William C. Zeigler

William Charles Zeigler, a resident of Berrien County, GA, was among the victims of the Otranto tragedy in the closing days of World War I.

William Charles Zeigler of Berrien County, GA was a victim of the Otranto disaster in the closing days of WWI

William Charles Zeigler of Berrien County, GA was a victim of the Otranto disaster in the closing days of WWI

William C. Zeigler grew up in Lowndes and Berrien county Georgia. It appears that he had a difficult boyhood. He was a son of Jesse William “Jake” Zeigler and Lula Tyson, born October 25, 1889 at Blanton, Lowndes County, GA.   His mother suffered from mental illness and allegedly mentally and physically abused his father before abandoning the family.

For the 1900 Census, the family was enumerated in Berrien County, GA in the 1487 Georgia Militia District, the Sparks district.  William was then ten years old .

1900 Census enumeration of William C. Zeigler in the household of his parents, Lula Tyson and Jesse W. Zeigler

1900 Census enumeration of William C. Zeigler in the household of his parents, Lula Tyson and Jesse W. Zeigler.  https://archive.org/stream/12thcensusofpopu180unit#page/n190/mode/1up

Although court testimony later assert that Lula Tyson Zeigler was institutionalized about 1898,  it appears from the census records that she was still with her family in 1900 and was sent to the Georgia State Sanitarium at Milledgeville, GA shortly thereafter. 

State Lunatic Asylum, Milledgeville, Baldwin County, Georgia, ca. 1870-1899 (later known as Central State Hospital). Lula Tyson Zeigler became an inmate of the institution some time prior to 1910.

State Lunatic Asylum, Milledgeville, Baldwin County, Georgia, ca. 1870-1899 (later known as Central State Hospital). Lula Tyson Zeigler became an inmate of the institution some time prior to 1910.

After the institutionalization of his mother, William C. Zeigler continued to live with his father and siblings near Lenox in Berrien County. They were enumerated at Lenox, GA in the Census of 1910. Lenox is situated about 7 miles north of Sparks, GA on the route of the Georgia Southern & Florida Railroad.

1910 Census enumeration of William C. Zeigler in his father's household at Lenox, GA.

1910 Census enumeration of William C. Zeigler in his father’s household at Lenox, GA. https://archive.org/stream/13thcensus1910po172unit#page/n774/mode/1up

At the time of the draft for World War I, William Charlie Zeigler  was 27 years old. He gave his home address as Sparks, GA,. He was still unmarried and listed his occupation as farming in the employment of his father. He registered for the draft for WWI on June 5, 1917.  His physical description was medium height, slender build, with grey eyes and light hair.

WWI draft registration of William C. Zeigler, June 5, 1917, Berrien County, GA

WWI draft registration of William C. Zeigler, June 5, 1917, Berrien County, GA

On  July 16, 1918 William Charlie Zeigler was inducted into the Army, along with other Berrien county men at Nashville, GA.

WWI Inductees at Nashville, GA Courthouse, 1918.

WWI Inductees at Nashville, GA Courthouse, 1918.

The men boarded a train at Nashville, GA.  William C. Zeigler along with Early Stewart, Benjamin F. McCranie, Jim Melvin Boyett, John Guy Coppage, Shelley L. Webb, Hiram Marcus Bennett, Lafayett Gaskins, Ralph Knight, James Grady Wright, James M. Deloach and other men of Berrien County were bound for training camp at Fort Screven, GA.

July 16, 1918 induction of William C. Zeigler into the US Army during WWI

July 16, 1918 induction of William C. Zeigler into the US Army during WWI

Colonel Archibald Campbell confirmed the arrival of the men at Ft. Screven, GA on July 19, 1918.  Fort Screven, on Tybee Island, GA was a part of the U.S. Atlantic coastal defense system and served as a training camp. The fort’s six batteries of coastal artillery defended the port of Savannah, GA.

Fort Screven, WWI, Tybee Island, GA. Image source: http://georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/gastudiesimages/Title%20Page.htm

Fort Screven, WWI, Tybee Island, GA. Image source: http://georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/gastudiesimages/Title%20Page.htm

Fort Screven in 1917

Fort Screven in 1917

After training, the men were sent to the Port of Embarkation at Hoboken, N.J.  The Embarkation Service reported the steamship Otranto sailed for England from New York, N.Y. on September 25, 1918 at 12:40 P.M. with 699 military passengers, including the men and officers from Fort Screven, GA.

But the troop ship Otranto went down on October 6, 1918  off the coast of Islay, Scotland after a collision with the SS Kashmir. The Army could not immediately produce a list of the soldiers who were on board. It was not until October 18, that a passenger list for the Otranto was finally cabled to General Harbord in Europe.  The name of Zeigler, William C. 2595855 Pvt. was on the list.

