Michelle Obama Soldiers On, Renewing a First Lady Tradition

Michelle Obama went to West Point yesterday, the first incumbent First Lady to address a graduating cadet class. Some in-depth research shows, however, that she was not the first to visit the nation’s most prestigious school for Army officer training. One hundred and forty years ago, Julia Grant became the first First Lady to make a public appearance there.

Julia Grant attended the 1871 West Point graduation of her son Fred; another graduating cadet posed with his family after the ceremony in front of the West Point Hotel.

That wife of the incumbent President and former Union General, however, was there only as a cadet’s mother, to attend the 1871 graduation of her son Fred. In contrast, Michelle Obama went to West Point in her own right, First Lady with a federal agenda and instead of watching graduates receive diplomas, she urged them to keep in mind the well-being of families of soldiers under their future command.

James Smith, West Point’s first African-American cadet was harassed by fellow cadet and presidential son Fred Grant who believed it was too soon for integration at the academy

There is further irony in light of the fact that Fred Grant led the harassment of West Point’s first African-American cadet James Webster Smith, the president’s son declaring that “the time had not come” for racial integration at the prestigious military academy.

First Lady Michelle Obama makes a surprise visit to the Iron Mike Dining Facility at Ft. Bragg and greets military families in March of 2009

Along with her “Let’s Move!” campaign to combat childhood obesity and its consequences, First Lady Michelle Obama’s has been moving her other “project” along, a national effort to provide the basic yet unmet needs of military families. In March of 2009, not yet First Lady for two months, she visited the U.S. Army base Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

The First Lady joined the President at the funeral of servicemen killed at Fort Hood in 2010

It was her initial foray into fully grasping the complex reasons for the lack of support to military families in housing, education, childcare and food in the context of cost-of-living rises and slashed federal budgets about to be slashed. Her most shocking discovery on that trip was that many military families had to rely on food stamps to survive.

“These are people who are willing to send their loved ones off to perhaps give their lives, the ultimate sacrifice, yet they’re living back at home on food stamps,” the First Lady told a Good Morning America reporter at the time. “It’s not right and it’s not where we should be as a nation.”

The First Lady addresses troops at Fort Lejeune in April 2011 as part of her Joining Forces campaign.

At the end of January last year, she publicly announced that the President’s 2011 budget would include a 3 percent increase for a total of $8.8 billion in spending for military-family support programs, despite his intention to freeze what was termed “non-defense” spending.. Privately, she was said to have made the case that mental health care for returning military personnel and their families ($1.9 billion), military base childcare ($1.3 billion), spousal career development ($84 million) and necessary Coast Guard housing ($14 million) were all factors affecting defense.”We’ve never asked so much of so few…We’ve seen the huge burden of eight years of war on our troops — tour after tour, year after year…We’ve seen the sacrifices on the home front,” she remarked at the time in her speech to the Joint Armed Forces Officers Wives Club at Bolling Air Force Base.

In May of 2010, the First Lady and Second Lady chaired a committee meeting of national organization leaders on engaging private sector support of military families.

On April 12, with her partner on the endeavor, Second Lady Jill Biden, she unveiled “Joining Forces,” the private sector component which used the mandate of the President’s January 2011 directive for private sector cooperation and support with those conducted on the federal government scale. “We’re focusing on four main areas,” she revealed to the nation’s governors in February, “Employment, education, wellness and public awareness.” Since then, the First Lady has made a national tour to military bases in several Midwestern and southwestern states. Next month she’ll deliver the commencement speech to middle school students who attend class on the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia where their parents are based.

The First Lady greeting families of American Marines at Camp Pendleton, California in July 2010

Both of Mrs. Obama’s public projects, “Let’s Move” and “Joining Forces” are perhaps the most well-organized, seemingly with each stage of the efforts, each including federal legislative initiatives, is perhaps the most professionally envisioned one since Lady Bird Johnson’s “Beautification” project of the 1960s took one of the first public steps in environmental protection, Few realize that in making the well-being of those serving in the U.S. military one of her designated constituencies, Mrs. Obama is part of a tradition that both dates to the American Revolution and has been part of First Lady History from the first presidency.

