Pigskin Policy

Good morning, it’s a rainy Monday in the nation’s capital. A federal holiday, too, although I’m not sure what to call it anymore. On Capitol Hill, some federal employees will be on the clock, however, including those on the Senate Judiciary Committee. As I write these words, that dependably partisan panel is opening hearings into the contentious Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett.

President Trump’s highly politicized announcement regarding her appointment took on unwanted baggage when that Rose Garden ceremony apparently turned into a coronavirus “super-spreader” event. Pandemic politics, as it turns out, are just like regular politics, only worse.

On this date in 1918, Americans were not only reeling from a far more lethal virus epidemic — they were also fighting a world war. It was the war that President Wilson promised Americans in the 1916 election they’d never have to fight. By autumn of 1918, however, the commander-in-chief was so into winning World War I that he never mentioned the influenza outbreak that was killing more Americans than the Kaiser’s U-boats, machine guns, and artillery. Wilson did mention football, though. He thought the sport was an important morale builder — for civilians as well as soldiers. But was it even safe to attend the games?

Just a month after his second inauguration, Woodrow Wilson, the apostle of neutrality — the president who urged Americans to be “impartial in thought as well as in action” in the Great War enveloping Europe — took the least impartial step possible: He asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany.

This request was granted, which meant that a people who had last mobilized for combat during the Civil War had to militarize quickly. The United States Army formed 16 camps for basic training around the country. One of the major facilities was Camp Gordon, located on agricultural land in DeKalb County outside Atlanta.

The base was named after John B. Gordon, a Democrat who had represented Georgia in the U.S. Senate and served two terms in the late 1880s as governor. During the Civil War, Gordon fought for his state, not his country, rising from the rank of captain to lieutenant general.

A brave and able field commander who distinguished himself at Antietam, where he was wounded, Gordon was also one of “Lee’s Lieutenants” who led the post-war effort among influential Southerners to blame Gen. James Longstreet, and not Robert E. Lee, for the Confederate’s decisive defeat at Gettysburg. This revisionism is problematic, not merely because it is inaccurate and unfair to Longstreet. It was also a pillar of the pernicious “Lost Cause” narrative that supported Southern obduracy on race and underpinned Jim Crow.

These were “post-war crimes,” if you will, and John Gordon was not a passive participant: He ran for office in opposition to Reconstruction and was widely believed to be a Ku Klux Klan leader in Georgia. In other words, here is an example of a statue that really ought to come down. One doesn’t imagine that the young men shipped to Camp Gordon by the thousands in 1917 and 1918 knew much of this history or cared much about it. The task ahead of them was to undergo basic training, survive the perilous trip across the ocean on troop transports, and engage a battle-tested foe in the muddy trenches of the deadliest war the world had ever seen.

They did their duty without complaint. Most of them, more than 45,000, were Georgia boys. But another 5,100 came from neighboring Alabama, 6,500 from Iowa, 18,700 from New York. Ohio, the Northern state that suffered the most casualties in the Civil War, sent 9,800 young men to Camp Gordon. Among them was a 22-year-old mine worker named Park W. Etter. “He was a popular young man who made no claim of exemption before the local [draft] board,” noted a local newspaper at the time.

Football teams had been formed at Camp Gordon since the facility opened in 1917. In the autumn of 1918, the camp teams had a problem: the disease that President Wilson dare not name. But he did name football. “It would be difficult,” Wilson said, “to overestimate the value of football experience as part of a soldier’s training.”

So the games were played — without fans from outside the base. Led by former Georgia Tech All-American Everett Strupper, Camp Gordon’s team was pretty good. Playing their first game of the season at the camp 102 years ago today, they hosted Oglethorpe University. Although it would take more than a month for the news to reach them, by that time Pvt. Park Etter had given the last full measure of devotion. He was killed by an artillery shell in the Meuse-Argonne offensive.

The Kent Tribune, the same newspaper that noted Etter’s willingness to go, carried a short, three-paragraph story announcing his death. It ended this way: “Portage county adds him to her roll of heroes who have given their lives in defense of a common cause.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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