I’m over the top not only about “Tommies,” but also about doughboys, because I’m related to one.
In the summer of 1917, my grandmother and great-grandfather took the train from Columbus to Chillicothe, Ohio to visit my great-great uncle, Charles O’Connor. They arrived at a 2,302-acre site of former farmland that was named after Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman. It was a small city in itself, with paved streets named after Ohio locales and more than 2,000 buildings that had just been constructed in less than three months. They caught up over a picnic with Charley, who pulled out his mess kit and gave the spoon to my grandmother, the fork to my great-grandfather, and kept the knife for himself.
Young Charley was a member of Battery E, 324th Regiment, Section 23 at Camp Sherman, one of the 16 cantonments established across the country to train enlisted men before they were sent overseas as soldiers to fight in World War I. Adena, the historic home of Ohio Governor Thomas Worthington, was to the west of the camp; to the east was Mount Logan, a foothill of the Allegheny mountains that formed the background of the Great Seal of the State of Ohio.
“I wish you could see my back yard with trees and hills higher than your house ten miles long and five miles wide,” Charley wrote my grandmother on a postcard he wrote her for Thanksgiving in 1917. “That’s some back yard. I think so, don’t you?”
After training at Camp Sherman, Charley fought in France and later served in the 32nd Division, American Expeditionary Forces during the Army of Occupation in 1918-1919. In April 1919, Charley picked a small bouquet of flowers in the countryside surrounding Ringsdorf, Germany and sent them to my grandmother and her younger sister. We still have them.
Grandma recounted her visit to Camp Sherman each time we passed the former cantonment on the way to Adena. She was with me in spirit during “Camp Sherman Days,” a nine-day celebration held this past July to commemorate the centennial of the United States entering World War I.
The celebration was monumental for military buffs and Great War enthusiasts alike. Among the events were a walking tour of downtown Chillicothe sites where Camp Sherman soldiers spent their free time. A Vaudeville performance at downtown Chillicothe’s Majestic Theater, along with some dramatic Camp Sherman scenes, was followed by a live band performance of period songs, including “I’m Going Down to Chillicothe,” a musical tribute to the young men who reported for basic training at Camp Sherman.
“Sergeant York,” a biographical film about the life of World War I soldier Alvin York, together with a video comparing Camp Sherman to Camp Gordon, Georgia, where York trained, was also shown at the Majestic. Authentic World War I camp and tent displays, a flyover of a World War I aircraft and a drill practice and weapons demonstration performed by World War I re-enactors in period uniforms took place at the original Camp Sherman rifle range, now the home of the Joint Training Center for the Ohio National Guard.
Best of all was a driving tour of the Camp Sherman site, now state land that is ordinarily restricted to the public. Armed with a map to track the locations of camp landmarks, we boarded a small bus and traversed just over three miles of the base with Dick Rutherford, our exceptionally knowledgeable guide, who shared historical details of each major site and the general layout of the camp.
Entering through the original south entrance gates to Camp Sherman, we drove along part of the camp’s original road and realized that this “City of Soldiers” was a massive place. Chosen for its excellent access to the railroad and its proximity to major cities, Camp Sherman would process almost 80,000 soldiers on their way to or from the Western Front. To accommodate all those people, it had to be constructed quickly; the buildings were put up so fast that the cement didn’t have time to dry.
The camp included maneuver grounds for drills, trench training and artillery training. Driving by, I learned that wrist watches were popular with Camp Sherman soldiers. Pocket watches were the style of the day, but since they didn’t have much time to pull their watch out and put it back in their pocket before an order for attention came, a wrist watch served them better.
But training grounds weren’t all Camp Sherman was about. It had four fire houses; religious centers; 10 post exchanges; an ice cream plant; recreational lodges hosted by the Elks and the Daughters of the American Revolution; theaters (one of which held 2,000); 11 YMCA facilities, including an auditorium where Vaudeville shows and lectures were held; a bowling alley; a YWCA Hostess House for African-American soldiers; two Knights of Columbus halls; a post office; corrals for 12,000 horses; and more. For $1.00 a night, families could stay in a Community House hosted by the Red Cross, complete with a restaurant and a public area filled with leather couches and wicker chairs.
To assure parents that their sons were being treated well at Camp Sherman, the Department of Defense hired the S&E Film Company, which made films starring Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson, to take about an hour’s worth of film footage documenting activities at the camp. Training Activities of the (83rd) Division, Camp Sherman, Ohio, 1917-1918 shows draftees being examined, inoculated, issued clothing and taught to salute. Soldiers are also shown bayoneting dummies, throwing hand grenades, building trenches, setting up and firing trench mortars, watching French officers demonstrate how to operate machine guns, and hauling supplies through the camp on a miniature railway. Soldiers also contributed to daily camp operations, such as mixing dough and baking bread at the bakery, and washing and ironing clothes at the post laundry, where more than 450 women worked in a building the size of a football field.
While much of the soldiers’ time was spent training, they had a few hours of free time each day. The film documents some of these activities, such as playing football and baseball, picking up mail at the post office, writing letters, picknicking with visitors, and receiving boxing instructions from Johnny Kilbane, featherweight champion of the world, to assist them in bayonet tactics. The film was shown to the U.S. Senate and to the Allies. During Camp Sherman Days, rangers at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, neighboring the camp site, showed the film to visitors. You have to see it! Watch it here.
