Prologue Magazine

Prologue: Selected Articles

Spring 1989, Vol. 21, No. 1

"An American Epic"

Herbert Hoover and Belgian Relief in World War I

By George H. Nash
© 1989 by George H. Nash

Refer to CaptionThrough the efforts of Hoover and the Commission for the Relief of Belgium, over 9 million people a day were fed in Belgium and Northern France. (Herbert Hoover Library)

Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois was once asked by a group of junior high school students to define diplomacy. The senator replied: "If I said to my wife, 'You have a face that would stop a thousand clocks,' that would be stupidity. But if I turned to her and said, 'Dear, when I behold you, time stands still,' that's diplomacy!"

The subject of my essay, and of the book that I have just published, is, in a way, diplomacy, but diplomacy of a special sort—indeed, of a character that the world had never seen before. The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Humanitarian, 1914–1917, is also a book about politics, again of a special sort: the politics of philanthropy and humanitarian relief on a scale previously unknown and unimagined. And, of course, my book is the second installment in a biography of one of the least understood of all American leaders.

While preparing this volume, I spent many rewarding days in the research rooms and corridors of the National Archives, where I received the courteous assistance of people like Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries John Fawcett and archivists Ronald Swerczek and Gerald Haines. I was drawn here by two superb collections: Record Group 59 (the General Records of the Department of State) and RG 84 (the Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State). Of the latter, two in particular—the files of our embassy in London and legation in Brussels for the years of World War I—proved to be indispensable. And no doubt like innumerable other scholars over the years who have explored these particular treasures, I say: Hurrah for the State Department's decimal file and the access to the past that it facilitates. Would that every other agency of government used a similar classification scheme.

This summer the nations of Europe and North America will recall the seventy-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. For the people of the United States this commemoration will evoke many images. Of battle sites like Château-Thierry and Belleau Wood. Of soldiers like John J. Pershing and Sergeant York. Of Flanders Fields where poppies grow. Of a musical call to arms, "Over There." For some Americans the remembrance will elicit another image as well: of the grim, chaotic month of August 1914, when the independent kingdom of Belgium courageously resisted an invading German army, only to fall victim to a four-year ordeal of conquest.

One American will be forever linked in history with Belgium's travail in that awful war. His name, of course, is Herbert Hoover. After the battle of the Marne, giant European armies bogged down in the trenches, and famine threatened beleaguered Belgium, a highly industrialized nation of 7 million dependent upon imports for three-quarters of her food. On one side the German army of occupation refused to take responsibility for victualing the civilian population. Let Belgium import food from abroad as she had done before the war, said the Germans. On the other side stood the tightening British naval blockade of Belgian ports. Let the Germans, as occupiers of Belgium, feed its people, said the British. Besides, they argued, how could one be sure that the Germans would not seize imported food for themselves?

As the tense days passed in the early autumn of 1914, food supplies dwindled ominously in Belgium. To the outside world went emissaries pleading for the Allies to permit food to filter through the naval noose. Finally, on October 22, after weeks of negotiations, Herbert Hoover established under diplomatic protection a neutral organization to procure and distribute food to the Belgian populace. Great Britain agreed to let the food pass unmolested through its blockade. Germany in turn promised not to requisition this food destined for helpless noncombatants.

Why Hoover? In the summer of 1914 Herbert Clark Hoover was a prosperous forty-year-old international mining engineer living in London—and dreaming of a career of public service in the United States. This orphaned son of an Iowa blacksmith had come far indeed from his humble beginnings in the American Middle West. Rising rapidly in his chosen profession, by 1914 he directed or in part controlled a worldwide array of mining enterprises that employed a hundred thousand men. "If a man has not made a fortune by 40 he is not worth much," Hoover had said, while still in his thirties. By August 1914 he had achieved his goal yet was not content. "Just making money isn't enough," he confessed to a friend. Instead, he wanted (as he put it) to "get into the big game somewhere." Fascinated by the power of the press to mold and direct public opinion, Hoover that summer was negotiating to purchase a newspaper in California. Events in Europe compelled him to abandon his quest. Had it not been for "the guns of August," he would have entered American public life—and might even be remembered today—as a newspaper magnate.

