Archives for posts with tag: Camp Lee

Veteran’s Day evolved from Armistice Day which commemorated the declaration of peace in World War I at the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” George Fleming told me that as a boy bells would ring out at that time every year and America would stop to remember. This morning I could almost hear the echo of those bells through the decades. Harry Stilson recorded Richmond’s wartime experiences in his photographs which I share through our non-profit, Richmond In Sight, in books, presentations and our online site, My latest book, From Richmond to France, takes us back to when Richmond’s “soldier boys” went off to war. Through photos, stories, and letters, we are transported to a century ago when Harry’s son, Leon, went to Camp Lee, now Fort Lee, and then to France. Leon’s letters convey the experience of so many boys who had never left home before.

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Leon Stilson (second from rt) in Shockoe Bottom leaving for Camp Lee,

America’s military prior to our entrance into the war consisted of 135,000 men and the war demanded millions. Leon’s letters home relate the army’s disorganization and lack of basic equipment and supplies. He wrote: “I did not ask to go (home on leave) this week as we have no uniforms as yet and my clothes are dirty. We hope to get uniforms this week. Were measured for overcoats this morning but will not be allowed to wear them till we have the rest of our outfit. I think that they are serving out overcoats so as to somewhat take the place of blankets so that we will not freeze at night.” This weekend in Richmond, we had a hard freeze so the idea of barracks with no heat, a straw-filled mattress covered by one blanket and an overcoat provides a vivid picture of hardships faced by young recruits. Equipment eventually was produced, training completed, and those boys shipped out for France.

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Leon Stilson in overcoat, Hartshorn  College, Jackson Ward

The families left behind by those in France were part of the war effort. My book describes difficulties as women were left to manage farms and businesses, without manpower or money. War bond drives supported the troops and Harry recorded those events. 0019

Today’s technology makes it hard to imagine not hearing if your loved one was dead or alive for months but a field service note card could take several weeks to arrive in the States and letters often were never delivered at all. Leon Stilson died of wounds on October 7th, 1918 and his father didn’t receive the official telegram until November 28th, over a month after Armistice was declared. Amazingly, the father of a Petersburg soldier who was with Leon when he was shot contacted Harry, a correspondence developed and I have an eyewitness account of my great-uncle’s mortal wounding a century ago. It’s heart-breaking to read, especially when thousands of families experienced the same loss of a son, husband, father.


After the peace treaty was signed, troops started returning home but most of Richmond’s soldiers returned months later, in June 1919. Harry documented those returns and parades as well as subsequent Armistice Day events over the years. Because my great-grandmother was a Gold Star Mother, she traveled to France in 1932 to see her son’s grave. Naturally, Harry taught her to take photographs which he developed, offering us a glimpse into Paris and other parts of France seldom seen. Those pictures, post cards, memorabilia, and letters are also included in From Richmond to France.


Gold Star Mothers (Mary Stilson second from left) watch laying of wreath in Paris



As part of Richmond In Sight’s Veteran’s Day observance, I am giving a program of Harry Stilson’s photographs and stories related by Richmond’s soldiers and sailors as well as their families tomorrow, Sunday, November 12th at 4:00 PM at Mount Hermon Baptist Church, 18100 Genito Road, Moseley, VA. It’s open to the public and I will have books for purchase and signing. You can contact me if you need more information through the RIS site or by emailing me at I’m available for programs on this subject and others if your group or organization has programs so check with me. On this Veteran’s Day, say a prayer for all those serving in our armed forces and thank those you encounter who served in the past or serve now. Today is Veteran’s Day but it should be remembered with reverence and gratitude every day of the year.

cassons broad


This blog is a companion to my Richmond In Sight work. We created that non-profit to preserve, restore, and share the nearly 5,000 surviving images that my great-grandfather, Harry Stilson, took of Richmond and elsewhere in the early 1900s. The sharing part is accomplished by presentations, books, and our online presence so my fourth book continues that effort. Previous ones focused on neighborhoods, with On the West Clay Line (Jackson Ward, Carver, Newtowne, & Navy Hill) and Up & Down Church Hill concentrating on Church Hill and Shockoe but the new book is different. One reader called and said “It grabbed me and pulled me into those boys’ lives. I felt like Leon Stilson was right beside me.” From Richmond to France contains story and images of young men who went to war but it’s not a military history. It’s told in the words of my great-uncle Leon, other soldiers and sailors, and their relatives. It’s more about adjusting to Camp Lee, now Fort Lee, coping with homesickness, straw mattresses, and learning to survive in battle than it is about battles.   

