“We are on our way to Mexico. I am feeling fine. Don’t worry, Ill be back. Will write again.” –Letter from Sam Avery, 6/27/16
Call to Duty
On June 18, 1916 it was announced with much public fanfare that President Woodrow Wilson had called out the National Guard of the various States to reinforce the Regular U.S. Army and secure the Mexican Border. This order called for the immediate mobilization of one Brigade and one additional Regiment of Massachusetts troops. This force would consist of the Massachusetts Second Brigade including the 5th, 8th, and 9th Infantry Regiments along with attached artillery, cavalry and signal units, supplemented by the 2nd Infantry Regiment.
The men initially reported to their respective Company Armories, with Sgt. Sam Avery reporting to the Somerville Armory which housed Companies K and M. Within a week, the Eighth Regiment had filled many of the existing vacancies in the ranks with new recruits who had been volunteering in droves since the public announcement of the mobilization. On June 21, orders were received to entrain for the State Camp at Framingham and the entire 8th Regiment assembled at the Cambridge Armory in preparation for deployment.
At 11:00 AM on June 21, the Eighth marched from the Cambridge Armory through Boston where it entrained for Framingham amid crowds of well-wishers and patriotic band music. The 8th Regiment detrained at Framingham at 4:00 PM and marched a mile to the muster-field where it joined the 9th and 5th Regiments and formed a Brigade encampment consisting of pyramidal tents with 20 men crowded into each (although the regulation capacity was 8). The Regiments were positioned along one wide, common Regimental “street” with the individual company streets extending perpendicularly from it. The 2nd Regiment was also mustered at Framingham in a separate corner of the field.
The encampment at Framingham was a popular attraction and a constant source of news: The last time that Massachusetts State troops had been mustered into Federal service at Framingham was in 1898 for the Spanish-American War. The routine of Camp life consisted of First Call at 5:45 AM followed by Reveille at 6:00 AM and Morning Drills. Parade was at 4:30 PM consisting of the Regiments marching in review before the Brigade and Regimental officers, which was always a crowd-pleaser. Retreat was at 7:00 PM with the Companies standing at Attention in their respective streets while the flag was lowered to the tune of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Visitors arrived in enormous numbers and were allowed access to the Camp during the afternoon and evening hours. It was estimated that nearly 100,000 civilians arrived on a daily basis by automobile, trolley and train. Visitors crowded the Camp looking for friends and family members while the inevitable hawkers and peddlers of every sort worked the scene and added to the spectacle.
Saturday June 24 was “Governor’s Day”, with Governor Samuel McCall as commander-in chief reviewing the State troops at Parade and then exhorting each Regiment to live up to the traditions of their past military records. On Sunday, June 25 following Church services, the State troops were formally mustered into Federal service with the following oath:
“I do hereby acknowledge to have voluntarily enlisted this 25th day of June, 1916, as a soldier in the National Guard of the United States and of the State of Massachusetts, for the period of three years in the service and three years in the reserve, under the conditions prescribed by law unless sooner discharged by proper authority. And I do solemnly swear that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America and to the State of Massachusetts, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all enemies whomsoever and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the Governor of Massachusetts, and of the officers appointed over me according to law and the rules and articles of war. This oath is subscribed to with the understanding that credit will be given in the execution of this contract for the period that I have already served under my current enlistment in the Organized Militia of the State of Massachusetts. So Help Me God.”
Throughout the assembled Regiments, some 600 of the men who had previously enlisted for State service did not wish to be consigned to Federal service and therefore refused to take the oath. These men were derisively called “slackers” and were publicly segregated from the rest of the men who had been duly sworn. The continued status of these “slackers” (including those among the men of the Eighth) would later become a complex Federal and State legal issue when the rest of the Massachusetts troops were deployed to the Border region as a Federal force.
On the morning of June 26, orders were received for the Massachusetts troops to prepare for their move to the Border Region in Texas. Camp was struck, and at 3:00 PM the Regiments were formed on the parade ground with full equipment at the ready. At 5:00 PM on June 27, the Regiments finally marched to Framingham Station and entrained for Texas. The Brigade troop train consisted of 10 aged passenger coaches, a baggage car containing an improvised field kitchen, several flat-cars and a Pullman coach for the officers.
The Journey South
The 10-day railroad journey took the troop train through the heartland of America from Framingham, Massachusetts to El Paso, Texas, giving many of the men their first chance to travel a significant distance from home and see the country they would be fighting for. At the stations along the way, the train was greeted by crowds of patriotic well-wishers. In the words home of Wesley Pease of the 5th Infantry,
“All through Ohio we got a great send off. At night they poured oil on the tracks and set it afire just as we got there. The blaze was about 4 or 5 feet high.”
Each railroad car was marked on the sides with the name of the Company traveling within, along with sketches and slogans such as “Get Villa”, “We’re after Villa”, and “To Hell with Mexico.” The troops exchanged songs and cheers with the locals, and purchased postcards to send home. In places where the trains simply passed through the stations without stopping, troops would throw their correspondence out the windows along with money for postage and rely upon the favors of Good Samaritans to make sure their mail was sent home. Unfortunately in Sam’s case, these postcards to which he refers in later letters were lost in transit and never made it home to Boston.
The route of travel first took the train South from Framingham to Providence, then Northwest into New York State where it crossed the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie and passed through Buffalo. The train continued West through Meadville, Pennsylvania, Cleveland, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois before moving South into Missouri.
The troops changed trains at Kansas City, Missouri and rode in cars of the Santa Fe Railroad on the “Grand Canyon Route” for the remainder of the trip. The journey continued through Kansas where at Dodge City the troops had a rare opportunity to bathe in the Arkansas River. The train then moved through Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada where the troops began to suffer from a shortage of water which could only be obtained from storage tanks for the engines at intervals along the tracks. The train passed through Las Vegas and Albuquerque, New Mexico before finally arriving at its destination of El Paso, Texas, the home of Fort Bliss and Camp Cotton.
Read Soldier’s Mail for June, 1916 here.