Friday, June 17, 2016

100 Years Ago: 32nd Regiment from Grand Rapids Headed to the Border

Despite being the oldest military service in the United States, by 1916 efforts were underway to eliminate the National Guard and increase the strength of the Regular Army – called the Continental Army Plan -- out of fears that eventually, the United States would be drawn into World War I and was not prepared. President Woodrow Wilson, however, did not back such a plan but instead pushed for legislation that would allow for federalization of the Guard when needed. Up to this point, the National Guard could not be ordered by the President to engage in any war outside of our nation’s borders. That all changed when the National Defense Act of 1916 went into effect, but Guard units had already started arriving on the Mexican Border fifteen days prior. Thus, President Wilson was left with the old “Dick Act” of 1903, limiting his authority to mobilize the Guard for incidents of invasion, insurrection, or threat of invasion.

Such conditions existed on the Border and were escalating dangerously in early 1916 to the brink of all-war between Mexico and the United States. A revolution had taken place in Mexico followed by years of unsettled leadership and suspicion as to any designs our country had on Mexican territory and resources during this period of weak leadership. This gave rise to insurgency within Mexico the most famous of which was the influential General Francisco “Pancho” Villa who was attempting to delegitimize General Venustiuano Carranza, the defacto governing authority for Mexico. Villa set out to accomplish this by making bold raids across the U.S. – Mexico Border.  One such town was Columbus, New Mexico where at least seven Americans lost their lives. On March 15, 1916, General John J. Pershing and 5,000 U.S. troops, accompanied by Mormon and Mexican Scouts, pushed across the Border and head south in pursuit of Villa and his bandits.  In the meantime, the National Guard of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico were called up to protect the Border.

Villa was smart enough to know he could not fight the U.S. force head on, so he continued south and headed into the mountains. Within several days, Pershing’s force was just 30 miles from Villa, having reached Casas Grandes. The American army wanted to use the Mexican railways to transport supplies to the advancing troops but General Carranza was not happy with the “occupation” and would not cooperate with the U.S.  He warned Pershing to quit the attack and leave Mexico.

In early May, Mexican bandits were reported to have raided and burned Cholaris, Arizona, a mining camp, with at least one U.S. civilian fatality.  Within days, the U.S. and Mexican governments resolved their disputes and focused their efforts on the insurgents. During another raid, this time on the Texas town of Glen Springs, the bandits were badly beaten by two troops of U.S. Calvary with 75 captured. By June, another rift between the U.S. and General Carranza ensued with a warning that any American troops on Mexican territory were subject to attack. The U.S. stance by then was that troops would cross into Mexican whenever there was cause, despite the de facto leader’s war threat.

President Wilson rebuked Carranza’s threat and responded on Monday, June 19, 1916 by mobilizing 100,000 National Guard troops, including the 32nd Regiment headquartered in Grand Rapids for service on the Mexican Border.  The companies assembled at their respective armories and began to fill their ranks with no shortage of volunteers. However, many were not fit for military duty and it took the better part of the week to get the companies up to strength. A parade was planned for Friday before departing for Camp Grayling by rail, the three-year-old training camp in north-central Michigan. There was a concern, however, that the companies were short in the areas of cooks, musicians and mechanics as well as experienced horsemen. In the meantime, area businesses were reassuring the soldiers that their patriotism would be rewarded by ensuring their jobs would be here when they came home.

Ironically, the veterans of the Civil War Third Michigan, predecessor of the 32nd Regiment, were meeting in reunion at Grand Rapids that week, led by Colonel Byron R. Pierce.

Two days after the National Guard call-up, 20 Americans and 40 Mexicans reportedly died in the first battle south of the Rio Grande. The local Guard units were still short an average of 40 to 45 men to fill their ranks. The Friday parade was moved up to Thursday afternoon at 2 pm.  It was also Colonel Covell’s forty-first birthday.

The Grand Rapids battalion left the city Friday evening, June 23, and arrived at the state mobilization camp at Grayling less than a week later.  Fifty thousand citizens came out to the Union Station to wish the farewell. That same day, Congress adopted a resolution declaring existence of an emergency thereby approving President Wilson’s callup.

