Welcome back CARDS! New titles will be coming soon to our Popular Reading collection in the coming weeks. In the meantime, select some ‘golden oldies’ from the shelves on the first floor of Mullen Library in the Reference Reading Room. There you will find an assortment of best sellers and other popular titles.
Looking for more options? You can always see a full list of our Popular Reading books in the catalog, by searching under keyword, “CUA Popular Reading.”
For more great information from CUA Libraries, follow us on Facebook and Twitter:
The Archivist’s Nook recently blogged on Monsignor John O’Grady’s early Catholic charity efforts and how he helped make Catholic Charities USA (called the National Conference of Catholic Charity until 1986) a national organization focused on assisting the poor and needy. With the Second World War, O’Grady, by then an experienced and active leader in professional Catholic Charitable work in the United States, turned his attention to assisting those whose lives had been ruined by war.
The immediate postwar years saw millions war refugees gathered in camps throughout Europe. Not only had many individuals found themselves homeless and penniless after hostilities ended, but many had been moved to displaced persons camps, often suffering in crowded, diseased conditions. In the immediate postwar period, the United States worked with other western nations to aid these refugees through organizations such as the International Refugee Organization established in 1946, ultimately assisting 10 million of 15 million stranded in Europe due to the war.¹
Monsignor O’Grady, now at the helm of the National Conference of Catholic Charities (later renamed Catholic Charities USA) for 25 years, made it a personal mission to travel to Europe, tour the refugee camps, and attempt to assist the refugees by coordinating his Catholic charity networks with those of other organizations. He found many obstacles to resettling the refugees. Italian resettlement authorities, for example, were criticized for returning those deemed Nazi collaborators to their original countries of origin, particularly in Eastern Europe, where Soviet authority was solidifying. As he toured dozens of refugee camps in Germany, Italy, and Austria, he noted that “displaced persons now were more than a generic term to me. I had actually seen them in the flesh. I had talked to them. I had found employment for them. I had seen them come off the ships with all their earthly belonging[s] on their backs. I had seen not only individuals but families.” A three-hour tour of refugees from Eastern Europe housed in underground shelters in western Germany shocked him: “One day after a 3-hour tour of one of the underground shelters in Stuttgart, I dropped to the ground and had to be taken out by the people who occupied the shelters. These people had no work; they barely had enough food to keep them alive.”²
In 1947, O’Grady visited with officials at the Vatican on the refugee problem. He thought about the work that needed to be done with the refugees in Christian terms. After meeting the Pope Pius XII on the matter, he noted that “I left the audience with a real faith in the educational mission of our Church throughout the world, in a great international program.”³
When he returned to the United States after his overseas tours of the refugee camps, O’Grady became convinced that many of the remaining displaced should be resettled in the United States. One problem with this aspiration was in the stigma some Americans attached to the refugees. After repatriation of millions, he said, opponents claimed “what we had available were the dregs that had been left.” Moreover, where a Presidential Executive Order of 1945 had paved the way for admission of refugees from Europe to enter the U.S., voluntary groups occupied with the admission process did not have the organizational framework nor the information on the refugees necessary to resettling them in ideal locations. O’Grady believed that religious groups—he particularly admired the Jewish organizational structures with respect to resettlement activities—were better equipped to manage the program because they had pre-existing networks overseas. He worked with a range of religious organizations as well as local governments toward resettling thousands of refugees in the United States, particularly in the Midwest, where a need for farm workers was sorely needed. “We were bringing people in to meet occupational needs in the United States,” he notes of the effort. “This is what we had sold the American people. We had sold them on the idea that we could find jobs and homes for the displaced persons without disturbing American workers. This was a new approach to immigration. It was a sound approach.”⁴
¹ See, for example, Mark Wyman, DPs: Europe’s Displaced Persons, 1945-1951 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).
