A century ago, American journalism was buzzing with news of the First World War, which the United States had still not entered. Though jingoistic newspapermen and politicians of different stripes eventually swayed public opinion toward support for the “war against Kaiser Bill,” in 1915 sending American soldiers to Europe was still controversial.
Across the country, but especially in states with a large number of German-American voters, there was opposition to entering the war. Isolationists and Socialists were of a similar mind, though often for different reasons. Wisconsin’s Progressive U.S. Senator Robert LaFollette spoke out passionately against U.S. involvement, earning the ire of ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, who delivered a speech in Racine, Wisconsin, in 1917 where he called the senator a “shadow Hun” — the pejorative nickname for German soldiers. Roosevelt toured the Upper Midwest to lash out at U.S. Representative Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota and North Dakota’s Senator Asle Gronna, both of whom later cast their votes against making a declaration of war. (Lundeen was later accused of being a Nazi sympathizer and investigated by the FBI.)
Indiana’s own native son, Socialist presidential candidate and labor leader Eugene V. Debs, also spoke out against what he saw as America’s own involvement in militarism. In 1918, on charges of sedition, President Wilson imprisoned Debs for his vocal opposition to the military draft during a speech in Canton, Ohio.
(If you’re a Newspapers.com subscriber, one of the more fascinating and hilarious journals from the World War I era is The Fool-Killer, a satirical “newspaper” published in the Brushy Mountains of Wilkes County, North Carolina, by James Larkin Pearson. Pearson later became the Tar Heel State’s Poet Laureate.)
Hoosier history is full of strange ironies. One of them is this: early on the morning of October 23, 1917, in the Luneville sector of eastern France, the reportedly first American soldier to fire an artillery shot against the “Huns” was a 24-year-old sergeant from South Bend, Alexander Arch, a Hungarian.
Honored in newspapers in 1917 and again in 1919, after he returned from Europe and appeared in a parade with General Pershing, Arch was an emigrant from Sopron, on Hungary’s western border with Austria. When he was born in 1894, his birth village was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which as an American soldier he was now at war with.
Arch’s parents emigrated to the U.S. in 1899, their children following in 1903, when Alexander was eight. (They may have Anglicized their names. His father appears on the 1910 U.S. census as “Steve Arch,” probably István in Hungarian. Arch might have been spelled “Arcs” or “Arcz”.) Steve Arch worked as a clerk at George Toth’s bookstore in South Bend. Alexander’s mother, Theresa, died in 1910.
In 1910, when he was 16 years old, Alexander Arch was employed at the Oliver Chilled Plough Works, one of South Bend’s major industries. After Our Lady of Hungary Catholic Church was founded in 1916, the family were parishioners there. Before heading to Europe, Arch was briefly stationed on the Mexican border during General John Pershing’s expedition against Pancho Villa.
A 1919 News-Times article on South Bend’s efforts to get the cannon that fired the first American artillery shell in World War I included this clip from Stars and Stripes, the official publication of the U.S. Expeditionary Force:
The first American artillery shot of the war was fired at five minutes after 6 o’clock the morning of Oct. 23, 1917, from a position about 400 meters east of Bathlemont, in the Luneville sector.
A French 75, dragged by the hands of American artillerymen over 800 meters of rough roads on a pitch black night, roared America’s artillery prelude at daybreak. A heavy fog flashed into flame, a shrapnel shell coursed over the woods and valleys of Meurthe-et-Moselle, crossed a boundary line and fell somewhere in Lorraine.
Battery C of the sixth field artillery is so positive that this shell was America’s first shot that it has just prepared a sworn statement signed by an officer and four enlisted men who were in on the event, telling all the circumstances leading up to it. The statement reveals, incidentally, that the original shell casing is now in Chicago, and that 18 other casings of that first morning’s firing were distributed among Pres’t Wilson, Gen. Pershing, Gen. Sibert, then commanding the first division, and others.
The gun is now at the United States Military Academy at West Point with other newly transported war trophies. Before it left France, though, it had fired 20,000 rounds in action, and none of the gun crew serving it had been wounded.
