John Nichols and I have been busy making appearances around the state to talk about our book on the 100th anniversary of The Capital Times.
The paper was founded by William T. Evjue because he felt the paper he was working for at the time, the Wisconsin State Journal, was unfairly maligning U.S. Sen. Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette for his strong and controversial stand against the U.S. entering World War I. We write a lot about what it was like in Wisconsin during that tumultuous time and how opponents of the war were vilified — even physically harmed — for expressing their views.
Coincidentally, our publisher, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, has just published another book that focuses on Wisconsin — my home county of Green to be specific — and World War I.
"Letters from the Boys," by Carrie A. Meyer, an associate professor at George Mason University, is a collection of the letters that soldiers from the little Green County municipalities of Brooklyn, Brodhead and Monticello sent home to their families during that awful war. The weekly papers in those communities (Brodhead actually had two) would regularly print those letters so everyone in town would know how the local boys were faring.
Meyer, an economics prof, has spent the last several years researching Midwest rural life, and during a project in northern Illinois she stumbled on just how available 100-year-old letters still are.
She wound up picking Green County, Wisconsin, for her manuscript because the papers not only printed the letters home in full, but the county was a hotbed of anti-war sentiment before Woodrow Wilson broke a campaign pledge and threw the U.S. into the conflict, much to the consternation of La Follette and Wisconsin progressives.
In fact, the county seat, Monroe, held a referendum on April 3, 1917, to gauge the voters' sentiment on going to war. Ninety percent voted no.
The vote didn't do much good, because Wilson declared war three days later. The Wisconsin Loyalty League, a self-styled patriotic organization that contended that even supporting La Follette was treason, warned officials not to recruit young men from Green County and other areas known for their anti-war beliefs. They suspected that German and Swiss immigrants were loyal to Germany and might even help the enemy should they be sent to the front.
That infuriated the local citizenry, who believed they were just as loyal to America as those who were beating the drums to go to war.
As Meyer points out and the letters from the "boys" detail, those Green County soldiers and the rest of the Wisconsin troops made their state proud. The 32nd "Red Arrow" Division was formed from the state's recruits and became the most-decorated unit in the war, praised by Gen. John Pershing and described by the French as "Les Terribles" for breaking through enemy lines no other unit could.
Meyer skillfully uses the letters home to follow the Wisconsin soldiers from their homes to training, first at Camp Douglas here in the state and then to Fort MacArthur near Waco, Texas, then on to their boarding ships in New York and then into the battlefields to help drive the Germans from France and, finally, the jubilation of the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice.
She divides the book into two parts: The first includes letters from several men from the three towns, most of whom were part of the Wisconsin Guard's 32nd Division; the second is a compilation of remarkable letters from a Brodhead man named Roger Skinner, who had volunteered earlier to join the U.S. Army Ambulance Service. Skinner's letters describe in detail his experiences working with the French to care for the sick and wounded and how people from the U.S. and France interacted during the war.
Meyer describes how some of the boys' views changed as they experienced war's savagery, but notes how they universally kept the bad news and their unpleasant experiences out of the letters home.
It's a book well worth reading to understand better a time in America that is often misunderstood.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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