² John O’Grady, All That I Have Seen and in Some of Which I Have Had a Part, (unpublished memoir) John O’Grady Papers, Box 21, 268, 265, 279, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
Austrian born Lise Meitner (1878-1968), a Jewish convert to Christianity and pioneering woman of science, was a renowned physicist who co-discovered nuclear fission. This discovery made nuclear weapons possible although this was not her intention. She worked for decades with Otto Hahn in Germany at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, including the prewar Nazi period, before fleeing to Sweden in 1938 where she worked at Manne Siegbahn’s laboratory. Many consider her the most significant female scientist of the twentieth century and Albert Einstein called her the German ‘Marie Curie.’ What most people do not know is that she also was a visiting professor in 1946 in Washington, D.C. at The Catholic University of America (CUA), where one of her sisters, who had converted to Catholicism, was married to CUA psychology professor, Rudolph Allers.
While Meitner had refused to work with the U.S. Manhattan Project to develop atomic bombs, she nevertheless feared revenge at the hands of Nazi sympathizers following the end of World War II. She wanted to leave Europe for a time to visit the United States. Accordingly, CUA Rector, Rev. Patrick J. McCormick, in a letter dated November 2, 1945¹ appointed her a visiting professor for the spring semester, February through May 1946, and she accepted in a letter dated November 27, 1945.² After her arrival in Washington, she was honored at a reception in Caldwell Hall on February 10, 1946. She gave a press conference the following day in McMahon Hall, where she was introduced by Karl Herzfeld, head of the CUA Physics Department. Meitner stated she was “happy to have the privilege of joining the science faculty of the Catholic University of America….I look forward to my stay in America for the opportunity it affords me to profit by the outstanding scientific results obtained in this great country.”³
On the CUA campus, Meitner gave lectures on nuclear physics on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursdays 5:10 to 6:00 and Fridays, 12:00-1:00, plus conducted a weekly nuclear physics seminar. Collecting several honorary degrees, she also toured and lectured at several other universities, including Brown, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and Wellesley. Speaking at Hopkins on March 21, 1946, she urged American women to make an effort to understand women of other countries, saying “women possess a special aptitude for building international understanding. They control the spiritual and ethical education of future citizens, and how they mold minds and character might decide the future of mankind.”⁴ Before leaving America, she received awards from the National Conference of Christians and Jews and as “Woman of the Year” from the National Press Club, including a dinner with President Harry Truman.
Following her American sojourn, Meitner returned to Sweden where she was active at the Swedish Defense Research Establishment (FOA) and the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, participating in research on Sweden’s first nuclear reactor. In 1947, she became a professor at the University College of Stockholm. She became a Swedish citizen and retired in 1960 to England, where she died in 1968. While the Nobel Committee overlooked her contributions to the discovery of nuclear fission and awarded the 1944 prize to her partner Otto Hahn, she received the Max Planck Medal of the German Physics Society in 1949 and shared the Enrico Fermi Award in 1966. Additionally, named in her honor are craters on the Moon and Venus, a main belt asteroid, and Element 109 (Meitnerium), the heaviest known element in the universe.
¹ Letter, McCormick to Meitner, November 2, 1945, Rector/President Records, ACUA.
² Letter, Meitner to Cormich (sic), November 27, 1945, Rector/President Records, ACUA.
Imagine you purchased a box of used books and found buried within a tattered satchel dating from the First World War. What would you do with it? This scenario played in the summer of 2016, when a thrift store benefiting an Alabama-based women’s shelter contacted the CUA Archives. Hidden within a box of cookbooks – donated by an unknown person – was an old satchel containing the personal diary, correspondence, pamphlets, medals, and photos belonging to one Margaret Millar. A figure long since known to the Archives, but whose personal effects were thought lost. The shelter generously donated the satchel and its contents!
“Mother Millar,” or Margaret Richards Millar, was the head of the “Women Workers” sent to France by the newly-formed National Catholic War Council (NCWC) as part of the Committee on Special War Activities. Roughly a century ago, as the United States increased its role in the First World War, the NCWC – predecessor to today’s USCCB – organized social clubs for the American Expeditionary Force. Placed throughout Western Europe, these clubs were operated by female staff, and necessitated a strong-willed and well-connected person to get the project off the ground in war-ravaged Europe. Millar was just that person.
