Rivalries with the Washington County Council of Defense

Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist



In an attempt to garner a united national support for the United States’ involvement with the World War I effort, and believing in the imperativeness of uniting and expediting all measures for the coordination of a prolonged war effort, the U.S. Congress created the Council of National Defense with the passage of the Army Appropriation Act (39 Stat. 649) (also called the National Defense Act of 1916) on August 29, 1916. The Council of National Defense was a presidential advisory board that included six members of the President’s Cabinet: Secretary of War Newton D. Baker (chairman of the Council); Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels; Secretary of Agriculture David Houston; Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane; Secretary of Commerce William Redfield; and Secretary of Labor William Wilson.

The Council’s responsibilities included “coordinating resources and industries for national defense” and “stimulating civilian morale.” As President Woodrow Wilson said of the Council: “The Council of National Defense has been created because Congress has realized that the country is best prepared for war when thoroughly prepared for peace. From an economic point of view, there is very little difference between the machinery required for economic efficiency and that required for military purposes. The Council is organized for the creation of relations which will render possible in time of need the immediate concentration and utilization of the resources of the Nation.”


The work of the Council grew more significant when the United States entered World War I in 1917. The federal government held a conference on May 2, 1917, in Washington, D.C., to facilitate the organization of state councils of defense, to which Joseph Hyde Pratt, state geologist, was appointed to represent North Carolina. The federal government used the conference to ask state governors to create their own local councils of defense to support the national war effort, with the goal being to cooperate with other state councils and the federal government in organizing and directing the resources of states, making them available and effective for national use. The state councils would also recommend changes in state laws to state legislatures, with the goal of the changes aimed at increasing the nation’s ability to respond to the needs of the war effort.


At the start of America’s entrance into the war, the Council coordinated resources and industries for national defense; stimulated civilian morale; coordinated the work of state and local defense councils and women’s committees; and later studied problems of post-war readjustment of soldiers to civilian life and reconstruction of the nation’s infrastructure. The Council of National Defense ceased its operations in June 1921.


After reading Joseph Hyde Pratt’s report of the May 1917 national conference, North Carolina Governor Thomas W. Bickett appointed an Executive Committee to lead a state Council of Defense, and called for an organizational meeting in Raleigh on May 31, 1917, with the intention of forming the North Carolina Council of Defense. The committee members of the new state Council consisted of J. Bryan Grimes, D. H. Hill, George Howe, W. S. Lee, R. N. Page, Joseph Hyde Pratt, Mrs. James Eugene Reilley, F. E. Seeley, James Sprunt, C. C. Taylor, and George W. Watts. At the initial meeting, Hill was appointed Chairman of the North Carolina Council of Defense; B. R. Lacy, North Carolina’s State Treasurer, was named treasurer; and W. S. Wilson—a state legislative reference librarian—was selected as secretary of the state council. The Executive Committee organized sixteen statelevel committees and identified potential chairmen for county councils in all one hundred counties of North Carolina.


For the entire duration in which the United States was involved militarily in the war, the North Carolina General Assembly was not in session. Therefore, the state’s Council of Defense was unable to receive governmental appropriations and had to rely upon private donations to function. None of the council members—either at the state or local level—received any financial compensation for their services to state during World War I.


The North Carolina Council of Defense acted as a clearinghouse for information received from the Council of National Defense. One of the first statewide initiatives was the organization of a speakers’ bureau to inform the populace of the causes of the war and the reasons for American involvement. Other speakers urged soldiers to take advantage of the offer of government insurance or intervened with deserters, urging them to return to the ranks to avoid prosecution. The state Council investigated the loyalty of applicants for positions in government agencies or service organizations, and encouraged college students to volunteer for community work efforts. After the erection of training camps in the state, the state Council formed a War Camp Community Service division to provide entertainment, recreational opportunities, and moral guidance for the trainees. In the fall of 1918, the state Council reviewed applications for building permits which sought exceptions to the nationwide prohibition of non-essential construction activity.


