Eisenhower’s 1918 command of Gettysburg’s Camp Colt

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The Making of a President

By Cheryl Sobun | Photography by Casey Martin

Dwight D. Eisenhower hated Gettysburg in 1918.

He longed to be “over there,” as the popular song of the day stated, fighting Germans in France and glorifying himself on the battlefield. Instead, he was over here, training Tank Corps recruits at Gettysburg’s Camp Colt.

“My mood was black,” Eisenhower writes in his 1967 memoir, “at ease: Stories I Tell to Friends.” Eisenhower wanted out so badly, he was willing to take a reduction in rank, but his superiors kept him right where he was. Finally, his assignment overseas came in November of 1918, but it was too late. The war was over.

As much as Eisenhower thought his 8-month command was surely the end of his military career, it was actually just the beginning. Camp Colt is where Eisenhower distinguished himself. Historians agree his impressive leadership of eventually more than 10,000 troops led to his becoming a 5-star general and supreme commander of the Allied forces in WWII and, ultimately, president of the United States.

Despite Camp Colt’s importance to Eisenhower’s career, it is just a footnote in history. In fact, WWI itself is eclipsed by the longer-lasting, more intense WWII.

“There are very few people who live in Gettysburg today who even know what Camp Colt was. It’s almost been completely forgotten,” says David Weaver, a licensed battlefield guide who’s done extensive research on the subject. In a collection of National Archive findings that Weaver donated to the Eisenhower National Historic Site, he writes, “…much of this documentation was, no doubt, hastily filed by War Department clerks who were ready to close up shop after the armistice and who probably would never have predicted that anyone would care about the day to day goings-on at a stateside training facility.”

A Soldier’s Life in Gettysburg

Most of the monuments dotting Gettysburg today existed back in 1917. However, the battlefield did not yet belong to the National Park Service but to the War Department, and, as such, it was military land. In the summer of 1917, army troops came to Gettysburg and trained on the field that was once the site of Pickett’s Charge. Simply called Camp U.S. Troops Gettysburg, the camp was not equipped to handle cold weather, so it was evacuated at winter’s onset. It reopened in March of 1918 and was renamed Camp Colt, after Samuel Colt, a weapons manufacturer; 27-year-old Capt. Dwight. D. Eisenhower was placed at the helm.

Hundreds of tents filled the 192-acre area, and more than 90 wooden structures were erected, including a hospital. “The main encampments were on both sides of the Emmitsburg Road, starting at the High Water Mark and running out to Sickles’ [Brigade] monument,” a veteran of Camp Colt, Richard Mather Marshall of Pittsburgh, says in an article published 40 years later. “The fields on both sides were used as drill grounds and our infantry training took us all over the Battlefield.”

Today, the Eisenhower Tree, planted along Emmitsburg Road in 1954 by veterans of Camp Colt with a bronze plaque beneath, and a historic sign across the street (pictured above) stand as the only testaments that Camp Colt existed. Other than that, there are small exhibits at the Eisenhower National Historic Site and the National Soldier Factory store at 11 Steinwehr Ave.

The men who made up the Tank Corps, or “Tankers,” as they called themselves, came and went by train at the Gettysburg station. When they left, they were bound for Baltimore and, ultimately, France. Ironically, there were only three tanks here. The first one didn’t arrive for three months, so the men mostly trained on trucks. According to Eisenhower, the soldiers practiced shooting machine guns at Big Round Top. There is no record as to whether they cleared visitors from the battlefield before doing so, but historians agree they probably did.

Patriotic fever and dollar signs struck the citizens of Gettysburg; they wanted the troops here, says Weaver. Thousands of soldiers meant good business, but it also meant drunkenness, rowdiness, and women of ill repute coming to town. In a letter dated Dec. 24, 1918, Thomas H. Scott, lieutenant colonel of the Medical Corps. and chief camp doctor, says men were treated for venereal disease including 404 cases of gonorrhea, and 114 prostitutes were arrested and tried.

