World War I

Following the demise of Reconstruction in the 1870s, the outside world troubled Mississippi but little for almost half a century. By 1920, however, the war that Woodrow Wilson hoped would end all wars had thrust the state and its people into the maelstrom of modernity. Most directly affected were the 57,740 Mississippians, three-fourths of them draftees, who marched away to make the world safe for democracy in World War I (1914–18, though the United States did not become involved until April 1917). Among them was Henry Jetton Tudury of Bay St. Louis, who became the state’s most decorated doughboy and who was among the twenty-five Mississippians who earned Distinguished Service Crosses. Seven natives served as general officers, most notably Fox Conner, who as chief of the General Staff’s Operations Section developed battle plans for the American Expeditionary Force. His contributions, which Gen. John J. Pershing considered indispensable to Allied victory, earned Conner a Distinguished Service Medal.

More than any other aspect of the war, the draft engulfed the Magnolia State and its people in the forces of modernization. “This office,” Gov. Theodore Bilbo’s secretary advised a local draft official, “is confronted with a monumental amount of work. . . . There is hardly a moment that a long distance call has not to be answered or a telegram attended to combined with an immense amount of correspondence from the War Department, inquiries from local boards, individuals, Etc.” The Selective Service conducted three registrations, the last and largest of which occurred only two months before the November 1918 armistice. A total of 344,724 Mississippians registered for the draft, but few of the September 1918 pool were inducted. The sheer magnitude of national mobilization demanded a bureaucratic efficiency that overshadowed all else and ironically accentuated social and racial prejudices already deeply embedded in the state’s traditional social structure. Bilbo complained to the War Department that “much confusion exists as to just who should be, and who should not be exempted on account of dependents.” Perversely, class often trumped race, as white paternalism and planter self-interest converged to shield black tenant labor from federal regulations that fell more heavily on small independent farmers, black and white alike. Poor whites sometimes came to view the Great War as many of their forbears had seen the Civil War: a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.

Despite significant and occasionally violent draft resistance, most Mississippians rallied patriotically to the war effort. Hattiesburg bid for one of sixteen large National Army cantonments built during the war, and when Camp Shelby opened in the fall of 1917, it instantly became the state’s largest population center. The following March, Payne Field, an aviation training facility, opened in Clay County, near West Point. Construction of the two installations sparked local economic booms. A decentralized system of councils of national defense coordinated domestic mobilization. From the state council, voluntary campaigns to sell Liberty Bonds, conserve food and fuel, promote patriotism, and harass “slackers” (people who avoided military service) percolated downward through local councils to virtually every crossroads village in the state. In the words of one contemporary, “Men, women, girls, boys, and children eagerly sought work of any kind that helped to ‘carry on.’”

Thousands of Mississippians, mostly women, volunteered for Red Cross duty: cheering and entertaining soldiers; collecting clothes, magazines, canned goods, and money for army camps and soldiers’ families; sewing and knitting garments for hospital patients and European refugees; adopting French orphans; writing letters and keeping scrapbooks; selling war bonds and savings stamps; and nursing soldiers and civilians. Emma Gene Wensel Venn, one of several Mississippi women who served as Red Cross nurses in Europe, became the state’s only known female fatality abroad. She died in Paris in October 1918, and three years later her remains were removed from a French cemetery and reburied with full military honors in her hometown of Natchez. Venn had fallen victim to a worldwide influenza epidemic that killed far more people—perhaps one hundred million—than did the Great War itself.

The war also produced political casualties, including James K. Vardaman, one of only six US senators who voted against the declaration of war. His opposition to the Wilson administration’s war policies, including the draft, fractured the forces of political reform in the state, and neither Vardaman nor Mississippi’s progressive movement ever fully recovered. In 1918 the senator was defeated for reelection by Byron “Pat” Harrison of Gulfport, and Vardaman’s protégé, Theodore Bilbo, despite his support for Wilson and the war, lost his bid for a seat in the US House of Representatives.

The war at first created economic crisis, disrupting the export markets on which the state’s two largest revenue producers, cotton and lumber, heavily depended. Eventually, however, both commodities rebounded, and Mississippi shared fully in what turned out to be a national wartime boom. Economic prosperity, coupled with military and domestic mobilization, also spawned labor shortages, aggravated in Mississippi by a steady stream of black migration northward.

The war heightened racial tensions. As a leading black educator later recalled, the black soldier “got the idea in World War I that he was a citizen, fighting for the country just as anyone else.” Patriotism at least implied citizenship, and many black Mississippians expected wartime loyalty to yield postwar reward—if not political equality, at least some access to the ballot; if not social access, at least some semblance of the equality premised in segregation. Instead, rising black expectations provoked white fears, especially regarding the anticipated return, as Vardaman put it, of “French-women-ruined negro soldiers.” By 1919 racial violence reached levels rarely seen since Reconstruction. Even in the US Army, blacks endured relentless discrimination. Most served in labor battalions, and every aspect of military life was strictly segregated. Black combat veterans were excluded from the Allied victory parade in Paris. A handful of Mississippi’s African American veterans lived long enough to receive belated recognition from a changed and chastened society. An assistant adjutant general of the Mississippi National Guard finally delivered Moses Hardy’s official discharge papers, along with his Victory and Occupation Medals and two service bars, in 1999, eighty years after he left the army and just after his 106th birthday.

Denied the ballot—and much else—in Mississippi, blacks by 1917 had begun to vote with their feet. As foreign immigration fell from a record 1,200,000 in 1914 to barely 100,000 four years later, desperate northern employers abandoned a long-standing policy of racial exclusion and sent labor agents scurrying south. Thus began what scholars describe as “the largest mass migration in the history of the United States” and possibly “the most momentous internal population movement of the 20th century” anywhere.


Further Reading

  • Biennial Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Mississippi for the Years 1918–1919 to the Governor (1919)
  • James L. McCorkle Jr., Journal of Mississippi History (May 1981, May 1983)
  • Charles L. Sullivan, ed., Journal of Mississippi History (November 1985)
  • Works Progress Administration, Mississippi Historical Records Survey, Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title World War I
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date December 3, 2021
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018