Reorganization during the preceding year had caused a number of unit designations to change in the 32nd Regiment.  Company B dating back to the original Grand Rapids Guard lost its sixty-three-year-old designation to the Adrian company, consequently being renamed Company L.  The reorganization had consolidated the companies by battalion with the first four making up the First Battalion, second four the Second Battalion, and last four—all from Grand Rapids—comprising the Third Battalion.  Thus the new organization of the 32nd Michigan at the time it was called out for border duty was:

Regimental Headquarters:
Colonel Louis C. Covell, Grand Rapids
Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B. Westnedge, Kalamazoo
Chaplain-Captain Patrick R. Dunnigan
Adjutant-Captain Edgar H. Campbell
Surgeon-Major Ernest C. Lee

1st Battalion - Major Charles J. McCullough, Lansing
Company A, Coldwater, Captain Richard G. Bishop
Company B, Adrian, Captain John Benner
Company C, Kalamazoo, Captain John P. DeRight
Company D, Kalamazoo, Captain Robert L. Wright

2nd Battalion - Major Eli V.R. Falardeau, Big Rapids
Company E, Ionia, Captain George R. Hogarth
Company F, Grand Haven, Captain George L. Olsen
Company G, Muskegon, Captain Carl M. Field
Company H, Big Rapids, Captain Charles L. McCormick

3rd Battalion - Major Earl R. Stewart, Grand Rapids
Company I, Grand Rapids, Captain Robert G. Hill
Company K, Grand Rapids, Captain John H. Schouten
Company L, Grand Rapids, Captain Charles H. Simpson
Company M, Grand Rapids, Captain Emil B. Gansser

The 32nd was mustered into federal service on the July 1 while mobilizing at Camp Grayling, becoming part of the Army of the United States.  Shortly after, the regiment departed by train for El Paso, Texas, and began arriving at Camp Cotton by mid-July, a mere three hundred yards from the Mexican border.   It’s arrival on July 18 doubled Michigan’s presence in El Paso.

Upon arrival, regular army inspectors took note of the excellent condition of the regiment and the short amount of time it took to get settled into camp.  Colonel Covell received specific compliments for his handling of the troop trains and regard for the comfort and welfare of his soldiers.  The reputation of Covell, his officers, and the regiment spread quickly through the camp and it caught the attention of a motion picture maker who asked to film them.

The next four weeks were spent in intensive training.  The daily routine centered on drills, inspections, and route marches to toughen the troops. which consisted principally of field tactics and open warfare. The drill ground was a limitless stretch of sandy waste land located to the east of Fort Bliss and was known as the "Mesa." It was a three-mile hike from camp and the troops marched this distance daily, leaving camp at 7 o'clock in the morning and reaching the drill area by eight and then trudging through the sandy fields for the next three hours when the return to camp was made. This program was carried out daily except Saturdays, when a thorough show-down inspection was held. The Mesa was covered with every known variety of cactus and mesquite bushes; horned toads, lizards and other tropical insects infested the drill field, all of which was something new to the troops from the North, and the memory of this sandy waste cherishes no desire to return to it. The afternoons were devoted to schools and athletic work. The regiment made rapid progress in its training and the strenuous work soon hardened the men into well-trained and seasoned troops and ready for any service south of the border. 

After a month, a series of training maneuvers were held. A big sandstorm hit the camp on the night of July 25, and reportedly the troops were nearly smothered as a result. The regiment continued training including instruction on how to attack Mexican towns and how to combat insurgent fighters should it be necessary to insert Guard troops into battle.

During this time, details were organized to guard important points in the vicinity of El Paso.  On August 15, the regiment took over the entire outpost along the Rio Grande and the boundary line in New Mexico.  This consisted of a line stretching from Fort Hancock, fifty miles southeast of El Paso, all the way to Los Cruses, New Mexico, forty-seven miles in length.

The 32nd was relieved of this duty on the first of September, returning to Camp Cotton where it continued training in preparation for an encounter with Mexican rebel forces.  While in camp, weather became a factor as fall became winter.  It was reported in mid-November that scores of men of the Michigan brigade on border patrol sat up all night to keep campfires going. The temperatures dropped to 21 above zero.

A brigade of National Guard from Georgia moved into Camp Cotton next to the Michigan brigade which included the 32nd Regiment. Reportedly, the Georgians were not thrilled to learn they were camped next to a “bunch of Yankees.”  Considerable name-calling ensued followed by a few fistfights. A more serious clash was the result of insensitivities of the Michigan band which played “Marching through Georgia” one evening, infuriating the Georgia guardsmen. A massive brawl resulted but fortunately, despite hundreds of injuries, no one was killed. Animosities continued and the officers had their hands full keeping the units separated.  Eventually, the two sides came to a level of mutual respect, probably choosing instead to commiserate together on the deplorable, dusty conditions at Camp Cotton.

