64 Parishes

World War I

During World War I, the federal government expanded its power and reach, while social and cultural movements transformed the world in which most Americans, including Louisianans, lived.

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World War I

The Historic New Orleans Collection

Red Cross nurses marched in a parade on Canal Street in New Orleans during WWI, ca. 1917.

World War I, known as “The Great War,” has long been acknowledged as a major turning point in American history. The war began in Europe in August 1914 when Germany and Austria-Hungary went to war against France, Russia, and Great Britain. The United States remained neutral until 1917, when they joined the fight against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Direct American involvement lasted for only a year and a half, from April 1917 to November 1918, and required minimal sacrifice from most US citizens. Nevertheless, the war shaped a whole generation of Americans in profound ways. During this time the federal government expanded its power and reach, while social and cultural movements transformed the world in which most Americans, including Louisianans, lived.

How did World War I affect Louisiana’s economy?

The shock of the Great War first came to Louisiana in the form of an economic panic in the late summer and fall of 1914. At the time approximately 70 percent of Louisiana’s population lived in rural small towns or on farms, and much of its economy was based on agriculture. The outbreak of war initially disrupted markets for Louisiana’s agricultural products, but demand for these goods began to increase in 1915–16 and then skyrocketed once the United States officially entered the conflict. Cotton tripled in price to almost forty cents per pound in some markets throughout 1918, while sugar doubled to seven cents or more per pound. Other Louisiana products like timber and petroleum saw similar gains.

America’s entry into the war signaled the beginning of an economic boom characteristic to Louisiana, a period of unprecedented prosperity to be followed by a postwar depression that wiped out most of the monetary gains. In 1917 and 1918, however, working men in Louisiana enjoyed high wages as the draft pulled away thousands of young, employable men for military service. In addition to the abundance of work in forests and fields, the federal government employed thousands more in the expansion or creation of eleven major military bases in the state. For example, Camp Beauregard, just north of Alexandria, which had been a National Guard facility before the war, soon swelled to include more than thirteen hundred buildings on fifteen square miles of former timberland. At its peak enrollment in the summer and fall of 1918, more than twenty-two thousand men received military instruction on Camp Beauregard’s firing ranges and training grounds.

In New Orleans, the government helped pay for major expansions to port facilities, including three new shipyards, a $2.5 million repair yard, and a massive warehousing terminal that could hold seven hundred railcars and more than one hundred seventy-eight thousand tons of shipping cargo. With all this available work and a huge gap in the state’s labor pool, wages reached the unheard-of levels of $1.50 or $2 a day, and sometimes more in urban areas. Awash in cash, agricultural and industrial laborers paid off old debts, indulged in luxury items, and even put deposits down on automobiles, houses, and small farms. Banks saw their credits double and even triple.

How did Louisianans organize to support the war effort?

With money in their pockets, Louisianans overwhelmingly supported the war effort, often going “over the top” (in the slang of the time) with subscriptions to various fundraising campaigns. The Red Cross, YMCA, and a host of lesser-known organizations sponsored such efforts. Many Louisianans also participated in one or more of the five “Liberty Bond” drives initiated at the national level to help pay for the war. New Orleans raised more than $103 million for these assorted campaigns, while Shreveport alone contributed more than $15 million to Liberty Bond drives. Federally organized Councils of Defense, including sixty-four parish councils and hundreds of community councils, facilitated many of these fundraising activities. They also enforced government rules on production and labor and worked with local draft boards to make sure all eligible men registered for military service. Local women’s auxiliary clubs collected food and clothing for distribution and organized educational seminars on family welfare, nutrition, and health, among other pursuits. The councils and other “vigilant” citizens also maintained social conformity by aggressively confronting dissenters and foreign-born citizens, especially German Jewish people, about any offhand or public comments that might be taken as supportive of anything less than “100 percent Americanism,” a phrase common during the early 1920s. To the outside observer it appeared that most Louisianans, Black and white, wholeheartedly embraced the hyper-patriotism of the time.

How did World War I affect groups of people living in Louisiana differently?

