Arming the “Boys:” The Women’s Munition Reserve Seven Pines Bag Loading Plant, Penniman, Virginia

Mobilization for World War I allowed women previously unheard-of opportunities to take on non-traditional roles. Some served abroad as nurses and yeomen; others took up the ploughshares the men had traded for swords by working on family farms and with the Women’s Land Army. Traditional activities like sewing and knitting also took on new importance as the items were shipped overseas. Women also took over the factory jobs left open by the citizens turned soldiers, helping keep the American war machine rolling.

Beginning in 1915, DuPont chemical company directed all its manufacturing and production towards the war effort. Social crisis tends to trump political scruples, so the company’s recent antitrust troubles did not hinder its consolidation of a monopoly over American munitions production. DuPont’s thirty-seventh munitions plant, the Women’s Munition Reserve Seven Pines Bag Loading Plant, was located on the York River near Williamsburg, Virginia.

The Seven Pines plant paid high wages for hazardous work. Workers were responsible for loading TNT into ammunition shells and bagging gunpowder for shipment. Despite the potential danger, hundreds of men and women flocked to the plant in search of employment. A village quickly grew up around the plant as DuPont constructed houses for its workforce: Penniman, Virginia. At its height, Seven Plains plant employees numbered 10,000. The population of Penniman numbered 10,000–20,000.[1]

Female workers made up most of the workforce at Seven Pines. Women of all walks of life were represented, and it was not unusual for middle- and lower-class women to sew and fill powder bags side-by-side with Virginia’s First Lady, Marguerite Davis.[2] Fashion norms also relaxed a bit as a concession to the war effort. Long skirts were impractical in factories, particularly in factories filled with flammable and potentially explosive materials. DuPont issued trousers to the woman munitions workers of Seven Pines. To maintain propriety and keep the clothing suitably feminine, they were referred to as “womanalls” and “trouserettes.”[3]

The inscription on the metal badge housed at the VAARNG Mullins Armory in Richmond, Virginia, reads “WOMEN’S MUNITION RESERVE SEVEN PINES BAG LOADING PLANT.” Badges issued for other DuPont munitions plants took similar forms. Plant badges served several purposes: some were practical, some rather grisly. As metal withstands an explosion better than flesh, numbered badges could help identify a worker killed during a plant accident. It is probable the “68” on the middle of the badge was the identification number for a female worker.

badge

Figure 1. Women’s Munition Reserve Seven Pines Bag Loading Plant badge. Photo by author.

Plant badges provided a different kind of protection for male workers. Being branded a “slacker,” or man who did not serve or did not work towards the war effort, was almost as bad as being a German. Wearing a factory badge demonstrated to the community you were doing your part.

The United States Navy assumed control of the Seven Pines plant in August 1918. On October 12, it hosted a celebration for the opening of the United States Government Bag Loading Plant at Seven Pines, removing “women’s” from the name. Removing the “women” was in step with the post-war political and social effort to “return to normalcy.” Part of the American normal was returning veterans to their pre-war occupations and sending women back to hearth and home.

munition poster

Figure 2. Frederic H. Spiegel, 1918. Library of Virginia Special Collections Archive.

The Liberty Day celebration was short-lived, as Penniman did not escape the Spanish flu epidemic raging across the nation. The local hospital could not keep up with the number of sick men, women, and children who entered its doors. Local coroners and casket makers also struggled to keep up with the dead. War mobilization ended with Armistice Day, and the Seven Pines plant was no longer needed. The families of Penniman left in search of employment, in some cases taking their DuPont-constructed houses with them by floating them down the river.

By the mid-1920s, Penniman had disappeared. The Women’s Munition Plant badge is tangible evidence of a place that can no longer be found on a Virginia map. While most of the women’s individual stories also disappeared, the badge gives us tangible evidence of another way Virginia women broke through gender boundaries to support their country and their Commonwealth.

Notes

[1] Martha W. McCartney, James City County: Keystone of the Commonwealth, (James City County, Virginia: Donning Company Publishing, 1997).

