Their letters home read like notes from a boys’ summer camp: Life is good, they treat us nice here, that sort of thing. Easygoing missives, light on news, filled with concern for loved ones, some loneliness. What the young men can’t reveal is the unspeakable horror they’re about to face.

“My dear Papa—” begins one from Richard Dixon.

“We arrived here Sunday night about 7 hours late and found at once that we are now in regular army life. Some of the trees had been cut down and the mess-halls built but the balance had to be done by us such as clearing away the camp-site, cutting down trees and digging up stumps.”

 

Scrawled in pencil on plain notepaper, the letter is dated September 19, 1917, weeks before Dixon’s 28th birthday. His note home to Virginia was mailed from Greenville, from a place called Camp Sevier.

At the dawn of America’s entrance into World War I, our town played host to a sprawling 1,900-acre Army training ground that stretched from around Paris Mountain to U.S. 29, more widely known as Wade Hampton Boulevard. The camp housed the 30th Infantry Division, nicknamed “Old Hickory,” after Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president and blood-drenched veteran. It was here some 100,000 boys trained before ultimately smashing the German war machine.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars. In Greenville, plans are underway for several events to celebrate Armistice Day—Veterans Day—on November 11 and to commemorate September 29, the day our own boys turned the tide of the war. The story starts in July 1917. Tens of thousands of young men began converging on a town whose entire population could fit inside the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

Their destination: a pop-up military post named after John Sevier, a Revolutionary warrior and Tennessee’s first governor. Of the camp’s existence here, the most conspicuous reminder is a historical marker just outside the Open Hearth Restaurant at Artillery Road and Wade Hampton. More than 36,000 cars a day whiz past the drab gray-and-white metal sign.

“Last year, I got a call from an official with the Belgian government who had been referred to me, and he wanted to know about Camp Sevier,” says Don Koonce, a longtime and well-known student of local history.

Soldiers march during training at Camp Sevier, with Paris Mountain in the background. Courtesy of Special Collections & Archives, Furman University.

“He said the U.S. Army 30th Division were the ones who broke through the Hindenburg Line and basically won the war, and he said, ‘We have monuments all over Belgium and France to the 30th.’ Then he asked an embarrassing question.

“He said, ‘You know, we worship the 30th over here, and every November, hundreds of thousands of Belgians gather to honor American soldiers who helped win the war and save Belgium.’ Then he said, ‘What’s Greenville doing to commemorate the end of the war?’ I stumbled and said, ‘We’ve got plans.’”

Thus was born Remember Old Hickory. The project, launched with $25,000 from Greenville city and county councils, operates under the Upstate Warrior Solution, a non-profit that has helped more than 4,500 veterans since 2013. To honor our WWI soldiers, Koonce and researcher Teresa Slack have collected dozens of letters and hundreds of photographs. These mementos keep alive some of Old Hickory’s 48,000 national guardsmen, draftees, and enlistees, some as young as 15. These boys hailed from the Carolinas and Tennessee—and they all came to Greenville.

In July 1917, the nation’s largest Army camp opened here, one of 32 in the United States, one of three in the Palmetto State. Military brass chose the South for the weather. That winter turned out to be the coldest in Upstate history. Temps dropped to 6 below zero. Thousands of young men huddled in 6,000 ragged tents. Hundreds died.

Frost wasn’t their only enemy.

That September, a year before shipping out, Corporal Judson Dennis, a 25-year-old Tennessee tobacco farmer, wrote to his mother:

“They killed a soldier boy here yesterday. I saw him. He was killed because he would not obey orders. Eight soldiers shot him. It seems bad but he would not obey orders and refused to work. We have never got our money yet. The Major said we would get it Monday.”

 

Privates earned a bit more than $500 a month in today’s dollars, not including a cot and rations. On that, they carved out a camp on property leased from 20 families. The men trained with sticks when guns weren’t available and wore work clothes when uniforms proved scarce. Still, Greenville was good to our boys. Hometown women knitted mittens. Children donated cats to chase away rat infestations.

“The girls of Greenville gave the soldier boys a farewell reception at all the dance halls in Greenville last night,” Dennis scrawled home in April 1918, six months before he was killed.

“They sure did treat us so nice. We shall never forget them for the ladies and girls of Greenville have certainly treated us good during our stay in camp.”

September 1918, nothing is quiet on the Western Front. All is devastation. Barbed wire encages war’s savagery around Belgian towns with pretty names. Here, the Hindenburg Line presents Germany’s “impregnable” last defenses.

“We were kept in the trenches from July until September 29th when the great drive started,” doughboy Dennis Coleman remembered in an October 1921 interview. Enlisted at 18, the North Carolinian trained at Camp Sevier.

