Rockford’s role in the war to end all wars
A scene from 100 years ago this coming spring:
It was an odd hour for a parade, but at 9 p.m. sharp on the warm night of June 6, 1917, some 200 men, women and children stepped onto East State near 6th Street in Rockford and began walking west toward the Rock River.
By the time the group crossed the State Street bridge, 500 antagonists had joined the procession from behind.
When the marchers got to the Church Street side of the Winnebago County Courthouse, where the jail was located, thousands of people filled the yard and surrounding streets. Sheriff Guy Ginders emerged from the building, and a man at the front of the crowd addressed him.
“We have come to surrender and to stand trial,” the man said.
“Come right in,” the sheriff replied.
With that, 136 men stepped forward and were arrested for declaring their refusal to register for the military draft. By law, every American male between the ages of 21 and 30 was to have registered by the day before; 8,400 men in Winnebago County had done so.
America was at war, and these men in jail were “slackers,” as the Rockford Morning Star called them the next day. Some voices in the mob outside the courthouse called for the draft resisters to be shot.
The protesters ended up in federal court in Freeport before Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who became the first commissioner of baseball a few years later and who was not known as a civil libertarian.
Landis once declared in another context that free speech is “expendable” during wartime, and he later resisted racial integration of Major League Baseball. He also banned eight of the Chicago White Sox from baseball for fixing the 1919 World Series, though all of them had been acquitted in a criminal trial and though one of them, Shoeless Joe Jackson, had performed superbly in the series.
Landis sentenced 124 of the Rockford protesters to a year in jail.
World War I, the so-called war to end all wars, was both good and bad for Rockford, and it brought out the best and worst in the community. Thousands of local men bravely marched off to battle, and at least 73 of them didn’t come back. Most people who stayed home prayed and wept and endured privations in support of the war effort, but many of them also turned on one another with suspicion and bigotry.
Even at the time, the causes and goals of the war weren’t clear to most people. President Woodrow Wilson said it was a war “to make the world safe for democracy.” Actually, it was about the collapse of a precarious international system in Europe. The leading powers in competing alliances, Britain and Germany, found themselves at war with each other when fighting erupted among other industrial nations over boundaries, colonies and spheres of influence.
The war raged for three years before the United States got into it on April 6, 1917, in response to German attacks on American shipping and in support of allies in Western Europe.
For better and worse, the war profoundly changed Rockford.
I’ll have more on that in subsequent posts.