This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, a conflict that dragged nations from all across globe into four years of unprecedented bloodshed.
Between the start of the war on July 28, 1914, and end of the war on Nov. 11, 1918, more than 18 million people were killed and 21 million wounded. The American diplomat, George Kennan, described the war as “the seminal catastrophe of this century.”
However, the war did much more than cause a global massacre. It allowed millions of women to enter the workforce, featured the initial step of the United States as a world power, and helped to transform Greenville into the city it is today.
Building a camp
When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, Secretary of War Newton Baker ordered the construction of 32 training camps, according to local historian and documentary filmmaker Don Koonce. “Most of these cantonments or training camps were to be spread across the Southeast where moderate weather would provide more training days and shorter preparation time before sending the men overseas,” he said.
Local business leaders sensed an economic opportunity and began lobbying for a camp soon after. They were successful. In July 1917, the U.S. Army appointed Greenville’s J.E. Sirrine & Co. and Gallivan Construction to build a 1,900-acre training camp near the base of Paris Mountain for the newly created 30th Infantry Division, which was composed of National Guard soldiers from South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
The division was nicknamed the “Old Hickory” division in honor of U.S. president Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, who was born near the borders of the three states.
Soldiers from the 1st South Carolina Infantry arrived in Greenville soon after and began to construct the camp, according to Koonce. About 20,000 additional soldiers arrived in the following weeks, and by Aug. 31 the camp was considered complete. It was named Camp Sevier in honor of John Sevier, a Revolutionary War hero and Tennessee’s first governor.
The camp included divisional headquarters, drill grounds, YMCA facilities, stables, a chapel, a bakery, a post office, a library, more than a dozen warehouses, and at least four medical buildings. It was also equipped with electricity, running water, and telephone and telegraph lines. The camp, however, did not have barracks, according to Koonce. Soldiers instead lived in pyramidal tents, formed in rows along the camp’s dusty roads.
Training for battle
In September 1917, once all units had reported, soldiers began training in common infantry skills, trench digging, gas defense, and the use of the machine gun. Meanwhile, the division’s engineering regiment built rifle ranges and trenches, and demolished roads, bridges, dams, pontoon boats, and railroads to prepare for war. They also laid out artillery ranges not far from Wade Hampton Boulevard.
The U.S. Army, however, was “overwhelmed and significantly behind in delivering supplies and equipment to the training camps,” according to Koonce. “A good number of men were without proper uniforms and personal equipment. Actual machine guns and artillery were not delivered to Camp Sevier until three months before they deployed to France. They trained with wooden replacements.”
Greenville also experienced brutally cold weather during the months of November, December, and January. “This all but eliminated outdoor training for the three months,” according to Koonce.
The soldiers, however, were anything but bored. The P&N Railway ran eight trains a day to downtown Greenville, where the soldiers were wholeheartedly welcomed by locals, according to Dr. Courtney Tollison Hartness, a professor of history at Furman University.
In fact, the entire community mobilized to support the camp and soldiers. Students from the Greenville Woman’s College knit sweaters and mittens to help the soldiers stay warm throughout the winter. Local churches welcomed soldiers to worship and provided reading rooms with stationary for them to write their loved ones. And when rats infested the camp’s warehouses, children gladly donated their cats.
Going to war
In April 1918, the 30th division was ordered to prepare for war. Every man received a physical and was outfitted with new equipment. On May 1, the division departed Camp Sevier for the ports in New Jersey and New York, according to Koonce.
The first soldiers from the 30th division left for Europe in May 1918 and arrived in England, where they departed for the western front soon after. On arrival in France, the division, with the exception of one artillery brigade, was assigned to the American Second Corps and attached to the British Second Army at a training area near Calais.
In June 1918, the division underwent extensive combat training under the British, and their equipment and firearms were exchanged for British-made weaponry, including the Lewis automatic machine gun. The division was then sent to the front lines in Belgium.
By September, the Old Hickory division had served in the Ypres-Lys campaign and Somme offensive. It was one of two American divisions to successfully break through the Hindenburg Line (the German’s formidable defense barrier on the western front) during the Battle of St. Quentin Canal on Sept. 29, 1918 – an action that would eventually lead to the end of World War I.
Twelve members of the division were awarded a Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor in combat. But the success came at a high price.
The 30th division had, in three months, from July through October 1918, sustained more than 1,000 officers and men killed in action, with another 7,178 wounded or missing in action, Koonce said. In March 1919, the division departed from France, returned home, and mustered out from Camp Jackson in Columbia.
Modernizing a city
Camp Sevier housed and trained over 100,000 men before its closure in April 1919.
While the training camp was only in operation for two years, it had a “huge impact” on Greenville’s economy and infrastructure, according to Tollison.
Local companies not only received government contracts to the build the camp but also provided services to soldiers once they arrived. The housing market also experienced a financial boom throughout the war as the families of soldiers relocated to Greenville.
In 1917, the city used the incoming “war dollars” to purchase a new public hospital, formalize its operations, and significantly expand its facilities on Memminger Street and Arlington Avenue, according to Tollison. The city later purchased the local water company and established a public commission to oversee its operations.
Greenville’s economy continued to thrive after the war as many non-native soldiers who trained at Camp Sevier returned, according to Tollison. That includes Henry McKoy, a native of Wilmington, N.C. who served with the U.S. Army 105th Engineers in France.
McKoy met his wife in Greenville while training at Camp Sevier and returned after the war to launch Morris & McKoy Construction, which built Furman University’s Sirrine Stadium and numerous other facilities across the Southeast.
The geographic diversity introduced by Camp Sevier and its returning soldiers also sparked a renewed sense of patriotism among Greenville residents, according to Tollison.
For years after the Civil War, Independence Day was seen in the South as a holiday for Northerners and African-Americans. But South Carolinians once more began in large numbers to celebrate the Fourth of July after World War 1.
Celebrating a legacy
As the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1 draws near, Koonce has taken it upon himself to make sure that history is preserved and passed on.
Koonce is working alongside the City of Greenville and Greenville County to launch a yearlong series of community celebrations to commemorate the historical significance of Camp Sevier and the men who went through basic training there.
The series, also known as the Remember the Old Hickory Project, will include a special celebration during the Greenville Scottish Games on May 26; a public dedication on Sept. 29; and a Veterans Day event on Nov. 11. Koonce and other event organizers plan to announce additional details later this year.
“We want everyone to remember the tremendous contribution Greenville and Camp Sevier made to the war effort,” Koonce said. “The 100th anniversary is a great opportunity to raise awareness of that unique moment in history, and what it meant both locally and on the global stage.”
Koonce added that the American Legion plans to participate in the celebration and distribute commemorative posters to area businesses. The Greenville Police Department and Greenville County Sheriff’s Office also plan to display “remembrance poppy” pins and vehicle decals throughout the year. The flower has been used since 1915 to commemorate military personnel who have died in war.
“I cannot think of a better way to honor the people of the Old Hickory Division who served our country so heroically a hundred years ago,” said Greenville Mayor Knox White. “Even as we continue to look forward, the city is always cognizant of our roots and the amazing contributions that people in this area have made to the world.”
Meet this week’s cover model:
Our cover model, Henry Johnson, started collecting WW1 paraphernalia when he was 15. He now owns well over a dozen types of firearms that were used by the U.S. during the war, and the entirety of the gear issued to U.S. soldiers before and during the war including accoutrements, uniforms, munitions, bedding, and more. Part of his collection will be on display later this year at the Upcountry History Museum as the centerpiece for their planned WW1 exhibit.