The firing of the first shot was ceremonial, according to the signed statement, each man in the gun crew performing some task. One soldier set the sights, another the elevation of the range, another the angle of site and another cut the fuse. Twenty men were gathered about the gun when the command “Fire!” was given. Because of the fog it was impossible to observe the effect of the first shot, but at 7 a.m., when the fog lifted, the firing was directed from an observation post to Haut Rioville farm in No-Man’s Land.
Sgt. Arch was chief of the gun crew, and at least one other man, Corporal Lewis Varady, a fellow Hungarian, also came from South Bend.
America’s direct involvement in World War I lasted barely a year and Arch was back in the U.S. in mid-1919. In September, “Thunderous cheers followed by loud applause greeted Sgt. Alexander Arch, South Bend’s history maker, upon his visit to the House of Representatives. . .” Arch and Varady received a three-minute standing ovation before heading on to Camp Zachary Taylor near Louisville, Kentucky, but not before receiving a triumphal welcome home in Indiana.
After the acclaimed veteran was mustered out of the army at Camp Taylor, he worked as a machinist and auto worker, probably at the Studebaker plant. Arch married Julia Rebics in 1924 and the couple had four children. He died in 1979.
During a victory parade in 1919, the Hoosier soldier was literally “profiled” in The Washington Times. The newspaper thought he had a heroic face and a good jaw line, and used his experience as an exhortation to rise and shine, since “there are a good many victories won before breakfast”:
The News-Times had some of the best illustrators in Hoosier journalism. Here are some other historic ads, cartoons, and flashy martial cries — most of it blatantly Germanophobic — published in the South Bend paper around the fateful year 1918.
One of the earliest newspaper references to Hoosiers celebrating Ireland and its patron saint appeared on April 1, 1837, in the Vincennes Western Sun. On March 17, a “large company” got together at “Mr. Jewel’s Ball Room” in Vincennes. A writer (probably not the paper’s publisher Elihu Stout, who was notoriously pro-slavery and anti-immigrant), wrote that “The utmost harmony and good feeling prevailed; Irishmen, descendants of Irishmen, persons from different nations and all parties, united to do honor to the Illustrious Bishop and Saint of the Emerald Isle.”
A list of toasts drunk in Ireland’s honor took up about half of the front page of the Western Sun that April 1. One toast reads touchingly: to “Ireland, the Land of Love and Beauty.”
In the spirit of republicanism, Patrick Doran, who had immigrated from Ireland to Boston in 1799 at age fifteen and moved to Vincennes in 1836, just a year before he served as toastmaster at Jewel’s Ball Room, offered a tribute to “The human family. No distinction on account of clime or soil.”
Though anti-Catholic feeling in America was strong, hostility was less in Vincennes, an old French town and the cradle of Catholicism in Indiana. The Vincennes group toasted Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, father of Catholic Emancipation, which restored civil rights to Catholics in Britain and Ireland. “May his efforts to throw off the galling yoke of Britain be so crowned with success, that the sight of an English hireling may be as rare as that of the Snake or Toad in our favored land.”
For all their occasional hypocrisy regarding slavery in the U.S. itself, early Indiana papers almost always took the side of oppressed nations, especially if they were fighting against Great Britain. Ireland’s long struggle for independence, accomplished only in 1921, was one of the major subjects in American newspapers in the 1800s. Hoosier papers, such as the Indiana State Sentinel and the Evansville Daily Journal, enthusiastically supported the idealistic and underequipped Irish revolutionaries who launched rebellion after rebellion against Britain, including a major one in 1848.
When the Famine struck Ireland in the mid-1840s, and starvation and emigration halved its population, the U.S. began to teem with emigrants and exiled revolutionaries fleeing death and persecution in the Emerald Isle. Hoosier papers were naturally drawn into the hot political debates surrounding Ireland’s fate and the great Irish exodus to America.
Indiana was a top destination for the Irish in the 1830s and ’40s. One of the major engineering projects of the day, the construction of the Wabash & Erie Canal, which promised to link Evansville to Lake Erie, required an enormous amount of labor. Thousands of Irish workers dug miles of canal ditches through pestilential marshes and helped drain off ancient wetlands, drastically altering the Hoosier landscape. The Indiana Journal and other papers drew Irish workers here with advertisements of wages and cheap land.
