With the entry of the US into World War I, Theodore Roosevelt began organizing a volunteer force of four divisions. The reaction around the nation was enthusiastic with over 100,000 men volunteering, and many professional officers in the Regular Army seeking to serve with the divisions. Congress authorized the raising of the four volunteer divisions, at the discretion of the President, in the Selective Service Act of 1917. Roosevelt was not named as the commander of the divisions, but everyone knew who this provision was intended for. Wilson quickly decided that he would not authorize the divisions, fearing that Roosevelt would either get killed, in which case he might be blamed, or Roosevelt would return a national hero and be a formidable Republican candidate for the White House in 1920. Wilson’s decision was perhaps the bitterest disappointment in Roosevelt’s life, a disappointment that echoes in his May 21, 1917 letter to his volunteers:
The President has announced that he will decline to permit those divisions to be organized or to permit me to have a command in connection with such a force. After consultation yesterday, personally or by wire, with some of the men who have volunteered to raise units—regiments and battalions—for the divisions, including John C. Groome, of Pennsylvania; Seth Bullock, of South Dakota; John C. Greenway, of Arizona; John M. Parker, of Louisiana; Robert Carey, of Wyoming; J. P. Donnelly, of Nevada; Sloan Simpson, of Texas; D. C. Collier and F. R. Burnham, of California; I. L. Reeves, Frazer Metzger, and H. Nelson Jackson, of Vermont; Harry Stimson, W. J. Schieffelin, and William H. Donovan, of New York, and Messrs. James R. Garfield, Raymond Robbins, R. H. Channing, David M. Goodrich, W. E. Dame, George Roosevelt, Richard Derby and various others who were immediately accessible, it was decided unanimously that in view of the decision of the President the only course open to us is forthwith to disband and to abandon all further effort in connection with the divisions, thereby leaving each man free to get into the military service in some other way, if that is possible, and, if not, then to serve his country in civil life as he best can.
As good American citizens we loyally obey the decision of the Commander-in-Chief of the American Army and Navy. The men who have volunteered will now consider themselves absolved from all further connection with this movement. The funds that have been promised will be treated as withdrawn and applied to other purposes. I therefore direct that this statement be sent to the leaders in the various states who have been raising troops and that it be published.
Our sole aim is to help in every way in the successful prosecution of the war and we most heartily feel that no individual’s personal interest should for one moment be considered save as it serves the general public interest. We rejoice that a division composed of our fine regular soldiers and marines under so gallant and efficient a leader as General Pershing is to be sent abroad. We have a right to a certain satisfaction in connection therewith.
The Brooklyn Eagle last evening stated authoritatively that “the sending of this expedition was a compromise between the original plans of the General Staff, which favored no early expedition, and the request of Colonel Roosevelt for authority for an immediate expedition. The Roosevelt agitation, backed by the express desire of such distinguished military leaders as General Joffre and General Petain, unquestionably had its effect in bringing about the Pershing expedition. The compromise is that France gets American soldiers in the trenches, but Roosevelt will not lead or accompany them. It is believed in Washington that any criticism for turning down Roosevelt will be fully answered by the fact that American soldiers are going over.”
If this gives the explanation of the matter, I gladly say that we are all unselfishly pleased to have served this use, although naturally we regret not to have been allowed ourselves to render active service. It is due to the men who have come forward in this matter during the three and a half months since February 2d, when I began the work of raising one or more divisions, that the following facts should be known:
If yesterday my offer immediately to raise four divisions for immediate use at the front had been accepted the various units of the first division would tomorrow have begun to assemble at whatever points the War Department had indicated, and they would have assembled in full force and without an hour’s delay as rapidly as the War Department directed them where to go and as soon as it provided them camping places, tents, blankets, etc.
We were prepared by the use of private funds partly to make good any immediate lack in such supplies as regards many of the units. Fifteen days afterward the second division would have mobilized in a similar fashion, and then, at intervals of thirty days, the two other divisions.
In accordance with what I had found to be the wish of the military authorities among our allies, each of the divisions would have been ready to sail for France for intensive training at the theater of war within thirty days of the time it began to mobilize, if the War Department were able to furnish supplies; and we would have asked permission to use the rifles and ammunition now in use in the French and British armies.
All four divisions would have sailed and two would have been on the firing line by September ist, the time at which the Secretary of War has announced that the assembling of the selective draft army is to begin. About one-half of our men, at least of those in the first division, were men who had already seen military service. I wish respectfully to point out certain errors into Which the President has been led in his announcement. He states that the purpose was to give me an “independent” command. In my last letter to the Secretary of War I respectfully stated that if I were given permission to raise an army corps of two divisions, to be put under the command of some General like Wood or Bell or Pershing or Barry or Kuhn, I desired for myself only the position of junior among the eight brigade commanders. My position would have been exactly the same as theirs, except that I would have ranked after and have been subordinate to the rest of them.
The President alludes to our proffered action as one that would have an effect “politically,” but as not contributing to the “success of the war,” and as representing a “policy of personal gratification or advantage.” I wish respectfully but emphatically to deny that any political consideration whatever or any desire for personal gratification or advantage entered into our calculations. Our undivided purpose was to contribute effectively to the success of the war.
I know nothing whatever of the politics of the immense majority of the men who came forward, and those whose politics I do know numbered as many Democrats as Republicans. My purpose was to enable the Government to use as an invaluable military asset the men who would not be reached under the selective draft, who were fit for immediate service, and the great majority of whom would not otherwise be used at all.
As above pointed out, all four divisions, if the War Department could equip them, would have been sent to the aid of our hard-pressed allies before the training of the selective draft army was even begun, and they would not have been put into the firing line until the French and British military authorities deemed them fit.
The President says in effect that to comply with our offer would have been mischievous from the military standpoint and he adds that the regular officers whom I have asked to have associated with me are “some of the most effective officers of the regular army, “who” cannot possibly be spared from the duty of training regular troops.” One of the chief qualifications for military command is to choose for one’s associates and subordinates “the most effective officers,” and this qualification the President thus states that I possess.
As for my withdrawing them from the “more pressing and necessary duty of training” the troops, I wish to point out that I had asked for about fifty regular officers from lieutenant-colonels to second lieutenants for the first division. This would be only about one-tenth of the number who will go with General Pershing’s division which, the President announces, is to be composed exclusively of regulars. Therefore, the present plan will take from “most pressing and necessary duty” about ten times as many regular officers as would have been taken under our proposal.
It has been stated that the regular officers are opposed to our plan. As a matter of fact “the most effective” fighting officers have been eager to be connected with or to have under them the troops we proposed to raise. The President condemns our proposal on the ground that “undramatic” action is needed, action that is “practical and of scientific definiteness and precision.” There was nothing dramatic in our proposal save as all proposals indicting eagerness or willingness to sacrifice life for an ideal are dramatic. It is true that our division would have contained the sons or grandsons of men who in the Civil War wore the blue or the gray; for instance, the sons or grandsons of Phil Sheridan, Fitz Hugh Lee, Stonewall Jackson, James A. Garfield, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Adna R. Chaffee, Nathan Bedford Forest; but these men would have served either with commissions or in the ranks, precisely like the rest of us; and all alike would have been judged solely by the efficiency—including the “scientific definiteness”—with which they did their work and served the flag of their loyal devotion.