Wednesday, April 19, 2017

“We Are Having a Big Time Now.” January-March 1917

by Captain William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

American Military Novelty Company cartoon marks a new year on the border.
Georgia National Guard Archives

January 1, 1917 marked a new year for the Georgia Guardsmen stationed on the Texas / Mexico border. From his tent, not two hundred yards from Mexico, Corporal Robert Gober Burton of Company H, 2nd Georgia Infantry, balanced a book over his knee and wrote a letter home to his mother in Monroe Ga. Rather than travel with the rest of the Georgia Brigade on a fifteen-mile march as he had earlier reported, Burton and his fellows from Monroe remained to guard Camp Cotton.
Georgia Guardsmen of Company H, 2nd Georgia Infantry
Georgia National Guard Archives
Burton wrote that word was sweeping the camp that Brig. Gen. John Pershing would be recalled from Mexico soon and that the Guardsmen encamped in posts along the border would soon be sent home. Burton enclosed Kodak images with the letter and returned some clothing items that had been sent as gifts.

“I am thinking of sending the muffler and laundry bag home as everything here is so dirty that I am afraid that I will spoil them. The muffler is surely nice but I can’t wear it as it doesn’t suit very well with government clothes. Besides, we are furnished all the war clothes that we can wear. I have some under clothes much heavier than those I wore at home. We have a big overcoat that weighs about 15 pounds and a hood that goes over the head so I keep very warm and comfortable.”

In his letters home, Burton continued to comfort his mother and reassure her that the men were in no danger.

El Paso, Texas
Monday Night (envelope post marked January 6, 1917)
Mama Dear,
Mama, you need not be afraid that the Mexicans will get us as there are just 129,000 more Soldiers here besides us and I think that the Mexicans are not hankering to come over and see how straight we can shoot.
I don’t see why we are being kept down here. The border is sleeping like a top and we are not really needed down here. I fear that a petition has been gotten up in Ga. asking the War Department to recall us. If it gets to you, I know that both you and papa will sign it. The Macon Board of Trade has sent one to the War Dept, also the Savannah B of T.
I have already shaved off the moustache and am again my natural self. I hope that by this time the picture has reached you. Also the letter with the Kodak pictures that I sent you.
Miss Bessie is coming out here to see Capt. Aycock. She left Atlanta tonight. Lt. Launius is due to come with her, but I think that his leave of absence will be extended so that he can stay with his father.
Now Mama, don’t get the blues because if I can stand it, I think you should. If you write blue letters I get blue and it makes both of us unhappy.
The Company is on guard tonight and I haven’t very much longer so will close. Write soon.
As ever, your Devt Son

By January 14, 1917 the 2nd Georgia received orders to man guard posts along the Southern El Paso Railroad linking Columbus, N.M. with El Paso.

My Dearest Mama,
We find that we will have to go out on the outpost duty after all. We are going to go with the First Ga. Regiment. I do not know whether we will get any mail out there or not but I will try and write you from out there. I think that we can mail our mail from there. We are going down into New Mexico so by that I will add another state to my list of states that I have been in.
Mama, please don’t worry about me being out there. I will be OK. The whole 1st Georgia will be with us.
I hear mess call sounding so will go eat dinner, then come back and finish this letter.
A light snow fell last night but melted away this morning. The weather this morning was not cold enough to wear a sweater and much of the boys are in their shirt sleeves.
I hope that by the middle of Feb. or the finish of March we will be on our way to the red hills of Ga. The middle of Feb. seems to be the most likely time.
Things along the border are as peaceful as in Ga. Things go on just as anywhere else, only you see Soldiers everywhere, and at all times.
When you wrote me about the turkey, I though that I would have some of the town boys down to eat dinner with me. Capt. Aycock, Miss Bessie, James Matthews, Jack Felker, Charlie Mears and Ed Winslo. How do you think that would be?
This may be the last letter in 15 days so I am making a long one of it. I think that we will get to post letters out their tho.
Miss Bessie’s coming was certainly liked by the whole company. We are more than glad to see her.
What is worrying me most is what I am going to do when I do get back home. Tell the boys to keep looking for me a job.
Well, will write again as soon as I get a chance. Write again soon
Your devoted son,
Noria New Mexico, station of Company H, 2nd Georgia
Infantry. Photo by Capt. William Carraway
On January 17, Burton and his comrades in Company H loaded into trucks and were driven 40 miles west along the border on a road that paralleled the El Paso Southwestern railroad. Reaching Noria, the troops unloaded and surveyed their newly assigned post. Save for an east-west railroad, a water tower and a depot building, there was nothing much to look at. Although the terrain was flat, the wind had shaped the sand into a series of undulating dunes topped with sage brush. The effect of these wind-formed terrain features was that a Soldier could stand on the flat ground in Noria and not be able to see the Mexican border just one mile south.

