World War I is becoming one of America’s forgotten wars. Ask the average American about it and many would not know what you are talking about. A few more knowledgeable people may recall General “Black Jack” Pershing, its overall U.S. commander or President Woodrow Wilson. But few outside of West Point or the Pentagon would recognize the name of General Peyton C. March. Yet this Easton-born soldier, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army from 1918 to 1921, was largely responsible for designing the powerful role of the Chief of Staff in the U.S. Army of today.
March (1864-1955) was not born into a military family. He was one of nine children of Francis Andrew March, a Lafayette College professor. Known as the Grand Old Man of Lafayette, his chief area of scholarship was philology, the study of languages in oral and written sources. The senior March was the first person to hold the title of “Professor of English Language and Literature” in either the United States or Europe. Peyton March’s mother, Mildred Conway March, was a descendent of Thomas Stone, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Peyton March attended Lafayette College, graduating in 1884 with honors. His degree was in classical languages. He was on both the football and baseball teams. March was appointed to West Point and graduated with honors in 1888, 10th in a class of 44. 23 out of the 44 members of his class became generals. March’s first combat action came during the Spanish American War in the Philippines. He was put in command of a rather odd military /civilian artillery unit called the Astor Battery. They were fully funded by John Jacob Astor IV, then said to be the richest man in America. He put Henry Bidwell Ely in charge of the Astor Battery. Ely told March if he needed anything, as March recalled it, he had “an open checkbook.”
A major source for the battery in action is Francis “Frank” Millet (1846-1912). Readers of Erik Larson’s “Death in the White City” may remember the role he played in the creation of the Chicago World’s Fair, aka the “White City,” in 1893. Truly a 19th century Renaissance man, Millet was a popular artist and close friends with an American art colony in Europe that included fellow artist John Singer Sargent. He had been a drummer boy in the Civil War and a war correspondent in several European wars. Traveling the world, he seemed to know every corner of it and was hailed as “an accomplished raconteur” who could come up with an interesting anecdote about any part of the globe.
Millet, who was later to lose his life on the Titanic (as was Astor), was traveling with the expedition to the islands as a correspondent for several popular magazines. He described the Astor Battery, aka the “Asteroids,” in the press, this way:
“The roll of the battery numbered 100, a goodly proportion of men who were college graduates, mostly athletes of some repute and also men who had seen active service in other countries.”
Millet notes when it was called up to the front, “never did schoolboys welcome an unexpected holiday then when the battery received the order to march… and off they went dragging their guns as if they were as light as perambulators (baby carriages) followed by buffalo carts full of ammunition.’’ Millet describes the fighting the next day this way: “As soon as possible after his breakfast, Captain March cut a path through the bamboo and dragged two of his guns up to a group of native huts. He placed one of his guns in an embrasure and alongside the huts.”
The “Asteroids” shortly thereafter under March’s leadership charged, forcing the Spanish troops to flee from their position. Five of the battery’s men were killed. But Manila soon fell to the Americans. March later received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. The Astor Battery returned to New York to a hero’s welcome. But March stayed on in the Philippines as aide de camp to General Arthur MacArthur, father of World War II commander Douglas MacArthur.
March was to remain in the Philippines for a number of years, taking an active part in the conflict between the United States and the Philippine nationalists who wanted to create a separate nation. They were not pleased when Spain, a nation they had been fighting for several years, was replaced by the United States as a new colonial power. This conflict was controversial at the time; among its most active vocal opponents were William Jennings Bryan and Mark Twain. It has remained so among historians to this day. Some have pointed out that little separated it from the colonial wars fought by Europeans in Africa and Asia against non-white people at the same time.
But most Americans at the time found the victory in the Spanish-American War, called by one politician of the day, “that splendid little war,” exciting and in the election of 1900 returned Republican President William McKinley to the White House. McKinley told the press in 1900 that he had prayed on the issue and came to the conclusion that “there was nothing left to do but to take them all and educate the Filipinos and uplift and Christianize them and by God’s grace to do the very best we could as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.” McKinley was a kind man and undoubtedly sincere. Perhaps in a temporary fit of absent-mindedness the president forgot that thanks to Catholic missionaries the Philippines had been a Christian nation, the only one in Asia, since the seventeenth century.
Good soldier that he was, March played an important role in the largely jungle conflict. He is noted in most military histories with the battle of Tirad Pass fought on December 2, 1899, in which a 60 man Filipino rear guard commanded by General Gregorio del Pilar succumbed to 500 American troops of March’s command while delaying the American advance to ensure that President Emilo Aguinaldo had escaped. Del Pilar died in the conflict and was buried several days later by U.S. forces who wrote on his grave, “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
March was a provincial governor of several Philippine districts until returning to the U.S. in June of 1901. In 1903 he was sent to Washington to work on the newly created General Staff. This concept of a general staff that assists the commander of a division or larger unit by transmitting his orders and seeing that they are carried out was standard practice in Europe. In 1904 March had the unique opportunity to serve as one of seventeen American military attaches serving with the Imperial Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War. It was a humiliating disaster for Russia which was defeated in several naval and land battles. That an Asian military force was able to beat a European army and navy sent shockwaves through the West and sparked a revolution in Russia. Interestingly Bethlehem Steel, under the direction of its new owner Charles Schwab, sold weapons to both sides in the conflict. It was settled by President Theodore Roosevelt who received the Noble Peace Prize for his efforts.
During his time in Asia March’s wife Josephine died. Their three daughters later all married Army officers. March also had three sons. One died as an infant, another born in 1904 died in 1928. Son Peyton Jr. was killed in a plane crash during World War I in Texas. March remarried in 1923 at age 58 to an American woman he met while touring Italy.
In 1916 March served with the 8th Field Artillery Regiment on the Mexican border during the search for Mexican bandit leader Pancho Villa. It was during World War I that March came into his own. In 1918 as Army Chief of Staff he reorganized the Army’s structure and abolished the distinctions, during wartime, between the Regular Army, the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard. He also played a role in organizing efforts to supervise the Army during the pandemic of 1918/19. He also created the U.S. Army Air Corps, later the U.S. Air Force, and the Tank Corps. One fellow officer noted that March shook up the War Department like a dog with a rat.
March had long known General John J. Pershing, the other major U.S. military figure of World War I. Their relations were often far from friendly, especially when it came to Pershing’s desire to have total control of American troops in Europe. Both men found out how to work together eventually. March at times also clashed with President Woodrow Wilson, most notably over his sending U.S. troops to Russia to defend the Whites against the Red forces in the Russian Revolution. March was no lover of the Bolsheviks, but he felt putting U.S. troops in the middle of another country’s civil war was futile. As he later wrote:
“The sending of this expedition was the last occasion in which the president reversed the War Department… events moved rapidly and uniformly in the direction of complete failure of these expeditions to accomplish anything their sponsors claimed for them.”
Most historians today agree with March’s assessment. “The war was a humiliating failure and was not entirely legal, ” wrote historian Victor Sebestyen recently in The New York Times Book Review, noting that it cost nearly 600 American soldiers who were killed or went missing in action. “President Woodrow Wilson…and his Secretary of State Robert Lansing lied about American involvement. Then they conspired to cover it up,” he concludes.
March resigned as Chief of Staff on June 30, 1921, retiring from the Army at the age of 56. After retirement he travelled Europe, Africa and Turkey. During World War II March was sought out by reporters for Time and Life magazine for his views on the conflict. He was also an avid Washington Senators fan and regularly attended the games.
Peyton March died on April 23, 1955 and was buried at Arlington Cemetery. His funeral included many military figures, vice-president Richard Nixon and members of the several fraternal orders to which he belonged.