From Richmond book cover

2017 is the 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into World War I. Many of us know little about that time or that war but it was more than a turning point for our country. Before then, America’s military numbered about 135,000…total. We weren’t considered a force to contend with, military or otherwise.  The Great War changed that. We expanded to millions of soldiers and became a world leader. Our presence in France changed the world’s perception of the U.S. but there were other significant effects of America going to war overseas.

mess hall

Wealthy Americans took world tours and traveled to Europe but the majority of ‘soldier boys’ that fought in France had never left the country before. Many had never left their city borders. The impact on their lives can’t be overestimated. They experienced the horrors of war but they were also exposed to other cultures, languages, and architecture that existed centuries before our nation was born. The song “How You Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm (after they’ve seen Paree)” was popular for a reason. It echoed the sentiments of parents throughout rural America. Their sons came home looking at life through a different lens.

Sam Beasley

American soldiers’ interaction with Europe influenced our nation’s health as well. Returning soldiers and others carried the Spanish Influenza home with them. According to the National Archives, more people died of the flu than were killed in the war. One example of the scope and randomness of that pandemic comes from Clyde Goode whose father served in an engineering company . Ralph Goode survived the war, then returned home to discover that his mother died of the flu while he was en route from France. The epidemic was so prevalent that references to influenza even appeared in my great-grandfather’s journal. Harry described deaths of fellow streetcar men and the survival of a neighbor from the influenza during the war. Death was as near as next door or as distant as an ocean away.

burial at sea

Despite reluctance by veterans to describe battle conditions, details did emerge. Horrific battles with unbelievable carnage left survivors damaged in various ways. Men came home without limbs and with nightmares. One man told me his uncle came home with a wooden hand. Lives changed for those men and for the families who waited for their return.

This isn’t a depressing book of war woes, though. The stories are funny and a glimpse into the innocence of our world in 1917. Leon was introduced to gambling and dancing, to “smokers.” He wrote “This company had a smoker last Tuesday night. I don’t think the word applies very well. We had 5 or 6 wrestling matches and 4 or 5 boxing matches. After that was over and in between, bouts of plenty of music, a piano, banjo, violin, and singing. Then we went downstairs to the mess hall to eat all the ice cream and cake we wanted. Then the cigars and cigarettes were passed out and the men given permission to smoke in the mess hall which is against the rules at all other times. The lights were put out at eleven o’clock and everybody went to bed.”


He explains passes:  “I did not ask to go this week as we have no uniforms as yet and my clothes are dirty. “ He also writes about what happens when young men are away from home and get that pass: “A private took a corporal home with him to Richmond last Saturday and the corporal went out of a house where they had went to visit and took the private’s automobile which he did not know how to drive and proceeded to go crazy on Broad Street and ended up by smashing the car up against a tobacco factory. Now he is in jail with a $50.00 fine unpaid.”

From Richmond to France is also about Armistice, the aftermath of war, and the healing that came later. When a Gold Star Family made news last summer, many Americans were unfamiliar with the term but it was familiar to everyone in the Great War and afterwards. A unique piece of history included Gold Star Mother Pilgrimages. Congress authorized a program in which mothers and widows traveled to France to see their loved ones’ graves so Paris in 1932 is also part of my book.

Eiffel tower

If you read this blog, you’ll appreciate the books based on Harry Stilson’s images and oral histories of Richmonders. I tell people that they aren’t my books. I just assemble them. They’re the stories and the images of our city’s past and they direct our future by lessons within the pages. This story’s time has come.  Contact me directly or go to to purchase From Richmond to France. Support our efforts to share Harry’s images and be “grabbed” at the same time. I promise that it is a story you won’t soon forget.

5 ton tractor