Ray City and Berrien County, GA paid a heavy toll in the disaster. Among the hundreds of Otranto dead were dozens of soldiers from Berrien.  For weeks news of the disaster trickled into American newspapers. Facts were sketchy at best –  In some cases, soldiers who perished in the sinking were incorrectly reported as survivors. It would nearly two months before the names of the lost were known to the folks at home…

A number of soldiers, including James Deloach were rescued by the heroic efforts of the HMS Mounsey, first to arrive on the scene.  Many others went into the sea and were lost forever. Only a slim few who went into the water survived the swim to the Isle of Islay, Scotland. The bodies of 489 soldiers washed up on the coast  where the ship went down.

William C. Zeigler, of Berrien County, GA was among the dead recovered at Islay. He and the other American dead from the Otranto were buried in the little churchyard at Kilchoman in wide graves accommodating twenty bodies each.

Military Salute to Otranto Victims,Kilchoman Cemetery, Island of Islay, Scotland. A military salute being fired over the mass graves of American troops killed in the wreck of the Otranto which occured October 6, 1918. Among the dead were two soldiers from Ray City, GA, Shellie Loyd Webb and Ralph Knight.

Military Salute to Otranto Victims, Kilchoman Cemetery, Island of Islay, Scotland. A military salute being fired over the mass graves of American troops killed in the wreck of the Otranto which occurred October 6, 1918. Among the dead were soldiers from Ray City, GA, Shellie Loyd Webb and Ralph Knight, and William C. Zeigler of Sparks, GA.

William C. Zeigler and the other Otranto victims lay in the Bivouac of the Dead at Islay for nearly two years.  In June 1920, the Graves Registration Service made the decision to bring the bodies home, and exhumation began on July 1, 1920.

William’s body was transported on the U.S.A.T. Antigone arriving at Hoboken, August 7, 1920, from Southhampton, Brest and Liverpool.

After the war, William C. Zeigler and other Otranto dead were transported back to the United states aboard the U.S. Army Transport ship Antigone, photographed here during the war while in service as the USS Antigone troop transport.

After the war, William C. Zeigler and other Otranto dead were transported back to the United states aboard the U.S. Army Transport ship Antigone, photographed here during the war while in service as the USS Antigone troop transport.

According to the New York Times, Antigone carried the largest number of coffins brought home on one ship, 1,575 dead soldiers. “The dead were landed at Pier 4, Hoboken, where preparations were completed to forward the bodies to their last resting places in home cemeteries, as has been the custom with all returned dead soldiers.”  There was no ceremony or funeral observance at the pier, as that detail of honor was rendered when the bodies were consigned to their temporary graves in foreign lands.

William’s father elected to have his son’s final interment at Arlington National Cemetery.  The body was accompanied by a guard of honor on the final journey.

World War I service record of William C. Zeigler.

World War I service record of William C. Zeigler.

The re-internment of William C. Zeigler occurred August 20, 1920 at Arlington National Cemetery.  In 1934, a headstone of marble from Tate, GA was ordered for his grave.

Arlington Cemetery internment record, William C. Zeigler

Arlington Cemetery internment record, William C. Zeigler

Grave of William C. Zeigler, Arlington National Cemetery. (The middle initial is incorrectly engraved as

Grave of William C. Zeigler, Arlington National Cemetery. (The middle initial is incorrectly engraved as “O”) Image source: Paul Hays.

†††

After William C. Zeigler died, his father finally filed for divorce from his mentally ill mother. By this time she had been institutionalized for nearly 20 years.  It was an unusual case; as a mental patient, Lula Zeigler was  deemed not responsible for her actions.  Therefore, any cause brought for divorce  could only be valid if it occurred prior to the time her mental capacity was diminished.

The divorce case was reported in the Valdosta Times:

April 4, 1919 Tifton Gazette: Jesse Zeigler files for divorce

April 4, 1919 Tifton Gazette: Jesse Zeigler files for divorce

Tifton Gazette
April 4, 1919

Unusual Divorce In Berrien.

Husband Asks Separation From Wife Who is Inmate of the State Sanitarium

        Most unusual grounds are given as a reason for securing a divorce in a suit which has been filed in Berrien county.  It is believed that no similar case has ever been filed in the state says the Valdosta Times.
        Mr. Jake Zeigler has filed papers asking for a total divorce from his wife,  Mrs. Lula Zeigler, charging that she treated him in a cruel manner some years ago.  The unusual part of it is that Mrs. Zeigler is now an inmate of the state sanitarium at Milledgeville and has been there for several years, with the prospect that she is a permanent inmate.  It is charged in the petition for divorce  that the cruel treatment occurred before she became an inmate of the sanitarium.
         When the case came before Judge Thomas last week, it being so unusual he passed it until this week.  Judge Thomas designated Solicitor C E Hay to act as attorney for the defendant in the case and also named Rev. L L Barr, pastor of the Nashville Methodist church, and Rev. Jackson H Harris, pastor of the Nashville Baptist church, to act as representatives of Mrs. Zeigler, who could not appear for herself in the hearing.  The designation of these representatives by the court is for the purpose of seeing that the defendant, unable to help herself, may have a fair and impartial consideration of the case from every standpoint.
        Later:  The demurrer prepared by Solicitor Hay in the divorce case of Zeigler vs. Zeigler was sustained, and the case will go to the Supreme Court, says the Nashville Herald.

