Football and the U.S. Army in the Early 20th Century

By T. Juliette Arai

 As we are in the midst of the college and professional football seasons, I thought it might be interesting to have a blog about this sport during its early years, one which shows a few of the football-related records we have here at Archives I.

At the turn of the last century, football was slowly beginning to be played by a growing segment of the society at large.  The U.S. Army and the U.S. Military Academy (USMA) at West Point were no exceptions.
One aspect of the modern game that we are familiar with today is recruiting.  However, this does not appear to be such a current phenomenon as the following examples—from Record Group [RG] 94, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office—illustrate.
In one such case (File 1450538 in Record Cards (entry 26, ARC 589252), Major T.B. Dugan, 12th U.S. Cavalry, Commanding Officer at Fort Slocum, New York, wrote to the Adjutant General on November 12, 1908, requesting the “retention of certain recruits at [the] Recruit Depot…to participate in football games.”  According to the endorsement, he asked that Frank J. McGovern (Infantry, 2nd Recruit Company), George F. Dolan (Infantry, 2nd Recruit Company), and John A. Duncan (Infantry, 6th Recruit Company) remain at Ft. Slocum until December 7, 1908, as “they are members of [the] football squad and are needed as participants in games to be played…”
Maj. Dugan went on to state that “football is a feature of the scheme for the diversion of the garrison, with the view to increasing the contentment of its enlisted personnel particularly.”  The request was approved by the Adjutant General of the Army on November 13, 1908.

While it appears that we have only a few records relating to football and the Regular Army, there seems to be a bit more concerning the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, especially with regards to the recruiting of coaches from among the officers in the Army at that time.  Two examples highlight this specifically.

In the first instance, a file in AGO Document File (entry 25, ARC 300367), shows an exchange of correspondence in early 1901 between the USMA Superintendant, Colonel Albert L. Mills, the Lt. General of the Army, Nelson A. Miles, and the Secretary of War, Elihu Root.  In 1901, Col. Mills sent forth a list of names of various officers recommended for duty at West Point.  Among them was one officer whom he singled out in a separate letter dated March 18, 1901, to Col. W.H. Carter, Assistant Adjutant General.  In it, Col. Mills requested that “an especial effort be made to secure the detail of Lt. Dennis E. Nolan, 13thInfantry, for duty in the Department of Law” at West Point, as he is “especially qualified for this work, and the Athletic Managers are more than anxious to have his services for the football team this fall.”

According to the contents of the file, Col. Mills’ request apparently made its way to the Headquarters of the Army, as Lt. Gen. Miles wrote a letter to the Secretary of War on April 3, 1901, about this specific issue (See image above).  While he approved of the officers selected for detail to the Academy, he went on to say that in his judgment:

“officers should be selected who are best qualified to instruct the Cadets in the Department to which they are assigned, and not because they are qualified to teach the men the brutal game of football.”

He ended his letter by recommending that one of two other officers—Maj. Henry A. Greene, Assistant Adjutant General, and Captain Mathew C. Smith, 2nd U.S. Cavalry, both senior in rank to Lt. Nolan—be selected.

The Secretary of War added his opinion to this situation in an April 4, 1901, memorandum to the Adjutant-General, and seems to lean towards the side favoring football at West Point (See image right).  He stated:

“Lieut. Nolan appears to be the first officer named in the recommendation of the Academic Board for Assistant Professor of Law in the place of Captain Matthew [sic] C. Smith, relieved.  His is also the ranking officer of the list so recommended.  Major Henry A. Greene was recommended for Professor of Law; not for Assistant.  He cannot be sent to either place because he has just been detailed Assistant Adjutant-General, and his services are required in that capacity.  Captain Smith cannot be assigned because he is just being relieved.  Lieut. Nolan appears to be highly qualified for this position, and the fact appearing…that he is a good foot-ball player does not in my mind stand in the way of his detail.  I think it highly probable that his proficiency in this game, which has the approval of the authorities of the Academy and of the War Department, and in which the Cadets are much interested, will increase his influence and usefulness as an instructor and disciplinarian.  Let the detail be made.”

The same kind of situation occurs again in 1916 when the Acting President of the Army Athletic Council at West Point, Maj. E.J. Timberlake, wrote to the Adjutant General of the Army on July 29, 1916, requesting the services of three officers to be football coaches for the fall of 1916 (See image below).  Maj. Timberlake did admit that “football is only a sport, and that no sport however excellent in itself, or absorbing in the interest it may develop, should be allowed to interfere with the needs of the service.”

However while acknowledging that sentiment, he then presented two specific reasons that his request be granted.  The first was the notion that in order for players “to strive to reach the highest possible standard” the Academy needed to provide them with every means possible in order to achieve that goal.

Maj. Timberlake’s second reason had to do with the annual Army-Navy football game that year, one which was expected to have an estimated crowd of 50,000.  He pointed out that the “Military and Naval Academies have practically won the same number of games” but that the Navy “realizing the importance and significance…of this year’s game in the history of this service match, have secured the services of the best men available to coach their team.”

He went on to state that the [Army Athletic]:

“Council feels responsible to the Academy and, in a broader view, to the Army for presenting this November a Team trained to the minute, equaling the efficiency and knowledge of the game, the teams of the past three years.  It is a principle generally true, confirmed by the experience of years here at West Point, that efficiency in, and a knowledge of, the game can be secured only by a continuity of coaching.”  (See image left)

The Adjutant General of the Army recommended approval of the Council’s request on July 31, 1916.  Army won the game that year 15-7.