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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 672

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This is the grave of Leonard Wood.

Born in 1860 in Winchester, New Hampshire, Wood grew up in a pretty elite family. His father was a doctor and the family had roots back to the Mayflower, which is something New Englanders really think means something. He grew up in Pocasset, Massachusetts and educated privately before being sent to Pierce Academy. He really wanted to go to West Point but was unable to get an appointment. Then his father died. The family was downwardly mobile by this time. His mother had to take in boarders. Wood was introduced to a rich philanthropist who saw potential in him and sent him to Harvard Medical School for training as a doctor. He received his medical degree in 1884 and became an intern in a Boston hospital. But he had some trouble finding a permanent job. So he decided to combine his interests and become an Army doctor.

In 1885, Wood became an assistant surgeon for the Army, without rank. He was sent out to Arizona. He did well enough that he was recommended as a first lieutenant the next year. He remained in Arizona and participated in the final campaign to subdue Geronimo and the Apache on the U.S.-Mexico border. In 1898, he was given a Medal of Honor for his role in this war on the recommendation of his commanders, including Nelson Miles. After his time in Arizona, Wood bounced around the nation like any officer, slowly rising in rank during an era where that was hard because the military was small and not that many people retired. Perhaps most notably, while he was at Fort McPherson in Georgia in 1893, he enrolled in classes at Georgia Tech so he could create a football team there, which he played on despite his age.

Wood rose fast in the medical doctor realm, serving as personal physician to both Grover Cleveland and William McKinley during their presidencies. Wood also became good friends with Theodore Roosevelt in these years. In fact, while Roosevelt gets all the credit for organizing the Rough Riders, based on his own bragging about it and the personal media machine he used to promote his career, he organized that outfit along with Wood. In fact, Wood was the initial commanding officer of the unit before he received a promotion and Roosevelt took over.

Now very well connected, after the Spanish-American War, Wood remained in Cuba as the military governor of Santiago. He then became the quasi-colonial regime’s governor of Cuba from 1899-1901. He became brigadier general while there and took his medical expertise to work on sanitary reforms. But when he became brigadier general, it was noted that he was promoted over 509 other officers and had no formal military training. Basically, another of his DC buddies was Elihu Root, who made sure McKinley made that nomination. It was controversial enough that the New York Evening Post had an editorial denouncing it.

After a year of traveling in Europe and observing military operations, Wood was named governor of Moro Province in the Philippines from 1903-06. He was the favorite of Roosevelt now and the president pushed for him to be promoted to major general. This actually got a lot of resistance in the Senate by people who protested that this was just Roosevelt bumping up his friend, but it happened. This also meant that Wood was in charge during the horrendous Battle of Bud Dajo, in 1906, a counterinsurgency operation where the U.S. military killed up to 90% of the anti-colonial fighters, nearly 1,000 people including many women and children. Disgusted, Mark Twain wrote of the incident, “In what way was it a battle? It has no resemblance to a battle … We cleaned up our four days’ work and made it complete by butchering these helpless people.” Wood received the first widespread criticism in his career over his handing of this grotesquery.

But Wood was so popular with Republican leaders that nearly 1,000 dead Filipinos wasn’t going to get in the way. Taft named him Army Chief of Staff in 1910. This was a significant move toward the professionalization of the American military and the emphasis on competency over seniority and political conditions, though no question that Wood had those too. But he was a capable administrator who had a lot of support from other rising officers such as John Pershing and Douglas MacArthur. Wood put in the precursor to the ROTC during his tenure there and started the Preparedness Movement, which laid the groundwork for the draft in World War I. As the nation moved toward World War I, Wood, who was not popular with Wilson and who was not renewed when his four year term was up, went around giving preparedness lectures. He wrote a pro-war book called The Military Obligation of Citizenship, based on these lectures. Wood might have been named the commanding general in World War I, as Frederick Funston had just died. But since Wilson hated him, Pershing received the nod instead. Wood was isolated in stateside roles for the war. After having spent decades playing the political game to promote his own career, it came back to bite him in the biggest war he would ever have the opportunity to participate in. Still, he was a soldier and did what he could, but at the very moment the troops he trained were sent to France, he was relieved of his command over them and given another job in the U.S.

Wood also was a serious contender for the Republican nomination in 1920. The Roosevelt wing of the party always liked him and Wood was a pretty committed Progressive. Wood was ahead of Hiram Johnson and Frank Lowden after the first ballot, but he faded after that and Warren Harding became the compromise candidate. Interestingly, when Newt Gingrich was trying to run for president in 2012, he claimed that Mitt Romney was the weakest front runner since Wood. It’s true enough that Wood was initially seen as a massive front runner, but these sorts of compromises at the convention were still very common at this time. Plus Newt is an idiot.

Wood finally retired from the Army in 1921. He initially took a job as provost of the University of Pennsylvania but Harding named him to a mission to decide the fate of the Philippines and then as Governor-General of the colony and so he never served in that role. In the initial mission, his findings were that the Filipinos were not ready for self-rule, a premise shot through with all sorts of racism and colonialism. He was basically a dictator as the leader of the colony. The U.S. had allowed the Philippines to have a legislature. Wood, an imperialist at heart, vetoed nearly everything they passed, which was a big shift away from the guy Wilson had placed in the job who had good relations with the Filipinos. After Wood intervened to protect the job of a Manila cop who was accused of misconduct, the entire Cabinet resigned and relations were terrible between the U.S. and Manila until Wood died in his job, of a brain tumor, in 1927. He was 66 years old.

Leonard Wood is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit other leading military officers of the period, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Douglas MacArthur is in Norfolk, Virginia and Frederick Funston is in San Francisco. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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