Call To Arms: New Jersey Prepares For War in 1917
by: Bruce Colvil
The First World War began when the nations of Europe divided into alliances of mutual defense. The major
continental powers, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungry, France and Great Britain each had their spheres of
influence throughout the world. When the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by a
member of the Black Hand, Gavrillo Princip, which was a Serbian terrorist group, the Austrian-Hungarian
government sought the support of Germany before taking any action. Germany saw the Serbian-Austrian crisis as
an opportunity to increase their dominance in European affairs. Russia perceived Germany’s support of Austria-
Hungry as a threat to the Balkans which they had a defense treaty with Serbia. As each major power took sides
with the minor powers to protect them the battle lines became clear. It would be Germany backing Austria-Hungry
and soon to be joined by the Ottoman Empire against the Russians, who were also supported by France and
Great Britain, backing the Serbians. As the diplomatic efforts collapsed war was all but certain. The United States
had decided to remain neutral and take care of their problems with Mexico but also selling materials to each
warring power at a great profit.
The war opened economic opportunities. The banks’ loan money to each side. The Allies received more loans
than the Central Powers. Vital to the war effort, New Jersey became the pivotal transportation and industrial link
processing men and material between America and Europe. New Jersey during the first months of 1917 was
divided as businesses and citizens mobilize for war while they hoped for a peaceful resolution before American
soldiers were pulled into the conflict.
The battle line between the Central Powers and the Allies in France had become a stalemate after the first year of
fighting and it became a war of attrition. Trench warfare had stalled the advance of both sides. The constant
bombardment, destruction of equipment and deaths of thousands of soldiers exhausted both the Allies and Central
Powers. The materials were consumed faster than can be replaced.
In 1915 a German submarine torpedoed the steamer Lusitania, carrying American citizens and war material for
Britain. Germany had warned passengers in New York newspapers not to sail on British ships that entering the war
zone around Britain was at their own risk. The war was getting closer to American shores.
Fighting in trench warfare continued to waste men and material, straining the supply lines. This forced the Allies to
rely on the United States to sell armaments. America was able to supply the armies at war, remain neutral and
make profits. By 1917 the Allies received loans from U.S. bankers totaling $2,300 million compared to $20 million to
the Germans. As a neutral power the America was able to take advantage of both sides.
The election for governor of New Jersey in 1916 placed Republican Walter Edge, a state senator and president of
the senate against Otto Wittpenn, Democrat of Jersey City. Elected in 1909 to assembly and 1910 to state senate.
Walter Edge was a former businessman and newspaper publisher of the Atlantic City Daily Press, born in
Philadelphia, November 20, 1873, family moved to New Jersey in 1877. His campaign slogan was “a business man
with a business plan”. Otto Wittpenn was a former mayor of Jersey City with close ties to the German-American
community. Wittpenn won the Democratic Primary for governor but during the campaign the national Democratic
Party, including President Woodrow Wilson, did not support him. The New Jersey Democratic political machine of
Frank Hague had supported James Fielder, president pro temp of the state senate and acting governor after
Wilson left office for Washington. Hague was the party boss in Jersey City and controlled the voter turnout during
the election. Hague delivered the lowest total of Democratic votes for a candidate in his career. Due to low voter
turnout by the Democrats Walter Edge was able to defeat Wittpenn and caused the state to re-align the political
power in Trenton. Edge ran on a campaign to run the state as a business and to end favoritism. Hague later went
on to win election as mayor of Jersey City. Republican Walter Edge won the election in November 1916.