Born in 1858 in Vermont to Jonas DeForest Richards and Harriet Bartlett Jarvis, Millar was the second of three children and only daughter. Her family was of a distinguished New England line, which included a maternal grandfather, William Jarvis, who served as Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s envoy to Spain and Portugal. Her father, a New England Congregationalist pastor, decided late in life to move the family to the American South. Immediately following the end of the Civil War in 1865, the family relocated to Alabama, having purchased a cotton plantation in Wilcox County. Both Millar’s father and older brother who later served as Wyoming state governor, DeForest Richards, became involved in county and state politics, with the former serving in the State Legislature (1867-1872) and as interim president of the University of Alabama (1869-1870) and the latter as county sheriff and treasurer.
Millar was educated at home and ultimately obtained a degree from the Bradford Academy in Massachusetts in 1880. By that point, her family had relocated to the American West, settling in the Nebraska panhandle and the Wyoming Territory. Marrying Stocks Millar, a Scottish immigrant educated at the University of St. Andrews, she spent her married life on the Wyoming plains, where she developed a reputation as a generous hostess for army personnel stationed in the Territory. At this time, her younger brother, Bartlett Richards, became a prominent cattle baron near Chadron, Nebraska, ultimately running afoul of federal land law and being imprisoned under Theodore Roosevelt.
When her husband passed away in 1890, she spent the next several years in France and Germany with their three children. In 1896, she converted to Catholicism alongside her son, future Jesuit Morehouse F. X. Millar (later a collaborator with CUA professor John A. Ryan). In 1918, as a representative of the American Bureau of Education, she was sent to France to recruit French women to attend college in the United States. Remembered for her charity towards the military in Wyoming and having already navigated war-torn France, Millar was a natural choice to lead the NCWC’s efforts in establishing service member clubs.
In the summer of 1918, she was sent back to France as a representative of the Committee on Special War Activities of the NCWC, in order to organize and supervise service clubs for American soldiers. She would open the Etoile Service Club in Paris that same year. In May 1919, she also was sent by the NCWC as the only American Catholic delegate to the International Congress of Women in Switzerland, serving alongside Jane Addams. Held concurrently with the Versailles Peace Conference, Millar felt challenged but firm in her beliefs as she wrote of an openness to discussion among the various parties assembled.
In October 1919, Millar was unexpectedly recalled to the United States by Rev. John Burke, head of the NCWC. This recall, following complaints by some of the women she supervised, led to protests by the majority of the service club staff and members of the American forces in France. As she prepared to depart the continent, Millar was inundated with letters and petitions from fighting to get her reinstated. In one such letter, a coworker writes:
The boys all love you as they do their own mother and they realize what your going will mean to them. My only desire to remain at the Club now, to work, for our boys is because it was your most beloved treasure of happiness for others and being the one thing that remains with us to express in unspoken language the good wrought for others by your love and kindness.
While Millar appreciated the support, she did not return to Paris, but remained in Texas the following year, helping to organize the first conference of the National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW), held in 1920. An active member of the NCCW and NCWC for the remaining years of her life, Millar passed away in 1947.
Her papers are available for research. The online finding aid may be found here, and a digital collection may be found here.
New Login/Authentication Method – Please remember that in May, the authentication method for accessing library resources, including My Library Account, was changed. CUA faculty, staff, and students no longer use their last name and 7-digit ID number to login to My Library Account, place CLS/ILL requests, or access online resources off campus. Instead, users are prompted to login using their Cardinal Credentials (network/email username and password). If you need to reset your password, please visit https://computing.cua.edu/password/index.cfm. Students from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and Visiting Scholars will need to request Cardinal Credentials from Technology Services. If you have verified that your Cardinal Credentials are up to date, but are still not able to log in, please contact Access Services in Mullen Library at 202-319-5060.
Music Collections now in Mullen Library – The Music Library branch in Ward Hall closed in May, and over the summer, the collections were relocated to Mullen Library. You can find most of the collection now in 1 North of the stacks, while music DVDs and some musical theatre scores are available at the Circulation Desk. If you need any assistance finding items in the music collections or help with music research, please contact the liaison librarian for Music, Thad Garrett, at email@example.com.
Liaison Librarians – Each field of study at CUA has a Liaison Librarian available to provide research assistance and library instruction. To find your liaison, please see the complete list by subject at libraries.cua.edu/about/subjlibs.cfm. To schedule an appointment with your liaison, please visit cua.libcal.edu.