Martha Washington attending to the wounded and sick Continental Army soldiers at Valley Forge detail from painting George Washington at Valley Forge by Tompkins H Matteson in 1854

It was Martha Washington who began the relationship between the active and retired members of the American military and their Commander-in-Chief’s wife. Beloved by American Revolutionary War veterans for her organizing the medical care and feeding of them as soldiers when she joined General George Washington at each of his military campaign headquarters, they dubbed her “Lady Washington,” as an honor. It was her sharing their hellish misery during the famously cold 1777-1778 winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, when shoes and blankets were in short supply, however, that made her a legend among them.

While at Valley Forge Martha Washington organized wealthy Philadelphia women into committees to raise funds for troop supplies and sew needed blankets, clothes and footware.

A dozen years later, though she sat in high style in the presidential mansions in then-capital cities of New York and Philadelphia, “Lady Washington” could be counted on among those Revolutionary War veterans unable to find work, housing or food, relying on her wide circle of wealthy and powerful friends to support individual cases.

Peggy Taylor and her work in caring for soldiers under her husband’s command were commemorated on a recent gold coin.

Other First Ladies whose husbands served as generals of the U.S. Army or as presidents in wartime continued the effort. While Peggy Taylor assumed only a private role as First Lady during her husband Zachary Taylor’s presidency (1849-1859) while her daughter Betty Bliss took on the ceremonial and hostess role, she had earlier worked to allay the loneliness and desolation of those troops under his command during the Black Hawk War and Mexican War. Joining him in nearly all the remote forts Joining him in nearly all the remote forts he oversaw in isolated wilderness posts from the upper Midwest to the delta South, she even established worship services and a chapel.

A contemporary mural depicts Mary Lincoln with her husband and son and Union cavalary soldiers assigned to protect them at the Soldier’s Home for retired and disabled soldiers.

Inaccurately characterized as insensitive to the realities of the Civil as her husband Abraham Lincoln led the northern states against those southern states which had seceded, Mary Lincoln actually worked as a nurse in the hospital wards where wounded Union Army soldiers were transported for longer-term care. In the fall, winter and early spring months from 1862 to 1863, she made sometimes daily visits to not only deliver gifts of healthier foods cooked in the White House kitchens, wines, and citrus fruits to ward off illnesses caused by vitamin C deficiencies, she also facilitated post-care employment for many of them by interceding with the Secretaries of War, Interior, and State to hire many of the men as clerks in those executive branch departments.

A painting showing Lucy Hayes working as a nurse to Union soldiers injured during a Civil War battle.

Also during the Civil War, the future First Lady Lucy Hayes worked as a field nurse for those Union Army soldiers in battles on the Virginia countryside. As First Lady from 1877 to 1881, she focused her charitable efforts on the shelter of Union veterans’ widows and the education of Union veterans’ orphaned children.

Bess Truman continued her volunteer work schedule and public support of the USO as a Senate wife during World War II into her years as First Lady during the Korean War

Living in the smaller Blair House across from the White House while it was being renovated from 1948 to 1952 meant that routine large-scale presidential entertaining had to be greatly curtailed under the Trumans. Although not yet married to her husband during his World War I service with the rank of colonel, Bess Truman was sensitive to the few pleasures servicemen often received and insisted that outdoor receptions for active, retired and wounded Korean War servicemen not be cancelled bur rather broken up into a series of smaller-scale events.

Mamie Eisenhower as a presidential widow with the first women generals of the US Army in 1970.

As wife of a 5-star U.S. Army General and President, Mamie Eisenhower had little need for worry about being left a poor widow, but recognizing the minimal amount of affordable retirement housing and health care for other Army officers’ widows, she was instrumental in 1960 to establishing the first such institution to do so, in what was initially opened as the Army Distaff Hall. Long after she was out of the White House and then a widow, Mrs. Eisenhower continued her support of military widows and even considered moving into the home.