[2] Virginia Women and the First World War: Records and Resources at the Library of Virginia,” Library of Virginia Archival and Information Services, accessed August 27, 2018, https://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/WomenofWWI.pdf, 2

[3] Ibid.

Book Review: They Fought Alone

Glass, Charles. They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.

Spies and spy craft have long captured the imagination. Agent 007. Emma Peel and John Steed. Even Maxwell Smart and Agent 99. Espionage is intriguing, especially when we are privy to the tricks of the trade. It is entertaining, especially when we know our heroes and heroines will be saved from a dastardly fate at the very last second and live to spy another day. Real life is not like the movies. James Bond actor Roger Moore once explained the difference saying, “You can’t be a real spy and have everybody in the world know who you are and what your drink is.” Transparency is a luxury that gets spies killed.

In They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France, Charles Glass tells the story of two brothers who gathered intelligence for the British during WWII. Adolf Hitler’s September 1939 invasions of Poland and Czechoslovakia prompted Britain’s declaration of war, but that declaration was not an impediment to his march across Europe. Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands were the next to fall. Planning to “set Europe ablaze” by bolstering local resistance movements and gather the intelligence needed to win the war against Nazi Germany, the British created the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in July 1940. Taking his title from Colonel Maurice Buckmaster’s memoir, Glass’s book highlights the experiences and contributions of two SOE spies: George and John Starr. “Theirs would be a lonely struggle, cut off from the wives and children they loved, deprived of the comradeship of a regular military unit, and on their own behind enemy lines,” writes Glass.

If male spies “fought alone,” where did that leave their female counterparts? According to Glass, George Starr disliked female SOE agent Odette Sansom from the beginning, also complaining he was “put in charge of three bloody women” for his first overseas assignment. Starr later complains Sansom made unwelcome sexual advances, implying her espionage was more horizontal than on the up and up. The British and French governments reached different opinions regarding Sansom, however, awarding her the George Cross and making her a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.

Sansom survived torture and imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. She fought the enemy, but also the prejudices and biases of her own side. Some female spies did use sex appeal to their advantage in gathering intelligence about enemy troop movements and plans, but we cannot say all female spies employed “sexpionage” because of shortcomings in character and moral standing. Sex can be a tool, just like encryption machines and short-wave radios, and the spy who does not use all the tools at her disposal is not that effective a spy at all.

A biography tells the truth about history as it was perceived by that person. Glass is correct to include Starr’s biases against Sansom in his book because it was a true part of Starr’s experience in the SOE. They Fought Alone should be read in conjunction with other histories of the SOE, including some of the recent works that focus on the women who served. This will give the most balanced view of the men and women who fought alone during WWII. The Allies fought against the tyranny of the Axis powers but held onto their own prejudices. The only thing more dangerous than being a spy at war was being a female spy at war. The enemy inherently distrusted because you were an enemy; your own side inherently distrusted you because you were a woman.

KMS, 22 August 2018

 

Book Review: A World on Edge by Daniel Schönpflug

Schönpflug, Daniel. A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age. New York: Henry Holt and Co. Metropolitan Books, 2018.

Daniel Schönpflug’s book, A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age (English translation of Comets years. 1918: the world on the rise) begins with an ominous image: an effigy of Kaiser Wilhelm strung up between two New York City streets. With the Great War at an end, the survivors had to learn how to navigate the world it created. Some, like the man represented in effigy, faded into the background, while others used the lessons of protracted war and fractured peace to claim the spotlight.

Abandoning the traditional focus on disarmament, redeployment, and reparations, Schönpflug constructs his history of the post-WWI period using the stories and experiences of people who lived it. He tells the stories of former political figures (Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, Matthias Erzberger) alongside those of rising political stars (Harry S. Truman, Nguyen Tat Thanh), and trades stories of fading revolutionary movements (T.E. Lawrence and the Middle East) with those just beginning to catch flame (Nguyen Tat Thanh in Vietmam, Terence MacSwiney in Ireland). Each point has a counterpoint, but there is also commonality in the lives lived after Armistice. Russian White Army soldier Marina Yurlowa speaks of the same type of battle fatigue expressed by U.S. doughboy Alvin York. Artists Walter Gropius and George Grosz hoped their art would help them make sense of the new world; Gropius found purpose in construction, while Grosz saw only nothingness. The men would become leaders of the Bauhaus and Dadaist artistic movements, respectively.