WRLC and Beyond – When CUA doesn’t have the book or article you’re interested in, there are two services available to help you get what you need:
Consortium Loan Service (CLS) – CUA is a member of the Washington Research Library Consortium, a partnership between nine universities in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Our online catalog will show results from all nine WRLC libraries. When CUA doesn’t have the item you need, but another university in the consortium does, you can request that the book be delivered to CUA for you to check out at Mullen Library. To learn how to place a request through the Consortium Loan Service (CLS), check out this short video.
Inter-Library Lending (ILL) – If none of the WRLC institutions have the book you need, we can search beyond the consortium to find a library that is willing to lend us their copy through Inter-Library Lending (ILL). The easiest way to submit an ILL request is to first locate the book’s record on WorldCat. To learn how to submit an ILL request, watch this short video.
Guest author, Mary Beth Fraser Connolly, is a lecturer in History at Purdue University Northwest. She received her doctorate from CUA and is a former student worker in the Archives.
My relationship with Justina and Blandina Segale and the Santa Maria Institute has been going on for two decades.It was twenty-one years ago I began my PhD studies in history at The Catholic University of America and that first semester I came across two articles that referenced the Santa Maria Institute: IliaDelio’s“The First Catholic Social Gospelers: Women Religious in the Nineteenth Century” and Margaret McGuiness’s “Body and Soul: Catholic Social Settlements and Immigration,” both in the summer 1995 issue of U.S. Catholic Historian. That started it. While these two articles helped me develop a dissertation topic, archival research brought me closer to the sisters themselves. (As I write this, a black-and-white photocopy of the Segales is tacked up above my desk, right next to the August 14, 2016 feature story from the Sunday edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer, which examines Sister Blandina’s“Search for Sainthood.” They are my history icons.) Through colorful letters and a frankly written journal or convent chronicle entries, their personalities leapt from the documents. Sisters Justina and Blandina Segale went from two-dimensional figures of some nearly forgotten past to vital, courageous, at times, stubborn, flawed, and faithful Catholic women who had relevance for my work as a historian and in my classroom.
Thankfully, I have not been alone in my pursuit of the real Justina and Blandina Segale. M. Christine Anderson, associate professor of history at Xavier University, Judith Metz, SC, historian and former archivist of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, and I banded together to develop an exhibit for the American Catholic History Classroomhosted by the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives at Catholic University. We bring to this classroom three perspectives on the work of the sisters and the Santa Maria Institute in Progressive-Era Cincinnati. This exhibit looks at the Sisters of Charity’s spiritual foundation and charism and how that informed the Segales work at the Santa Maria (Metz). It also focuses on how the sisters conducted social work in immigrant neighborhoods among primarily Italians, but they also served Irish, German, and other immigrant populations. They provided education, religious instruction, and material aid to children and adults. Understanding the important role that laywomen could fill in social welfare work, they also encouraged young women to move into this growing profession of social work. (Anderson) The exhibit also considers the actions of the sisters as agents of Americanization at a time when the federal and local governments, along with Protestant religious organizations sought to transform immigrants into good American citizens. For Blandina and Justina, Italian immigrants as well, they saw this desire as an effort to deny Italian immigrants their heritage, language, and, most importantly, their Catholic faith. Blandina and Justina sought to shore up and possible restore Italian immigrants’ Catholicism and in doing so, they articulated a Catholic identity that allowed for assimilation into American life. (Connolly)
All three of these perspectives make for delightful classroom material. Everything centers on the Santa Maria Journal – the convent chronicle – kept by Sister Justina. Her biological sister, Blandina, may be the more known of the pair, what with her infamous confrontation of the notorious Billy the Kid and her more recent cause for canonization, but Justina’s words provide insight into the day-to-day life of Sisters of Charity steeped in their ministry. They show us their commitment to their faith, vows, and congregation. Those words also provide glimpses into the lives of Italian immigrants, when records are sparse in local Cincinnati archives. I have employed this history in my own classroom by using excerpt from the Santa Maria diary alongside Christine’s excellent 2000 Journal of Women’s History article,“Catholic Nuns and the Invention of Social Work: The Sisters of the Santa Maria Institute of Cincinnati, Ohio, 1897 through the 1920s.” Students, wholly unfamiliar with Catholic history, or what a nun is, have been drawn to the unflappable Sister Blandina and her strong and (somewhat silent) partner, Sister Justina. I have offered these readings with excerpts from Blandina’sAt the End of the Santa Fe Trail, recently reissued.What I did not expect, all the while secretly hoped for, was that my students recognized the relevance of the Italian immigrants and these sisters’ experiences to their present lives. (Could it be that history offers something for us to learn today? Shocking, indeed!) Christine, Sister Judith, and I have collaborated to present the work of the Sisters of Charity and the Santa Maria Institute for this American Catholic History Classroom precisely because the exhibit draws together the separate elements of the Santa Maria Institute, the Sisters of Charity, and Blandina and Justina Segale’s work and lives into one place. From this point, a teacher, whether in a Catholic grammar or high school or an instructor in a college or university (both secular and religious) can pull out tools to discuss Catholic women’s spirituality, immigrant history, women’s history, and maybe even a touch of the Wild West. Frankly, I imagine Sister Blandina would love that and Sister Justina would commend our work as righting wrongs done to Italians, the ultimate Americans and Catholics.
