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Roosevelt’s Army


On this date 100 years ago … in 1917 … the effects of the Great War were beginning to become a reality. The Mandan school system discontinued teaching German although many newspapers across the state claimed that we weren’t fighting the German people, we are fighting the German government. Communities prepared gardens to supplement the expected shortage of food. At the Mandan Training School over thirty acres of garden had been planted. Patriotism still ran high and enlistments continued, but mostly in the Navy as the horrors of trench warfare echoed back from the front lines.

North Dakota’s adoptive son revealed his plan to add troops to the war efforts. Theodore Roosevelt announced that he had secured an army of 180,000 volunteers coming from all forty-eight states. They were not draft age men or from National Guard members. They were middle-aged men from all walks of life – bankers, merchants, lawyers, doctors, preachers, and clerks. It was assured that all of these men were financially sound and that their deaths would not bring destitution for their families. Roosevelt’s recruiting strategy included the idea that only those who could financially afford to die should be eligible for service at the front. He claimed that the units could be on their way to France for extensive training in only six weeks. Believing that a physically sound man of middle life can fight, these recruits ranged from twenty-five to fifty years of age.

But not all of Roosevelt’s volunteers were men. Learning through their local newspaper that Roosevelt planned to raise a volunteer army, two young ladies from Velva, North Dakota stated their intention to join the Colonel. Lois Downing and Grace Burton wrote the former President and stated, “We would like to know if you would let us go with your army and run errands for the nurses and do whatever we can to help?” To this Roosevelt responded, “My dear young friends, that’s a mighty nice letter of yours and evidently you are two young Americans of the right type, but I don’t believe it would be well for you to try and go abroad, even if I am allowed to raise the division. Good luck to you both.” With the Draft Bill unpopular in Congress, and a less than adequate rate of enlistments coming in, the attitude of the two young ladies had to have pleased the Colonel. Although many of North Dakota’s young women had joined the Nurse Corps or Red Cross, it was the last line of their letter that made it special, for they wrote, “We are both 11 years old and will be through the sixth grade by the middle of May.”

Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis


“Colonel Roosevelt Has 180,000 Men” The Oakes Times May 10, 1917 p 2

“Drop German at Mandan,” Emmons County Record May 10, 1917 p 2

“Two 11-Year-Old Velva Girls Would Join Colonel’s Army,” The Bismarck Tribune May 10, 1917 p 2