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NJ Fights for Military Training Camp

By THOMAS P. FARNER | May 17, 2017

As May 1917 was coming to an end, the biggest questions raised by the declaration of war on Germany were about to be answered. Would Americans volunteer to be drafted into the Army to fight in the bloodbath that was the Western Front, and, if so, where would they be sent to be turned into disciplined soldiers?

The Bridgewater., N.J. Courier News of May 28 summarized what was about to happen: “This week will see lively times in the state in connection with the military movement and the plans for the enrollment on June 5. It will bring the final conferences for conscription and probably the final decision as to whether the federal government will locate one of its new army training camps (or cantonment camps) in this state.

“Governor Edge and Adjutant General Barber are hopeful the camp will come to New Jersey. … It is known that politicians of the other states are fighting tooth and nail to land the camp.”

At a time when the president was telling farmers to grow more crops and citizens were being urged to start their own gardens, the land being looked at in Burlington and Ocean counties was some of the most agriculturally productive in the state.

On the 29th, the Trenton Times announced, “New Jersey gets one of America’s great concentration camps and Trenton and vicinity will figure largely in the activities incident to the gathering of thousands of men and the expenditure of millions of dollars.

“General Bell’s telegram announcing the selection of New Jersey for one of the concentration camps for the Army was received with great satisfaction yesterday afternoon by Governor Edge.

“Located at Wrightstown, Burlington County, the camp will be 16 miles southeast of Trenton.”

The paper did add a comment saying, “Military authorities who visited the district were impressed by the patriotic impulses which governed the farmers in surrendering their land. One aged man was urged by his family to keep the old homestead, which had been in his family for generations. With tears on his cheeks he was deaf to their entreaties and affixed his signature to the release, saying that the country needed it.”

The June 1 issue of the New Egypt Press published some details about the seizures.

“It is claimed that the fences, houses, barns and other obstructions will be cleared as soon as they take possession. New roads and large barracks will be built in vast numbers.

“This move by the government is considered a compliment to the state of New Jersey and every citizen should feel proud of being a resident. … The occupation of the great tract will put twenty dairy farms out of business and ... 500 dairy cows will be thrown on the market, their owners having no further use for them.”

The farmers wouldn’t be the only ones to lose their livelihoods. A new law affected “all licensed hotels and saloons, within a radius of five miles from the camp. This would operate to close at least seven hotels in Burlington county while the camp was in existence, for the Inn at Pemberton, the two licensed places at Brown’s Mills, the two hotels at Cookstown and one each at Wrightstown and Pointville are all within the five-mile limit.”

It was wartime, and there wasn’t any time to be wasted. The Courier News of June 4 wrote, “Farmers and their families whose homes are within the camp zone will move this week, when the engineers begin mapping camp streets and maneuver grounds across the 4,000 acres to be covered by the cantonment. In all New Jersey there is no land more fertile than that in New Hanover township, where the camp site mostly lies. Some of these farms are homesteads that have been in the families of present owners since their ancestors bought the ground from the Indians.

“Many of the farmers are leaving with the full belief that they will never return. Their leases call for the return of the land within one year after the close of the war. The leases also specify that buildings and fences are to be replaced in as good condition as at present. The majority of farmers have the idea that Uncle Sam will make this a great permanent post.”

Within two weeks, these New Jersey citizens had gone from farmers to refugees – but the government had more important things to worry about than a few farmers. On May 26, President Wilson issued a proclamation to anyone thinking of going to Canada to avoid the draft.

“I Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America, do hereby give warning that all persons subject to registration under the provisions of the said Act of Congress and the proclamation of the President who withdraw from the jurisdiction of the United States for the purpose of evading said registration, expose themselves upon their return to the jurisdiction of the United States, to prosecution for such evasion.”

He also gave a stern reminder to those who stayed.

“Any person who shall willfully fail or refuse to present himself for registration or to submit thereto as herein provided, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall, upon conviction in a district court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, be punished by imprisonment for not more than one year, and shall thereupon be duly registered.”

On June 1, a report out of Washington was carried in newspapers across the country.

“Part of Congress is aiding the anti-registration plots.

“While the department of justice is pawing at the roots of the nationwide conspiracy, some members of congress are frank in giving out anti-conscription speeches. … The anti-registration conspiracy is taking on broader aspects than even the most pessimistic had feared. Arrests show that the preachments of the plotters are spreading to every corner of the nation.”

The same day, the Philadelphia Inquirer carried an interview with the attorney general urging Americans to report their fellow citizens.

“The Department of Justice has been greatly aided in several instances by volunteer organization in cities and towns which have compiled records and held them available for the department’s use, and have furnished valuable information to its agents.

“Assistance of the sort referred to is of great value, and will be gladly received. I urge patriotic men in every section of the country to perfect organizations which will see to the registration of all names in their communities, preserving notes showing the personal sympathies and activities of individuals.”

The New York Telegram of June 3 reported tensions were reaching the boiling point.

“There has been trouble in New Jersey as well as New York, provoked by those opposing the registration for the selective draft, one of the several men arrested in New Jersey being the first man to be charged with a treasonable act in opposing the selective draft. In the New Jersey town of Guttenberg an anti-draft meeting resulted in six arrests and a free fight.”

The Telegram continued, “The Guttenberg police are not youths, but they have all been picked for weight and reach. Several of these speakers were silenced by a policeman reaching out a mighty hand, grabbing the speaker by the ankles and pulling him off the platform and then accelerating his movements streetward. When the police took their prisoners out in the street they were assailed with beer bottles and brickbats thrown by the anti-draft sympathizers, many of who sought the safety of nearby house tops before launching their missiles.”

On the eve of the big registration day, according to the Inquirer, “Battling stubbornly with a small army of police, a crowd of several thousand men and women tried vainly tonight to break through the cordon of officers that had been thrown around an already crowded hall in the Bronx where an anti-registration mass meeting was held. Clubs were wielded freely by the officers and several arrests were made before order was restored.”

The government wasn’t backing down … this was war.

“The authorities expected trouble, however, and were prepared to meet it. Nearly 300 patrolmen and detectives were stationed at vantage points around the building. Police automobiles equipped with search lights and each carrying two patrolmen armed with rifles patrolled the streets in the neighborhood.

“Many agents of the Department of Justice and the Secret Service mingled with the crowds while companies of the Home Defense League worked with the regular police.”

 In a country that prevented most women from voting and had a president who supported segregation, “making the world safe for democracy” was proving to be a difficult undertaking.

Next Week: Registration day.


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