Despite a long and significant military history, few clues remain of Davids Island’s historic past. For just over a century, from 1862 to 1965, Davids Island, off the coast of New Rochelle, was crucial to the American military for a wide variety of reasons and causes. During the Civil War, the island served as a military hospital and POW camp; later, in the 1930s and 1950s, it was home to the Army Cooks and Bakers School and the Army Chaplain School.
But, Davids Island’s busiest time came during World War I, when the 78-acre island’s Fort Slocum processed thousands of men per year on their way to fight the Great War in Europe. It became the US Army’s busiest recruiting depot east of the Mississippi River, serving as the recruit-examination station for soldiers from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the New England states. Between 1917 and 1919, more than 140,000 recruits passed through the Davids Island post.
The emergency mobilization in 1917 for World War I and the resulting rapid influx of new troops to Fort Slocum triggered a massive spurt of construction on the island, the first since a major rebuild in the 1880s. A total of 56 temporary one-story buildings were erected, including 33 barracks, 11 mess halls (10 small and 1 large), 10 lavatories, a recruit-examination building, and a post office. In warm weather, tents filled in any remaining spaces. A 1917 map shows the temporary structures crowded together over most of the landscape, except for the parade ground.
At the height of the war, ferries transported men and supplies continuously between the Fort Slocum dock, located below Neptune Park in New Rochelle, and the island. Most of the East Coast enlistees arrived by train in New Rochelle, then traveled by trolley from the city’s train station down to the dock.
Fort Slocum received its official name in 1896, two years after the death of Major General Henry Warner Slocum, a distinguished US Civil War veteran who commanded the XII Corps at the Battle of Gettysburg and later served in the US House of Representatives. Davids Island, the largest island in Long Island Sound, was named for ink manufacturer Thaddeus Davids, who bought the island in 1856 with the unfulfilled intentions to move his factory there.
A vintage postcard depicting the barracks at Fort Slocum where Army recruits were processed during World War I.
During the Civil War, however, the entire island had been known as De Camp General Hospital, where thousands of wounded Union soldiers were ferried for treatment. After Gettysburg, the hospital also accepted wounded Confederate soldiers, evolving into a combined hospital and prison camp. When De Camp closed after the Civil War, the military post was known as Davids Island Military Reservation until its formal renaming as Fort Slocum.
At the height of World War I, Fort Slocum could not always keep up with the steady inflow of newly arriving troops. During one particularly frigid, crazy-hectic week in December 1917, nearly 8,000 recruits were stranded in New Rochelle.
That December, the Department of War had issued regulations that would stop voluntary enlistment on December 20 in favor of relying on a draft to enlist men into the military. On December 10, 800 men arrived at the New Rochelle train station and waited in the freezing cold as at-capacity ferries ran back and forth between the island and the Neptune Park dock, according to city historian Barbara Davis in Images of America: New Rochelle (Arcadia Publishing, 2009).
By dusk, the ferries stopped running — Fort Slocum was full. And so began a remarkable story of how the city of New Rochelle united to feed, clothe, and house thousands of freezing, hungry men stranded for a week during one of the coldest winters in recent memory.
In December 1917, the city of New Rochelle united to feed, clothe, and shelter nearly 8,000 newly arrived recruits.
Every day of that week brought more arrivals to the New Rochelle train station. Each train was warmly greeted, and the men were led through snowy streets to a headquarters established at the Knights of Columbus hall. From there, recruits were transferred to temporary homes in schools, firehouses, churches, synagogues, the YMCA, the YMHA, community halls, and private homes scattered across the city.
Shopkeepers donated huge amounts of meat and groceries and kept their stores open around the clock, according to Davis. A butcher contributed 200 porterhouse steaks, and dairymen provided unlimited supplies of milk and butter. Theatrical agent Jules Delmar enlisted vaudevillians to entertain the troops. City residents offered money and other provisions. The Red Cross and local canteen ladies in blue-and-white uniforms began a days-long cooking marathon for the city’s adopted sons. They also distributed free postcards and stamps, cigarettes, warm sweaters, and bedding.
Editorials in national newspapers applauded the city’s war effort, and grateful parents and mayors from around the country expressed their thanks in letters and telegrams. About 4,000 recruits signed and presented to the US Congress a resolution acknowledging their appreciation of the “self-sacrifice and unselfish spirit shown by the citizens of New Rochelle.” The city of New Rochelle also sacrificed its own men for the war effort, sending 2,500 troops to fight in the Great War. More than 60 were killed.
When Fort Slocum was deactivated, in 1965, Davids Island began its long slide toward decay and abandonment. The ruins of the old Army buildings have since been torn down and removed; today, the island is home mostly to raccoons and poison ivy.
Eons ago, Bill Cary majored in history at Duke University. These days, he writes about local history whenever he can.