In the first tumultuous weeks of the war, tens of thousands of American travelers in Europe fled the war-shocked continent for the comparative safety of London—and, they hoped, passage home. It was not as easy as that. Arriving in the British capital, many Yankee tourists found themselves unable to cash their instruments of credit or obtain temporary accommodation, let alone tickets for ships no longer crossing the Atlantic. Responding to the travelers' panic and necessities, Hoover and other American residents of London organized an emergency relief effort that provided food, temporary shelter, and financial assistance to their stranded fellow countrymen. Eventually the passenger ships resumed their sailings, and more than 100,000 weary and frightened travelers headed back to the United States. Hoover's untiring and efficient leadership during the crisis earned him the gratitude of the American ambassador to Great Britain, Walter Hines Page. And when a few weeks later the plight of Belgium became perilous, Ambassador Page and others agreed upon Hoover, a man of demonstrated competence, to administer this new mission of mercy. The globe-trotting mining engineer who had done well, and who now wanted to do good, had found an unexpected entrée into the "big game."

And so began an undertaking unprecedented in world history: an organized rescue of an entire nation from starvation. Initially no one expected this humanitarian task to last more than a few months. Few foresaw the gruesome stalemate that developed on the western front. As Hoover himself later wrote, "The knowledge that we would have to go on for four years, to find a billion dollars, to transport five million tons of concentrated food, to administer rationing, novel relief organization, which went by the name of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), possessed some of the attributes of a government. It had its own flag, it negotiated "treaties" with the warring European powers, and its leaders parleyed regularly with diplomats and cabinet ministers in several countries. It even had a "pirate" leader in Hoover, who enjoyed price controls, agricultural production, to contend with combatant governments and with world shortages of food and ships, was mercifully hidden from us."

Refer to CaptionSpecial trucks and ships were operated by the CRB to distribute rations to more than 2,500 villages and towns. (Herbert Hoover Library)
Genealogical Records of the War of 1812
By Stuart L. Butler

National Archives records created during and after the War of 1812 offer the genealogist a diverse and fertile ground in which to obtain invaluable family information.1  These records were created by a variety of government agencies to include various bureaus and offices of the War, Interior, and State departments in response to specific federal laws.  Most War of 1812 - era records in the National Archives having genealogical value were created by the War Department, particularly those generated by the Adjutant General's Office (Record Group 94).  The records are now serviced by the General Reference Branch and the Military Reference Branch of the Textual Reference Division.  Unlike many records of genealogical value from the Revolutionary War era, similar records for the War of 1812 period have not been microfilmed and are not available through interlibrary loan.  The notable exceptions are a number of name indexes for the compiled military service records and pension application files.2

Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files

Perhaps the most genealogically rich records for this period are the pension application files in the records of the Veterans Administration (Record Group 15).  There are two primary series of pension application files that relate to War of 1812 veterans.  The first series ("Old Wars") consists of pensions to veterans of the army, navy, and Marine Corps based on service resulting in death or disability from the end of the Revolutionary War period up to the Civil War.  The files include not only information about the veteran's service but also are likely to contain family information such as children's names and data about the widow's maiden name and marriage.  The records are arranged alphabetically by veteran and can be accessed by using the name index that has been microfilmed as Old War Index to Pension Files (T316, 7 rolls).  The index also indicates the veteran's name, unit, and state from which the claim was made, and type of claimant, whether widow, child, or other heir.  Related records (YI), also arranged alphabetically, pertain to navy and Marine Corps veterans.

Pension application files for most War of 1812 veterans, however, will be found in the second series of pension files, i.e., those based on the acts of 1871 and 1878.  These acts, based on length of service alone, relate mostly to militia veterans called to federal service.  The 1871 act provided pensions to veterans who had served at least sixty days or to their widows if they had married before 1815.  The 1878 act provided pensions to those veterans, or their widows, who only served fourteen days.  By the time these acts were passed, most applicants were widows or minors rather than veterans themselves.  A typical file usually contains the soldier's or widow's application file, a statement of service usually provided by the Pension Bureau, and other papers prepared by the Third Auditor's Office.  Of the two, the widow's or minor's application is potentially the richest in genealogical information.  This is because the widow had to provide proof of marriage, including the date or place of marriage, and usually the maiden name.  Important data about marriages before 1815 found in some of the files may not be available anywhere else.  Interfiled among these pensions in some cases are some bounty land application files.  While the pension files are not on microfilm, an informative index showing much data has been microfilmed as Index to War of 1812 Pension Application Files (M313, 102 rolls).  Supplementing the index is a remarried widow's card index, which covers the period 1816 - 1860.  The alphabetically arranged index cards show the new remarried name of the veteran's widow and the former veteran's name.