Additionally, when 110 soldiers came in from Camp Devens, Mass., they brought Spanish influenza with them. The highly contagious disease spread in camp and in town. A nurse from Chambersburg, Lydia Miller, cared for the sick at the camp hospital, only to return home and die of influenza on Oct. 20, 1918. Pvt. Boyd F. Shriver died on Oct. 4, 1918, but wrote to his family a week before, pleading for medicine because he was not getting what he needed. In a letter to the acting surgeon general, Sen. Howard J. Sutherland called for an investigation into the influenza situation, using the words of Shriver’s bereaved half brother, “He was spitting blood then had pneumonia and they let him die like a dog.”

The worst of the epidemic lasted nearly two months, mid-September through late October, and the death toll varies by source, says Weaver, but in “at ease,” Eisenhower puts the number at 175. The scene was reminiscent of what happened 55 years prior, when places in town become makeshift hospitals. A school, St. Francis Xavier Hall, was one of them, and “every church was utilized to accommodate the overflow of dislocated family members,” says Eisenhower’s granddaughter Susan Eisenhower in her 1996 book, “Mrs. Ike.”

Dwight Eisenhower writes, “There were no coffins. We had no place to put the bodies except in a storage tent until they could gradually be taken care of more suitably.”

“Treat ‘Em Rough”

It wasn’t all bad, though. The camp published a twice-monthly magazine for and by the men called Treat ‘Em Rough. A Tankers’ Club was opened at 37 W. Middle St., complete with pool tables and a lounge and smoking room. The building still exists, and there is a historic sign out front. Pvt. Selmer Swanson of Minneapolis, Minn., who was 16 when he enlisted in 1917, writes in an army service questionnaire that one of his fondest memories was “picnics with family daughters at Gettysburg.”

Chance meetings and social occasions led to countless marriages. One such event was a town dance held on June 7, 1918, at Rosensteel’s Pavilion at the north base of Little Round Top. Rosensteel was actually a museum with a large outdoor porch, says John Heiser, historian with the Gettysburg National Military Park. “It stood on the corner of Sedgwick Avenue and Wheatfield Road,” he says, and it was torn down in the 1980s.

“Any time men and women get together, there will be relationships, and there will be marriages,” says Park Ranger Dennis Flake of the Eisenhower National Historic Site. Charles H. Holder of Huntsville, Ala., “met his bride when he was stationed at Gettysburg” in 1917, according to a Feb. 9, 1918, newspaper wedding announcement. He married Mary M. Bushman of Gettysburg.

Despite Eisenhower’s restlessness, his one joy in Gettysburg was spending time with his wife, Mamie, and their infant son, Doud, whom they nicknamed Icky (also spelled Ikky). The family lived in three places during their short time here. Citing Susan Eisenhower’s book, Mary Burtzloff, archivist with the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kan., says, “The couple first lived in a cramped rented house without gas or electricity. In June, they moved to the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house associated with Gettysburg College, which was empty of students for the summer. That fall, they moved to a brick house at 237 Spring Ave. in Gettysburg, where they remained for several months.”

The Eisenhowers’ house at Gettysburg College, 157 N. Washington St., is not open for tours but has a historic marker and a bronze plaque that states it was their “first family home.”

From Capt. Eisenhower to President Eisenhower

On Nov. 11, 1918, the armistice was signed; WWI came to an end, and so did Camp Colt. When the buildings and tents toppled, so, too, did most of the memories.

Weaver says if Eisenhower had been sent overseas, he only would have commanded about 150 men in the trenches, but at Gettysburg, he commanded thousands. “I think his experience at Camp Colt taught him a lot about management and a lot about political issues. He had to juggle these different headaches at different times while getting his troops ready to go off to war, and he did it successfully,” says Weaver.

For example, the War Department empowered Eisenhower to shut down any establishment within five miles of the camp that was serving alcohol to the troops. One hotel owner defied the repeated warnings, but Eisenhower diplomatically and firmly dealt with the proprietor until he succumbed to the rules.

“His experience here helped prepare him for what would come later. His experience as a general in the army helped make him a great president, and his experience at Camp Colt helped make him a great general,” says Weaver. “You can draw a linear connection from Capt. Eisenhower in 1918 to President Eisenhower in 1960.”

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    • troy@celebrategettysburg.com on

      Hi Jane, thanks for your interest in the magazine. The Camp Colt article is written by Cheryl Sobun for Celebrate Gettysburg.

      Have a great weekend!

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