Please remember that in May, the authentication method for accessing library resources, including My Library Account, was changed. CUA faculty, staff, and students no longer use their last name and 7-digit ID number to login to My Library Account, place CLS/ILL requests, or access online resources off campus. Instead, users are prompted to login using their Cardinal Credentials (network/email username and password). If you need to reset your password, please visit https://computing.cua.edu/password/index.cfm. Students from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and Visiting Scholars will need to request Cardinal Credentials from Technology Services. If you have verified your Cardinal Credentials are up to date, but are still not able to log in, please contact Access Services in Mullen Library at 202-319-5060.
As part of the Graduate Library Preprofessional (GLP) program, for the past two years I worked full time in the Archives here at CUA while pursuing my Masters in Library and Information Science. This has been an amazing opportunity to get real world experience and on the job training. During my time here, I conducted an inventory of the museum objects on campus, learned how to encode EAD finding aids, oversaw several digitization projects, and participated in social media outreach efforts like this blog and the Archives’ Instagram account. The success of my experience here resulted from the freedom to be involved in so many different aspects of archival work and pursue projects that developed my skill set as an information professional.
Developing professional competencies aside, my favorite part of my job here at the Archives was the joyful glee of discovering interesting and/or bizarre items in the course of my normal workday. There is something priceless about opening an acid free box, finding something that makes you laugh aloud, and calling over a coworker to share the moment with. Like the time I decided to investigate a box labeled “Lizard” in the museum collection. I hypothetically understood this lizard was already cataloged, labeled, and housed long before my time here… but there is nothing quite like opening the box for yourself and finding a foot and a half long desiccated monitor lizard inside.
On the other hand, there are the quieter discoveries that make you smile alone in the stacks. Looking for something itty bitty to post on social media for #TinyTuesday, I stumbled across the smallest mariachi band in existence in the James Magner museum collection. As I lined up these miniscule figures for their photo, I fondly remembered the mariachi band that played at my own grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. While on the subject of James Magner, I must also give a shout out to his personal collection of Christmas cards, which are always good for a smile come holiday season.
Then there are the multipart discoveries that build over weeks or months. A chance encounter here, another there. Such was the case when I came across a seemingly random picture of a possum in our digital collection of labor leader Terence Vincent Powderly’s photographs. This would be odd enough in itself, but weeks later I found the same photo cut out and pasted below an image of President William H. Taft in one of Powderly’s old albums. Apparently, Powderly was making a bit of a joke about “Billy Possum,” Taft supporters’ spinoff of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Teddy Bear.” These are the sorts of things archivists share a laugh over.
My time in the Archives has been filled with more entertaining discoveries than can be listed here. The beautiful typewriter hiding among our audiovisual equipment, the old stamps and seals of CUA’s logo throughout the years, the Physics Department slides of UFOs, and the “Ex Libris” bookplates in the early Cardinal yearbooks all come to mind as a few of my personal favorites. While I loved learning the ropes of working in an archive, I will remember my time here most vividly through the lens of these special encounters and the people I had the privilege to share them with.
