“We are now about to accept gauge of battle with this natural foe to liberty and shall, if necessary, spend the whole force of the nation to check and nullify its pretensions and its power ... There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance.”
President Woodrow Wilson spoke those words to Congress during an extraordinary session held April 2, 1917, wherein he made his case for declaring war against Germany. Having previously pursued a neutral position as the Great War raged on in Europe, the discovery of the Zimmermann telegram led Wilson to acknowledge that the United States could no longer avoid war. Congress agreed four days later.
The Wisconsin National Guard had quite recently completed several months on federal orders along the Mexican border, and had been returning to Wisconsin from late 1916 to March 1917. Gov. Emanuel Phillip received a telegram from U.S. Secretary of War Newton Baker on March 25, 1917, ordering the Wisconsin National Guard’s 3rd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment — one of the first Wisconsin National Guard units to return from Mexican border service — to federal duty guarding railroad bridges and tunnels in western Wisconsin and iron ore docks along Lake Superior.
The demand for Wisconsin National Guard troops was much higher for war in Europe than that required for Mexican border service. Existing units began recruiting to swell their ranks, while other communities across the Dairy State began forming units from scratch. Adjutant General Orlando Holway began organizing a fourth infantry regiment the day after war was declared, beginning with existing separate infantry companies in Janesville and Chippewa. According to a Wausau Daily Herald article dated April 7, 1917, Holway planned to organize a fifth infantry regiment once the fourth was completed, and then reallocate subordinate companies regionally.
Scott Cairy of Platteville, Wisconsin, who had previous experience in the Iowa National Guard, organized Company I, 4th Wisconsin Infantry shortly after April 6, 1917.
“I called the governor, and he directed me to the adjutant general,” Cairy said in an audio interview on file with the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. “The adjutant general informed me to get 105 men as rapidly as I could get ‘em. We wound up with 202 men — we had enlisted about 300, but 202 passed the physical examination. I was commissioned first lieutenant.”
Cairy’s Company I was initially part of the fourth Wisconsin regiment.
The 2nd Wisconsin Regiment’s Company C, based in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, had returned from Mexican border duty Feb. 28, and used that fact to recruit 50 more Soldiers by touting that they were a trained and experienced unit. An advertisement in the April 7, 1917 Sheboygan Press called for young, unmarried men without dependents at least 18 years of age, of good character and health.
“Avoid conscription and serving in an organization of untrained men,” the ad warned.
In another four months, 15,000 Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers would be heading to Camp MacArthur in Waco, Texas, where they would join with 10,000 Soldiers from the Michigan National Guard to form the 32nd Division.
Editor’s Note: This is part of a continuing series of articles, videos and social media posts about the 100th anniversary of the 32nd Division, Dawn of the Red Arrow