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.



  1. Robert L Bell

    I like to say that the point of WWI was to determine whether the United States or Germany would replace Britain as the Workshop of the World.

    From that perspective, Wilson could hold America on the sidelines for as long as Britain and France could maintain the illusion that they were beating Germany in Picardy and that final victory was just around the corner.

    That fantasy collapsed at the end of 1916, as was confirmed in the disastrous Nivelle offensive of April 1917 at Chemin des Dames.

    By then America had entered the war, but over naval issues that did not require a military intervention. Wilson made a specific policy decision to call up a two million man army and to intervene France.

    Much killing and dying ensued in the interim, but in July 1918 the Army entered the front lines in decisive numbers and fought the war to its definitive conclusion.

    Thus cementing America’s position as the workshop of the world, for the next century.

    Of course, not everyone was happy with this state of affairs.

  2. RedRover

    When I read about this event in your book, Pat:

    Cunningham, Pat. Rockford, Big Town/little City: A History of Rockford. Rockford, Ill.: Rockford Register Star, 2000. Chapter 6: The Best and The Worst, Martial Fever in Rockford during WW1

    I wondered what the heck happened to that part of the political spectrum here in Rockford. Did it just wither away or was it crushed?

    I suppose that the Palmer Raids in January of 1920 might have been at least partly responsible for the demise of the anti-war, anti-capitalist left in this town.

    Here is another view of World War I, a fantasy to be sure but still one of my favorite silent films:

    Vidor, King, et al. The Big Parade. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1925.
    Trailer: http://youtu.be/P_-BvxzdOr4

  3. RedRover

    And here is another more realistic view of that atrocity:

    Apocalypse WWI
    Trailer: https://youtu.be/52cTbhwU8N

    This 5-part series is a must-see, in my opinion, for anyone who wants to understand better what a crime war really is.

  4. RedRover

    Finally, as in more recent wars, US involvement in WWI was justified with a damnable lie:

    Sinking the Lusitania: Lying America into War, Again
    by Doug Bandow, Cato Institute, 7 May 2015

    “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.”
    – George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903)

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