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.”

beans

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 www.richmondinsight.com 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