The case of Zeigler v. Zeigler et al was referred to the Georgia Supreme Court:

Zeigler v. Zeigler et al. (No. 1384.)
(Supreme Court of Georgia. Nov. 14, 1919.)

(Syllabus by the Court.)

Divorce  27(18), 37(5) – Pleading; Cruel Treatment; Desertion.

In the petition for divorce it is alleged: Petitioner and defendant were married in 1889.  Defendant was adjudged to be insane, and was committed to the Georgia State Sanitarium for insane persons in 1898, where she has since been confined as an insane person. In September 1899, defendant struck petitioner, thereby inflicting a serious wound upon his person.  “From October 1, 1897, until May 1, 1898 defendant continued in a constant state of quarreling and cruelly treating petitioner until such conduct became unbearable; and defendant, without cause on the part of the petitioner, left him and remained away until she became insane.”  Petitioner was without fault during the time he and his wife lived together. “Petitioner did not directly or indirectly condone the treatment of his wife, nor did the relation of husband and wife ever exist after she became in the rage and left him without cause.”  Held, that no cause for a divorce was set forth in the petition, either on the grounds of cruel treatment (Ring v. Ring, 18 Ga. 183, 44 S. E. 861, 62 L.R.A. 878; Stoner v. Stoner, 134 Ga. 368, 67 S. E. 1030; Black v. Black, 101 S. E. 182, this day decided), or on the ground of desertion (Civil Code 1910, 2945), as it appears from the petition that defendant was adjudged to be insane within less time after the desertion than three years, and has since remained insane, and therefore not responsible for her acts during that time.  Accordingly, the court did not err in dismissing the petition on general demurrer.

Error from Superior Court, Berrien County; W. E. Thomas, Judge.

Suit for divorce by J. W. Zeigler against L. M. Zeigler. Petition dismissed on general demurrer, and plaintiff brings error. Affirmed.

J. D. Lovett and Story & Story, all of Nashville, of plaintiff in error.
Clifford E. Hay, Sol. Gen, of Thomasville, for defendant in error.

FISH, C.J. Judgement Affirmed, All the Justices concur, except ATKINSON, J., absent.

Jesse William Zeigler, father of William C. Zeigler, died June 6, 1924. He was buried at Long Bridge Cemetery, Berrien County, GA.

Grave of Jesse W. Zeigler, Long Bridge Cemetery, Berrien County, GA

Grave of Jesse W. Zeigler, Long Bridge Cemetery, Berrien County, GA

Lula Tyson Zeigler, mother of William C. Zeigler, died August 22, 1958 at Central State Hospital (Formerly Georgia State Sanitarium) at Milledgeville, GA.   During her time at Central State Hospital, the institution became known as the “world’s largest insane asylum,” housing some 13,000 patients with mental illness. According to an article in Atlanta Magazine, “Doctors wielded the psychiatric tools of the times—lobotomies, insulin shock, and early electroshock therapy—along with far less sophisticated techniques: Children were confined to metal cages; adults were forced to take steam baths and cold showers, confined in straitjackets, and treated with douches or ‘nauseants.‘ …The thousands of patients were served by only 48 doctors, none a psychiatrist. Indeed, some of the “doctors” had been hired off the mental wards.

Some 2,000 cast-iron markers at Cedar Lane Cemetery commemorate the 25,000 patients buried on the hospital grounds, including patient Lula Tyson Zeigler. The markers, with numbers instead of names, once identified individual graves but were pulled up and tossed into the woods by unknowing prison inmates working as groundskeepers to make mowing easier.

Some 2,000 cast-iron markers at Cedar Lane Cemetery commemorate the 25,000 patients buried on the Central State Hospital grounds, patient Lula Tyson Zeigler among them. The markers, with numbers instead of names, once identified individual graves but were pulled up and tossed into the woods by unknowing prison inmates working as groundskeepers to make mowing easier.

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Rossie O. Knight and the Nixon Nitration Works

Rossie O. Knight (1892-1963)

Born of the World’s mischance,
Lair bade the newer toys of death,
Mortar, grenade and poison breath-
We smiths of Ordnance.

And none may see the arms we forge,
And laughing pass them by,
Nor do we think to show for sport,
Our ghastly armory.

-anonymous member of the Ordnance Department, WWI

Rossie O. Knight was a son of Sovin J. Knight and Ann Eliza Allen,  and grew up on his parents’ farm near Rays Mill (now Ray City),  before moving to Barney, GA.   From 1917 to 1919 Rossie O. Knight served  in some of the major European campaigns of World War I. He received the WWI Victory Medal with five battle clasps. But Rossie had enlisted in the service well prior to America’s entry into the Great War.  In the years from 1913 to 1917, Rossie was engaged in America’s preparation for the coming conflict, in military service in the Coast Artillery Corps, and working to produce war matériel at the Nixon Nitration Works.

