"So then after the Lord had spoken vnto them, he was receiued vp into heauen and sate on the right hand of God." —Mark, XVI:19
Dawn broke that day on a new epoch, one that would carry the name of a man whose ideas and ideals would extend well into the next century.
Shortly after seven o'clock on Wednesday, December 4, 1918, the sun rose over Hoboken, just as the nine-car special train of the twenty-eighth President of the United States chugged its way through the New Jersey city that fronted the western piers of New York Harbor. One thousand soldiers and a Marine Corps guard of honor joined the local police in restraining the hundreds who stood in the chilly first light in hopes of catching a glimpse of the illustrious passenger. They wanted nothing more, wrote one observer, than "to cheer the president and to wish him God-speed on his momentous voyage." At last, the flag-draped locomotive sputtered to a halt so that its central car—named "Ideal"—stopped before a red carpet leading to Pier 4. A battalion of the 13th United States Infantry surrounded the train.
The passengers remained on board until eight o'clock, at which time President Woodrow Wilson and his second wife, Edith, stepped off the train, prompting a rousing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" from an Army band. Brigadier General G. H. McManus, commander of the Port of Embarkation, stepped forward to welcome his Commander in Chief. In the last eighteen months, McManus's port had witnessed the deployment of two million "doughboys" (as American soldiers were called) who had gone off to fight "the Hun" and win the first truly global war in history. General John J. Pershing, who had led the American Expeditionary Force, had rallied his armies from the outset with the vow that they would be in "Heaven, Hell or Hoboken" by Christmas of 1917.
A year later than Pershing had promised, President Wilson tipped his hat and greeted the surrounding soldiers and sailors before proceeding through a huge shed, which was lined with three hundred Army Transport Service girls in khaki and infantrymen bearing fixed bayonets. Hundreds of flags, those of the United States and the Allied nations—Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Italy most recognizable among them—hung from the ceiling of the great hall. Wilson walked beneath the glorious array and onto his home for the next ten days, the United States steamship George Washington. On December 4, 1917, that same ship had transported her first five thousand troops to fight in the war "over there." Now the great vessel was about to convey President Wilson and his team of aides and experts on a voyage of peace to Europe—not only to conclude what had been the greatest conflagration in the history of man but also to create a document that might guarantee that they had just fought "the war to end all wars."
As the President and Mrs. Wilson ascended the gangplank, the naval band on board struck up "Hail to the Chief," after which it reprised the National Anthem. Then the Wilsons settled into their flower-filled accommodations. The President's suite consisted of a green-curtained bedroom and bath and a large office, with a mahogany desk on which sat a white telephone for shipboard calls; attached to a wall was a wireless telephone by which the President could communicate with Washington or the Pennsylvania, the lead escort ship. Mrs. Wilson's bedroom was decorated in ivory with a pink bedspread, curtains, and plump cushions, connecting to a large bath, a dining room large enough to seat six comfortably, and a sitting room with writing desk, chairs, and table. It was all to her liking, except for the soldiers outside their staterooms and patrolling the decks.
Never in history had so much security surrounded an American president. In addition to the military presence, eight members of the Secret Service were aboard the George Washington, with two more doing advance work in France. The ship, recalled agent Edmund Starling, "had been checked from bow to stern and from keel to masthead, and members of the Secret Service all over the United States had been busy investigating members of the crew....There was not a fireman or cabin boy whose family and background had not been thoroughly looked into." The hopes of the world were on board, and everything was being done to ensure the safety of the transport.
At 10:15 the twin-stacked ship —722 feet long and weighing 25,000 tons—backed into the Hudson River. Once its stern was sighted heading northward, a cacophony rent the air. All the vessels in the waters around the New York islands responded with bells and sirens and horns and whistles, as passengers on every craft jockeyed for rail position in order to wish Woodrow Wilson a bon voyage.
Wearing a bearskin coat, the President and his wife joined Captain Edward McCauley, Jr. on the bridge. Wilson waved his hands and raised his hat to the crowds again and again in appreciation of the most spectacular send-off in New York history. It was difficult to imagine in that moment of purely joyful noise, with thousands of flags and handkerchiefs waving in his honor, that he was one of the most polarizing Presidents in the nation's history. As one of his earliest supporters, Oklahoma Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, once said: "Wilson had no friends, only slaves and enemies."
Adapted from Wilson, by A. Scott Berg, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) L.L.C.; (c) 2013 by A. Scott Berg.