However, the bulk of the real work of the North Carolina Council of Defense was performed at the local level. Each county chairman was to appoint six members to his council, to organize committees that mirrored the state blueprint, and to create township and community councils. Local committeemen provided encouragement and assistance to soldiers’ families, and interviewed individuals of doubtful loyalty to caution them against seditious activities. They also compiled reports concerning property owned by alien residents in their county. The county boards helped to organize the various fundraising drives, including Liberty Loans, thrift stamps, the Fosdick Fund, and American Red Cross campaigns. They assisted local draft exemption boards to compile lists of draftage men, and organized the reserve militia or home guard in their county.


Problems in Washington County in WWI


In Washington County, N.C., by mid-July 1917 following Gov. Bickett’s appointment of the county Council of Defense membership, rumors began floating around about the four younger men on the Council. These four men were of age to serve in the U.S. military during WWI, including William Roy Hampton (who went by "W. R.") of Plymouth, N.C. (council chairman) and H. G. Walker of Creswell, N.C. The rumor stated that someone had heard one of the members or several members state they would rather be on the Washington County Council of Defense than be serving in Europe now in the military. This position was seen as un-American and unpatriotic by those whose husbands and sons were serving from Washington County, and anger began to grow within the county.


The rumors were flamed by the former Washington County sheriff Dempsey Spruill, and Bank of Creswell (N.C.) cashier D. E. Woodley. The main complaint against these four men by the Washington County locals was that the four younger men on the county council should not have been appointed—instead replacing them with older, more experienced men who were not eligible for military service and seen as patriotic North Carolinians. The rumor stated that membership of governor-appointed boards or councils exempted individuals from military service. [It is noted by the author that it is believed the two men who helped spread these rumors--Spruill and Woodley--likely also assumed that they would be the older men who would be selected to replace some of the four younger Council members should the uproar be successful in forcing the Governor to appoint new Council members].

Out of fear of his fellow citizens thinking him being a slacker [i.e. someone who was not participating in the war effort] and avoiding his legal duty for military service, Washington County Council of Defense Chairman W. R. Hampton had a nervous breakdown. He went unconscious over one full night from his anxiety, and had to retire to the beach to recover from the breakdown under the order of his doctor. Such was the pressure during WWI on the home front—brought about largely by government propaganda and posters—over appearing to be fully supportive of “America” and to be fully “American.”

In an August 1, 1917, letter, W. B. Watts of Plymouth, N.C. (a member of the Washington County Council of Defense), wrote to the N.C. Council of Defense Chairman D. H. Hill, alerting him to Hampton’s nervous breakdown. Watts also states that the foundation of the rumor was believed to be based on local issues or jealousies over county court house matters and the creation of new bank in Creswell, N.C. This Creswell bank was a competitor with the Plymouth bank where another Council of Defense member served. It was believed this was one of the motivations for Creswell bank cashier D. E. Woodley starting the rumor.

However, all of this supposition by the locals based on the rumors as to the benefits these men were apparently receiving was completely incorrect. The rumors reflected the major issue during WWI—the inability to get up-to-date information out into the public with the available technology and education levels of the local constituencies. In an August 10, 1917, A. G. Walker, a member of the Washington County Council of Defense, wrote to state council Chairman Hill regarding Walker’s investigation into the source of the rumors about the county council of defense. Walker notes that this trouble started largely over the county residents’ ignorance of the federal draft law.

The Selective Service Act of 1917 did not exempt anyone from being drafted or called into active military service, regardless of home front responsibilities during the war—except in certain wartime work responsibilities. Despite this fact, a number of local Washington County citizens signed a petition requesting the Governor to remove these four men from the Council of Defense. What is also interesting is that Hampton--one of the four young Council members--had in fact served as a Lieutenant in the North Carolina National Guard before WWI. He had already given military service and would have been on active call up under this situation.

This fiasco eventually was cleared up, but the damage to the reputations of the four Washington County council members was done. It is unknown if W. R. Hampton ever fully recovered from his breakdown. Washington County was not the only North Carolina county to have such issues within the organization of their local wartime boards and councils; however, it was one of the most visible and ugly of the war. The stress of disease, lack of men at home, women entering the workplace in large numbers for the first time, food rationing, laws limiting vehicle and gasoline usage, worry over foreign spies and recent immigrants’ loyalty to America, lack of supplies on the home front, and worrying about potentially losing a loved one in battle—all of these factors contributed to the hysteria, distrust, stress, and selfish motives that spread throughout the home front in North Carolina during WWI.