June 5: “Registration Day” for the Great War

 

 

The United States’ entry into World War I on April 6, 1917 marked the end of a long period of military non-intervention, resulting in a scramble to recruit men to fill the ranks of America’s army and navy before engaging the enemy in Europe.  After a national volunteer recruitment drive only attracted a fraction of the 1,000,000 troops considered necessary for overseas service, Congress quickly approved the Selective Service Act of 1917, which instituted a national draft.

The front page of the Hartford Courant, June 5 1917.

June 5, 1917 was designated National Registration Day.  By 9:00 pm local time, all male American residents (regardless of citizenship status) between the ages of 21 and 31 were required to register for military service, or face arrest and up to one year of imprisonment.

In Connecticut, the front page of the Hartford Courant provided its readers with essential information and a snapshot of local reactions to Registration Day.  Printed above the masthead in all-caps was the admonition “DO NOT FAIL TO REGISTER TODAY. THE HONOR OF AMERICA IS AT STAKE.”  By the newspaper’s estimate, there were 158,289 men living in Connecticut who were eligible to register, with a full tenth of that number residing in Hartford.  Given the massive turnout at a Hartford rally supporting the country’s entry into the War only two months earlier, city officials were confident that registration would proceed smoothly, without the disruptive anti-draft rallies and riots that had plagued other cities like New York.

This Library of Congress photo shows young men in nearby New York City lining up to register for military service on Registration Day, 1917.

Connecticut was not without its conscientious objectors, however: Amid all of the patriotic fervor splashed across the Hartford Courant’s front page of June 5, 1917 was a story covering the “Collegiate Anti-Militarism League” at Yale, led by a professor William Phelps.  Phelps and his compatriots pledged to comply with the Selective Service Act and register on June 5, but vowed to refuse to join the military if drafted, writing “I am a conscientious objector to war and I am opposed to killing” at the bottom of their draft cards.  Both patriotic support and patriotic dissent were on full display across the state — on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Erin Allen, “World War I Conscription Laws,” Library of Congress