Rossie O. Knight’s service records show he enlisted at Fort Slocum, NY on August 31, 1913. Other Berrien county men who entered the service via Fort Slocum included Carter H. Exum and Charlie Turner, both of Nashville, GA who enlisted June 22, 1914. John S. Shaw, of Rays Mill, GA enlisted at Ft Slocum on August 5, 1914 and went to bakers and cooks school at Fort Sam Houston, TX.

Rossie O. Knight WWI service record

Rossie O. Knight WWI service record

Fort Slocum, New York was a US military post which occupied Davids Island in the western end of Long Island Sound in New Rochelle, New York from 1867 – 1965. In 1913, it was a major Army induction center

Fort Slocum, New York was a US military post which occupied Davids' Island in the western end of Long Island Sound in New Rochelle, New York from 1867 - 1965.

Gun squad at Fort Slocum, New York. Fort Slocum was a major induction point for the U.S. Army during WWI.

After training at Fort Slocum, Rossie O. Knight was assigned  to Fort Hancock, NJ for duty with the Coast Artillery Corp, Third Company.  Fort Hancock, situated on the island of Sandy Hook, was a coastal artillery base defending the Atlantic coast and the entrance to New York Harbor. Fort Hancock was operated in conjunction with the US Army’s Sandy Hook Proving Ground, where newly manufactured artillery was tested.

Aiming a 14 inch artillery gun at Sandy Hook, Fort Hancock, New Jersey,

Aiming a 14 inch artillery gun at Sandy Hook, Fort Hancock, New Jersey.

It was in 1914, when Rossie was stationed at Fort Hancock that hostilities broke out in Europe.  Americans watched with interest, but President Wilson worked to keep the country out of the war; “While armies moved across the face of Europe, the United States remained neutral.”  The United States attempted to continue trade and diplomatic relations amid the rising world conflict, but the production of artillery and war matériel in America became critically important to the belligerents. America was just coming out of the Recession of  1913-14, and the business leaders and industrialists began ramping up their companies to produce the needed supplies.  Among these men was an industrialist and shipbuilder Lewis Nixon, who began construction of the Nixon Nitration Works to produce “gun cotton,”- for use in smokeless gunpowder.

Americans were largely ambivalent about the war in Europe. But on May 7, 1915 a German submarine torpedoed and sunk the RMS Lusitania in route from New York to Liverpool, causing the death of 1,198 passengers and crew. Reports of the sinking were emblazoned across newspaper headlines in the U.S. and caused a storm of protest, as 128 Americans were among the dead.

Lusitania Torpedoed

Lusitania Torpedoed May 7, 1915, banner headline in the Thomasville Daily Times Enterprise, Thomasville, GA

On May 8th, the day after the sinking of the Lusitania, the Nixon Nitration Works began production of gunpowder. Lewis Nixon announced he would turn his full attention to the completion of the plant.

May 8, 1915 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced the beginning of gun cotton production at the Nixon Nitration Works

May 8, 1915 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced the beginning of gun cotton production at the Nixon Nitration Works

The Brooklyn Eagle
May 8, 1915

Huge Nixon War Plant to Turn Out Guncotton

Lewis Nixon has decided to abandon his political activities to give his undivided attention to the huge war plant which he is erecting near Metuchen, N.J. With but a small part of the 400-acre gun cotton plant completed, the manufacture of explosives began today. Contracts have been made with France and England which will take the output of the plants for the next two and a half years, regardless of the duration of the war, delivering at least 100 tons of gun cotton each month during the life of the contract.

The Fatherland, a pro-German newspaper based in New York, reported in August 1915 that Nixon had closed a contract with the British War Office for 1,000,000 lbs. of gun cotton to be manufactured at the plants at Metuchen, N. J. The shipments were to begin April 15th and to be continued at the rate of 20,000 lbs. a day. The Nixon concern receives 70 cents per pound. Mr. Nixon, when interviewed, refused to give any details of his contracts, but intimated, said the New York World, that they called for much more material than was reported. Within six weeks, according to the New York Sun, the Nixon Nitration Co. erected three big structures in Millville, N. J., for the manufacture of gunpowder and other war materials. Seven smaller buildings were erected. Three shifts of men have been kept working 24 hours a day. The Sun reported that three times as many buildings would be constructed, and that the number of employees would be increased from 500 men to 2,000.”

Although men came from all over the nation to work in the Nixon Nitration Works, the company  struggled to find enough workers for the massive gunpowder works.  At one point labor relations were strained to the point of a strike. After two fires occurred  the plant let go a number of foreign nationals who had been employed there, although Lewis Nixon denied that espionage was the cause of the blazes.

Rossie O. Knight took a job at the Nixon Nitration Works in September, 1916 although his service record does not indicate any break in his enlistment. It appears that the U.S. Army was helping out with the labor shortage by placing soldiers on reserve status so they could be employed at the Nixon plant.

