A Virginian by Birth — At School in Augusta, Georgia; Columbia, South Carolina; and Davidson College, North Carolina — Civil War Days — Life in the Carolinas — "Prep" School Days — Ball Player — The Boy was Father to the Man
"Go in and win. Go after their scalps. Don't admit for a minute that they can beat you." — Wilson
President Wilson was born in the commonwealth long called "the Mother of Presidents." It was in the Presbyterian manse in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856, that the seventh Virginian-born President first opened his eyes. He "was bred a gentleman and a man of honor in the free school of Virginian Society" to quote the opening paragraph of Wilson's "George Washington," writing of the birth of the first Virginia President. He was given the name Thomas Woodrow Wilson and was called "Tommy" until he graduated at Princeton. He then dropped the "Thomas" and became Woodrow Wilson. Some years before, his predecessor, Stephen Grover Cleveland, dropped the "Stephen." It has been remarked that the only two Democratic Presidents in half a century were influenced to discard their first names because most Presidents had possessed but a single given name. The name he chose to keep was the maiden surname of his mother.
In 1858, the father having accepted a call to the p37pastorate of the First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, the earliest recollection of Tommy was when he heard the shrill cry on the street: "Lincoln is elected and there'll be war." He watched the troops march away to fight under Lee in Virginia. His other recollections of the War Between the States were limited largely to the burial of many Southern soldiers, to the marching of the men in Augusta when the unfounded rumor came that Sherman's Army was approaching the city, and to a night vigil in his father's study. The scarcity of food lingered in his memory. When, as President, he was forced to food restrictions in the World War, he recalled, from experiences in his boyhood days, that people could live without distress on restricted diet. He had no patience in 1917‑18 with those who were unwilling to conform to the reasonable regulations for conserving the supply of sugar and wheat so that there might be plenty for the fighting men. He would often remind those who complained that in the war of the Sixties the people of the South were very restricted in food products, but, with a little effort and ingenuity, housewives were able to prepare appetizing meals, citing his mother as one who thus made the best of the situation.
In the summer of 1865, Tommy saw Jefferson Davis pass through Augusta under guard on his way to Fortress Monroe. The next year found Federal soldiers sleeping in his father's church. He was nine years old when the war ended, and in those years play interested him more than war and reconstruction. In an address delivered at the University of North Carolina, January 19, 1909, he told his audience how as a boy he had stood by the side of Robert E. Lee and looked admiringly into the great man's face. Most of his mature years were spent p38in the Middle States and he was free from sectional bias, but the formative days in the South during and following the war of the Sixties, when that section suffered from poverty and reconstruction, gave him a sense of its struggles, which made him appreciate its problems and honor its leaders. He knew and shared their privations, borne with fortitude and without lowering their ideals or affecting their morale. He loved to pay tribute to these qualities and was himself a product of such environment.
He was a lithe and active boy. With his chum and playmate, Pleasant A. Stovall, later to be named by Wilson Minister to Switzerland, where he served the period of the World War, Tommy's favorite recreation was horseback-riding. Stovall says he had many a tumble from the saddle, while Tommy managed to keep his seat. The favorite resort of the boys in the neighborhood was the stable on the parsonage lot. They organized "the Lightfoot Club" and played with other baseball nines, but the club was more than an athletic organization. It was something of a debating society, with parliamentary procedure. The chaps understood "the previous question" and Tommy here mastered the rudiments of parliamentary law. It was about this time he printed some cards "Woodrow Wilson, United States Senator." Horseback trips and delightful weekends to the country home at "Sand Hills" were the chief pleasure of Wilson and Stovall. The "Sand Hills" was the home of his aunt, Mrs. James Bones. Playing Indian one day, his cousin, Jessie Woodrow Bones, was hit with an arrow by Tommy. She came tumbling down from the top of a tree. "I am a murderer; it wasn't an accident; I killed her," he cried as he carried her limp body into the house. Fortunately she sustained no injury.
p39 Tommy was nine years old before he was taught his letters. Reading aloud was a habit in the family. He was familiar with the stories of Dickens and Scott before he knew his alphabet and could enjoy the humor of those favorite authors in the Wilson home. There were no good public schools in Augusta when Tommy began his pilgrimage toward learning. His first teacher was John T. Derry, who had served four years in the Confederate Army, brave and beloved of all his pupils. Derry's school was called a "selected classical institution." He spent thirty-five years as teacher. Among his pupils besides Tommy Wilson was Joseph R. Lamar, later Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Wilson always gratefully remembered his soldier instructor. But Tommy's real teacher, then and afterwards, was his father. They were constant companions, and to the day of his death, Woodrow Wilson quoted from his father and with affectionate pride. To him he chiefly owed the processes of education that were responsible for the perfection of his style. Sunday afternoon was looked forward to by the boy, for then his father discussed with him books and men and sciences. "You do not know a subject until you can put it into the fewest and most expressive words," he impressed upon the son.
