Tompkins County, NY and Cornell University had outsize WWI role
By Cady Hammer
The first time I drove through Tompkins County, New York was the summer of 2016. On my way back from visiting my great-grandmother at a nursing home in Cortland, I was seeking out Cornell University as part of my college search. Although many people have never even heard of this area of New York besides any knowledge of the city of Ithaca, I felt like I knew this place by heart. Most of my great-grandfather, Nelson’s family grew up in Groton: him, at least eight out of his ten siblings, and my great-grandfather, Frank Cady Blanchard who I take my name from. Fifteen members of the Blanchard clan are buried in Groton Rural Cemetery. My family’s hub began in this area.
I never paid much attention to the history of Tompkins County besides what I knew from family stories. I grew up in an educational environment where history begins and ends with the largest efforts of the most recognizable places. I imagine most of us learned that way. For example, many can cite the harshest winter encampment of the Revolutionary War occurred in Valley Forge. Without my grandfather’s input, I never would have understood that while Valley Forge had the highest death rate, Jockey Hollow near Morristown, New Jersey between 1779-80 was the harshest winter. Because of this, I never truly contemplated how much smaller areas could contribute to larger world events.
What possibly could this rural county have done to contribute to World War I efforts? While spending time as an intern here at the United States World War I Centennial Commission, I decided to answer this very question. Although none of my relatives served, I have two of their draft cards from Groton that I decided to use as a jumping off point.
What I found amazed me.
New York provided the most military might to the war effort; 500,000 New Yorkers served, making up 12.5% of the US Troops (New York). Of those, 13,956 died, 43 of which originated from Tompkins County (Githler). Now while that number may seem small, it does not reflect some of the most significant efforts made by the city of Ithaca, particularly Cornell University.
Cornellians, students and alumni alike, were already participating in World War I long before the United States became involved (Engst). In October of 1914, Mary Merritt Crawford, Class of 1904 and M.D. class of 1907, went overseas to France to become a “house surgeon” in the American Ambulance Hospital. Commissioned as a first lieutenant in the health service of the French Army, she received decoration for performing surgical work under heavy bombardment.
Another alumna, Anna Irene von Sholly, M.D., class of 1902, also received a lieutenant’s commission in the French Army and was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government.
Edward Tinkham, Class of 1916, left the university early and drove an ambulance in France. He was also awarded the Croix de Guerre for extraordinary heroism at the battle of Verdun. He ended up returning to Cornell in 1917 to finish his degree.
When the United States officially declared war on Germany, within the first week 575 Cornell undergraduates had enlisted in the military (Githler). On campus, a petition circulated for the US War Department to open an aviation ground school at the university. It was granted, and on May 17, 1917, Cornell’s first class of soon-to-be pilots arrived at the US Army School of Military Aeronautics at Cornell University (Engst). Pilots received a full education, engine class training and classes on flight theory, meteorology, and radio work taught by physics professor Ernest Blaker. The ground school quickly became comparable to the other five university ground schools after only three weeks and surpassed the best in Toronto in some aspects (Githler).
The stories of heroism from Cornell are endless. Five pilots became aces with more than five victories each (Engst). Lawrence Kingsley Callahan, Class of 1916 and John Owen Willson Donaldson (attended Cornell 1916-17) flew for England’s Royal Air Force. Jesse Orin Creech (1916-17), James Armand Meissner, Class of 1918, and Leslie Jacob Rummell, Class of 1916 flew for the United States.
Edward Tinkman, mentioned above, returned to Cornell in 1917 to finish his degree and organized a Cornell unit in the American Ambulance Field Service. He returned to France with this unit on April 14, 1917 where the unit was enveloped into an American Motor Transport Unit. It is known as “the first American fighting unit to carry the American flag to the front” (Engst).
Cornell’s women’s stories also mark its World War I history. Female physicians served as “contract surgeons” as the U.S. Army would not commission them. These included Anne Tjomsland, Class of 1911, M.D. 1914, an anesthesiologist working at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, who served overseas; and Anna Kleegman, Class of 1913, M.D. 1916 and Gertrude Guild Fisher McCann, M.D. 1916, who worked stateside (Engst). Jean Harwood Pattison, M.D. 1919, also volunteered at various hospitals overseas, including the French Hospital at Meaux and the American field hospital at Chateau Thierry (Engst).
Julia Catherine Stimson who had graduated from the New York Hospital Training School for Nurses (a predecessor of the Cornell University-New York Hospital School of Nursing) took on the directorship of nursing for the American Expeditionary Force. Awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for her efforts, she became superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps after the war and the first woman to attain the rank of major in the U.S. Army (Engst).
One veteran earned himself a commemorative staircase in his honor on campus. Baldwin Memorial Stairway was named in commemoration of Morgan Smiley Baldwin, a 1915 Cornell graduate who died during one of the Battles of the Hindenburg Line in France (Tompkins County). Baldwin enlisted in the National Guard the very same day the United States declared war on Germany (Fiske). His unit was federalized shortly after and stationed in South Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia. When offered a chance to receive officer’s training, he declined, choosing instead to stay with his unit. Baldwin traveled overseas in May 1918 with Company G of the 107th Infantry shortly after being promoted to corporal. Within a few months, they were at the Hindenburg Line. On September 29, 1918, while under heavy attack from German artillery, Baldwin rushed forward along the 40-mile front following two other men. He was shot. Although recovery seemed likely, he took a turn for the worse at Number 12 General Hospital and passed away a few days later.
The Memorial Stairway, commissioned by Baldwin’s father, was dedicated in November 1925 and rededicated in 2018 for the centennial of World War I (Tompkins County).
In total, 6850 Cornellians served in World War I, including alumni (Githler). Cornell provided 4598 commissioned officers, more than any other institution in the country including West Point. They earned at least 526 decorations and citations during the war. 237 Cornellians were killed during the war and are commemorated along with 27 other casualties at a World War I memorial on West Campus (Engst).
Tompkins County has left a mark on my family tree. Although my relatives never served in World War I, I keep their draft cards in my online ancestry records in the hopes to keep their memory alive. My great-grandfather was born there, going on to serve heroically in World War II before returning for his final resting place in 2016. My great-grandmother is buried alongside him. My grandfather graduated with his Bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and went on to have a successful career as a labor lawyer before settling down on the coast of New Jersey where he taught me my love of history. I may return to Cornell myself for grad school.
One thing is for certain. A small town can pack a mighty punch.
Cady Hammer is a Summer 2019 Intern with the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission.
Engst, Elaine, and Blaine Friedlander. “Cornell Rewind: A Great School Faces the Great War.” Cornell Chronicle, Cornell University, 22 Jan. 2015, news.cornell.edu/stories/2015/01/cornell-rewind-great-school-faces-great-war.
Fiske, David. “A Unique Memorial To A Fallen World War One Soldier.” The New York History Blog, The New York History Blog, 24 Sept. 2017, newyorkhistoryblog.org/2017/09/a-unique-memorial-to-a-fallen-world-war-one-soldier/.
Githler, Charley. “A Look Back At ... 100 Years Ago - Tompkins County in 1917.” Tompkins Weekly, Tompkins Weekly, 27 Mar. 2017, tompkinsweekly.com/stories/a-look-back-at-100-years-ago-tompkins-county-in-1917, 989
“New York and New Yorkers in World War I.” Hall of Governors, New York State, hallofgovernors.ny.gov/New-York-In-WWI.
“Tompkins County Veterans' Memorials Tour.” PocketSights Tour Builder, PocketSights, LLC, 2019, pocketsights.com/tours/tour/Ithaca-Tompkins-County-Veterans%27-Memorials-Tour-16 81