Over the next two weeks, Burton and the Soldiers of Company H found much to enjoy about their new post. Whereas at Camp Cotton, the troops were subject to camp rules and discipline, in Noria they were their own bosses. Burton established a canteen in the newly formed tent city of Noria and reported doing brisk business. Bessie Aycock, Capt. Aycock’s wife traveled with the company to Noria where she stayed at the depot office. By day she circulated about the camp bringing good cheer and encouragement to the Soldiers who welcomed the addition of a friendly face from home.
Bessie Aycock, wife of Capt. John Aycock with Company H, 2nd Georgia Infantry
Georgia National Guard Archives
Days passed without incident. The Soldiers watched as trains passed east and west while clouds drifted lazily in the sky. While the Georgians marked time guarding the railroad, news reached them that as many as 25,000 Guardsmen had left the border. This again buoyed expectations of a swift return home, but Capt. Aycock cautioned the men to expect a duty extension.

By January 31, 1917, Burton appeared resigned to a long stay on the New Mexico border.

Jan 31, 1917
My dearest mama,
We will be stationed here indefinitely. You just send the coke and the candy to my old address. We get the mail every day.
I had lots rather be here where we are than at camp in El Paso. Here we are our own boss, get up any time of day that we choose and go to bed when we please.
I went down to Columbus, N.M. the other day. That is the place where Villa made his raid about a year ago. Nothing can be seen except at some places where a bullet spattered.
The El Paso (paper) says that several thousand more National Guard are to be ordered home. We believe that we will be stationed here until they are ready to send us home. I hope that this will be the way they do.
You just send the coke and things right on. I will enjoy them more out here than I would at El Paso.
Write me soon at El Paso
Your devoted son,

Before Gober’s letter reached Monroe, the Georgians were recalled from Noria to Camp Cotton. Returning by truck February 1, 1917, the Georgians began preparing to return to their home state. Although they were no longer independent of camp regulations, Burton noted that they were glad to return to tents with wooden floors. He was happy also to receive a box of chocolates “from my girl in Winder” and Coca Cola from home.

Shortly after the Georgia Guardsmen returned to Camp Cotton, Brig. Gen. John Pershing was recalled to Fort Bliss ending the punitive expedition. The return of the regulars was greeted with a wave of celebration and rumors of the Guard units returning home. Burton reported camp duties greatly slackened and the men enjoyed liberal leave to El Paso. There was so much revelry that Burton wrote for his mother to send him a suit to wear to town.

“Mama, get my heavy suit of clothes, about two shirts, half dozen collar, buy me a cap and necktie or two. Cap size 7 1/8 and make it a loud one. My pair of slippers, pack them up and send them to me. We want to dress up sometime on Sunday and it is no longer against the rules to wear civilian clothes. Don’t forget to send me a collar button or two. We are having a big time now.”

On March 8, 1917, four inches of snow fell but Burton and Sgt. Williamson, sharing six blankets between them, suffered no ill effects from the cold snap. The next day, the 2nd Georgia Infantry Regiment received preliminary orders to prepare for a return to Georgia. The 1st Georgia Infantry Regiment was scheduled to return first, followed by the 5th and 2nd Georgia.

El Paso Herald Headline
Georgia National Guard Archives
Transportation of the units commenced March 22, 1917. The Georgians packed their tents and baggage and began a long spine-jarring ride home by rail through Dallas, Memphis, and Birmingham on the way to Atlanta and, ultimately Macon, Ga., headquarters of the 2nd Georgia Infantry.

Medal presented to Soldiers
of the 2nd Georgia by the
City of Macon
Author's collection
Upon their return, Soldiers of the 2nd Georgia Infantry Regiment were formed into ranks along Cherry Street in downtown Macon Georgia. There they were presented with medals custom ordered by the City of Macon in honor of the regiment’s service. Following the medal presentation, the Soldiers were treated to a barbecue in the city’s central park. Their medals glistening in the spring sunlight, the Soldiers of the 2nd Georgia had completed their Mexican border mobilization. But war clouds loomed, and a second mobilization was less than one week away.