Often paid in whiskey, Irish laborers frequently succumbed to alcoholism, yellow fever, and malaria along the disease-ridden canal. Scottish foremen called “jiggers” often dispensed whiskey in ladles from buckets — perhaps not an altogether bad health move, since whiskey, unlike water, was distilled and not so laden with bacteria. Its long-term effects, however, were of course deadly.
Irish laborers brought some Old World rivalries to America, leading to the little-known “Indiana Irish Wars” of the mid-1830s. Gangs that probably had their roots in longstanding disputes back in Ireland divided off into “Corkonians” and “Fardowns.” Fights erupted that threatened to destroy the canal. The Hoosier “Irish wars” took place mostly around Logansport and Lagro in northern Indiana.
Irish workers eventually saw the result of their backbreaking work abandoned after just a couple of decades, as railroads eclipsed the canal and turned it into a worthless ditch not long after the end of the Civil War.
In an 1890 lecture, Indiana State Geologist John Collett shared a fascinating anecdote from natural history that he had learned from the surveyor Perrin Kent. Kent helped lay out part of the Wabash & Erie Canal near Williamsport in Warren County in the 1830s. As he told Collett, during the heyday of canal construction he ran across some “Irishmen working in the swamp” along the Wabash River. The Irish had discovered the fossilized bones of a mastodon. The surveyor watched as they “extracted the marrow, which had changed to adipocere” — “grave wax” formed from fatty tissues — and used it as grease for their boots. Perhaps the Irish had been doing this for generations with bones found in the rural peat bogs of Ireland. (Before 1883, there used to be a cranberry marsh in Medina Township, Warren County, where settlers harvested cranberries before the swamp was drained. From 1957 to 1972, the Milburn Peat Company of Chicago harvested peat from what was left of the old cranberry bog.)
At a time when a major American political party, the “Know-Nothings,” thrived on anti-immigrant attitudes, some Hoosiers were openly against the Irish influx. Yet nativism was never as bad here as in the East Coast cities, where ethnic riots often broke out. (One of the worst was the bloody 1849 Astor Place Riot in New York City, sparked by a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.) Though the Know-Nothings were the most outspoken opponents of non-Anglo-Saxon immigration, the Whig Party, which disappeared from American politics during the 1860s, was often notoriously “nativist.”
Antebellum midwestern papers, frequently run by European political refugees, were huge supporters of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, which tried to topple the old monarchies. “Young Ireland” was a major revolutionary movement led in part by a man who later played a critical role in the American Civil War.
Thomas Francis Meagher, best known in the U.S. as the commander of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade (decimated at Antietam and Gettysburg), was one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries in 1848. Born in Waterford, Ireland, in 1823, Meagher came from the oppressed Catholic majority. Educated by Jesuits in England, where he learned to speak with an upperclass English accent that his supporters sometimes hated him for, Meagher almost entered the Austrian army but got involved in Irish politics during the dark days of the Famine. As one of the leaders of the failed 1848 rebellion, he was nearly sentenced to death by a judge, but received a mercy verdict and was deported for life to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), at that time a British penal colony at the far end of the world.
Papers in Indiana and Ohio avidly followed Meagher’s fate and were thrilled to report in early 1852 that he had escaped from Tasmania on an American whaling vessel and made a surprise appearance in New York City that May. On June 3, the Indiana Legislature gathered in a committee of “friends of Ireland” headed by James Henry Lane of Lawrenceburg. (Lane soon became the fiery U.S. Senator from Kansas and one of the major fighters in the guerrilla warfare that laid “Bleeding Kansas” waste from 1854 to 1861.) “Jim” Lane’s committee invited Meagher to Indiana and resolved to show solidarity with “the glorious cause for which he was branded and exiled as a felon.” A public letter from Hoosier legislators addressed to the Irish rebel in New York proclaimed “We love Ireland” and congratulates him on his “almost miraculous escape from the myrmidons of British oppression.”
Meagher came west in 1852, but didn’t make it to Indianapolis. He may have stopped in Evansville, since he was in Louisville on December 20 and left for St. Louis on the steamboat Pike the next day. Meagher made another trip to the Midwest in 1858. At 8 o’clock at night on February 19, he gave a speech at the Universalist Church in Terre Haute. His subject: “St. Patrick’s Day and National Anniversaries.” Admission to hear the famous Irish patriot was 25 cents. (The Universalist Church once sat at the corner of 4th & Ohio Streets near the old Vigo County Courthouse. ) Sadly, no transcript or any further mention of Meagher’s talk was published in Terre Haute papers.
