By Mary McTamaney
November is the month when hostilities ended in the “war to end all wars,” World War I. That bloody conflict ended in 1918 with an agreement to stop the fighting on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of November and the date was henceforth commemorated as Armistice Day. Today we call it Veterans Day and, tragically, we remember many millions more who went to war after 1918. “The Great War” of 1916-18 didn’t turn men’s hearts and minds away from battle as a way to settle world affairs as it was hoped it would. Ironically, the National Guard that was our main line of civil defense before World War I has become an essential and mobile defense force again as more and more of the violence that threatens America is erupting within our borders, as it did this week in Texas.
When her sons and daughters went off to war in 1917, Newburgh pitched in to support their sacrifice. Bands played the refrain “We won’t come back ‘til it’s over, over there!” Local families and neighbors devoted many hours each month to support services they could muster on the home front. Red Cross auxiliaries formed to gather and ship supplies to the troops. My mother-in-law told us how she learned to knit in the 4th grade at New Windsor School by crafting cotton washcloths for the soldiers in France. Church groups would meet and tear muslin (thousands of yards were made at The Newburgh Bleachery on Lake Street) into strips and roll it into lengths of bandages also shipped overseas. Prayer vigils were held during publicized campaigns and an “honor flag” with 2600 stars for those in service was hung across Broadway at the Grand Street intersection. Parades were frequent and women’s groups often carried American flags through the streets by all four edges so that citizens could toss coins into the center as contributions to the local Red Cross.
Every service person who left Newburgh was sent with a handmade woolen sweater as well as cap, wristlets and socks. It is no wonder we all remember our grandmothers being knitters. A century ago, in November 1917, over 13,000 Christmas boxes containing “creature comforts” were packed by Newburghers for troops from this city and elsewhere. A local soldier, Otto Diesserroth from Mill Street (who came home to become an Oldsmobile salesman), described his arrival at Dijon, France with the tank corps. Tired, wet and hungry, he went with his buddies to the Red Cross station there. The supervisor, when he learned of their hometown, said to the soldiers “That must be a great little place. We handle more goods from the Newburgh Red Cross than any other chapter in the States except New York City.”
Newburgh children formed a Mail Squad during World War I, prompted by an incident when a soldier passing by a street intersection on a slow train tossed a letter out to a boy and yelled the request that the boy mail it for him. After that, small squads of children would take turns standing at corners when troop trains came through town and offer to mail soldiers’ letters. The kids would collect letters and take them to the store of Mr. J.W. Hoffman. There, the mail was stamped with postage paid for by coins dropped by the public into a jelly jar put on the store counter for that purpose. Reports from that time say the jar was never empty. Word soon spread by troops traveling to the front that Newburgh was the place to send your last letter home from the states.
Now our service members no longer enroll in units from one hometown and travel through wars together. Newburghers in the service today can be anywhere and everywhere. If you know one and his or her location, this is a perfect week to revive some of that old Newburgh spirit and send your greetings to them – maybe with a few “creature comforts.”
The above article by Mary McTamaney, City of Newburgh Historian and Society board member, has been adapted from column originally printed in the November 8, 2017 issue of the Mid-Hudson Times. Posted here with permission.