Next Chapter: War Declaration and Mobilization

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

“Cactus and Sage Brush, Fleas and Ants” October-December 1916

by Captain William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

Bound for the Border
On October 22, 1916, ten trainloads of Georgia Guardsmen departed Camp Harris bound for El Paso, Texas and service along the Mexican border. To the chagrin of Monroe’s Company H, 2nd Georgia Infantry, Corporal Robert G. Burton recalled that no one from Monroe was present to see them off as the train steamed away from the Macon, Ga. train depot at 1:00 pm.

Burton, and the Soldiers of the Georgia Brigade made the tiresome trip to El Paso in five days. Along the route, the train column expanded and contracted, at times exceeding 150 miles in length. For many of the Georgians witnessing the passing landscape it was the first time they had been outside of their home state. Far different from the familiar green terrain and humidity was the gradual transition to brown, sandy vistas, sandy mountains and dry air.

The first of the Georgia trains pulled into the El Paso train depot on the morning of October 27, 1916. After multiple track changes, the Georgians clacked their way south crossing Paisano Drive to the flat parade ground of Camp Cotton which would be their home for the next several months.

Camp Cotton
The tents of the 2nd Georgia Infantry at Camp Cotton, 1916.
Georgia National Guard Archives

Camp Cotton was located along the Texas / Mexico border with the intersection of Paisano Drive and Cotton Avenue forming the northwest intersection of the camp boundary. The camp extended south to the banks of the Rio Grande River. The eastern border of Camp Cotton was formed by Cordova Island which marked the former location of the Rio Grande before the river’s course changed. Due to the presence of Cordova Island, and its attendant territorial disputes, the south and east borders of Camp Cotton looked out over Mexican territory.

After surveying the landscape of Camp Cotton, the Georgia regiments unloaded the trains and began setting up camp, displacing Guardsmen from Massachusetts who were returning home. The Georgia Brigade, consisting of the 1st, 2nd and 5th Georgia Infantry Regiments established company streets running east from the rail spur. The first tent established on the street of Company H, 2nd Ga. was Captain Aycock’s followed by the kitchen tent. First Sgt. Aralton D. Whitney’s tent was next followed by the supply stores tent of Quartermaster Sgt. Augustus Williams. Squad tents followed with eight men assigned to each tent.

The site of camp cotton in 1917 and 2017
Left: Georgia National Guard Archives. Right: Captain William Carraway
Writing to his mother on October 27, 1916, Burton noted that he had enjoyed the travel west, particularly Louisiana and Texas and that he was settling in to his new environment.

“I like this country just fine and believe that the longer I stay, the better I will like it.”
Company H, 2nd Georgia Infantry Regiment on the border,
October, 1916
Georgia National Guard Archives
Shortly thereafter, Burton sent a postcard of himself with six members of Company H. A handwritten note on the front of the postcard notes that the photo was taken within 100 yards of the Rio Grande and the border. Quartermaster Sgt. Augustus Williamson is the first Soldier visible. To his left is Corporal Robert G. Burton. Burton admonished his mother to put this card in his Kodak book. It was the first of many such images Burton would thus save.

As he got used to his new surroundings, Burton found that he liked the camp rather well. Despite the endless blowing dust and early hacking coughs that seemed to afflict everyone in camp, Burton found camp life to be pleasant enough. He reported that food was good but that the water tasted of rotten eggs. Second Lt. Albion Smith, an officer in the 5th Georgia Infantry Regiment reported that the water in Camp Cotton was piped in from town and that each company street was provided with a water tap, a convenience not present at Camp Harris in Macon.

Burton was pleased to discover Camp Cotton had a Young Men’s Christian Association. His letter of October 31, 1917 was the first of many to appear on YMCA stationery.

“The days are warm bordering on hot and the nights are cold or cool,” wrote Burton. “The air is dry and fresh. The camps are well located and all in all we are having a pretty good time.”

Burton recalled the YMCA supplied Soldiers with pens, ink and paper and showed movies at least four times a week.

Danger and Drudgery
Just days after arrival, Burton described his first experience on guard duty.