Schönpflug’s inclusion of women (Virginia Woolf, journalist Louise Weiss, Moina Michael, the aforementioned Marina Yurlowa) was a welcome surprise. He gives their stories share equal space with those of the men, a huge departure from many historical treatments that relegate women’s wartime and post-war experiences to a separate “women’s” chapter. The inclusion of a female soldier is especially heartening as Russian historiography has only recently restored a place for armed women in its history.

The author’s new approaches towards the post-war period does not preclude him from exploring the ways the Treaty of Versailles laid the groundwork for the rise of National Socialism. Schönpflug prefers to stoke a slow burn, showing the reader how individuals can go from elation over the end of armed hostilities to disillusionment over the world the war made. Nations and individuals alike placed their hopes in salvation through Wilsonian diplomacy and the League of Nations. Wilson’s rejection of the League and its resulting failure would lead them to different ideas and different saviors.

Kierkegaard wrote “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Schönpflug’s history reminds us that “forwards” contains multiple directions, and people understand their present in multiple ways. For some, the swinging Kaiser represented the freedom to break free from old traditions, ideas, and constraints. Others found the peace did not live up to its promise and inclined towards despair. All agreed a world begot by violence would not easily shake the lessons of its cradle. Post-war Europe was on the edge of a new world; the next few years would determine whether it remained mired in the ashes or rose like a phoenix.

kms 2018

The Point of No Return

There were no turning points in the Civil War. There were, however, several turning points identified after the war. Determining a “turning point” is an academic exercise: we see the events that determined the ultimate outcome of the war only after we know the ultimate outcome. A turning point is, as historian Erik Rau described, “ultimately a construct of historical reflection.”[1] Historian Carl Becker went a step further in a 1926 speech to the American Historical Association, describing a turning point as a “symbol, a simple statement which is a generalization of a thousand and one simpler facts which we do not for the moment care to use.”[2]

The symbol a historian chooses depends on the outcome she wishes to highlight. Social historians interpret Antietam as a turning point because the Union victory gave Lincoln the impetus to proclaim the emancipation of slaves in areas in rebellion of the Union. The Union’s hard-won victory over Vicksburg could be seen as an economic turning point because it effectively broke the Confederacy in two along the Mississippi, further stressing already over-extended Confederate supply lines.[3] Gettysburg, on the other hand, could be understood as a military turning point because it demonstrated General Grant’s ability to definitively defeat Lee on the battlefield.[4] It is also considered the “high watermark of the Confederacy,” a characterization that only makes sense in hindsight as we can only recognize the Confederacy’s highest point in reference to its lowest point, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Turning points–symbols–are very personal things: one hundred fifty years later, historians continue debating the relative importance of individual battles. Gary Gallagher, for example, rejects the importance of Vicksburg and Gettysburg in favor of the Seven Days Battles, writing Gettysburg “looms largest in the public imagination as the war’s grand turning point…(but) affected the long term-shape of the war relatively little” while Vicksburg “generated a greater emotional than military result.”[5]

These debates can get historians into trouble as it can be very difficult to requite the knowledge gifted by historical hindsight with the information Americans had at the time. A turning point, Rau reminds us, is not something that “reveals itself to the people living through it at the time.”[6] The soldiers fighting at Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and countless other battles, did not know the tide of battle shifted as they took and left the field.

