Schoolteachers also set lessons to music in patriotic ditties for their impressionable young charges to sing. By far the most widely seen and influential element of wartime propaganda was the posters produced by the federal Office of War Information. (For more, see The Home Front/Patriotism & Politics and Propaganda Posters sections.)

After the War

American involvement in World War I was brief, but the experience significantly changed the political and social environment in North Carolina. In 1919, North Carolina communities mourned their dead: 629 Tar Heels were killed in action, another 204 perished from battle wounds, and a final 1,542 succumbed to disease. Over 3,600 men had been wounded and others carried the mental scars of combat trauma and many Tar Heel doughboys buried their memories for decades. Local communities welcomed their returning veterans with relatively little fanfare. By the early 1920s, however, Armistice Day anniversary celebrations, Fourth of July speeches, and newly published histories of North Carolina regiments all took great pride in commemorating North Carolina's service and sacrifices during the war.

Not all of North Carolina's wartime causalities occurred on the battlefield. North Carolina, along with much of the rest of the world, also suffered a public health crisis. Before the war, poor rural sanitation had been a breeding ground for flies carrying Typhoid fever. Between 1914 and 1917, Typhoid reached epidemic proportions, killing 2,911 North Carolinians. In response, the state Board of Health launched a public awareness campaign to encourage citizens to enclose their privies and cover open windows. Even small children learned their "Fly Catechism." The transport of men back and forth between Europe and America during the war also spread Spanish Influenza, a deadly strain of flu that also produced pneumonia. Millions succumbed to the disease across the globe and 13,644 North Carolinians died during the winter of 1918-19. Typhoid and other diseases killed another 1,542 Tar Heel troops in France. Public health agencies, county Councils of Defense, and private charities rushed to set up makeshift hospitals across the state to accommodate the thousands of patients. (For more, see Annie Cameron's Record of the War Activities in Orange County.) In the 1920s, the twin epidemics also created the political momentum to permanently expand the budget and duties of the state Board of Health. (For more, see "The North Carolina Experience", Medicine & Health/Public Health & Disease section.)

In addition to health, the war provided the impetus for other public policy initiatives. Between 1917 and 1919, state government took the lead in coordinating the war effort by mobilizing financial resources and raw materials and molding public opinion in support of the war. It also assumed other duties beyond the immediate demands of supplying the war and this government activism continued after the peace into the 1920s.

Finally, the war set the stage for profound changes that would shape North Carolina's economy and the lives of farmers and workers in the 1920s. William Henry Glasson, in his 1920 essay on "Some Economic Effects of the World War," notes that the war drove up prices on consumer goods while devaluing the dollar, but the inflationary spike soon declined within a year. (For more on wartime financing and its effect the economy, see The Home Front/Mobilizing Resources.) Of more lasting significance was the fact that the artificial wartime boom for North Carolina agriculture and the textile industry had turned to bust by the mid 1920s. North Carolina's tobacco manufacturing giants, however, rode out the recession as they would the Great Depression. Tobacco workers had also managed to organize unions and force new contracts on their employers in Winston-Salem at the end of the war. Tar Heel tobacco and cotton farmers saw prices drop first to prewar and then to turn of the century levels. Eventually, North Carolina agriculture was dragged into a depression two years before the famous stock market crash of 1929. (For more, see "The North Carolina Experience" Agriculture/20th Century section.)

The textile industry also underwent two fundamental changes after the war. First, peace robbed the mills of their military market and changing consumer tastes lessened demand for cotton fabrics. Owners resolved to keep churning out goods at reduced prices. They would maintain a profit margin by reducing labor and production costs. Second, a decade of hiring since 1910 had turned a prewar labor shortage into a postwar surplus of mill hands. Workers had lost a vital source of leverage in labor relations and they felt helpless to resist the lay-offs, wage cuts, and increased workloads that their employers imposed on them. Mill hands in Charlotte and elsewhere went out on strike in 1919, but their protests were quickly crushed and the unionization effort in the textile industry was blunted for another decade. By 1929, the industry had entered into a decade of economic crisis and labor unrest. (For more, see "The North Carolina Experience" Economics & Business/Textiles section.)

Sources: Sarah McCulloh Lemmon, North Carolina's Role in the First World War (Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, 1966) and R. Jackson Marshall III, Memories of World War I: North Carolina Doughboys on the Western Front (Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, 1998). For Josephus Daniels' view of the Navy and his secretariat, see Daniels, Our Navy at War (New York: G.H. Doran, 1922). On Walter Hines Page's tenure, see Ross Gregory, Walter Hines Page; Ambassador to the Court of St. James's (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970). For sources on the role of government, see the introduction to The Home Front/Mobilizing Resources. On Claude Kitchin's evolving stance on the war, see Claude Kitchin and the Wilson War Policies (New York: Russell & Russell, 1971). On the disease epidemics and the public health response, see David L. Cockrell, "A Blessing in Disguise: the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and North Carolina's Medical and Public Health Communities," North Carolina Historical Review, 73 (July 1996): 309-27. For a general history of the American home front, see Robert H. Zieger, America's Great War: World War I and the American Experience (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000). For discussions of the impact of World War I on individual North Carolina counties, consult the "For Further Research" section.