In January 1917 Walter Edge was sworn in as Governor of New Jersey and in his inauguration speech pledges to
restore state government to operate like a business, removing the old system of favoritism and making the
legislature more accountable. Governor Edge’s message to the state was clear. New Jersey had to modernize and
streamline the government and transportation systems. To keep New Jersey competitive the old methods of
government had to change quickly or lose the advantage it already controlled. Bridges connecting New York and
Philadelphia were needed. Roads throughout the state needed improvement. Governor Edge called for building
more tunnels under the Hudson River to connect road and railroads directly to Manhattan. The first tunnel that
connected the railroad to New York City was built in 1903. The ports and railheads that already existed in New
Jersey needed to be expanded to handle the increased flow of goods through the state. Governor Edge called
Jerseyans to support his policies. Newspapers, like the Newark Evening News published his first speech on
January 16, 1917 and continued to support his programs. The editorials following Edge’s election did not criticize
local politicians; they pointed a critical finger at the national government for not preparing American industry. The
public reaction to Edge was positive; in letters to the editor of the Newark Evening News the support for the
governor was the majority opinion statewide.
France and Britain purchased ammunition and armaments from American companies. The equipment has to pass
through New Jersey by railroad to depots along the Atlantic coast, particularly to the piers along the Hudson River
and New York Harbor. The Jersey waterfront in 1916 was busy with shipments bound for Europe. The piers and
railroad depots had been built and updated since the Civil War. There were no tunnels or bridges to New York City
at that time and the only way for goods to cross the Hudson River was by ferry or barge.
The war struck New Jersey in 1916 when the Black Tom railroad depot in Jersey City Exploded. Trains were loaded
with ammunition bound for the Allies in Europe. Tons of war material was sitting on the piers waiting for a train
barge to ferry them across the Hudson River when they were sabotaged. Blame was placed on German spies but
no one was caught. The explosion was so powerful pieces of metal was blown three miles away into the Statue of
Liberty. In 1917 the New Jersey town of Kingsland an ammunition factory exploded, again the blame was on
German saboteurs. The state of New Jersey was under attack and America remained neutral.
President Woodrow Wilson, former Governor of New Jersey, in December 1916 made a diplomatic move to resolve
the war and called on both sides to state their war aims and work out an agreement for peace. The Germans
refused to make a statement and the Allies rejected anything the Germans had to say. Wilson called for “peace
without victory”, in a reply to the lack of response. The war would continue.
The Newark Evening News in editorials during the month of January of 1917 expressed hope of a settlement of
hostilities before the United States was pulled into war. In the last months of 1916 the German Ambassador to
Washington, Count Bernstorff, asked if the American government to help broker a peace settlement if the German
government would guarantee the restoration of Belgium. President Wilson had drafted a mediation proposal by the
beginning of December and by 1917 Americans were hoping for peace. There were editorial cartoons showing the
hands of hope mending the bird of peace. The editorials had turned to war preparations.
Jerseyans were reading about peace proposals and at the same time called for the military to mobilize the National
Guard. The first month of 1917 foreign policy had not clearly defined the role of the United States, President
Wilson’s administration tried to prevent American involvement in Europe. Members of the national Republican
Party continued to call for America to join the war effort. The newspapers were covering both sides of the debate
for war. Opinions varied form different locations in the state. There were ethnic groups in the north opposed to
Britain and there were patriotic groups throughout the state demanding war. This was dividing people. America
wasn’t directly threatened but just off the Jersey coast German U-boats roamed the sea-lanes ready for combat.
Further confusion of American foreign policy deepened when New Jersey Congressman Richard Wayne Parker (R-
13th district) in speech before Congress put forward a proposal that America could protect our citizens at sea
without declaring war. The Newark Evening News published on February 10, 1917 a report about his speech.
Parker envisioned a defense fleet sailing with American vessels and protecting them from the U-boats. He argued
that the United States not get involved with the European war, which would cost too much in lives and material. He
pointed to the U.S. Navy and their modern equipment would be enough to protect Americans at sea. The
congressman didn’t understand war at sea. He did not imagine the problems with stopping U-boats and German
warships. His argument would have the United States at war with Germany, independent of the Allies in Europe.
Wilson was trying to avoid a confrontation and Parker desired to fight, despite the consequences.