As a budding military historian focused more on war’s effects on society than how they were fought, I am much more interested in the war’s point of no return than in the war’s various turning points. In 1861, the North and South alike anticipated a speedy end to the conflict. Twelve months of battle proved this expectation dead wrong. Union and Confederate corpses littered the battlefield of Shiloh in alarming numbers, yet somehow the armies’ determination to keep fighting did not die. Grant responded to a demoralizing Confederate attack at Shiloh on April 6, 1862 with his own counterattack, telling one of his officers that retreat was not an option: “Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.”[7] Soldiers seemed to share the same dogged determination despite the horrors they witnessed. “If my life is spared I will continue in my country’s service until this rebellion is put down, should it be ten years,” wrote a Union soldier after the battle of Shiloh.[8] Fifteen months and thousands of casualties letter, another soldier’s correspondence echoes the same. Concluding a letter to his family written after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lieutenant William Wheeler of the 13th New York Battery wrote,

“The time may vary a few months, a few years, or even a few decades, but the job will be settled and that all right too. I am…ready to bear, believe, hope, and endure all things for the cause, knowing that if we do so, we also, like Charity, shall never fail.”[9]

Shiloh was a wakeup call to the North and South, but the soldiers also experienced it as a point of no return. It was their first taste of the brutal battles to come, yet it did not deter them from fighting. Whether their motivation was honor, moral conviction, or some other amorphous justification, the soldiers fought on. Both sides knew the short war they predicted was simply not possible: that bridge was crossed and burned. Something changed around Pittsburg Landing in Spring 1862. As the armies progressed to Antietam, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg, they did not know the war was shifting in favor of Union victory, but the battle experiences of 1862 and 1863 gave rise to different soldiers and different armies. In contrast to the “turning points” identified by historians years after the fact, the renewed determination to keep fighting despite the brutality, trying conditions, and uncertainty experienced after Shiloh was “reveal(ed) to the people living through it at the time.”[10] As poet Walt Whitman wrote in 1883,

“Future years will never know the seething help and black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors (not the official surface-courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession War…the real war will never get in the books…The actual soldier of 1862-’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness…will never be written.”[11]

Amid all this speculation I also wonder how women experienced the inertia of the war. Their experiences were very different from those of the men, but no less difficult and certainly of no less importance. How did one feel the war on the homefront, especially as the line between homefront and battlefront blurred? “I do not write often now – not for want of something to say, but from a loathing of all I see and hear. Why dwell upon it?” wrote diarist Mary Chestnut in 1865.[12] These words demonstrate Chestnut’s own feeling of loss and awareness of an ending, but how did Northern women feel? Or the emancipated slave women? Did they sense the beginning of the end or recognize the turning of the tide?

Historians are quite adept at finding “the few great battles,” but they sometimes overlook the minutia of individual experience. The difference between a turning point and a point of no return is quite simple, really: one we find in the words of historians, the other in the words of the soldiers themselves.

 

[1] Erik Rau quoted in Roger D. Launius, “What are Turning Points in History, and What Were They for the Space Age?” Societal Impact of Spaceflight, ed. Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, NASA SP-2007-4801, (NASA Office of External Relations Historical Division, 2007), 22.

[2] Carl L. Becker, “What are Historical Facts?” The Western Political Quarterly VIII, no. 3, (September, 1955): 327-340, accessed September 7, 2016, EBSCOHost.

[3] Aaron Sheehan-Dean, “Gettysburg: Turning Point or a Small Stepping-Stone to Victory?” Teaching History.org, accessed September 7, 2016, http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/25224.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gary W. Gallagher, “The war’s overlooked turning points,” Civil War Times 21, 2, Biography in Context, accessed September 6, 2016, EBSCOHost.

[6] Rau, 22.

[7] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 410.

[8] Unknown Union soldier quoted in McPherson, 413.

[9] “Letter from Lieut. William Wheeler, Thirteenth New York Battery to Family regarding the Battle of Gettysburg, Warrenton Junction, Virginia July 26, 1863,” Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War, accessed September 8, 2016, http://www.totalgettysburg.com/william-wheeler-letter.html.

[10] Rau, 22.

[11] Walt Whitman, Specimen Days and Collect, (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), 81.

[12] Mary Boykin Miller Chestnut, Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, ed. C. Vann Woodward (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 834.