At 2 that morning, troops were told to don masks. Mustard gas delivers temporary blindness then rips your guts out. It was hard enough to breathe through the masks’ crude fabric, yet, as Coleman pointed out, “A dug-out is very poor protection against gas.”

A few hours later, at 5:50, the 30th and its sister division, the 27th, moved.

“So they threw these young kids . . . ” Koonce pauses. “Unbelievable.”

Mark V tanks, hulks of lumbering steel, were sent ahead to flatten barbed wire, to pave the way.

“And there was a huge bombardment from the British,” Koonce says. “The British were on the right, the 27th on the left, the 30th in the middle. Huge bombardments. The tanks started forward and they got bogged down in artillery holes and couldn’t get out. These kids had to go in on their own. They lost most of their officers in the attack; they lost 1,000 men in less than 30 minutes. And they kept going. They kept going.”

“The thing that fascinated him most was there were all these little red flowers poking up out of the mud. They were poppies. He’d never seen them before. They grow all over Belgium. They grow out of destroyed land.”

 

Ultimately, they captured one critical square mile, or about 640 acres, roughly a third the size of Camp Sevier. More than 7,000 were wounded or missing in action. A dozen Old Hickory men earned the Medal of Honor, more than any other division.

Koonce tells of a 16-year-old enlistee who was there. “He builds up the courage to look over the leading edge of the trench, and it’s devastating: artillery holes full of water, all the trees are cut off, and there was a cloud of mustard gas floating. Horrible.”

In one of the boy’s letters, among dozens from library collections, newspaper archives, and descendants, Koonce says: “The thing that fascinated him most was there were all these little red flowers poking up out of the mud. They were poppies. He’d never seen them before. They grow all over Belgium. They grow out of destroyed land.”

Turns out, the soil of Flanders Fields, or the battlegrounds of the Western Front, resembles the South Carolina clay, one Army website says.

Koonce proffers a pin, one of thousands he has passed around as part of the project’s commemoration efforts. It’s a poppy, the worldwide symbol of Great War remembrances.


Letters from Andrew Green of Company F of the 120th Infantry, 30th Division, and Thomas Alston Cheathem from Company D of the 120th Infantry, 30th Division. Letters courtesy of Greenville County Historical Society.

Trouble on the Mexican border, troops deployed to stem increasing violence. Some 15 million immigrants flood the country over a couple of decades. Congress passes sweeping reform, barring immigrants from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, among other countries.

That was so last century.

“America has faced these very things before and dealt with these things before and there’s nothing new under the sun,” says Henry Johnson, quoting biblical passage Ecclesiastes 1:9.

An Upstate pastor and educator, Johnson, 31, became a historian at 15 when he discovered his great-grandfather’s itchy wool World War I uniform in a cedar chest.

“A lot of people have been through Camp Sevier and not realized it,” Johnson says.

A map overlaying Camp Sevier with contemporary Greenville shows the machine-gun range about the distance of a par 5 from the Pebble Creek Golf Course. A field once carved with trenches and the camp’s snipers range straddles the area around Mountain Creek Baptist Church.

“Camp Sevier shaped Greenville,” Johnson says. “A hundred thousand men come from all over the country at a time when a lot of people didn’t travel, and that infusion of money and blood and patriotism informed Greenville and shaped its future.”

Yes, things have changed—especially at the site where Greenville morphed, almost overnight, from a sleepy textile town with 11 mills into a major player in world affairs—a trend that continues, Koonce says; Greenville County’s now home to more than 100 companies from 22 countries.


Left to right: Six unidentified soldiers sit for a portrait in front of Camp Sevier pendants; Major General C.P. Townsley, commander of the 30th Infantry Division. Photographs courtesy of The Library of Congress

For Teresa Slack, the Old Hickory project presents an opportunity to remind Greenville not just of its transformative past, but to thank those who made it.

“I’ve got people coming out, and they’re saying, ‘Thank you so much because we wanted people to know what our grandfather, our great-uncle went through.’” She says she’s also found herself impressed with the interest she’s seen among younger Greenvillians.

“They’re the most remarkably appreciative, and that shocked me. The younger kids are looking for history, they really are,” she says, noting that this perhaps is the kind of story that adds what an already-cool town needs: depth.

For Koonce, commemorating the 30th Division and Camp Sevier goes even deeper. He was a Navy pilot in Vietnam, 1968, the bloody Tet Offensive.

“Oh, God, they were real people,” he says of the boys he’s gotten to know through their missives. “Keep in mind, I’m a vet, too, and I wrote letters home. These kids were just
like me.”

For more information on the Old Hickory Project, visit remember1918.com. To contribute to the project, please specify “Old Hickory Project” on the “for” line of checks made payable to: Upstate Warrior Solutions, 3 Caledon Court, Suite A-2, Greenville, SC 29615.