The Council’s activities covered everything from transportation to livestock. Local branches did a great deal of practical work and funneled information which might require action back to the state council. The Second Virginia Council of Defense records, now organized as part of the Records of the Virginia War History Commission, contain a wealth of interesting and sometimes unexpected information about the war effort of 1917-1918.
Preparing and supporting soldiers was one of the council’s chief goals. To that end, the collection contains examples of small handbooks for soldiers offering legal guidance on organizing their affairs and ensuring their family’s protection after deployment. Similarly, it includes information on special life insurance programs for departing soldiers. The records also contain literature suggesting ideas for community patriotic programs, letters to religious leaders encouraging pro-war sermons, and the published texts of pro-war speeches meant to boost morale and foster a national spirit.
One subject covered at some length by the council is venereal disease. At first glance that might seem an odd topic, but during World War I sexually transmitted diseases caused the Army to discharge some 10,000 men—not to mention all the man-hours lost to those on sick leave. Concern about debilitated soldiers became so widespread that within the first year of the war 32 states, including Virginia, passed laws requiring prostitutes or other persons that officials deemed promiscuous or suspicious to undergo compulsory examination for venereal disease. In 1918, a council official wrote a letter to a Colonial Heights judge who had released two suspected prostitutes after they filed writs of habeas corpus. The official reminded the judge that no one held under this suspicion was to be released on bail before being examined and found free of disease.
The breadth of subjects related to U. S. mobilization and preparedness that the SVCD addressed may be surprising. In the records one will find pamphlets and publications on topics ranging from children’s health and wellness (“your community[…] realiz[es] how much the health of babies means to their fathers and brothers who are fighting in France”) to recreation and personal fitness (“For a Stronger America”) to appropriate war work for children (the Boy Scouts played a role). Also covered are gardening and rationing (“Sow the Seeds of Victory!”) and “Americanizing” new arrivals to the U.S. Diving into these records is a fascinating and sometimes sobering reminder of all that goes into or goes away during a nationwide war effort.
–Vince Brooks, Senior Local Records Archivist