I find researching my Florida (and those in other states) ancestors in the various U.S. wars to be rewarding. These are major events in our ancestors’ lives, whether they served or not and the events they may have experienced can be fascinating whether on the battlefield or the home front. For the most part only two U.S. wars get much genealogical attention: the Civil War and World War II, with the Revolutionary War a good third in the running, probably because it is harder to get back to that point. In this post, I want to talk about World War I and how that war impacted our ancestors in the panhandle and surrounding locations.
On April the 6th of this year we reached the 100th anniversary of the United States entrance into World War I. While most Americans know a bit more about World War II, it really was our relatively brief fighting in the First World War that created the transition point between the American society of the 19th century and our modern society. It was in many ways the catalyst for the Great Influenza Pandemic, the rise and collapse of the 1920s Florida Land Boom, the Great Depression, the eventual right to vote for women and WWII. And it really introduced “modern” warfare with all of its horrors.
If you’ve tried to research your ancestors in the era of WWI military records online, you’ve probably been a bit frustrated. Records are not plentiful. If you get beyond the draft registrations available at both Ancestry.com and Fold3.com, you may find it harder to determine if someone actually served. If your family has maintained the knowledge of an ancestor’s service in WWI that is great. And if you have memorabilia left by a serviceman to his future descendants that is even better. This blog may help you put that service in a bit more context. If your family didn’t maintain the information of service, hopefully this blog will help you understand the period and find a way forward.
The period leading up to World War I was incredibly interesting. The Gilded Age (sometimes referred to as the Victorian Era), or the last couple of decades of the 19th century, were a time of massive innovation, change and industrial growth. The names we often associate with industry come from this period: John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Henry Flagler and Cornelius Vanderbilt. But it was also a time of great challenge. Very much like today, the wealthy were getting a lot wealthier and the average person seemed to be standing in place or worse, sliding backwards. This led to many people joining organizations like the Southern Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party. When I received the scanned copies of Yellow River Baptist Church’s early records from Baker Block Museum there were 65 pages of minutes from a local organization entitled the Bethel Sub-Alliance. I’ve not yet had time to transcribe them but I believe they may be a local group associated with the Southern Farmer’s Alliance. There is a membership list (with some overlap with the church) that seems to include both men and women from the Oak Grove and Laurel Hill area. Stay tuned for more later in the year.
Farming was getting much harder. The economic system in the South was hard on farmers. Landed small farmers were especially squeezed and only slightly better off than tenant farmers, who accounted for a significant percentage of both black and white farmers in the South. Weather and insects also challenged the farmers in keeping their families together, fed and on their farms. The system often caught farmers in a spiral of debt that eventually led to loosing their farms. Those that left the farm to work, found long hours, difficult conditions and low pay. It was tough and the average person became angrier as the 20th century arrived. The Panic of 1907 led to even more hardship. The country was already in a recession and the bank and stock market panic set off a wave of bank and business bankruptcies. The recovery was partially assisted by the U.S. role in supplying arms to the Allies in Europe. The Allies were fighting in opposition to the Central Powers. The war had erupted over a complex set of relationships and an assassination on 28 June 1914.
The U.S. managed to stay out of the war until 6 April 1917. Woodrow Wilson, who was then President, cited as causes to enter the war Germany’s violation of the pledge it had made to stop unrestricted submarine warfare in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic and its efforts to bring Mexico into the war against the U.S (This later is a fascinating piece of history few know much about – See Resources). Once in, the U.S. mobilized its troops under General John J. Pershing on 5 July 1917. World War I saw massive trench warfare, the use of biplanes, the use of tanks and the use of chemical weapons by both sides. The men who returned home after the war had many scars that were not readily recognized due to the trauma of the war. At home near the end of the war, the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 ravaged the countryside and military camps. I have visited a number of old cemeteries in the panhandle where there are more than a few deaths in 1918 that always leave me wondering if it was the flu that took them, especially if they are children.
According to Florida Memory, at the U.S. entrance into WWI, Florida had a population of 925,641 inhabitants. Like in the Civil War, it was a thinly populated state. But it was a great place for military training and a number of our military installations got their beginnings during this period, including the Naval Air Station in Pensacola. Florida Memory indicates that a total of 42,000 Floridians served in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy or Coast Guard during the war (No Air Force yet).
The draft was widespread and all men were required to register for the draft so that should be the first place you start looking for records if you have a male ancestor that is between 21 and 31 during 1917-1918. Both Ancestry.com and Fold3.com have draft registrations available. Registering did not mean you were drafted. If men were married with a family they were not as likely to be called up, though it certainly occurred. My grandfather, Jesse Barrow was called up at the end of the war and thankfully the Armistice occurred before he had to report. So, the second thing you need to do is determine if your ancestor actually served. If your ancestor was in Florida at the time, Florida Memory provides access to service cards for the men who served from Florida. If you aren’t sure what branch of service he might have been in or you have a number of men to search in one family, just type in the surname and then go through the results. Another source of information at Florida Memory is the County Guard Commissions, 1917-1919. Northwest Florida counties with active County Guard units during the war were: Escambia, Franklin and Jackson.
Ordering service records for WWI can be a challenge. Many Army records were lost in a fire in the early 70s, as were records from some of the other branches. A number of good WWI resources can be found at the National Archives. See below for link.
If you haven’t done so already, I hope this article has encouraged you to research your ancestors (and their brothers) for World War I service. While for the U.S. it did not last as long as World War II and it isn’t generally talked about as much as the 2nd, it was one in which a number of our Florida panhandle ancestors served. Perhaps more importantly, it was a major turning point for the country. We were slightly less isolationist after the war, technology was developing rapidly, relationships between men and women were changing and we were entering the period before the Great Depression.
Until next time when I will introduce one of my family lines that struggled and survived through the Great Depression and World War II.
- Florida Memory, a great resource for Floridians.
- The Great War, You Tube series of weekly videos from the beginning of the war through the end. My only complaint is the guy narrating is a fast talker.
- Center for Military History: General Resources: Series and Collections. If you are interested in Army history, regardless of the war, this is a good place for information, some of which is free to download. In terms of WWI, good resources here are Order of Battle of the United States Land Forces in the World War and WWI Commemorative Brochures.
- National Archives: World War I Centennial
- Wikipedia: The Zimmerman Telegram
- National Archives: The Zimmerman Telegram
- The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
- The First World War by John Keegan