Our History is a regular column submitted by Kate Rauhauser-Smith, Director of Education and Programs at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, examining the region’s history and some related displays at the museum.
Editor’s Note: Misspellings and uncommon spellings in quotes from letters are correct to the letter.
In March, Museum curator Amy Snyder got a visit from the Salvation Army. They’d found a bundle of letters in a donation and gave them to us. The envelopes and cards, browned and fragile with age, were from the Jones family of Mount Airy from the 1800s to the 1920s. Many were written by Pvt. Albert Lester Jones to his mother, Mary Ann Wolff Jones, during World War I.
“To day is a beautifull day here,” he wrote in May 1918, “every tree is green and flowers in bloom but there is still war …God will not let it all ways go on. He knows best so you must not worry about me…I am over here for God and you and my country.”
In 1914 Surry County was rural and its people largely stayed close to their farms and hollows. That summer they were fundraising for the two-hour-long July 4 fireworks celebration, preparing to thresh the wheat harvest, and reporting bumper apple crops across Surry and Carroll counties in Virginia.
But 4,900 miles on the other side of the world six young nationalists lit a match that would burn the world for the next four years when they assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and his wife.
The Great War began as a European concern that America was hesitant to enter. From the sweltering summer of 1914 until spring 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, a staunch pacifist and devout Christian, urged peace, taking an active role in diplomatic efforts to end the brutal war. However, Germany’s efforts to stop America’s material support to the Allies by sinking all sea-going vessels they encountered regardless of nationality, including merchant and passenger ships, roused US anger.
The final straw came in January 1917 when German officials sent a coded telegram (known as the Zimmerman Telegram after its author) to Mexico’s leaders offering to support Mexico against the US and to help them regain Texas, New Mexico and Arizona if Mexico entered the conflict in support of Germany.
Wilson could no longer hold for peace and Congress declared war on April 6, 1917. The local guard unit, the Surry Rifles, had just returned from Mexico and prepared to ship out to Greenville, South Carolina. The call for volunteers was answered immediately by a fiercely patriotic citizenry.
The Mount Airy News reported that A.W. Tilley “walked all the way from his humble home near Thurmond to Mount Airy.” Ultimately Surry sent nearly 1,000 men and women to the war, 30 never came home, including Austin Tilley.
The Surry Rifles landed in Europe in the middle of Germany’s Spring Offensive, an effort to break the British defenses along the Somme River and force the French to sue for peace before the American forces could be fully deployed. They were engaged in several of the battles of that and the Allies’ answering push to crush the German will for war, a series of rapid-fire, brutal, and highly effective attacks which culminated in the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.
Surry’s soldiers wrote home asking for any news of family and talking about what they knew.
“France is a beautiful country,” wrote Wade Hatcher on July 16, 1918, “but the people still cling to old customs, instead of working their horses side by side they work them in front of each other. Sometimes they have as many as four hitched to one cart or plow.”
Frank Warren, attached to the 105th Supply Train, was clearly proud of the work the U.S. forces did when he wrote on Aug 5, 1918, “We have our own railroads, bridges, keep up with roads that we use, bakeries, trucks, touring cars, mails, telephone lines, canteens, libraries, and entertainments of all kinds every night. It is really what you might term ‘A Nation on Wheels’ for we are on the go and it all comes from the DEAR OLD STATES!”
Struggling with conscious
Men and women have struggled with leaving loved ones behind to go to war for generations. Written in May 1918, Lt. Jay Franklin’s words to his father, Mr. S. C. Franklin, could have been written last week. “I’ve done a lot of hard studying about leaving and have asked the question, did I do right (to enlist) and was I justified in taking the step I have. Have made up my mind I was right. Alice will have a lot to go through with but she would have had lots more had Germany won and I can’t make up my mind to stay at home and let others protect my home and loved ones.
“It makes it awful hard for a man to be away from home and at a time when there is going to be a lot of easy money made and the first time in years a farmer has had a chance to make anything and then there are so many dangers and hardships to face.
“If I come home safely (and I will) I can look you and my family in the face and say I did my duty and should I not you all can say he did his duty and my child will never have to explain where his father was during the war.”
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the Director of Education and Programs for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum staff. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours. She can be reached at KRSmith@NorthCarolinaMuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478 x228