Meagher became an American citizen and went on to become the editor of two anti-British newspapers in New York City: the weekly Irish News and (with fellow rebel John Mitchel, who supported the Confederacy) the Citizen. He went to Costa Rica just before the Civil War to explore the possibility of Irish immigration there. Though he had previously supported the South, in 1861 Meagher helped recruit the 69th New York Regiment, the core of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, a fighting body made up mostly but not entirely of Irish volunteers. Under Brigadier General Meagher’s command, the Irish Brigade bore the brunt of fighting along Bloody Lane at Antietam and was almost entirely wiped out at Gettysburg. Today, a huge monument to Meagher and the Irish volunteers — most of whom were from New York but with many Hoosiers among them — stands next to the lookout tower on the Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland.
Meagher survived the war, went west as Territorial Governor of Montana, and drowned in the Missouri River near Fort Benton in 1867 when he fell off a steamboat.
One of the notable “Hoosier Irish” who served with distinction in the Civil War was Father William Corby (1833-1897), a Holy Cross priest from Notre Dame and an army chaplain attached to the Irish Brigade. Before the mostly Catholic Irish brigade went into battle on the second day of Gettysburg, Corby famously gave the unit absolution from their sins. Pictured here in 1862 with two other priests who served in the Union Army, Corby went on to become the president of the University of Notre Dame and wrote a bestselling memoir of his experiences in the war.
For all their occasional hostility to the Irish (who were frequently considered an “inferior race” in the nineteenth century), American papers often celebrated Irish wit and humor. In 1883, the Jasper Weekly Courier printed a tale about an elderly Irish woman who showed up at a railroad station just a few seconds too late. Trying to sprint down the platform to catch her train, “she of course came to a halt, when she began to abuse the unaccommodating engine, adding with a ‘nate’ brogue: ‘Faugh! The great black ugly lump! When she gets as old as me, she won’t run so quick!”
One more interesting story that made it into the papers is worth sharing. On St. Patrick’s “Eve”, 1892, sky watchers saw a strange event in several parts of the Midwest.
On March 18, the Indianapolis Journal reported the remarkable atmospheric occurrence. A white cross was hovering around the moon.
For two or three days, in parts of Illinois, the superstitious people have been brought almost to the verge of insanity by curious phenomenal displays that have found their way into the heavens without any apparent business there and without having, so it seems, been heralded by either the Weather Bureau or scientific gentlemen in general. The phenomena has assumed various forms and to the different classes of people who have been sightseers has spoken a various language.
During the past twenty-four hours the papers have contained dispatches from Bloomington and Springfield, Illinois, Fort Dodge, Iowa, and other cities, describing in hectic terms phantasmagoric spectacles seldom before seen except in “hyper-borean” regions. If these dispatches are to be believed, in some cases the empyreal display has been cut bias, in others diagonal, and at all times conveying a mundane idea that the sprites of the heavens, robed in regal costumes of variegated colors, were enjoying a ball masque on the “milky way.”
It remained for Luna, however, to confer her choicest favor upon Indianapolis and vicinity upon St. Patrick’s night. At 11:30 o’clock last night, when the moon was at her best, she appeared in the center of a perfectly formed and perfectly visible cross of milky whiteness. This wonderful display was visible for about thirty minutes, when it gradually merged into a sort of a hazy pale. Such a phenomenal display is attributed entirely to atmospheric conditions. Why the moon should appear in the center of a cross on St. Patrick’s day, however, is something that the atmosphere does not explain.
If the cross had been green, the “Sons of Erin” would have had extra cause to “jollify”:
Volunteers at a booth on Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute, Indiana, around 1922 support freeing Terre Haute native Eugene V. Debs from jail. Five-time Socialist candidate for the U.S. presidency, Debs was imprisoned by the Wilson administration during World War I for opposing the military draft. The sign reads “Ireland is Free — Why Not Debs? Help Bring Debs Home for Christmas.” (Martin Collection, Indiana Historical Society.)