According to the National Archives, Woodrow Wilson was elected  for a second term as President on November 7, 1916 , “largely because of the slogan ‘He kept us out of war.’ Events in early 1917 would change that hope. In frustration over the effective British naval blockade, in February Germany broke its pledge to limit submarine warfare. In response to the breaking of the Sussex pledge, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Germany.”  On top of the resumption of U-boat torpedoing of passenger ships came the revelation of German communiques with Mexico intimating the countries were conspiring for the invasion of the United States.

Mexican-American relations  had been tense since revolution broke out in Mexico in 1910, leading the U.S. to engage in several intrusions into Mexico’s internal affairs. The American Ambassador to Mexico was implicated in the 1913 coup in which General Victoriano Huerta assassinated the President and Vice President of Mexico and seized control of the government, throwing the country into violent civil war. Because of the civil disruption in Mexico, the U.S. began garrisoning troops along the border.  At least two Ray City men served on the Mexican Border. Owen Leonard Clements was stationed with the 4th Field Artillery at Progreso, TX, and Owen Adrian Knight served in Company M, 23rd Infantry. The U.S. Navy occupied Vera Cruz in 1914 to protect U.S. interests in the Tampico oil fields. There was a series of subsequent territorial encroachments on both sides of the border. In a comparatively trivial border incursion by U.S. troops in January 1916, Sergeant Clements  was drowned while crossing the Rio Grand. Following Pancho Villa’s 1916 raids  into New Mexico, the U.S. Army launched the Mexican Punitive Expedition, led by General John Pershing, in a futile attempt to track down the Mexican rebel.

“In January of 1917, British cryptographers deciphered a telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German Minister to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, offering United States territory to Mexico in return for joining the German cause. ” News of the Zimmermann Telegram was published in the American press on March 1, 1917.

A few weeks later, Rossie Knight wrote home to his brother Leland Thomas Knight (family referred to him as
T.L.). The letter was written on March 28, 1917 from New Brunswick, NJ, while Rossie was working at the Nixon Nitration Works. It expresses Rossie’s anticipation that the United States would declare war on Germany, and that he would be called back into active duty.

Letter of March 28, 1917 from Rossie O. Knight to his brother Leland Thomas Knight.

Letter of March 28, 1917 from Rossie O. Knight to his brother Leland Thomas Knight. Image courtesy of Bryan Shaw.

 

Nixon Nitration Works
New Brunswick, New Jersey
March 28th, 1917

Mr. T.L. Knight,
Dear Brother, I will write you a few lines to let you
know that I am still living and to find out how you ar gitting along
I am getting along fine exspecting to haft to go to war every day I am
exspecting to be called back to the army.
Congress will meet the second of april which is next monday and I
think that war will be declared and if it is I will be called back to the
service if I am called back I am going home for a few days before I go
back to the army. so you need not be suprised to see me coming to your
house in a few days. I will only have a few days there but that will be
better than not going at all.
say do you remember how we ust to scrapp. I often laugh about it that
was the happiest days after all wasant it.
when we would get off saturday at noon. and all day sunday off I tell you
that is the best life after all back on the farm for mine after this yea
r. I have been working here seven months and I havent lost a day not one
and I have worked seven days a week no sundays off. I am alowed one day
a month off and that is all I get. and I get that off with pay that is
why I say I havent lost a day.
and I have just ben making a good living and that is all if a man is
making a living any where these days he is doing fine I think but
I am getting in a position now that I think I can save a little money
if I stay here.
If I am called back to the army and dont have a chance to go home
I will let you hear from me.
Give my best regards to all the people I know.
Respectifully,
(signed) Your Brother
Rossie

Transcription courtesy of Bryan Shaw

Rossie O. Knight was correct in his predictions. On April 6, 1917, the United States Congress formally declared war on Germany and its allies. By  August 7, 1917 he was serving overseas with the U.S. First Division .

The Nixon Nitration Works continued to produce war matériel,  throughout the war. The Nixon Nitration Works which included a number of plants, covered about 12 square miles on the Raritan River, near New Brunswick, in what was then officially known as Raritan Township (later changed to Edison) and unofficially known as Nixon, New Jersey. The company manufactured some two hundred million pounds of  smokeless powder for the Allies and the United States Government during WWI. As a collateral activity, it manufactured military pyrotechnics for the army and navy and at the armistice was the largest single producer of such pyrotechnics in the United States.

With the coming of peace, the company converted to manufacturing plastic materials of the cellulose derivative type. Nitrocellulose was a highly flammable plastic used to make film and x-rays, among other things.  One of the buildings at the Nixon Nitration Works was leased to the Ammonite Company, which disassembled artillery shells and reprocessed the gunpowder contents into fertilizer.

1924 Nixon Nitration Works disaster

On Saturday morning, March 1, 1924, an explosion destroyed the Ammonite building. The 11:15 a.m. explosion touched off fires in surrounding buildings in the Nixon Nitration Works that contained other highly flammable nitrocellulose  materials.  The disaster killed twenty persons, destroyed forty buildings, and demolished the industrial town of Nixon, New Jersey.