In the autumn of 1870, Dr. Wilson became Professor in the Southern Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Columbia, S. C., succeeding Dr. James H. Thornwell, who was as well esteemed in the South as Henry Ward Beecher was in the North. Prior to that time, Dr. Benjamin M. Palmer, the distinguished New Orleans divine, had been professor of pastoral theology. Dr. Wilson was the third of this illustrious Presbyterian preacher-trinity. At Columbia, Tommy attended the school taught by p40Charles Heyward Barnwell. His father here as at Augusta was school teacher as well as companion. It was here that Tommy buried himself in Marryat's and Cooper's tales of the sea and imbibed the knowledge of ships and sea-lore. He knew every class of ship and the location and name of every spar, sheet and shroud. That knowledge, broadened, often surprised naval officers when he cruised with them as Commander-in‑Chief of the Navy.
It was in Columbia that his romantic fancy showed itself. He began to write. His youthful masterpiece was of the mysterious disappearances of ships setting sail for or expected at Pacific ports. He depicted himself as "Admiral Wilson," in command of a naval fleet sent out to discover and destroy a nest of pirates responsible for ravaging the sea. He wrote daily reports to the Navy Department of the progress of his fleet. In hot pursuit of the pirates, he was often eluded. Finally one night the piratical looking craft, with black hull and rakish rig, was overtaken. The chase had been exciting and carried Tommy's fleet to the neighborhood of an island uncharted and hitherto unknown. There was no visible harbor and it was uninhabited. There was a narrow inlet which seemed to end at an abrupt wall of rock a few fathoms inland. Should the fleet sail into the inlet? "Admiral Wilson" scented a trap, and he sent a boat on a scouting mission. The discovery was made that it was a cunningly contrived entrance to a spacious bay, the island being really a sort of atoll. There lay the ships of the outlawed enemy and the dismantled hulls of many of their victims. Heroic work by the American sailors gave succor to surviving victims and destroyed the piratical crew. It was a tale as dramatic as some of those p41of Marryat's. One privileged to read the manuscript says it recalls the art of Defoe. Tommy did not merely write a romance. He lived it and was himself the Admiral. The daily "reports" would pass muster in the Navy Department to‑day and the chase of the pirates is so thrilling as to suggest that when books enticed Tommy Wilson from the sea, a skilled navigator and writer of sea tales was lost in the making of a teacher, college president, governor, and chief magistrate of the Republic.
In 1873, at the age of seventeen, Tommy matriculated at Davidson College, in Mecklenburg County, situated near Charlotte, N. C., where the Scotch-Irish patriots signed the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, May 20, 1775. His father was a trustee and it was the favored Presbyterian College of the Carolinas. The buildings were few; the teaching force was small, but they were good scholars. Living was so simple that every student cut his wood, made his fires, filled his lamp (kerosene), kept his own room, and carried water from the pump. It had then, as it has now, a reputation for good scholarship and high religious tone. The faculty embraced men of reputation in the South, such as Dr. Charles Phillips, Col. William Martin, of North Carolina; Blake and Anderson, from South Carolina; Richardson, from Mississippi; and Latimer, from Virginia. They were well grounded in the old curriculum and gave dignity to the profession of teaching. Some of them, like Lee and Hill and Albert Sidney Johnston, had served in the Confederate Army and had after Appomattox become teachers of the sons of their comrades.
Tommy became Secretary of the Eumenean Literary Society, and its records were models of neatness. He had debating talent, won honors as essayist, and stood p42well in his classes. But there was nothing which foreshadowed the future which was in store for him. He was a prodigious reader and walker. A tree planted by him on the campus stands as a living memorial. Outside class periods, when not found curled up in bed with a book in hand, he was exploring the surrounding country, often alone and seemingly absorbed in thought. A tradition still lingers at Davidson that he exhibited a record never equalled in the minimum time necessary to dress, cross the campus, and take his seat by the time the before-breakfast chapel bell, calling students to prayer, stopped ringing. His roommate was William Lecky, an Irishman who was killed shortly after leaving college. When he became President he appointed a classmate at Davidson, the late Governor R. B. Glenn, of North Carolina, a member of the International Boundary Commission. He was not keen in athletics, but played indifferently on the baseball team. Afterwards he smiled as he related that one day the captain "balled" him out, saying, "Wilson, you would make a dandy player if you were not so damn lazy."