In 1901, a young man named William F. Montavon (1874-1959) finished his studies at Catholic University in order to marry his wife, Mary Agnes Burrow. Little did he how the next 50 years would be a whirlwind of international travel, legal advocacy, and global upheaval. To understand the story of Montavon is to understand the story of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) Legal Department. For 26 years, between 1925-1951, Montavon would serve as the director of the fledgling department, shaping its mission. For the American Catholic Church of the time, Montavon was regarded as “the Law.”
Montavon’s path to the NCWC was an indirect one. From 1902-1915, he served as the superintendent of schools in the Philippines. At the end of his tenure, he took an appointment as U.S. Commercial attaché to Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile. From there he became the executive representative for the International Petroleum Company in Peru. Returning to the United States in 1925, he obtained the directorship of the Legal Department. With two decades experience abroad, Montavon was poised to turn the Legal Department’s focus from exclusively domestic issues to one contemplating the broader world.
Originally established in 1919 as a NCWC office, the Legal Department worked to track and advise Catholic dioceses and organizations on changes to state and federal law. It also served to represent the NCWC in the courts of law and public opinion. Among its most frequent areas of concern were (and continues to be) educational reform, tax policy, civil rights, immigration, and marital legislation. From the very beginning, the department has been at the forefront of legislative and legal battles over the role of parochial schools in the United States and their relations with both state and federal governments, including in the landmark Oregon School Case.
Under Montavon’s directorship, the department expanded to include work on the behalf of Catholics abroad and the vulnerable domestically. The department entered into the complicated diplomatic situation surrounding the Mexican Cristero War (1926-1929) and its aftermath throughout the 1930s. Montavon himself traveled to Mexico to report on the situation of the Church in the countryside. This trip, and its ensuing report, was instrumental in the Mexican government’s decision to allow the return of the clergy and legal public worship. Pope Pius XI awarded Montavon the Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great in 1929 for his work in Mexico.
This period also witnessed the department’s advising and reporting on the status of religious legislation and freedoms throughout the various Latin American republics, Haiti, and the Philippines. Through Montavon’s service as a NCWC News Service correspondent in Spain in 1931, the Legal Department soon became closely involved in Spanish events throughout the 1930s, in particular the Spanish Civil of 1936-1939.
The department also worked on domestic social policies, including the growing number of eugenics, sterilization, and birth control bills emerging in state legislatures across the country throughout the interwar period. Simultaneously, Montavon led efforts to oppose the enactment of a national quota system as specified in the Immigration Act of 1924. Questions of tax policy and draft enactment also emerged as pressing issues for the Church throughout Montavon’s tenure.
By the 1930s, with the Great Depression ongoing, the department kept its associates abreast of developments with governmental relief efforts and the changing role of the federal government in the economic and domestic spheres. Of particular import to the department was New Deal legislation that began to fundamentally impact both the social mission and employer status of the Church. In addition to supporting workforce relief efforts, the department closely followed developments in Social Security legislation and how it impacted clergy and Church staff. As the clouds of war gathered in the last half of the decade, the topic of Selective Service became of increasing importance to the NCWC as the draft status of seminarians remained uncertain. With Montavon testifying before Congress on numerous occasions, the department worked to better define the draft eligibility and social security expansion, as well as working to spread knowledge about the need for relief in war-torn parts of the world.
In the post-war period, the Legal Department continued much of its prior work, but took a greater role in civil rights and refugee legislation and legation. Montavon retired from the Legal Department in 1951, with countless well wishes arriving from dioceses across the country and world.
The Archives holds the following collections mentioned in this post:
One hundred years ago, American entry into the First World War transformed the nation’s capital from a sleepy Southern crossroads into a modern hub of administration commensurate to an emerging first class world power. It was here a young Catholic soldier wrote his family, primarily his mother and sisters, back in their hometown of Southington, Connecticut. That man, Robert Lincoln O’Connell, whose archival papers, including a digital collection, reside in the archives at The Catholic University of America (CUA) and briefly alluded to in two previous blog posts, ‘For God and Country’ and ‘World War I on Display,’ contain seven letters he wrote from April to August 1917 addressed from Washington Barracks, now Fort McNair. ‘Rob,’ as he was known to his family, described his initial training in and around Washington, D.C. as a combat engineer, or sapper, for service in the First Engineer Regiment of the First Infantry Division of the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) in France.
