Archives for posts with tag: soldiers

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



Memorial Day was established to remember the men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country and for each of us. Our family’s soldiers and sailors all came home from war with one exception. My great-uncle Leon Stilson died in the “Great War,” World War I, from a sniper’s bullet. In the Stilson collection are hundreds of photos of Harris Stilson’s older son but I also have Leon’s letters from boot camp (Camp Lee, now Fort Lee), postcards,  and photographs that he sent home for his father to develop.

Camp Lee hospital postcard

His letters after he left for France are especially poignant. His mother’s letters that arrived after his death were eventually returned to her. Decades later, I found them and they made me cry.

Leon Stilson on leave

Letters and photographs, not only of Leon but of so many young Richmond men going off to France, many of whom had never left home before,  inspired my fourth book, available this fall.  War affects families and cities as well as countries. Postcards filled with the details of combat training, homesickness, and words designed to relieve his mother’s worry, highlight the heartbreak accompanying each young person going off to war. Every brave, scared, lonely young man sent messages home echoing Leon’s words.

Richmond soldiers to Camp Lee

Harry Stilson took hundreds of photographs of soldiers, sailors, Armistice parades, air ships, and anti-aircraft guns. He documented the Broad Street Station return of his son’s unit at war’s end. The persistence of a grieving father led Harry to a family in Petersburg, Virginia,  whose son did return from France and who witnessed the fatal wounding of Leon Stilson. Letters from Mr. Thomas Ivey and his son George described how one man died in simple, heart-wrenching words. I believe those letters and documents illustrate how war impacts us all.

George Ivey letter

In 1932,  Mary Perry Stilson sailed to France on a Gold Star Mother pilgrimage to see where her son is buried among 17,800 graves at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. Paris scenes, 1932 maps, ship menus, even her passport and Gold Star Mother Identification, all were lovingly preserved. When I started working on the Stilson collection of images, the enormous number of wartime photographs struck me. So did that pilgrimage of all those mothers who traveled so far to stand by a grave identical to thousands of others and remember their little boys.




I think one young man’s story becomes symbolic of many stories. Richmond’s dead are listed on a commemorative stone at Byrd Park under an American flag. The Carillon was dedicated as a memorial because these deaths were personal. Our city lost these boys, too.

098 memorial, leon and colored

We lost all the possibilities of all those young people, all the amazing lives they could have lived. I’m not into military history and don’t intend my book as such. It will be a personal look at who went to war, images of one city’s response to a worldwide conflict. I want to share letters, postcards, notes, and anecdotes about Richmond’s boys: farmers, mechanics, students, streetcar conductors. Sons, husbands, fathers. Those who came home and those who did not.

075b LeonLeon Stilson at Hartshorn College (now site of Maggie Walker Governor School) on his last leave before sailing for France
Each family grieves in its own way. Memorials can be as impressive as the Carillon or as quiet as a yellowed packet of letters. Those expressions of grief echo through decades and we should be respectful of them.

Gold star ID
Harry must have sent money to George T. Ivey, the young soldier who was with Leon. In George’s letter to my great-grandfather, he said “I suppose you desire to give expression to your appreciation of what I did for your boy, who fought by my side. The little that I was able to do for him was done gladly and cheerfully, but I would have done the same for any other, for I would have been neither a soldier nor a man if I had failed. I did what I could, and regret that I could do no more. I was near him until ordered away by my superior. I think of him nearly every day, and sincerely regret that such should have been his fate. My last service for him was to wrap him in my rain coat, as he complained of the cold; then I had to leave.“ George Ivey thought about Leon Stilson nearly every day. Don’t we owe the men and women who gave their futures, their everything, for us at least one day a year of remembering and gratitude?