Although the process is somewhat involved, it is sometimes possible for a researcher to determine when a pension payment was last paid to a veteran or his heir.  Among Veterans Administration records are the field record books (1805 - 1912), which can be used to determine when pension payments were made and when they stopped.  To extract such information, one must know under which act a veteran was entitled to receive a pension and the city where the agency was located paying the pensioner.  The search can be time-consuming, but information indicating the pensioner's date and place of death could be the reward.

War of 1812 veterans, and later their widows and heirs, could also apply for bounty land under the act of May 6, 1812, and a variety of subsequent federal laws.  Most veterans were entitled to 160 acres, but in a few cases some received 320 acres, called double-bounties.  Until 1842, the land lay within the states of Illinois, Arkansas, and Missouri, and until 1852 the land was not transferable.  A typical bounty land application warrant file contains the veteran's name, age, unit, residence, period of service, and if applicable, the widow's (or heir's) name, age, and place of residence.  Applications for bounty land claimed under different legislative acts will be filed under a single veteran's name.  In many cases, bounty application files from regular army, navy, and Marine Corps veterans consist only of a discharge certificate.  These files are arranged alphabetically by name of veteran, but they are unindexed.  Researchers of these files should search the pension files in addition to searching the more numerous bounty land files.  Less informative are the actual bounty land warrants, which were not issued to the veteran or his heirs.  They do show, however, where the land to which the veteran was entitled was located and the date and name of the person to whom the land was given.  Since many veterans sold their rights to bounty land to other persons, their names do not appear on many of the warrants.  The warrants have been filmed on War of 1812 Military Bounty Land Warrants, 1815 - 1858 (M848, 14 rolls).3

Military Service Records

The National Archives has some kind of military service record for most soldiers who served during the War of 1812.  Genealogical information found in these records varies greatly depending on the type of service rendered.  Naval service for enlisted men is more difficult to establish, especially when the soldier was an enlisted man.  Establishing service for a Marine Corps soldier is somewhat easier.

Compiled Military Service Records. The great majority of soldiers who served during the War of 1812 were volunteers, or members of state militia who were federalized for portions of the war period.  There were also volunteer units directly raised by the federal government.  The service records of these soldiers consist of compiled military service records or those records of service that were compiled from the original muster and pay rolls by the clerks in the Adjutant General's Office after the war (Records of the Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94).  The records are arranged by state or federal volunteer unit and thereunder alphabetically by name of soldier.  A microfilmed index to these records is available on Index to Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Soldiers who Served During the War of 1812 (M602, 234 rolls).  The actual service records have not been filmed.  The service records show the soldier's name, rank, regimental unit (usually showing the last name of the regimental commander), the company commander's name, dates of service and pay, whether the soldier was a substitute, date of discharge, and sometimes, distance to the soldier's home from place of discharge.  Other information such as date of death, if applicable, and periods of sickness, if recorded on the muster rolls, is noted.  The service record reflects the information found on the original muster and payrolls; all information from these original rolls has been transferred to the compiled service record, so there is no need to examine the original rolls to obtain additional information.  Because so many volunteers served only a few days or weeks, the information available is frequently meager.  These records will not ordinarily show place of birth, age, or parents' names.  They may show, however, disciplinary action resulting in dismissal or court-martial, if such information was noted on the muster roll.  Compiled service records for officers show much the same information but usually include original vouchers and receipts for supply, pay, and transportation.  Some of these papers may enable a researcher to determine where a unit served during the war.4