“Last night we went on guard on one side (our side) of the river. An American Soldier was walking, while just across the river, not more than a hundred yards away, a Mexican Soldier, or ‘Amigo’, was walking... Sometimes we hear a shot from across the river, but they have become so common that we do not pay attention to them.”
Writing to his aunt four days later, Burton reported that the sniping had all but stopped.

“Only sometimes a shot is fired across the river and when one is, it hardly ever does any damage.”
In his November 4, 1916 letter, Burton also made his first prediction about when the 2nd Georgia would return.

“We hope to be back home by Xmas,” wrote Burton. “I think that we will.”

As days passed, Burton’s descriptions of Camp Cotton remained warm.

“I like this camp very much better than the one we had in Macon,” wrote Burton November 6, 1916. “In this camp, we have electric lights and frames for our tents. They are planked half way up and have wooden floors in them.”

Cpl. Robert Gober Burton paints "Villa Georgia" on the side of his tent.
Georgia National Guard Archives
After a month, camp life had settled into a routine. The Georgians availed themselves of the YMCA writing material and wrote of experiences in town. Burton reported that El Paso was a town of 126 saloons but that he had not partaken of them and had instead remained a regular attendee of prayer meetings at the YMCA. During one of these prayer meetings, the chaplain of the 2nd Georgia remarked “God made this country and then forgot it.” Burton agreed with the sentiment finding El Paso to be:

“…the most God forsaken place in the world… There is not very much to this country. Out here it grows nothing but cactus and sage brush, fleas and ants.”
As November wore on, temperatures dropped. Burton’s letters revealed an increasing sense of homesickness, though he assured his mother that

“I am not homesick but just want to be at home with you and papa as I think that I am needed more there than on the border at present.”
Snow fell November 21, but Burton assured his family that he was warm.

Thanksgiving on the Border
The Monroe Guardsmen got a special treat from home four days before Thanksgiving when packages arrived from family and well-wishers. Williamson and Burton enjoyed a feast of Georgia butter, cakes and homemade wine which they poured over the cakes and allowed to sink in.

By Thanksgiving Day, Burton and Williamson were still enjoying the cake, but as Burton writes on December 1, 1916, Thanksgiving Day was memorable not for dinner, but for duty.

“We certainly had a Thanksgiving dinner today. We missed ours Thursday but made up for it Friday. We missed it because we were on outpost duty. We had all the things that go with a Thanksgiving dinner: chicken, dressing, cranberries and everything… The big horseraces took place in Juarez Thursday. Would surely liked to have seen them. They are the biggest events of the year over there.
We are still eating on the cake that you and EB sent. We surely do think it was great of both of you to send it to us.
The news of what we do must travel the rounds in Monroe now. I hope that they don’t hear anything on me. I don’t see where they will tho.
Your devoted son,
Thanksgiving Day, 1916 Left to Right:  Jack Felker,  Burton, E. J. Moore, Jim Mathews.
Georgia National Guard Archives

As November passed into December, camp life remained unremarkable. The Georgians marched to rifle ranges for target practice where they camped overnight. Burton recalled the temperatures were cold, but not so cold as to be unpleasant.

Christmas and a New Year
As Christmas approached, the Georgians wrapped and sent gifts home to loved ones and wrote letters thanking family and friends for gifts received. One gift from home was particularly well received as Burton wrote:

“The Coca Cola that Mr. Bell sent came yesterday and was fully enjoyed by the whole (company). The taps out here taste different from those in Georgia.”

Christmas morning dawned gusty with winds swirling thick clouds of dust. Braving the wind, Cpl. Burton trudged to the post office and received a money order from home. To his horror, as he was making his way back to his tent, the money flew from his grasp and was lost in the dust.

The other Monroe men of Company H fared better, enjoying a feast provided by Capt. Aycock. After the dinner, the men presented Aycock, Lt. Launius and Lt. Dickinson with custom-made rings with the phrase “from Co H., 2nd Ga.” engraved inside.
Writing his mother, Burton related his Christmas experiences and told her that he would be away on a fifteen-day hike for the first part of January. Burton was optimistic about what the hike portended.

“Do not be worried about me. I will be OK. This is the last thing that the National Guard do before they leave the border so I think that we will be home before long.”

The company would soon leave El Paso, but not for Georgia as Burton imagined.

Next Chapter: Service in New Mexico.