 

Sources Referenced

Becker, Carl L. “What are Historical Facts?” The Western Political Quarterly VIII, no. 3, (September, 1955): 327-340, accessed September 7, 2016, EBSCOHost.

Chestnut, Mary Boykin Miller. Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, ed. C. Vann Woodward. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Gallagher, Gary W. “The war’s overlooked turning points,” Civil War Times 21, 2, Biography in Context, accessed September 6, 2016, EBSCOHost.

Launius, Roger D. “What are Turning Points in History, and What Were They for the Space Age?” Societal Impact of Spaceflight, ed. Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, NASA SP-2007-4801, NASA Office of External Relations Historical Division, 2007.

“Letter from Lieut. William Wheeler, Thirteenth New York Battery to Family regarding the Battle of Gettysburg, Warrenton Junction, Virginia July 26, 1863,” Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War, accessed September 8, 2016, http://www.totalgettysburg.com/william-wheeler-letter.html.

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Sheehan-Dean, Aaron. “Gettysburg: Turning Point or a Small Stepping-Stone to Victory?” Teaching History.org, accessed September 7, 2016, http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/25224.

Whitman, Walt. Specimen Days and Collect. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883.

 

*Image taken from the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Online Photo Archive. https://www.nps.gov/applications/hafe/detail.cfm?Image_No=hf-0002

F-Bomb Field Trip: U.S. Army Women’s Museum in Fort Lee, Virginia

Two statues guard the entrance of the U.S. Army Women’s Museum at Fort Lee, Virginia: Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess responsible for wisdom and war, and a female American soldier, the personification of those attributes. The USAWM was originally part of Fort McClellan, Alabama, but moved to Virginia after the base closed in 1999. It opened at Fort Lee in 2001, but it was only five years ago that the museum became the first American military installation to display a statue of a female soldier. This timeline parallels women’s fight to both participate in the U.S. military and be recognized for their participation. The museum does a very good job at establishing the fact that women have always been involved in American wars; it was official recognition of their contributions that trailed behind.

The museum begins and ends with a large tree adorned with replicas of dog tags left behind by fallen female soldiers. One electronic exhibit allows the visitor to select the names of individual soldiers and pull up their pictures and a short biography and service record. Sacrifice is key to the USAWM: from the “unofficial” soldiers in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars to the WACs of WWII and combat soldiers of Desert Storm and following, female sacrifice was essential to American military success.

As described on its website, the USAWM is a “repository of artifacts and archives,” but also “an educational institution.” The curators have done a fantastic job integrating elements that will keep younger visitors interested and entertained. A theater in a small alcove explains the role of Walt Disney animation in the war effort and shows several WWII-era Donald Duck cartoons produced during the time. There is also an area that allows children to try on the various caps/head gear, uniform pieces, and arms mentioned and depicted in the exhibits. Kids can also take home free coloring pages as a souvenir.

The USWM is also an important resource for historians and researchers. Appointments to view the archives or explore their service member oral histories can be made on the museum website. The archive holds over 1.5 million documents, including books, photographs, scrapbooks, correspondence, and other formats. The museum also allows visitors to take home copies of the U.S. Army Center for Military History’s books on the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) by historians Bettie J. Morden and Mattie E. Treadwell. As military history has long been the domain of men, finding sources about military women written by military women is refreshing to say the least. Morden’s and Treadwell’s works would be extremely useful to students and researchers interested in investigating female participation in the army from 1942 to 1978. Treadwell’s Special Studies text provides additional information on mid-century American interpretations of gender and war and reflects on how these interpretations shaped what military women were and were not allowed to do during wartime.

The U.S. Army Women’s Museum is easy to overlook, but well worth a visit. At the time of our visit (March 1, 2018), several exhibits were under construction, including redesign of a gallery and an expansion of one area. I’m definitely planning a return visit to see the new pieces and check out the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum next door.

kms

The United States Army Women’s Museum / 2100 Avenue A / Fort Lee, Virginia / www.awm.lee.army.mil / 804-734-4327 / Tues. through Sat., 1000-1700