Photo. International Newsreel
An antidote for diplomatic worries
President and Mrs. Wilson, shortly after their marriage, opening the baseball season at the American League Park in Washington. The President is tossing out the first ball to Walter Johnson.a Mrs. Wilson is at the left of the picture behind the President.
It was at Davidson he obtained his only nickname. In rhetoric class one day, studying the part of Trench's "English: Past and Present" which sets forth how beasts with good Saxon names take the Norman appellation when they come to the table as food, the professor asked Tommy: "What is calves' meat when served at the table?" "Mutton," he answered amid laughter, and he was called "Monsieur Mouton" as long as he remained at Davidson.
There was a persistent report for a time that he was expelled from college and that this was the real cause of p43his leaving before the close of the term. Investigation proved there was no foundation for the rumor, which doubtless grew out of the fact that another student by the name of Wilson was expelled that year.
"Wilson was my classmate for one year at the college," said Dr. David Mebane. "He was always afterward my friend, and the friend of every Davidson man who went to school with him. At the White House he was glad to talk over old times with Davidson students. He was seventeen when at school, a fine, graceful young man, brilliant in his studies, and an athlete. As shortstop on the college team, he was a handy player. I remember once I broke two fingers catching a fast ball in a game, and he was the first at my side to give me aid.
"He was extremely handsome, too, in those days, and many were the girls who cast admiring glances at him. They used to cheer him not ball field. He was a good batter and could hit the ball a hefty clout."
Delicate health sent Wilson home to recuperate at Wilmington, North Carolina, his father having accepted the pastorate of the First Presbyterian Church there. For a year he was at home, with his super-teacher, his father. If they had been chums before, they now became the closest comrades and friends. They had kindred tastes. Both loved books and loved to talk of the meaning of words and the meaning of life as well. He was coached in Latin and Greek, preparatory to entrance to Princeton, by Mrs. Joseph R. Russell, an excellent teacher. "Some day you are going to be President of the United States," she said to him one day, when he showed more interest in questions of government than in Greek. She did not live to see her prediction fulfilled.
He is remembered in Wilmington by characteristic p44activities — as he walked into church with his mother, as he strolled the streets with his father, as he talked to sailors on the water-front, as he played shortstop on the neighborhood baseball team and as he swam in the Cape Fear at the foot of Dock Street. The river and the ships fascinated the youth. Their color and associations of adventure and romance fed his imagination. He wrote sea-tales as at Columbia, but he tore them to bits. He had become more critical of his style. Sometimes he would board a ship bound for the other side of the world and come back in the pilot's boat. The lure of the sea was strong upon him, and it was in those days that he had his heart set on going to the Naval Academy. His father saw that he was meant for letters and teaching and politics and set his foot down upon a naval career. When the Navy lost Tommy Wilson as a future Admiral, it gained in 1913 a commander-in‑chief whose marvelous grasp of naval matters made him real leader of the men who go down to the sea in ships. But Tommy is chiefly remembered in Wilmington as the first person who owned and rode a bicycle in North Carolina, and he rode it with calm indifference to the astonishment caused by the then unique method of locomotion. His father, looking to the restoration of his health so that he could enter Princeton, doubtless encouraged out-door exercise, and the bicycle fitted admirably into the program.
Tommy was quiet, reserved, self-reliant, partial to the company of older men, gentle and courteous, but he lived much to himself and, generally speaking, was less socially inclined than in later life. Society in Wilmington in the Seventies retained its ante bellum flavor and the people of that historic city had the flower and grace of culture and leisure. "There's not a p45girl in Wilmington who can carry on a conversation requiring wide reading or knowledge," he said one day to former Congressman John D. Bellamy, a college student with whom he played and with whom he talked about Walter Scott and others of their favorite authors. His indictment of the girls was not original or true, for serious-minded collegians have generally indulged in such assertions, though they change their minds in their senior year, as Tommy Wilson did. Wilmington society opened its doors, but his mind was on mastering the science of government. He did not fit in with its social life. He did not want to fit in. He was not unfriendly about it, but just calmly interested and absorbed in other things. He never argued about it. He just went his own way, content to be with his father and to be with his mother, whose health was delicate and who loved his quiet talk and believed in his star. Many still remember mother and son, during the vacations of the latter, as they walked slowly along the street late in the afternoons, the mother leaning heavily upon the arm of her son.
The mother was not to live long, and the son, soon to go to Princeton, resolved to bear no other given name than that of his mother. He shortly dropped "Tommy."
His education began with his grandfather.
a Hall-of‑Famer Walter Johnson — see for example this excellent bio at The Baseball Page — was one of the great pitchers of his time, phenomenal yet on teams that were very average: given Secretary Daniels' worship of Wilson, I'm a bit surprised he didn't draw the parallel.
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Life of Wilson
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Page updated: 26 Apr 10