100 years later, N.C. still shaped by World War I

Camp Greene was an Army training facility in west Charlotte during World War I.
Camp Greene was an Army training facility in west Charlotte during World War I.

One hundred years ago last month, the United States entered World War I, plunging into a conflict defined by chemical weapons and mass slaughter on a scale that had previously been unimaginable. Equally hard to predict: the war’s profound impact, both then and now, on the Tar Heel State.

In her new book “North Carolina and the Great War: 1914-1918”, Jessica Bandel, a research historian with the N.C. Office of Archives and History, delves into this transformative time in our state’s history. Her highly visual and comprehensive account complements a special World War I exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History.

The immediate effects of the war were immense. In the mountains, the lumber industry boomed as rail lines expanded. On the coast, Wilmington experienced its first spike in shipbuilding in a half-century. With sugar in short supply, the Mint Cola Co. in Salisbury experimented instead with cherry syrup, creating Cheerwine soda. Hospitals, military bases, and an internment camp for German civilians unable to leave America all sprung up quickly. And nearly 2,500 North Carolinians were killed, with thousands more suffering physical and mental trauma from the fighting in Europe.

Bandel identified key ways the war helped shape North Carolina’s trajectory over the past 100 years. Perhaps the most tangible outcome: Fort Bragg.

America’s involvement in World War I resulted in three new U.S. Army bases here, with Camp Greene in Charlotte, Camp Polk in Raleigh and Camp Bragg in Fayetteville. Camps Polk and Greene shut down as the Army de-mobilized after the war. Camp Bragg was elevated to a permanent post in 1922.

Today, it is the nation’s largest military installation, with more than 50,000 active-duty personnel and tens of thousands of civilian employees, reserves and families connected to the base. Its estimated annual economic impact is nearly $10 billion.

The war also helped accelerate the drive for women’s rights.

Women in North Carolina and across the country quickly began to fill industrial, farming and professional jobs left vacant as men took on new roles as soldiers. In one memorable example, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, a Tar Heel native and owner of the News & Observer, could not find enough men to fill jobs as typists, clerks and bookkeepers. He began hiring women.

Though men reclaimed many of these jobs as they returned home, women had gained momentum in the fight for equal rights. The 19th amendment, which awarded women the right to vote, was ratified in 1920 with support from President Woodrow Wilson. He backed the effort in part because of the major contributions women had made during the war.

Bandel’s book brings to life an era of turmoil that many of us know little about. The war’s lasting imprint here at home is a powerful reminder of why we do well to remember it.

Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact and a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University. Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro.