The Spirit of 1776/1917: Town and Gown Go to War

Te Papa Tongarewa / Museum of New Zealand, Wellington, New Zealand · April 28, 2017 ·

In the summer of 1917 Americans began preparing to enter the European War. Cantonments and camps sprang up around the country, making doughboys out of farm hands, clerks, factory workers—and college students. New Haven, Connecticut was one such place: the site of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, makers of the Enfield and BAR rifles, home to Yale University and campsite of the 102nd Regiment of the Yankee Division. New Haven had a sometimes productive, sometimes difficult relationship with the Ivy League school over the course of 300 years. The World War helped to break down social and political barriers that had developed during the nineteenth century, when the city was becoming ever more ethnic, and the university was becoming ever more elitist. In 1917, soldiers made their first camp on the grounds of the Yale Bowl, Yale students and professors enlisted in the Yankee Division along with New Haveners and New Englanders, and Yale’s great dining hall became the workroom of the New Haven chapter of the American Red Cross. Together, the New Haven Green and the Yale Campus became the center for overt war-time preparations and both town and gown called upon the figure of Nathan Hale—America’s first “spy”—to instill a local and national sense of identity dating back to the American Revolution in 1776. The bronze Nathan Hale monument had been installed only four years earlier on Yale’s Old Campus, but the figure of a Connecticut farm boy/university student/soldier-spy remains a focal point of university life even today, although few remember the ways in which the “Spirit of 1776” was revived during World War I. This presentation examines the relationship between town and gown in 1917, as both prepared to enter wartime Europe.