“Fit to Fight”: The Second Virginia Council of Defense

This is the latest entry in a series of blog posts spotlighting stories and records of Virginia’s involvement in World War I.

Camp A. A. Humphreys (now Fort Belvoir), ca. 1918, Box 279, Folder 9. Virginia War History Commission, Series XIV: Second Virginia Council of Defense, 1917-1921, 1923-1924. Accession 37219, State Records Collection, The Library of Virginia. In 1915, as the guns thundered in Europe, America found itself at a crossroads. A small but vocal group, including Teddy Roosevelt and General Leonard Wood, called for preparedness– the immediate build-up of naval and land forces to make the nation ready for war. President Wilson and the Democrats, more inclined toward localism and the state-based National Guard, found these notions suspicious and did little to grow the existing military. Consequently, prior to the National Defense Act (June 1916), the U. S. Army consisted of about 100,000 men. Even combined with 100,000 National Guardsmen, it fell well short of the Imperial German Army by a factor of 20.

When United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, there immediately arose a critical need for able-bodied men to fight. Congress had created the Council of National Defense nearly a year earlier to coordinate all national resources relevant to efficient mobilization and maintenance of the armed forces. Each state created its own Council of Defense to carry out the directives of the national body. After a disorganized start in April 1917 by Governor Henry Stuart, Governor Westmoreland Davis established the Commonwealth’s Second Virginia Council of Defense (SVCD) in February 1918.

The Council’s activities covered everything from transportation to livestock. Local branches did a great deal of practical work and funneled information which might require action back to the state council. The Second Virginia Council of Defense records, now organized as part of the Records of the Virginia War History Commission, contain a wealth of interesting and sometimes unexpected information about the war effort of 1917-1918.

Preparing and supporting soldiers was one of the council’s chief goals. To that end, the collection contains examples of small handbooks for soldiers offering legal guidance on organizing their affairs and ensuring their family’s protection after deployment. Similarly, it includes information on special life insurance programs for departing soldiers. The records also contain literature suggesting ideas for community patriotic programs, letters to religious leaders encouraging pro-war sermons, and the published texts of pro-war speeches meant to boost morale and foster a national spirit.

One subject covered at some length by the council is venereal disease. At first glance that might seem an odd topic, but during World War I sexually transmitted diseases caused the Army to discharge some 10,000 men—not to mention all the man-hours lost to those on sick leave. Concern about debilitated soldiers became so widespread that within the first year of the war 32 states, including Virginia, passed laws requiring prostitutes or other persons that officials deemed promiscuous or suspicious to undergo compulsory examination for venereal disease. In 1918, a council official wrote a letter to a Colonial Heights judge who had released two suspected prostitutes after they filed writs of habeas corpus. The official reminded the judge that no one held under this suspicion was to be released on bail before being examined and found free of disease.

The breadth of subjects related to U. S. mobilization and preparedness that the SVCD addressed may be surprising. In the records one will find pamphlets and publications on topics ranging from children’s health and wellness (“your community[…] realiz[es] how much the health of babies means to their fathers and brothers who are fighting in France”) to recreation and personal fitness (“For a Stronger America”) to appropriate war work for children (the Boy Scouts played a role). Also covered are gardening and rationing (“Sow the Seeds of Victory!”) and “Americanizing” new arrivals to the U.S. Diving into these records is a fascinating and sometimes sobering reminder of all that goes into or goes away during a nationwide war effort.

 

–Vince Brooks, Senior Local Records Archivist

2 Comments

  1. Mr. Dana Jackson said:
    12 July 2017 at 4:32 pm

    My grandfather used to tell me about the War Savings Certificates and Savings Stamps (often called “Liberty Stamps”) during this time. I love to see presentations like this; please keep it up.

    • Vince said:
      12 July 2017 at 4:37 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it. Thank you!

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