Rediscovering a Lost Episode in Montauk History

Photo album renews interest in the National Guard’s summer of 1913

On June 21, 1913, the First and Second Cavalry Regiments of the New York National Guard departed for Montauk for what The Brooklyn Eagle called nine days of strenuous work. 

Their visit to the easternmost point in the state is all but unknown today, but the regiments’ stay there in the summer of 1913 was big news at the time. Now, after the Montauk Library purchased an album of photographs likely taken by one of the participants, this important history is coming to light.

When one thinks of the United States military and Montauk, Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and the Camp Hero cold war radar tower and World War II artillery emplacements come to mind. There are far more data points, however, including a Navy torpedo facility at Fort Pond Bay and dirigibles based there near the end of World War I. 

The 1913 National Guard and Army exercises, which included a contingent of artillery later in the summer, were designed to answer repeated criticism of the military at the time that it was unprepared for actual combat, having last seen action during the Spanish-American War, and that it often still drew on the Civil War as a model.

The failures were also the result of haphazard instruction and inadequate field training. Officers were insufficiently grounded in wartime theory and lacked experience managing a campaign. Medical officers were unable to read maps; few knew the principles of horsemanship. There were problems distributing food. 

Many of the deficiencies had been brought into focus the summer before during war games in Connecticut, when heat stroke and dehydration had taken down both men and horses. Ammunition was not where it was supposed to be. Some of the troops, having gone without food or water for 24 hours, collapsed on the battlefield, Maura Feeney, the Montauk Library’s local history librarian, said.

“The average infantry officer is unfamiliar with routine life in the field, and the fact is frequently cited that such officers have difficulty in obtaining rations for their commands,” Major Gen. John F. O’Ryan of the National Guard told The Brooklyn Eagle before the Montauk operation. 

Turning this around, General O’Ryan said, would take a systematic rethinking of how officers were trained. The exercises at Montauk placed seasoned veterans under the command of the green officers. Enlisted men who took part would go back to their companies more disciplined and trained, which, so the thinking went, would spread within the units. Officers would learn how a unit at what was called war strength was expected to perform.

Tests were to be run on new machine guns capable of firing at a rate of 400 rounds in a minute with a range of more than half a mile. According to The Brooklyn Eagle, based on how the guns performed, the military would decide whether to make them a standard part of cavalry equipment.

Each evening there would be a lecture in the mess tent and the day’s work gone over and criticized. The final night in camp was celebrated with a party and clambake on the ocean shore.

A reporter for The Brooklyn Eagle went to Montauk with the officers to watch as the camp with the latest sanitary improvements was laid out between Fort Pond and the ocean beach.

Drinking water was supplied from a well at the Montauk Inn. Orders were issued against the men going in the ocean. “A good many soldiers were drowned during the camp in 1898,” according the account in the The Eagle.

“During the coming week, drills and sham battles will be engaged in on the hills between the camp and the lighthouse, eight miles away, and the troops will also swim their horses across Fort Pond Bay.”

Much of the cavalry’s activities during the Montauk exercise are depicted in the photo album, which was purchased from a Connecticut bookseller. Images show horses being loaded onto railcars and being led off upon arrival. Others show the men in camp, grooming the horses, or on maneuvers. 

Ms. Feeney has been studying the album closely since it arrived at the Montauk Library. Among the officers in the Montauk exercise she identified was Col. Charles I. DeBevoise, a Yale graduate and former stockbroker who commanded the First New York Calvary. DeBevoise was sent to France early in World War I and commanded the 107th Infantry during the battle of the Hindenburg Line. He was promoted to brigadier general in October 1918, one of the few National Guard officers to reach the rank. He survived the war and received the Distinguished Service Medal.

Money for the album came from the library’s special fund and was approved by the board of trustees. “They were really excited about it,” Ms. Feeney said.

The cavalry’s days began with reveille at 5:30. The animals were to be fed first, then the men. Boots and saddles were to be on by 6:55 a.m. School for officers and the men would continue until dark. 

Despite the best intentions by the officers, everything did not go according to plan. Chief among the complaints by artillerymen returning to Brooklyn was a shortage of food. Rumors were that their exercise was provisioned for only 125 men. Some, the newspaper reported, resorted to foraging on the fat of the land.

“Here is the way it was the first week: Chicken and ice cream sometimes for supper, with delicious milk for coffee and all the butter we wanted to eat. And then at the end all we could get was canned stuff and with no butter and no milk,” one of the Brooklyn gun troop said. “Fancy yourself coming down from chicken and ice cream to such a layout as we had on the last day of the hike, the day we made the twelve miles from Amagansett to Montauk.”

“I tell you there were some gentle words said that night after our miserable apology for a dinner. We were all so mad that the canned salmon almost stuck in our throats.”

Officers quoted in The Eagle report dismissed the complaints as an expected thing. “No field tour would be complete without some kick as to food,” one said.

Nearly exactly four years later, on July 15, 1917, 24,000 members of the New York National Guard answered President Woodrow Wilson’s call for the Great War in Europe. Over 400,000 New Yorkers served in World War I, more than from any other state.

For the 1st Cavalry and other mounted units, the war was the end of the active-duty service, as new weapons, such as heavy artillery and tanks, and trench warfare rendered horses obsolete.

National Guardsmen camped on the treeless plain near Fort Pond in Montauk. Water came from a well at a nearby inn.Montauk Library
Members of the 1st and 2nd Regiment of New York National Guard cavalry bathed in Block Island Sound during a war games exercise in Montauk in July 1913. The photo comes from an album recently purchased by the Montauk Library.Montauk Library