During the tour, we drove through Frenchtown, a Chillicothe community that existed before the canal, and the camp’s division headquarters, which was also used as a headquarters during the War of 1812. We passed through the north entrance to the camp — now the Chillicothe Veterans Affairs Medical Center — to see where the camp’s 200-bed hospital once stood. It was here where soldiers afflicted with Spanish influenza were cared for. The worldwide epidemic arrived at Camp Sherman in September 1918, infecting 8,000 people and killing 1,100 within two months.
We stopped at Camp Sherman Memorial Park, where portions of original floors and streets from the camp can still be seen. The park is decorated with painted wooden remembrance poppies, courtesy of the Federated Garden Clubs of Ross County, Ohio.
We passed the parade grounds, located just north of the mounds that are now the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. Here, more than 21,000 Camp Sherman soldiers made a “Living Picture” called “Sincerely Yours, Woodrow Wilson” in 1918. This celebrated image of the Great War was taken from a 70-foot tower with an 11-by-14-inch view camera. As the troops took their positions across a 700-foot formation, the photographer and his assistant stood atop a 70-foot tower, shouting refinements by megaphone, then took the picture with an 11-by-14-inch view camera.
Our last stop was Camp Sherman’s library, the only significant building still remaining on the Camp Sherman site and was part of the driving tour. I could hardly contain myself, especially when I saw Bob Leach, the organizer of Camp Sherman Days, and three young men, all dressed in World War I uniforms, inside the former library, re-enacting a scene of soldiers reading publications of the day, like Farm and Fireside, a Springfield, Ohio-based national farming magazine. It was the highlight of the tour.
Camp Sherman’s library was the creation of Burton Egbert Stevenson (1872-1962). The Chillicothe native married Elizabeth (“Betty”) Butler, a librarian, in 1895; four years later, he began his 57-year career as the librarian at the Chillicothe Public Library, personally selecting and cataloging the books for its collection. As enlisted men started arriving in Chillicothe, Stevenson wanted to provide a comfortable place at the camp where soldiers could spend some spare quiet time with quality reading material that would entertain and educate them.
Up went a one-story building made from leftover material already at the camp. Its exterior was painted “tawny yellow,” with “Pompeian red” and black trim. Inside, it had white walls, dark brown woodwork, a war map with thumbtacks and different colors of string to show the progress of the war overseas, and plenty of shelves for books. Because it was constructed under budget, the leftover funds were used to create more shelving, as well as a fireplace.
The library opened on December 31, 1917, with over 6,000 cataloged books that could be checked out for seven days. The growing collection included reference works, magazines, textbooks and required reading like Woodrow Wilson’s Why We Are At War. Books included adventure and detective stories; popular reads like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Elbert Hubbard’s A Message to Garcia; technical handbooks about aviation and military matters; and nonfiction works about history and travel, especially regarding Europe.
Recognizing that many of the soldiers at Camp Sherman had not been away from home before, Stevenson provided five copies of over 300 Ohio newspapers so they could keep up with news coverage from their hometowns.
Camp Sherman’s library became a model for other camp libraries, and Stevenson was summoned to Washington, D.C. to head a national campaign for library service for the armed forces. The American Library Association created a statewide book drive for soldiers, issuing lists of titles by popular authors like Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle. Over 250,000 books were donated to the Book-for-Every-Soldier campaign.
Stevenson founded the American Library in Paris, France in 1918, then became European director of the American Library Association’s Library War Service, a center that provided Europe with information on the United States, until 1925. In his spare time, he wrote over 40 mystery and detective novels, children’s books, travel books, and anthologies of verses and familiar quotations. “On Dangerous Ground” was the film version of The Girl from Alsace: A Romance of the Great War, originally published as Little Comrade. The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet was adapted for film in 1930 as “In the Next Room.”
Camp Sherman stopped operating by July 1920. The government sold the buildings, but retained the land. A recent archaeological dig unearthed several artifacts from Camp Sherman, including a medicine bottle, a tin cup, an aluminum coal, a training grenade and coal still in the bakery’s coal bins.
Today, the Chillicothe Correctional Institution is located on the site of the former camp. A team of nine inmates is turning poplar timber from state forests into 150-square-foot log cabins for campers and hunters visiting Ohio state parks. The building that served as the camp’s library is where the inmates operate the planer for these “Sherman cabins.”
Similar driving tours of the Camp Sherman site are planned to be offered for the next year and a half, since the camp was not decommissioned until 1919.
For more on Camp Sherman, read Camp Sherman: Ohio’s WWI Soldier Factory and The Rise and Fall of Camp Sherman: Ohio’s World War One Soldier Factory, both by G. Richard Peck. Burton Egbert Stevenson, The Camp Sherman Library in Chillicothe, Ohio, and the Men and Women Who Helped Make It A Success During the First World War, a 2005 thesis by Joseph Florenski; Camp Sherman Souvenir: Chillicothe, Ohio, edited by Frank H. Ward.