Regular Army Enlistment Registers and Papers.  If a soldier's name does not appear in the index for volunteer soldiers, he might have served in the regular army.  If the soldier served as an officer in the U.S. Army during this period, his name should be in Francis B. Heitman's Historical Register and Dictionary of the U.S. Army (1903).  There are no consolidated "service records" for officers before 1863.  Aside from entries in Heitman, one can examine the correspondence of the Adjutant General's Office for pertinent documentation relating to these officers.  Most of the names of regular army soldiers who served during the War of 1812 appear in the fifteen volumes of enlistment registers that show the names of soldiers enlisting for the period 1798 - 1815.  Despite the dates indicated, most of the names in these registers are for those who enlisted during the War of 1812 period.  The names are arranged alphabetically by the initial letter of surname, and thereunder alphabetically by given name, e.g., the name of Aaron Atkins would come before George Abbott, regardless of when each enlisted.  The registers are somewhat more useful to the genealogist than the information provided on the compiled service record because they can show the age, place of birth (either city, county, or state), physical description (to include height), occupation, place and date of enlistment.  The registers also indicate when, where, and under what circumstances the soldier was discharged.  These registers were compiled in the late nineteenth century by the Adjutant General and are based on a variety of original records such as muster and payrolls, inspection and descriptive rolls, and other miscellaneous records in the Adjutant General's Office.  As with the compiled service records, the information on these original records was transferred to the register, so no additional information is available from exarraning the original records.  Fortunately for the researcher, these registers have been microfilmed on Registers of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798 - 1914 (M233, 81 rolls).  Another series of records, the enlistment papers, may also be useful.  Unfortunately, the original enlistment papers for the War of 1812 period are fragmentary and incomplete.  The papers are arranged alphabetically for the period 1798 - 1894.  Much of the same information, however, can be found in the registers of enlistments.

Other Military Records.  The Adjutant General's Office also includes several useful, but lesser known, series of records that may prove useful to the genealogist.  The certificates of disability for the War of 1812 are documents signed by a surgeon attesting to the disability and discharge of regular army soldiers.  Arranged by regiment and then by name, the certificates include information such as name, age, rank, unit, enlistment date, place of birth, and personal description.  If no enlistment register entry exists for an individual, then this series might help.  In addition to the large series of enlistment papers already discussed, a small series of enlistment papers and discharges also exists for the War of 1812 period.  If no information is found in the larger series, then these papers should be examined.  Often overlooked, but potentially useful, are Miscellaneous Manuscripts of the War of 1812 and its accompanying name index.  The manuscripts contain a great variety of information about regulars, volunteers, and civilians.  The records are arranged numerically and appear to be grouped by state and federal units.  Among the records are vouchers, returns, receipts for supplies signed by officers in the field, and impressment of articles and services from civilians such as ferrymen, landlords, farmers, and seamstresses.  The records appear to document mostly the activities of volunteer units and should be searched whenever the subject is a volunteer soldier, especially an officer.  Records of the Adjutant General's Office also contain several small series of records relating to American POWs originally compiled by the Navy and Treasury departments.  These are indexed and can be useful in determining if an American soldier was a POW in Canada.  Records of the Judge Advocate General (Army) (Record Group 153) contain the proceedings of general courts-martial from the War of 1812 period for both volunteers and regulars.  A card name index and a computerized name index give access to these records.  The proceedings can provide an interesting and fascinating glimpse into army life.

Naval and Marine Corps Records

Records of naval officers' service are more numerous than those for enlisted personnel.  The names of naval officers are printed in a useful work by R. W. Callahan, List of Officers of the Navy of the U.S. and the Marine Corps From 1775 to 1900 (1901).  The basic National Archives record showing naval and Marine Corps officer service in the War of 1812 can be found in Abstracts Of Service Records of Naval Officers ("Records of Officers"), 1798 - 1893 (M330, 19 rolls, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Record Group 24).  Of the fifteen volumes filrned in this series, volumes D and E show officers' records of service for the War of 1812.  The entries are arranged chronologically and indicate the dates of acceptance, resignation, appointment, assignment, transfer, promotion, and ships on which the officer served.  Other records containing additional information about navy and Marine Corps officers can be found in Records of the Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library (Record Group 45).  There are several series of records for the War of 1812 period that show letters of resignation (three volumes), letters indicating receipt of commissions and enclosing oaths of allegiance "acceptances" (five volumes), and letters from midshipmen accepting commissions and enclosing oaths of allegiance (one volume).  There are no such compiled summaries to show service for naval enlisted men for this period.  If the ship on which a seaman served is known, the muster and payrolls for that vessel can be examined to determine the dates of enlistment and service.  If the ship is not known, then the research becomes laborious because the muster and payrolls of all ships operating at that time must be searched, and the names on the rolls are not necessarily arranged alphabetically.  The best sources, however, for ascertaining naval service are the pension and bounty land application files.  If a seaman applied for one of these benefits, the ship's name and dates of service will be indicated on the application, making the search for pertinent muster rolls less time-consuming.

