This letter was written on the morning after Dan died by Dan’s mother, my great-grandmother, Celeste Brackett Newcomer. Having lost a grown child myself and learning of it at night, I understand the wild grief of the next morning. I can hear it in this letter. Dan’s father was still on the train, coming home after his fruitless attempt to reach Dan before he died. The photograph related to this post is of Celeste.
Harpers Ferry, West VA.
February 1, 1918
To the Secretary of War
My Dear Mr. Baker,
I am daring to write to you in your official capacity, a letter, not of criticism nor of protest, but of pleading.
At this moment the body of my oldest son, a boy of nineteen, who left home the ninth of December in all the youthful ardor of patriotic devotion to his country, is somewhere between Fort Sam Houston and here—being shipped home. He was a freshman in college. There were six feet and a hundred and ninety pounds of him in the very pink of physical fitness. He was full of the pride of that fitness for it was the reward of fair heritage, of honest outdoor work, of boyish athletic exercise, and of rigidly correct living. You will know he was not “soft” when I tell you that since he was fifteen he has earned every cent he has spent including his clothing, has kept up a life insurance for a thousand dollars, and has paid for his newspaper business worth nearly two hundred dollars. He has done it by delivering the newspapers all over this mountain town, getting out mornings, winter and summer, at 5:30 to do it. He did it with exuberant joy in the morning run—and last fall he entered college on the high school credits won during the same time.
He died last night of pneumonia at the base hospital at Fort Sam Houston. I know no particulars. His Father, rushing to his bedside, and intercepted at Greenville, N.C. by telegram as previously arranged for, is on the way back home-alone.
Mr. Baker, you are in no way to blame for the exposure due to unprecedented weather which probably caused my boy’s death. But can’t you stop the enlistment of other boys to be sent to live in tents, without sanitary conveniences, while they wait for a month to be assigned to squadrons and wooden barracks-just during these bitter months? Can’t you send out the order-“Take no more boys for Kelly Field until further orders”?
If my boy’s death could be the means of preventing the sacrifice of more boys he might serve his country even yet-as he so longed to do-tho by a death so different from any that entered his imagination.
Can it not be done, Mr. Baker? The raw boys, fresh from their warm homes, are the ones least fitted for exposure in tents, with insufficient blankets. The way I know about the insufficient blankets is from the hopeful sentence—“When the boys are assigned to squadrons they have comfortable quarters in wooden barracks and blankets enough.” I sent him blankets, Mr. Baker, and a heavy sweater which his grandmother and I knitted on alternately almost night and day to hurry off when he reported a cold and sore throat (we had already sent him a light weight one) but they had not reached him when he wrote his last letter, dated Jan. 20th and 21st, tho they had been sent the 12th and 14th. His address had been changed meanwhile, for he had been assigned to a squadron at last “with comfortable quarters and good officers”, and he felt that things would go better now.
Just one more thing, Mr. Baker. Can’t you have the boys paid promptly at the end of the first month? Our Boy was out of money, and tho we sent some in the very next mail after we knew, he had not received that either, in time to buy remedies needed for “cold, sore throat and boils.” We sent more money and “a little drug store” on the 10th, but on the 21st neither money nor medicine had reached him. Mr. Baker, please send the boys back home until the camps are safe for them. We yielded to our boy’s eloquent pleading to be allowed to enlist. It was based upon a high sense of patriotic duty, and we could do no other. And tho he was ill—it was written the day before he went to the hospital,–in his last letter he wrote “I’m glad I came anyway, for now I have the satisfaction of knowing I am doing my part.”
But we did not know, Mr. Baker, and he did not know until it was too late, that he would not be paid at the end of the month. If this is necessary, ought it not be published widely so that all may understand? Our Boy had money in the bank, and his parents tho poor are far from penniless, yet he suffered for cough drops and stamps, and disinfectants and candy. He “never felt the cold so in his life, probably from lack of sweets in the diet” tho he had spent the fall in Maine.
Mr. Baker, this is all. I am not bitter. I just want to save the boys—all the brave boys who are now enlisting or being drafted—from this sort of death. We give them to our country—with aching hearts it is true—but we give them for service. Please let them stay at home, this bitter weather, until the camps are fully ready for them—that they may have the privilege of serving, not merely dying, for their country.
Celeste Brackett Newcomer
Mother of Daniel B. Newcomer