The newspapers shaped the opinion of the public. The Newark Evening News published daily editorials that
present both sides of the issues but are biased in their support of President Wilson and the call to war. The
editorials were critical of pacifists and politicians who voiced their opinions for peace, calling them un-American and
misguided. A political cartoon published by the Newark Evening New of January 11, 1917, shows the bird of peace
repaired by the hands of hope. Newspapers offered a different view that peace was possible.
Diplomatic relations with Germany were cut on February 3rd, 1917 when unrestricted submarine warfare
continued. The war was just off the New Jersey coast. This was a direct threat to trade between the United States
and the world. The public panic had risen to fear any form of travel by sea.
German ships were immobilized at Hoboken piers under harbor neutrality acts. US government seized the piers,
eliminating hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenues, for which the city finally received token compensation
in 1950. Further revenues were lost from liquor licenses when the government closed bars within a half-mile as
part of the establishment of a port of embarkation for troops to Europe. The prosperous German community was
destroyed. Part of the city was under martial law and Germans were sent to Ellis Island. Thousands of Germans left
Hoboken. Anti-German feelings had many different effects in New Jersey. Sauerkraut was renamed to victory
cabbage, hamburger was change to Salisbury steak and in schools the German language classes were banned. In
northern New Jersey the area known as German Valley was renamed to Long Valley. Anything German was
removed, renamed or banned, the public anger had become critical.
An editorial in the Newark Evening News on February 5th, 1917 called for cheerful application of universal service.
It stated that the duty of real Americans was to step up and accept the honor of serving for their country at a time
of war. The demand for men to volunteer exceeded the amount of men willing to enter military service. The draft
had been suggested as a solution to fill the army and navy with new recruits. The newspaper was critical of anti-
draft sentiments and their political cartoons ridiculed people against conscription. But Most Americans had felt that
volunteering was the only method of enlistment, recalling the draft riots from the Civil War, the draft was not
popular. To counter the anti-draft opinions recruitment rallies in New Jersey are used to increase enlistments by
asking men to volunteer. Events forced congress to pass in May 1917 the Selective Draft Act, a modern military
draft system. The Selective Service System is an innovation of the Progressive Era. The draft system favored white
men over black men. In John Whiteclay Chambers book, “The Tyranny of Change”, he states that one in four white
men were drafted, while one in three black men were inducted. Blacks were placed in segregated units with white
officers and trained separate from white troops in New Jersey’s basic training camps, Camp Dix and Camp Vail.
The war in Europe was a constant threat to the industrial communities and railroads fearing sabotage. The
National Guard is mobilized to protect rail and industry. To ease tensions and calm citizens the New Jersey National
Guard is placed in strategic locations throughout the state to maintain security. The bridges and railroads posted
guardsmen at key locations with loaded weapons and orders to shoot. Guard towers were built on the New
Brunswick railroad bridge, on both sides, to protect the structure and trains. New Jersey passes a law in 1917 that
authorized the National Guard to shoot to kill any trespassers who refused to halt at their command. The entire
state in January 1917 was feeling closer to war than peace.
During spring of 1917 Military camps were expand and new ones created. Camp Dix had become a training center
for new recruits in New Jersey and thousands of National Guard troops plus regular army began their basic training
at the camp. Sea Grit became a mustering center and Camp Vail trained signal corps. Additional camps throughout
NJ were built to handle overflow of new soldiers.
Enlistments by volunteers increased during the first two months of 1917 and the call for conscription was
downplayed. By March of 1917 the National Guard was federalized. The U.S. military training became organized at
a national level. Soldiers were now under the command of the President. American involvement in the war
becomes clear, at small jumps the National Guard goes from state control and local protection, to federal control
and the next step is “over there”, which was Europe and the trenches.
To replace the National Guard troops for state defense in New Jersey a Home Defense League. Local citizens
were recruited to protect industry and railroads and local communities conducted funding drives to finance the
militias. In March of 1917 the City of New Brunswick organized their Home Defense League chapter; headquarters
was in the local post office. Springtime was also a time to mobilize with towns and cities across the state organized
local defense. Rutgers University graduates and upper classmen applied in large numbers for commissions in the
National Guard at the New Brunswick recruitment office.