Special thanks to Bryan Shaw for contributions of content and images.

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Thomas Jefferson Sirmons Rests at Mount Pleasant Church Cemetery

Thomas Jefferson Sirmons was a son of Nancy Elizabeth Knight (1866-1938) and Moses Greyson Sirmons (1857-1928).  He was a grandson of Rhoda Futch and George Washington Knight, and a nephew of Perry Thomas Knight.

PRIVATE THOMAS JEFFERSON SIRMONS

PRIVATE THOMAS JEFFERSON SIRMONS
Nashville, Ga.

PRIVATE THOMAS JEFFERSON SIRMONS Nashville, Ga. Private Sirmons entered service July 16, 1918.  Was attached to Second Unit, Coast Artillery Corps, September Automatic Replacement Draft,  Ft. Screven, Ga. Embarked for over-seas the latter part of September,  sailing on the ill-fated transport “Otranto,” which was sunk off the Scottish Coast in a collision October 6, 1918. Private Sirmons was one of the soldiers drowned.

In 1940, Perry Thomas Knight wrote the following notes about Thomas Jefferson Sirmons:

“Thomas J. Sirmons b. May 26, 1892 enlisted as a soldier in the World War and on his trip over seas on October 6, 1918 went down with the ship Otranto.  His body was buried on the coast of Scotland on the Isle of Isly and two years later his body was exhumed and brought back to his home at the expense of the United States of America and he was buried at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in Berrien County, Georgia.  The compiler of these records attended his funeral. He was buried with military honors.”  – Perry Thomas Knight

Graves of Otranto men at Kilchoman, Islay

Graves of Otranto men at Kilchoman, Islay

Two years after his death in the sinking of HMS Otranto the body of Thomas Jefferson Sirmons was returned to the United States and re-interred at Mount Pleasant Church Cemetery, about 9 miles northeast of Ray City, GA.  Another victim of the Otranto disaster, Shelley Loyd Webb, waited in a grave on Islay Isle for ten years before being brought home to rest.

Grave of Thomas Jefferson Knight, Mount Pleasant Church Cemetery, Berrien County, GA

Grave of Thomas Jefferson Knight, Mount Pleasant Church Cemetery, Berrien County, GA. Image source: Charles T. Zeigler (see http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=90451556 )

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The Long Trip Home

Shellie Loyd Webb was among the Berrien County men who were drafted in the summer of 1918 as replacement troops for the war in France.

Private Webb entered service in July 16, 1918. Was attached to First Company, Coast Artillery Corps, Over-seas Replacement Draft, Ft. Screven, Ga. Embarked for over-seas service in September, 1918, sailing on the ill-fated transport "Otranto," which was sunk off the Scottish Coast in a collision October 6, 1918. Private Webb was one of the soldiers drowned.

Private Webb entered service in July 16, 1918. Was attached to First Company, Coast Artillery Corps, Over-seas Replacement Draft, Ft. Screven, Ga. Embarked for over-seas service in September, 1918, sailing on the ill-fated transport “Otranto,” which was sunk off the Scottish Coast in a collision October 6, 1918. Private Webb was one of the soldiers drowned.

He was born near Ray City,GA (fka Ray’s Mill) on  August 25, 1894, one of eleven sons born to John Thomas Webb and Mary Webb.  He grew up on his father’s farm in the 1329 Georgia Militia District, where he worked as a farm laborer.

Shellie Webb registered for the draft in Berrien County on June 5, 1917.  He was a tall, dark and handsome young man, nearly six and a half feet, with medium build, blue eyes and dark hair.  Still single at age 23, he worked on his own account and for his father as a farmer.

Inducted into the army at Nashville, GA on July 15 as a part of the Over-seas Replacement Draft, he was immediately sent along with other men of Berrien county to Ft. Screven, GA. There,   Private Webb  entered service in July 16, 1918.  He was attached to First Company, Coast Artillery Corps, Ft. Screven, Ga.  Many of the Berrien men were placed into other companies of the Coast Artillery Corps including Bennie Griner, Ralph Knight, John F. Moore, Thomas J. Sirmons, George Hutto, James M. Deloach, and Benjamin F. McCranie among others.

WWI soldiers drilling on the beach, Ft. Screven, GA.

WWI soldiers drilling on the beach, Ft. Screven, GA.

Shellie Webb trained on artillery through the late summer. On September 25, 1918 he and other Berrien men embarked for over-seas service, sailing on the armed  transport  HMS Otranto.  The Otranto joined Convoy HX50, a convoy of troop ships and escorts crossing the North Atlantic, and about 10 days into the voyage was off the coast of Scotland.

On October 10, 1918 the British Admiralty issued a statement that another transport, the Kashmir, had collided with the Otranto.  The collision occurred on Sunday, October 6, 1918.