Despite the outer appearance of unity, deep divisions lay within Louisiana society. In particular, the Great Migration of African Americans leaving the state evidenced a powerful dissatisfaction with the economic and social conditions of Louisiana in the era of Jim Crow. With massive war contracts piling up and the flow of European immigrants to America cut off by the fighting, northern industries looked to the South to fill their labor needs. High wages, signing bonuses, and reimbursements for travel and relocation lured many Black workers and their families to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and other northern cities. For many, though, the major incentive to relocate was escaping segregation and racial violence. In a letter to the Chicago Defender newspaper, one New Orleans man explained that he was anxious to relieve himself “of the burden of the South. I indeed wish very much to come North[,] anywhere in [Illinois] will do since I am away from the Lynchman’s noose and torchman’s fire.” Another wrote that he was “now looking to the North of this benighted land for hope . . . that if once there that I may be granted the [opportunities] of peacefully working out my mission on earth[,] without fear.”

The appeal of the North proved so great, in fact, that Louisiana’s total Black population declined between 1910 and 1920. Incredibly some rural plantation areas saw upwards of a third or more of local Black residents abandon their homes for points North.

Some groups’ hesitation to answer the call for military service also suggests simmering social conflicts in Louisiana during the war years. The state could hardly be described as unpatriotic, as it sent more than seventy-one thousand officers and enlisted men into the armed forces. But most of these men were draftees, not volunteers. Lingering political and economic resentments often turned into a rejection of what came to be seen as another “rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.” For some it was difficult to understand why American men should go fight in Europe’s war. In contrast to this view, propaganda urged support for helping Americans’ “British cousins” and repaying the French for their help during the American Revolution. Such feelings sometimes translated into an individual’s refusal to register for the draft or even report for service when called. Indeed, Louisiana had more than eight thousand draft desertions, putting the state’s rate almost a full percentage point higher than the national average.

The exodus of large numbers of Black Louisianans caused considerable confusion when it came to locating eligible men to serve. Many of those who did serve, however, held up military service as validation of their claims to full rights as citizens. Middle-class Black leaders sometimes publicly spoke out against the antiwar sentiment in their communities, especially among those subject to the daily humiliations of life under Jim Crow. Such antiwar feeling proved just as strong, if not stronger, among much of the state’s poor white population, a group already deeply affected by populist and socialist rhetoric in the preceding decades.

What long-term effects did World War I have on Louisiana?

The resistance of some Louisianans to serve in the armed forces hardly affected the overall mobilization efforts for America’s limited military involvement in the war. However, military service did remain a key social marker in Louisiana for a generation or more after the conflict ended. Indeed, Governor Huey P. Long’s avoidance of wartime service (he received a deferment) and his defense of antiwar state senator S. J. Harper of Winnfield, who was brought up on sedition charges, provided a point of attack for many of his opponents during the 1920s and 1930s. Carrie Moore Davidson, a society lady from northeast Louisiana whose only son was killed in action during the war, framed her opposition to Long as follows: “When I come to total the final score, I cannot forget that when my boy was fighting in France to make it safe for the Longs they were dodging the draft over here.” The fact that many of Long’s most bitter political rivals served as officers rather than enlisted men only validated his attacks on wealth and privilege.

In later years these officers, many of whom were Louisiana State University and Tulane University graduates, became influential members of the state’s business and political establishment, almost all opposing Long. Many also found their way into the American Legion, a veterans’ organization created after the war that, while disavowing political aims, nonetheless drew men of a more reactionary stripe. Rising from its ranks was Sam Houston Jones, a district attorney and good-government type from DeRidder, who eventually became the figure around whom the conservative forces of the state rallied to defeat Earl K. Long in the 1940 gubernatorial election. Like his brother, Earl Long missed out on military service during the war. Meanwhile, Jones’s World War I record was featured prominently in his political biography, and legion posts around the state received him enthusiastically on his campaign tour. Even some twenty years later, the conflict continued to cast its shadow across Louisiana. That influence, though, was soon to be eclipsed by another war that would demand a far greater sacrifice from the American people.