Read: The racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson
Born and raised in Virginia, Wilson was the first American president to hail from the South since the Civil War. He was 8 years old when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. Though Wilson grew up to become a northeastern Ivy League academic, the president of Princeton, and later governor of New Jersey, his southern political base saw him as a champion of the Lost Cause. And he didn’t let them down.
As president, Wilson imposed Jim Crow–style segregation on the federal civil service and the Navy, which had been integrated for the previous century, and when he hosted the first-ever screening of a feature film in the White House, the honor went to The Birth of a Nation. An adaptation of the Thomas Dixon Jr. novel The Clansman, the film brought the myth of the Lost Cause to the silver screen in a racist paean to the defeat of Reconstruction through the terrorist violence of the KKK.
In 1916, Wilson narrowly won reelection. Most political historians attribute his success to his promise of isolationism—his slogans were “America First” and “He kept us out of war”—as Europe burned itself to the ground in what was then called the Great War. Within a few months of his reelection, though, following a renewed wave of German belligerence, Wilson mobilized the nation for war.
While the Great War was more politically popular than it had been just months before, the United States simply did not have a military capable of fighting in it. The National Guard and Army totaled little more than a quarter-million men combined. Needing to build an army quickly, Congress enacted the first federal draft since the Civil War. On June 5, 1917, every American man from the ages of 21 to 31 was legally obliged to register for conscription, with the expectation that 2 million of them would be imminently called to serve.
Increasing the size of the Army tenfold created a massive logistical problem. Where could so many men train before shipping off to Europe?
The solution was to quickly build 32 new encampments—now called bases—distributed over 14 states. Sixteen were to be located in the South, a decision justified on the grounds that the warmer climate would allow for year-round training outdoors. But the choice of the South was a sensitive political matter, and not only because it had believed in Wilson’s campaign promises of “America First” isolationism.
Only 40 years earlier, President Rutherford B. Hayes had withdrawn the Army from the former Confederate states, marking the end of Reconstruction and the return of white supremacy under the guise of Redemption. In 1878, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act to forbid the deployment of the Army to assist in law enforcement, which really meant federal civil-rights-law enforcement. Ever since, the Army had maintained a light footprint below the Mason-Dixon line.