ADMIRALTY STATEMENT

     “At 11 o’clock on Sunday the armed merchantile cruiser Otranto,  Acting Captain Ernest Davidson in command, was in collision with the steamship Kashmir. Both vessels were carrying United States troops. The weather was very bad and the ships drifted apart and soon lost sight of each other.  The torpedo boat destroyer Mounsey, was called by wireless and by skillful handling succeeded in taking off 24 officers and 239 men of the crew and 300 United States soldiers and 30 French sailors. They were landed at a North Irish port.
     The Otranto drifted ashore on the island of Islay.  She became a total wreck.  Sixteen survivors have been picked up. There are missing and it is feared drowned, 335 United States soldiers, 11 officers, 85 men of the crew, including men with merchantile ratings.
     The Kashmir reached a Scottish port and landed its troops without casualties.

For days, newspapers around the world carried accounts of the the disaster; the heroics of the survivors and tragedy of the dead.  Hundreds of bodies washed up on the shores of Islay, among them the body of Shellie Loyd Webb.  The people of Islay labored to inter the dead soldiers with dignity and respect.

BURIAL AT KILCHOMAN

     ISLAND OF ISLAY (Scotland) Thursday October 10.  – American dead from the transport ship Otranto will be buried in the little churchyard at Kilchoman in wide graves accommodating twenty bodies each. The church was too small to hold more than a hundred bodies, and scores were placed under improvised shelters in the churchyard.
    As rapidly as the bodies can be assembled from now on they will be buried in groups of twenty in an open field on the edge of a cliff commanding a wide view of the sea and directly overlooking the scene of the wreck.
    A memorial service will be held tomorrow at the church. It will be conducted by the Rev. Donald Grant, who, with Mrs. Grant, were leaders in rescue work.  American and British officers, the Islay authorities and islanders will attend. After the simple service has been read a military salute will be fired over the graves.

1918 Funeral Service for Victims of the Otranto Disaster, Island of Islay, Scotland

1918 Funeral Service for Victims of the Otranto Disaster, Island of Islay, Scotland

The Atlanta Constitution
Nov 17, 1918 Pg B10

American Anthem Sung at Funeral of Otranto Victims

Britons Broke Time-Hallowed Custom That Called for “God Save the King” and Sang “Star Spangled Banner.”

     Bridgend, Island of Islay, Scotland, October 12. — The time-hallowed custom of singing “God Save the King” at the conclusion of every formal British ceremony was broken at the funeral services last Friday for the American soldiers who lost their lives with the sinking of the transport Otranto in collision off the Scotch coast with the Kashmir.
     As a tribute to the American soldiers buried side by side with the naval officers and men from the wrecked British transport, the British national anthem was followed by the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which included several high naval and military officers and virtually the entire population of the island joined.  Few new the words, but the islanders carried the tune with their soft Gaelic voices, standing with their heads bared to the sharp wind from the sea.
     It was a delicate courtesy that was deeply appreciated by the United States army officers and American Red Cross officials present.
     To attend the funeral the islanders came from the remotest parts of Islay, some driving 30 miles in the springless, jolting “box carts,” familiar to Americans who have toured Ireland and Scotland.
     Up to that time the bodies of 100 victims had been recovered and given temporary burial in an open field near the little church at Kilchoman, which looks out over the cliff to the scene of the wreck.  The procession, which formed in the churchyard, followed the bodies of the Otranto’s captain, G.W. Davidson, and the ship’s chief engineer to the burial ground.  The Laird of Islay’s pipers headed the cortege, playing Scotch dirges as they marched.  Then came a firing party, with arms reversed; next, the three clergymen of the island, the Rev. Donald Grant, of the Scottish Presbyterian church; an Episcopal minister and a Roman Catholic priest.  Then  came the bearers of the British and American flags. the latter being Sergeant C. A. McDonald of Galesburg, Ill., one of the survivors.  United States army and American Red Cross officers marched, as the chief mourners, behind the flags, followed by British naval and military officers, the laird, Hugh Morrison, and other prominent men of Islay.
     A guard of the Argyllshire constabulary, brought from the mainland, had been posted around the graves.
     Simple services, consisting chiefly of the reading of prayers, were conducted by Mr. Grant, assisted by the priest and the Episcopal minister.  A salute of six volleys was then fired, after which the British and American national anthems were sung.
     The graves were wide shallow pits, the bodies being  covered only with sod, while American soldiers were making coffins for the regular internment which was soon to follow.

Military Salute to Otranto Victims, Kilchoman Cemetery, Island of Islay, Scotland. A military salute being fired over the mass graves of American troops killed in the wreck of the Otranto which occured October 6, 1918. Among the dead were two soldiers from Ray City, GA, Shellie Loyd Webb and Ralph Knight.

Military Salute to Otranto Victims, Kilchoman Cemetery, Island of Islay, Scotland. A military salute being fired over the mass graves of American troops killed in the wreck of the Otranto which occured October 6, 1918. Among the dead were two soldiers from Ray City, GA, Shellie Loyd Webb and Ralph Knight.