Records of the U.S. Marine Corps (Record Group 127) include comprehensive card indexes listing all officers and enlisted men who served before 1900.  The information is slim, but they do show the dates of appointment and enlistment.  There are, however, service records for enlisted Marine Corps personnel for the period 1798 - 1895.  These papers are arranged by year of enlistment, thereunder by initial letter of surname, and consist of enlistment and other papers that might establish date of service, age, place of birth, and occupation.  The size rolls (similar to muster rolls) for the period 1798 - 1906 supply much the same information as the army enlistment registers, but one must know the approximate date of service to use them.  The record group also contains card indexes showing names of Marine Corps casualties for the War of 1812 period.

Other Naval Records.  Record Group 45 also contains a large series of records relating to naval and other American prisoners of war captured and incarcerated by the British in England, Nova Scotia, or on cartel POW ships.  The lists show the names, dates of capture, ship from which taken, and the location of the prisoner (Subject File, 1775 - 1910, series RA).  Additional records relating to POWs are the registers of U.S. prisoners in Halifax, Barbados, and Jamaica, which consist of three volumes listing name, date, and place of capture; and a register of U.S. prisoners of war at Quebec that shows name, ship from which taken, place of birth, and date of discharge.  An interesting series of records (Subject File, RN) shows the names of British aliens or other noncitizens reporting to U.S. marshals under federal law.  These are apparently copies that were sent to the State Department and include such information as name of alien, residence, names of wife and children, place of birth, age, and occupation.  Two other series of records in Record Group 45, a register of aliens in New York (1813) and a register of suspected aliens along the Atlantic Coast (1813), supplement the larger series.5  Records of the Judge Advocate General (Navy) (Record Group 125) may provide sources of information concerning naval or Marine Corps personnel summoned before courts of inquiry or other disciplinary courts-martial for this period.  Name indexes as well as the proceedings of such courts can be found on Records of General Courts-Martial and Courts of Inquiry of the Navy Department, 1799 - 1867 (M273, 198 rolls).

Stuart L. Butler is a former assistant chief of the Old Military and Civil Branch of the National Archives and Records Admminstration. He received his M.A. from Florida Atlantic University.

1. There are several National Archives publications that researchers should examine before using some of the records described herein.  These are: Using Records in the National Archives for Genealogical Research (General Information Leaflet [GIL] No. 5, 1990); Military Service Records in the National Archives of the United States (GIL No. 7, 1985); Information About the National Archives for Prospective Researchers (GIL No. 30, 1990); and Genealogical Records in the National Archives (rev. 1985).  Many of the microfilm publications are available in the Regional Archives System throughout the United States.  To identify the facility nearest you, see the list in the back of Prologue or refer to The Regional Archives System of the National Archives (GIL No. 22, 1991).  Titles of microfilm publications containing relevant War of 1812 - era indexes and records can be found in National Archives Microfilm Resources for Research: A Comprehensive Catalog (1990) and, more specifically, Genealogical and Biographical Research: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications (1983) and Military Service Records: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications (1985).

2. A good genealogical overview of the period is George K. Schweitzer, War of 1812 Genealogy (1988).  Recent historical works relating to the war in general are John K. Mahon, The War of 1812 (1972); J.C.A. Stagg, Mr. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early Republic, 1783 - 1830 (1983); and Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (1989).  In addition, many states have published rosters of their troops called to duty during the War of 1812.  Many of these volumes are out of print, but they can be consulted in the appropriate state archives.  The National Archives has some of these publications, but the best source is probably the Local History and Genealogy Room of the Library of Congress.

3. See Laws of the United States Governing the Granting of Army and Navy Pensions (1923).

4. Copies of compiled military service records can be obtained through the mail by completing NATF Form 86.  Copies of pensions and bounty land warrant application files can be obtained using NATF Form 85.  Each record must be requested on a separate form.  Forms and information about other records can be obtained by contacting Old Military and Civil Records (NWCTB), National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC 20408.

5. Related State Department records are on "War of 1812 Papers" in the Department of State, 1789 - 1815 (M588, 7 rolls).

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.