Back in Grand Rapids, the families of the soldiers on the border found themselves in dire need of assistance.  When several of them applied to the city poor department for relief, the editor of the Grand Rapids Herald took public notice, admonishing the citizens of Grand Rapids to make good on their promise to the soldiers that their wives and children should be objects of a great and patriotic city’s special care.  He went on to note that while the city took exception to what they felt was less-than-adequate treatment for the troops, first at Camp Grayling and then on the border, little was being done for the families in need.  Two days later, the Herald trumpeted a real thanksgiving for soldiers’ folks.  Captain John L. Boer, chairman of a local committee of Spanish-American War veterans, organized a tag day fund-raiser. 

Boy Scouts were enlisted to help by selling small American flags the proceeds of which were distributed by a committee of veterans to families in need.  The committee included General William T. McGurrin and other notable veterans of the 32nd Regiment.  The sale of tags was held on Saturday, November 25, not too soon, considering the city experienced a difficult early winter blizzard the previous day making conditions even tougher for the poor families of troops on the border.  The goal was to raise $2,500.  Although it came up short, the money was quickly disbursed to the families in time for Thanksgiving.  In addition, a number of merchants agreed to sell goods at cost to soldiers’ families.  The citizens over in Grand Haven collected $806 to aid dependent families, with local factory workers donating a portion of their pay each month to help.

On the border, all was not peaceful.  A small recruiting war broke out between the regular army and militia units.  Regular army officers had been attempting to lure Guard troops over to their ranks, but this was stopped when Company L’s Captain Jesse Clarke protested to General George Bell Jr.  The general issued an order to desist, however, not before Grand Rapids’ Albert D. Chipman won a commission as second lieutenant in the regular army.  Originally a member of Company K and the Grand Rapids Business Men’s battalion, Chipman’s commission was in response to the army’s need for one thousand officers.  This was a significant change since in years past the regular army had shunned militia officers.  It appeared now to be welcoming them into open arms.

One of the local officers who sought to simplify the process of obtaining a regular commission was Lieutenant Edward B. Strom, formerly of Company M.  By now a regular army officer in the Thirty-fourth United States Infantry, Strom returned to Grand Rapids to meet with Congressman Carl E. Mapes and Senator William Alden Smith.  He was attempting to get them to support a bill before Congress that provided for a big increase in the regular army, thereby opening opportunities for officers in the Guard.  The biggest hurdle was age—many militia officers had been around for some time and exceeded the twenty-seven-year age limit.  Strom had been the first National Guard officer recommended for transfer to the regular army and placed temporarily in command of a regular army company.  While Strom was home in Grand Rapids, he was able to see his son, nearly four months old, who had been born after the Thirty-second was mobilized. 

Meanwhile, General Kirk, the Michigan Brigade commander, was reporting that half to a third of the rifles in the brigade were unfit for service, many having rusty and pitted barrels.  The men from Grand Rapids’ Third Battalion were reported in good health by Lieutenant Strom during his visit back to the city.  The soldiers’ biggest fears were that their families might not be properly provided for back home.  Strom also noted that the 32nd’s football team was leading the Army league and was undefeated.             

During the fall months, a football schedule had been arranged for the troops in the El Paso district as a part of the training in athletics.  Nearly every regiment in the district entered a team in the league, which was divided into two sections.  The winner of each section played a championship game. Following a game earlier in November, in which the 32nd beat the 20th Infantry soundly 31 to 12, a number of revelers from the 31st Michigan were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace.  Fortunately they were later released.

The 32nd Michigan Infantry team, coached by Joe Kennedy who was actually a corporal in the 31st Michigan and was formerly assistant coach at the University of Michigan, won all its games in its section and went on to beat the Eighth Artillery in the Army championship on January 1, 1917. 

At one time it was reported that the men of the 32nd had been planning a mutiny.  General Kirk made an effort to squelch this rumor, and Colonel Covell also reassured Grand Rapids that none of it was true.  Adjutant General John S. Bersey, after an inspection trip along the border, noted that Michigan’s soldiers are neither “whiners” nor “cry babies” as rumored.  He noted that certainly the men wanted to return to their homes and families as soon as possible but were willing to tough it out to the end.