Graves of Otranto Men, Kilchoman Cemetery, Island of Islay, Scotland.

Graves of Otranto Men, Kilchoman Cemetery, Island of Islay, Scotland.

It is not definitively known that Shellie L. Webb was included in the processional and burial described above, as bodies continued to wash up on the shores of Islay for weeks after the Otranto was destroyed.  When military authorities were able to make a full accounting of the surviving and the  dead, his father, John Thomas Webb ,  of RFD #1 Ray City, was notified of his death.

After the war a decision was reached to bring home the remains of the soldiers who died in the Otranto disaster.

The Atlanta Constitution
June 26, 1920

DEAD OF THE OTRANTO TO BE BROUGHT HOME.

Paris, June 25.  — The exhumation of the bodies of 489 American soldiers which were washed upon the rocky shores of the Island of Islay, off the Scottish coast, after the sinking of the transports Tuscania and Otranto in 1918 will be started July 1, it was announced here today.
     The Scottish clan which inhabits the lonely spot has taken the most tender care of the graves and the Chief had given a pledge that the clan would look after the graves as if they were its own until the end of time.  The Chief pleaded that the bodies be left on the island, but the relatives in many cases wished them to be returned and it was decided by the Graves Registration Service to remove them all.
     The coast of Islay is so steep and rocky that the coffins will have to be carried down trails cut in the rocks or lowered by ropes and tackles to a waiting barge, which will convey them to a transport off shore.

But with the exhumation of the Scottish graves the authorities were unable to account for the  remains of Shellie Loyd Webb.  While the bodies of other soldiers were returned and re-interred on American soil, the whereabouts of Shellie Webb was an unsolved mystery.  Despite earlier reports, the Webb family did not know if he had been lost at sea, or if his body had been recovered and buried in Scotland.

Finally, ten years after the fact,  Shellie Webb’s mother received word that the grave of her son had been located in Scotland.

The Adel News
Friday October 12, 1928, pg 1

Shellie L. Webb Otranto Victim
Sleeps in his native soil
Funeral Services Held at Morris Cemetery Sunday Morning

     The remains of Mr. Shellie Lloyd Webb, one of the twenty-seven Berrien county young men who perished on the ill-fated Otranto which had a collision with another vessel and went down off the coast of Ireland during the world war, to be exact on the 6th day of October, 1918, was buried at the Morris cemetery in Berrien county Sunday morning at eleven o’clock.  Mr. Webb was a son of Mrs. J.T. Webb of Ray City. He was about twenty-two years of age when he paid the supreme sacrifice for his country, being on his way to France when the ship went down.  His body was recovered and during these years was buried temporarily in Ireland.  He was unaccounted for and during all these years his mother and brothers have waited anxiously to know if he had been buried or had been lost in the ocean.  The authorities had been unable to tell them definitely.  All the while they had the request of the mother on file in Washington for information on her boy.  A short while ago when the Government had determined to move the bodies of the heroes from their temporary resting place in the National cemetery and when they had been exhumed it was found that the young man’s identification card was on his coffin and upon notification Mrs. Webb  requested that his body be sent home, which was done.  Of the thirty young men from Berrien county, which then included Cook and most of Lanier on the Otranto, only three escaped death.  They are all living today and are:  Mr. Earlie Stewart, of Nashville, Mr. Grady Wright, of Jacksonville, and Mr. Ange Wetherington of Colquitt county.  Mr. Wright and Mr. Wetherington jumped to another boat which had come to the rescue and Mr. Wright had his foot and leg badly injured. Mr. Stewart got to land.  The accident occurred in sight of land, it is said.

    The funeral services for Mr. Webb were largely attended and were deeply impressive.  They were conducted by Elder Davis of Alapaha, assisted by Elder Carver.  The pall bearers were Dr. M.L. Webb, Mr. U.T. Webb, Dr. F. W. Austin, Mr. C.R. Tillman, Mr. G.H. Flowers, and Col. H.W. Nelson.  Mr. Webb was a perfect specimen of manhood being nearly six and a half feet high and weighing close to two hundred pounds.  He was a gallant young man and had many friends who were grieved when he died. Indeed, Berrien county and this section felt the pang of anguish in every home almost when so many of her brave young men met death at once time while on their way across the mighty deep to meet a foreign foe.  Mr. Webb is survived by his devoted mother and ten brothers.  Dr. M.L., L.H., T.J., L.O., M.B., U.T., H.P., H.W., W.C., and Homer Webb.

      Funeral arrangements were in charge of Undertaker A.D. Wiseman of Adel.

After a journey of ten years and 4000 miles   Shellie Loyd Webb was laid to rest  for the final time at Pleasant Cemetery (formerly Morris Cemetery) about 10 miles west of Ray City, GA.

Grave Marker of Shellie Loyd Webb, Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, Berrien County, GA

Grave Marker of Shellie Loyd Webb,  Pleasant Cemetery, Berrien County, GA

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