“To Arms, Sons of Old Flu”

Historical society marks centennial by releasing history of Fluvanna’s part in World War I

By Heather Michon, Correspondent

At around 6:40 p.m. on Feb. 5, 1918, about seven miles off the Irish coastline, the USS Tuscania earned the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first U.S. troop carrier to be sunk by a German submarine in World War I.

Among the nearly 2,000 soldiers to head for the lifeboats was John Wheeler Holland, a 22-year-old native of Fluvanna County.

“My lifeboat broke loose and hit the water, things looked rather blue,” he later wrote. “The ship took sea and death seemed to look us straight in the face.”

His lifeboat was intercepted and within a few hours he was onshore in Buncrana, Ireland, where, he added, “they fed us good.”
Back home in Wilmington, his parents John and Lou Holland were first told that he had been among the 210 soldiers who drowned that day, but he survived the war and returned home in 1919.

Wheeler’s story is just one of many captured by David Bearr in World War I and Fluvanna County: Records of the Virginia War History Commission, the latest publication of the Fluvanna Historical Society’s journal, Fluvanna History.

Bearr, a long-time member of the Historical Society who now lives in western Maryland, spent about a year researching and writing the volume. “It was really something doing this,” he told the audience during the society’s annual meeting Nov. 11.

He started out with no particular knowledge of World War I but quickly became engrossed in creating a portrait of Fluvanna’s part in the fight.

His success in capturing that history came as no surprise to Tricia Johnson, director of the historical society, who said, “He’s an incredibly talented and thorough researcher, and a great writer.”

All historical research benefits from a touch of serendipity. For Bearr, that came with finding the source materials collected for the Virginia War History Commission (VWHC), a project launched in 1919 to chronicle the state’s part in the war.

Fluvanna was home to just over 9,400 in 1918, including 3,400 African Americans. The county ended up sending about 300 men into military service – a barely noticeable number in the wave of 100,000 Virginians who were called to arms, but hugely significant to the local community.

The soldiers of 1918 had grown up surrounded by memories of the Civil War, and Fluvanna’s Confederate veterans were among the first to encourage them to join up. Right after the declaration of war, former Confederate artilleryman Charles Snead wrote the local newspaper a letter titled “To Arms, Sons of Old Flu.”

“Yes, we have been reconstructed, and like the true convert, we now love the thing we once hated,” he wrote.
Most Fluvanna soldiers ended up in the 18th, 29th, and 80th Divisions and many ended up being sent to the front in Europe.

Fluvanna’s African Americans were as eager to fight as their white neighbors. Once enlisted, most found themselves in segregated units doing manual labor while others went to the battlefield.

One local exception was Hasil Henley Bullock of Scott Town, who saw action in the Argonne and Saint-Mihiel with the 808th Pioneer Infantry, and won a Victory Ribbon and a Bronze Star.

Even those who didn’t see combat came away still valuing their time in service. “Camp experiences were great – helped the mental and the physical,” wrote Sparks Melton Bland in a questionnaire for the VWHC some years later. “My experience oversees was Great.”

Those left at home enthusiastically participated in the war effort. Flags and patriotic posters were everywhere. The Red Cross enlisted 1,500 members in 14 branches around the county. Schoolchildren participated in war bond drives. Housewives conserved wheat and meat while local farmers raised production of crops to feed the armies.

Bearr found a trove of letters sent to the local Midland Virginian newspaper by Fluvanna boys from Europe.

“It is great to be on the lines at night and to see the lights,” Rosser O. Johnson wrote home to his sister in Troy of his experiences in the trenches, “but it is not so good when standing-to in the morning awaiting the enemy.”

Johnson ended his service with a sightseeing trip to Paris. “I saw and listened to so much it was as if I was back at PNHS [Palmyra Normal High School] in Miss Eliza’s Latin class and Prof. Willis’s classes,” he wrote.

Johnson came home in late 1918 to joyous celebrations, as did most of his comrades. But at least 15 local men did not, with six killed in action or from wounds, and seven others dying of disease or in accidents.

It took over three decades and another world war for Fluvanna’s veterans to be awarded a monument. On Nov. 11, 1950,

Governor John S. Battle was on hand for the unveiling of a monument on the small, grassy triangle at the junction of Routes 15 and 6, dedicated to the men and women of Fluvanna County who participated in World War I and World War II.

Historical society holds annual meeting

Fluvanna Historical Society president Marvin Moss celebrated a year of success at the group’s annual meeting at the Historic Courthouse in Palmyra on Sunday (Nov. 11).

“We’ve accomplished a great deal in the past year,” he said, highlighting the construction of the Farm Heritage Museum at Pleasant Grove, the “fantastic success” of Old Farm Day, the placing of the Emancipation Monument in the Civil War Park and the society’s popular Second Sunday program.

With around 400 members, the society is one of the largest rural historical societies in the state.

About 70 people turned out for the meeting, which included a presentation by reenactor Lew Butts of the All American Honor Guard.

Butts portrayed General John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, to give an overview of America’s participation in the war, including songs and some strange-but-true incidents of the war.
Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the conflict.

The event also marked the release of the latest issue of Fluvanna History, written by Daniel Bearr, which focuses on Fluvanna’s role in the war.

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