John Shearer: Dwight Eisenhower Served At Fort Oglethorpe 100 Years Ago

Saturday, October 28, 2017 - by John Shearer

Of all the presidents who have been to the Chattanooga area before, during or after their presidencies, only two have spent significant time here.
 
And during both times, they were focused on the most serious of endeavors – war. Ulysses S. Grant was in Chattanooga for a period before and during the Civil War battles in the city in 1863, while Dwight Eisenhower was helping train World War I soldiers at Fort Oglethorpe in 1917 – exactly 100 years ago this fall.
 
Mr. Eisenhower would go on to become one of the more likable presidents of recent decades, but in 1917 he was known more as a tough and challenging instructor who was good at preparing troops for war.

 
He was stationed at Fort Oglethorpe from Sept. 20, 1917 – the anniversary day of the Battle of Chattanooga – until Dec. 12, 1917, when he was assigned as an instructor at the Army Service Schools in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
 
Despite his roughly three-month stay in the Chattanooga area, however, only a minimal amount of other information seems to be documented about his time here.
 
Born in Denison, Texas, in 1890, the young Mr. Eisenhower later moved with his family to Abilene, Kan., where he spent most of his growing-up years.
 
After a typical childhood of mostly fun -- but a few bumps and bruises and small disappointments -- he enrolled at West Point in 1911. While there, he played on the football team with future Gen. Omar Nelson Bradley before being injured, and graduated in 1915 in the top third of his class.
 
While serving in Texas, he and fellow members of the 57th Infantry Regiment were hoping to be sent overseas to join in the fighting.
 
Instead, he was assigned to Fort Oglethorpe to train candidates for officers’ commissions in trench warfare. Trench warfare had become a popular tactic in World War I because artillery and other weaponry had been developed to a more powerful level, and staying in a trench provided the best safety in that era before armored vehicles became more sophisticated.
 
While the future president was instructing in trench warfare, he considered getting sent to Chattanooga sort of like being in a ditch in a proverbial and emotional sense as well. This man who would never actually see combat before leading the Allied forces in Europe in World War II was more than 50 years late for any military action here, too.
 
“This was distressing. I wanted to stay with a regiment that would see action soon,” he later wrote in a memoir, “At Ease: Stories I Tell To Friends.”
 
His fellow soldiers from the 57th Infantry in Texas also did not see action, as they were assigned to garrison duty around Houston.
 
Mr. Eisenhower wrote that the experience here taught him about the slow-moving bureaucratic procedures of the military and government.
 
“If the mills of the gods grind slowly and exceedingly small, the mills of the War Department seemed to grind to no purpose whatsoever,” he said.
 
The book, “Ike: His Life and Times,” by Piers Brendon said that Mr. Eisenhower during this time was known as a disciplinarian who could occasionally mete out severe punishment. He once ordered a soldier to dig a grave and fill it up again.
 
Working under Henry Slocum Jr., a former U.S. Open tennis champion and the son of Union Civil War Gen. Henry Slocum, Mr. Eisenhower had the job of weeding out the poor candidates, most of whom were college educated and/or from more affluent families.
 
Shortly after the future president’s stay in Fort Oglethorpe, someone in the “Ike” book described him as a young officer who could be hard and abrupt, but also as a person who knew his job, had an enthusiastic manner and was well respected.
 
The Army apparently liked the job he was doing, and that is why he stayed back home. And he apparently did not mind the work, despite not getting to be on the frontline.
 
“The work was fatiguing, but I enjoyed it,” he wrote in his “At Ease” memoir. “Luckily, over the months I had been following the progress of the war and read everything that I could find about minor tactics of infantry.”
 
If he were trying to follow the happenings of the war in the Chattanooga Times or another paper, he would have read about the now-infamous Russian Revolution of November 1917 that eventually brought to power the Communist Party.
 
Besides job satisfaction, there were also some other pleasing moments during the future president’s time in Fort Oglethorpe, despite his frustrations at not being sent overseas. He turned 27 years old on Oct. 14, 1917, while stationed here, and his first son, Doud Dwight, was also born back in Denver, where Ike’s wife, Mamie, was staying with family.
 
She had reportedly sold all of their furniture they had while in Texas before he was transferred to Fort Oglethorpe, the book, “Ike,” says.
 
Mr. Eisenhower writes in “At Ease” of getting the happy news of the addition to his family. “I came out of those trenches on the 26th of September and found a telegram dated the 24th, saying that my son had been born,” he said.
 
The son would unfortunately die of scarlet fever at the age of 3, although his younger son, John, would live until 2013.
 
While the general timeline of the future president’s stay at Fort Oglethorpe and the job he did are known, what seems a mystery is where the future president might have laid his head at night.
 
In the early 1950s, then Chattanooga News-Free Press reporter J.B. Collins was living at 205 Barnhardt Circle in an old officer’s home and wrote the World War II hero if that home was where the noted American had lived.
 
Mr. Eisenhower wrote him back saying, “Though it is really stretching my memory a bit, from your description of the house, it seems to be the one in which I lived during World War I while stationed at Fort Oglethorpe.”
 
Whether Mr. Eisenhower actually believed that or was just being agreeable in a politician’s sort of way is not known.
 
Mr. Collins recently was back in the news for turning 100 years old on Sept. 24 – which was also the exact day and year that Mr. Eisenhower’s son, Doud Dwight, had been born.
 
People interested in Fort Oglethorpe’s history over the years have also speculated that President Eisenhower might have lived in a now-razed home at 107 Barnhardt Circle. Or, since he was there without Mamie, some believe he could have resided in the officers’ barracks at 103 Barnhardt Circle.
 
Both the buildings at 103 and 205 Barnhardt Circle are still there.
 
According to Sixth Cavalry Museum executive director Chris McKeever, Gen. Courtney Hodges of Perry, Ga., once told someone in later years that he believed then-Capt. Eisenhower spent all or most of his time while there bivouacked out on the fields of Chickamauga Battlefield with the troops he was training.
 
Little is also known if the future president ever came to downtown Chattanooga or the surrounding area for any social or recreational activities during his time at Fort Oglethorpe. A number of places around town did have special events for or offered invitations to the Fort Oglethorpe soldiers.
 
Today, the immediate area around the old Barnhardt Circle in Fort Oglethorpe where the officers homes are appears to be little changed compared to 100 years ago, even though the activities around them are entirely different.
 
School kids run and play ball and visit the Sixth Cavalry Museum around the big field where soldiers trained for war or rode horses as cavalrymen, and the old bandstand still stands sturdily.
 
A short distance away, the area has changed, as Sears Shoe Store and countless chain restaurants now stand. And just a little farther away is Interstate 75, which Mr. Eisenhower helped create while president.
 
In another direction, the old World War I training fields are now back to their original use as the national military park and unlikely to be used for war training again.
 
The whole area is much more peaceful, especially on a nice autumn day, than it was 100 years ago when the base was in war mode.
 
But through the rustling of the old trees and the backdrop of the old homes featuring current residents climbing up steps to get inside, it is not hard to picture a well-known future leader starting his own climb up the ladder of success through military service.
 
Jcshearer2@comcast.net


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