When World War I began in Europe the summer of 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared strict American neutrality. But within three years, German aggression – notably all-out submarine warfare that could target American shipping – left the Staunton native little choice but to side with Great Britain and France.
In April 1917 – 100 years ago this month – America declared war on Germany, but it found itself largely unprepared. Its armed services were small, poorly equipped and virtually untrained for modern warfare, let alone the notion that young American boys would be sent to fight 3,000 miles across the Atlantic. For the most part, the economy was still in peacetime mode.
Virginia, though, had a jump-start on war. At Hampton Roads, construction on one of the world’s largest naval bases and a nearby Army supply depot had begun before America joined the conflict. Trains delivered huge shipments of coal from Southwest Virginia to the expanded ports of Newport News, Portsmouth and Norfolk. Other commodities – food, tobacco, cotton, iron and steel – and finished products were shipped from Virginia to satisfy ongoing demand from the Allied powers. After the U.S. declared war, activity and production accelerated dramatically.
Even though Virginia was becoming increasingly industrialized by 1917, it was still primarily a state where most people earned their living from the soil. Nearly two-thirds of its 2.3 million residents lived and worked in rural areas, and most black Virginians (a third of the state) were involved in farming. Richmond's population of about 170,000 trailed the totals of other Southern cities, such as Atlanta; Nashville, Tenn.; Louisville, Ky.; and Birmingham, Ala.
But the war would change Virginia and its people, as well as the nation as a whole.
The American homefront experienced a rapid and systematic mobilization of the entire population and economy. Federal and state governments set up dozens of temporary agencies and bureaus to direct the economy and society into the production of goods and services needed to mobilize the armed forces.
In Virginia, garden clubs – as part of the Woman’s Land Army of America – provided support by shifting their emphasis from flowers to vegetables. Red Cross chapters sprang up in most counties and provided medical supplies – the Northampton chapter produced 20,000 surgical dressings, 2,000 hospital gowns and thousands of towels and handkerchiefs. In Richmond, churches prepared comfort packets of tobacco products, sweets, socks and Bibles to send to American soldiers in Europe. Even the Boy Scouts sold liberty bonds and collected food and clothes for European orphans.
In rural areas, farming began to take on 20th-century qualities. Some 50 Virginia Tech-trained county extension agents introduced farmers to scientific practices, including the use of fertilizers and the introduction of new types of seeds. Many farmers prospered as wartime demand for tobacco, wheat, fruit, livestock and poultry boosted prices. They in turn invested in tractors, trucks, mechanical reapers and other modern equipment, which soon reduced the need for farmworkers while helping greatly increase crop yields. By 1918, wheat and tobacco harvests nearly tripled their pre-war totals.
Yet as work for farmhands declined, new opportunities developed in Virginia’s towns and cities, where manufacturing was rapidly transforming the economy. Textile mills in Southside, tobacco factories in Richmond and Petersburg, the DuPont plant in Hopewell, the large Roanoke Machine Works – all were part of growing job opportunities tied to wartime demand, and rural Virginians moved to manufacturing communities in large numbers.
And with many men going into military service, employment expanded for women. For example, women in Henrico County and Richmond were recruited for the Women’s Munitions Reserve to work in a large gunpowder plant at Seven Pines. In all, some 2,000 women signed up to load bags of explosive material.
For African-Americans, Virginia was still a state of Jim Crow laws, segregated transportation and schools, and job discrimination. Opportunities, though, rose elsewhere.
The rise of manufacturing in the North had turned the United States into one of the world’s industrial giants, thanks largely to low-paid European immigrants. World War I curtailed that labor supply, so Northern industry began to hire African-Americans in large numbers for factory jobs. Known as the Great Migration, this shift resulted in about 6 million African-Americans leaving the South between 1910 and 1970. While 90 percent of black Americans lived in the South in 1910, nearly 50 percent lived in Northern cities six decades later.
The war affected other elements of Virginia culture. The federal Committee on Public Information sought to influence American opinion, and the 1917 Espionage Act and 1918 Sedition Act criminalized negative expression about U.S. involvement in the war. Americans began to distrust other Americans, especially people with German connections.
Many Virginians were gripped by fear that enemies lurked within their midst – particularly in the Shenandoah Valley, where German ancestry was widespread. Near Winchester, a rumor ran rampant that an apple grower was operating a wireless radio that sent signals directly to Berlin. The rumors remained unfounded, but the man eventually left the community.
The mayor of Charlottesville outlined plans for guarding against sabotage by Germans in the area, warning that they could poison the city’s reservoir, destroy bridges and derail trains.
In Richmond, a large second-generation German population felt the tension. The city’s German Catholic and Lutheran churches reported an “unhappy period” for their parishioners, with declining enrollment in the parochial schools. Because of the German origin of his name, young Dewey Gottwald, a Richmond native who later led Ethyl Corp., was rejected when he tried to enlist in the Army.
Distrust of fellow citizens abated after a while when no incidents of sabotage or evidence of spying were uncovered. By the end of 1917, Virginians were largely mobilized toward the war effort – both at home and overseas.
Near Petersburg, the Army's Camp Lee was constructed in three months and trained 45,000 soldiers, including the 80th Division, which included large numbers of Virginians. The state supplied more than 20 units to the American Expeditionary Forces, who steamed out of Hampton Roads en route to the Western Front in France. By the time peace was proclaimed in November 1918, about 1,200 Virginians had died during the conflict, mostly in its final few months.
The formal Treaty of Versailles did not suspend the changes that were sweeping Virginia. Indeed, World War I proved to be a catalyst for more. Virginia grew and prospered on a scale not seen since pre-Civil War days, and the Old Dominion was well on its way to becoming a New Dominion.