Transportation in New Jersey was critical during the mobilization for war. The system of railways and roads that was
already in place facilitated transport of materials to the factories in New Jersey. Railroads were the major carrier of
war supplies and troops. These systems were upgraded during the previous years. Vehicle technology had
improved engines for cars and trucks that made the horse obsolete. Rubber tires that rolled over new highways
replaced wooden wheels. New Jersey had to improve the roadways between towns and cities to streamline the time
it took to move goods from the factory to the rail depot. The car became a necessity to those who could afford one.
Driving was changing the social system in New Jersey letting people live farther from work. Horse drawn wagons
were a symbol of the past and exhaust fumes replaced the smell of horse droppings.
Industry increased their output by 150% in 1917. The business of New Jersey was booming. The war had
produced a labor shortage and housing shortage. Thousands of workers were employed in the factories around
the state and there were many jobs left unfilled. Multi-shift production was the best method during 1917 to keep
pace with demand. The armament, aircraft and uniform factories could not produce enough war materials. At the
same time there were over 4,500 union strikes during 1917, the highest amount in the nation’s history.
Shipyards were busy 24 hours a day. In New Jersey there were four shipyards that directly contributed to the war
effort. In Camden there were the New York Shipbuilding Company building destroyers, sub chasers and various
freighters. At Kearny New Jersey, the Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company were building destroyers,
tankers and support vessels. In the town of Elizabeth, also called Elizabethport, Lewis Nixon’s Crescent Shipyard
constructed submarines. The small coastal boats were obsolete when war started but were pressed into service to
patrol the harbor and coastline. Perth Amboy, just 10 miles from Elizabeth, manufactured barges at the Perth
Amboy Dry Dock Company. Barges were used to ferry trains and materials across the harbor from New Jersey to
The shipping of materials to the piers in New York and Philadelphia create huge profits but New Jersey was cut of
lighterage fees, a charge for transporting material across the harbor. A commission is created in 1917 to
investigate claims by New Jersey and Staten Island that they are losing money to the Port of New York. Staten
Island politicians realized that to improve their position as a transportation center they must align with New Jersey
to receive fair treatment and payment from the federal government. To improve the shipping channels to New
Jersey piers, near the Port of Newark, the Army Corps of Engineers had to dredge the Kill Van Kull, a river that
separates Staten Island and Bayonne, New Jersey. This benefits both states and creates direct competition for the
Port of New York.
April 6th, 1917 President Wilson went before Congress and declared that a state of war exists between Germany
and the United States. Germany had gambled in February 1917 and resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in a
race to force Allies to peace table before United States enters war. German war plans designed to isolate and
starve Britain by sinking convoys and a blockade of war zone. In March 1917 the Russian Revolution forced the
Czar to abdicate and Russia withdrew from the war. German military leaders took control of war planning from their
political leaders. Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg pushed Kaiser William II and he released the submarines
into the Atlantic. Several American ships were sunk by U-boats in March. Wilson acted before the Allies are forced
to sue for peace. The United States bankers have millions of dollars invested in an Allied victory and convinced the
government to enter the war and save Britain and France from defaulting on their loans.
In May 1917 the draft was passed into law and by July 1917 conscription began. By September the first American
troops, the American Expeditionary Force, were sent to France. New Jersey, reflecting the mood of America,
prepared for a war the people disliked but accepted the inevitable. As Chambers clearly states the “creation of a
modern mass army and effective force in eighteen months was an administrative miracle”. New Jersey, through
mobilization, becomes the pivotal center for transportation and manufacture of war material. The state became a
critical location for training and embarkation of troops sent to France in the effort to win the war. New Jersey
modernized and mobilized the Garden State into a war machine that contributed the winning edge for allied victory.
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America must prepare!