O’Connell (1888-1972), a native of Wareham, Massachusetts, was the eldest of five children of Daniel and Mary O’Connell, immigrants from Ireland and Wales, respectively. By 1900, the O’Connell family had moved to the town of Southington, Connecticut, near Hartford and less than 100 miles from New York City. The family attended St. Thomas Roman Catholic Church and the 1910 federal census lists father Daniel as a “laborer” in an “iron mill” and son Robert as “laborer” in a “hardware shop.” Rob O’Connell enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Slocum, New York, on April 14, 1917, and shortly thereafter transferred to Washington Barracks where he spent the next three months training as a machinist in Company C, First Battalion, of the First Engineers. His unit also spent time along the Potomac River on the grounds of the Belvoir Estate that had served since 1912 as a rifle range and summer camp for the training of Army engineers.
In O’Connell’s April 28, 1917 letter, he told his mother details of settling in after his recent enlistment and commented on the visit of Marshal Joseph Joffre, famous hero of the Battle of the Marne, who spoke at the Army War College, adjacent to Washington Barracks, the day before. “All clothes had to be sent to the disinfecting plant to prevent spreading disease among so many men…. Gen. Joffre and his party visited the post yesterday. I seem to be hungry all the time, in spite of three sq. meals.” Writing in mid-May, he complained to his mother about the Washington newspapers, presumably the Washington Post and Washington Star, although he appeared impressed by D.C.‘s sites and scenes. “This city has trees along the main streets. I never saw a place like it. I have not seen Mr. Lud, the President, yet. But I have seen the principle buildings and the Wash. Monument, which you can’t help seeing, it is so tall.”
Apparently, ‘Mr. Lud’ was a nickname for President Woodrow Wilson, perhaps an obscure reference to the legendary British king and founder of London. Writing his mother again on May 31, he explained the training of engineers at Washington Barracks. “They had racing and other sports between the companies…We lost the tent-pitching by a few points…The sergeant was sore at losing and yelled at us as we marched off the field.”
In June, he told his mother “There was a black and white scrap up the street, last night.” An African-American woman had an argument with a soldier and “she hit him with a beer bottle.” This was probably not an isolated incident as the August 10 Washington Post said the Secretary of War directed “a number of saloons in Four-and-a half street southwest may be closed because of their proximity to the Washington barracks.” Another letter home, also written in June, addressed to his sister Ellen, described field training on the grounds of the future Fort Belvoir. “I have just put in the hardest two weeks of my life, I guess, down at the rifle range. It is about twenty miles below Washington, on the Potomac… passengers on the passing steamers probably wish they were camping out there. But when we (A, B and C companies), got there two weeks ago last Monday, there were no tents and lots of brush and weeds and hard work…For two days we worked around camp and lugged and tugged and sweated and wondered why we had ever wanted to leave our happy home at the Barracks.” Combat engineers learned to construct field works and pontoon bridges. They also had to fight as regular infantry when the need arose, hence training in the use of firearms. “Half the company shot in the forenoon while the other half worked in the pits, pushing the targets up into view and pointing out each hit with a long stick… I fired in the morning and managed to get in with the higher ones on the score.”
O’Connell wrote his mother on July 3 expressing confidence in himself as well as contempt for those who had not met the standard. “The captain told us last week that eight or ten men would be left behind because they were too stupid or weren’t considered fit to go with the regiment to France. I won’t be in that bunch if I can help it, as there is some honor in going over but only a disgrace in being a castoff. When the news first got out a month ago, that we were going to France, some of the fire-eaters were delighted, until the officers explained what they would have to do…It was no news to me and if I go, I will do the best I can. This life is a wonderful bracer and I am glad I joined.” The last letter, addressed to his mother in early August, was written a few days departure for France. “Would you care to make the trip down and risk finding us gone?” There is no record his family made the trip to see him. The First Engineers left Washington on August 6 and embarked for France from Hoboken, New Jersey, the following day. O’Connell and his fellow engineers were now at war and a future blog post will explore their time at the front in 1918.