Colonel Covell returned to Grand Rapids in early December 1916 to meet with the local Military Board and accept the new Michigan Street armory.  During his visit, he remarked:

“We all want to come home the worst way but we know we can’t until we are ordered and every man in the regiment is loyal to it and is doing his duty like a good soldier and a good citizen . . . The occurrence that so much was made of in the newspapers was no more than many other occurrences happening almost daily in the camp.  Some dozen or 15 men engaged in a little shirt-tail parade were beating tin pans and shouting, “We want to go home.”  A lot more of the boys came out . . . to see what the disturbance was about.  I merely instructed the bugler to blow “call to quarters.”  In three minutes the boys were back in their quarters and there were no threats or challenges . . . it was merely a little noise making by the boys without any malicious intent.”

Before departing for his return trip to the border, Colonel Covell called on the citizens of Grand Rapids to remember the boys on the border who most assuredly would not be home for Christmas.  Grand Rapids Lodge 48, B.P.O.E. (Elks), sent a most satisfying dinner for Christmas, which included oyster stew, Michigan celery, roast turkey, oyster dressing, cranberry sauce, giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, creamed peas, pickled beats, rolls, butter, fruit salad, plum pudding, brandy sauce, homemade mince pie, and real coffee.  Members of the Elks helped the regimental cooks prepare this feast for the six-hundred-man regiment.  The other good news of the day—the 32nd would soon be coming home.

On Saturday, January 13, 1917, the final inspection of the regiment had been conducted.  On the next Monday evening, tragedy struck.  Corporal Frank Schultz of Company L had reportedly been murdered by at El Paso.  Five other 32nd members died following the regiment’s call into federal service.  They were Edward F. Martin of Adrian, Private Stopple of Grand Rapids, Anthony Kraai of Grand Haven, Stanley D. Bogard of Muskegon, and Ralph Sherman of Ionia—all noncombat deaths. One of the biggest differences between this war and the Spanish-American War eighteen years earlier was the lack of contagious diseases and resulting deaths.

The regiment struck camp on Thursday and returned to Fort Wayne, Michigan on January 24. The movement was made in three trains and the trip required nearly six days. The necessary paper work and checking of equipment preliminary to muster out was begun at once and by February 4th half of the regiment was mustered out and returned to their home stations. The muster out proceedings of the remainder of the regiment was stopped on account of an epidemic of scarlet fever, which required them to be held in quarantine, and on February 9th word was received that the German ambassador had been given his passports and that diplomatic relations with Germany was broken off by the President, Woodrow Wilson, and a telegram arrived directing that muster-out proceedings be discontinued until further orders. 

This new turn in events caused some excitement among the remaining troops and speculation was rife concerning its import, and the general belief was that war with Germany was imminent and that the troops remaining would not be mustered out after all. Three days later instructions were received to proceed with the mustering out proceedings and the troops were mustered out of the Federal Service on February 15th and proceeded to their home stations. It was reported that had not a part of the regiment been mustered out before diplomatic relations with Germany were broken the whole regiment would have remained in the Federal Service. 

Two days after mustering out of federal service, Colonel Covell was appointed the commanding officer of Michigan’s First Brigade and promoted to the rank of brigadier general.  He concurrently held the position of chief of staff to Governor Albert E. Sleeper, commander in chief. Lieutenant Colonel Westnedge was subsequently promoted to colonel and took command of the 32nd.

During this period, relations between the German Imperial Government and the United States were becoming increasingly strained every day, and the country was again drifting towards war.  The growing probability of American combat involvement in Europe was on everyone’s mind.  Many of the Guardsmen did not return to their civilian jobs after the border demobilization.  Instead, they simply waited for the impending federal mobilization, and in the course of a given day, men stopped at the armory to learn if there was any news.


Britten, David G., Lieutenant Colonel, 126th Regimental Association. Courage without Fear: The Story of the Grand Rapids Guard. Xlibris, 2004

Harris, Charles H. III and Sadler, Louis R. The Great Call-Up: The Guard, The Border, and The Mexican Revolution. University of Oklahoma Press, 2015

Orr, Brent A., Major, U.S. Army, North Carolina Army National Guard. Borderline Failure: National Guard on the Mexican Border, 1916-1917. School of Advanced Military Studies Monograph, 2011

Gansser, Emil B., 126th Infantry Association, A.E.F. History of the 126th Infantry in the War With Germany. Grand Rapids Michigan, 1920.

Various editions of The Grand Rapids Press and Grand Rapids Herald, 1916-1917

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