As First Lady in July 1993, Hillary Clinton greeted US troops statiioned at Camp Casey in South Korea.

Like Michelle Obama, however, some of those First Ladies who proved especially powerful in helping both active and veteran servicemen the most were married to men who never served in the U.S. military. The most recent example is that of Hillary Clinton who, as First Lady in 1997 gave voice to the illnesses that were affecting veterans of the Gulf War, with the possibility of their suffering the toxic side effects of chemical “Agent Orange” used in warfare.

Making overseas trips to visit US troops, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt awarded the Purple Heart, solicited suggestions from personnel, reviewed troops and even toured a combat zone just after a plane was downed

During World War II, there was no more powerful an advocate for the needs, rights and concerns of serviceman than Eleanor Roosevelt. As the first incumbent First Lady to travel to a foreign country, she went to England from October 21 to November 17, 1942, and visited U.S. serviceman, including segregated African-American troops, and reported to the President on unmet but necessary improvements in their facilities, then to the South Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia from August 17 to September 24, 1943 as a Red Cross representative, to assess the tropical conditions the servicemen endured, and to bases in the Caribbean basin from March 4-28, 1944. She would see an estimated 400,000 American servicemen on active duty, including a stop made at Guadalcanal, spending hours at hospital bedsides, joining all meals in the mess halls, and forging lifelong friendships with individual servicemen. She followed up on their reports of problems and irregularities in the U.S. military operations, and also reviewed and redrafted the routine letters sent by the President to families of those killed in action, providing a more humane tone. As an editorial in the Army’s newspaper Stars and Stripes observed, this woman whose own four sons were all on active duty, resembled their own mothers back home and that many came to think of and respond to her as such.

In 1921, Florence Harding visits wounded World War I vets at Walter Reed Hospital, calling them my boys.

Perhaps the one First Lady who rivals Michelle Obama for an ambitious effort to improve the lives of returning servicemen and families is now largely recalled for being married to a consistently low-ranking President. Florence Harding’s dedication to World War I’s wounded serviceman ranged from hosting garden parties for them, publicizing their vocational skills to prompt public purchase of items they made, visiting them in hospital wards – but also using all federal agencies within her power to resolve disputed, individual cases, veteran benefits, and ward transfers. Whenever she traveled to various U.S.cities, she always visited vets in local hospitals, often photographed talking to them. She headlined a “Lest We Forget” Week to prompt donations of clothing, books, records and other items needed in the wards, and led a national effort to create a monument to the World War I soldiers on the National Mall.

Florence Harding at one of her garden parties for disabled World War I veterans with the friend she had named head of the new Veterans Bureau, Charlie Forbes, standing behind her, his arms folded.

Having influenced the choice of friend Charles Forbes to head up the first U.S. Veterans’ Bureau in 1921, she relied on that new agency to conduct investigations into reports she received of poor care, abuse, incorrect medical diagnoses, pension or other compensation problems of disabled veterans. She also passed on reports she received of abuses of the system by veterans. Likewise, she was known to care for the nurses and other hospital workers who were being treated unfairly. Learning that New York Public Health Service nurses were paid less than those in the Army and Navy, she questioned the War Secretary who responded that there would “now” be equitable pay scales. Within nineteen days of receiving a complaint, she resolved a situation where male Maryland hospital guards had access to women nurses’ rooms and were harassing them. Not until 1923 did Florence Harding learn that Forbes had been receiving vast kickbacks for new hospital contracts and on medical supplies he falsely claimed were “damaged.” Of all the Harding scandals that broke in the months after the President’s August 1923 death, Florence Harding said those involving Forbes were the most devastating as a betrayal to her, but because it victimized the disabled vets.


Categories: Bess Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, First Ladies, Florence Harding, The Lincolns, The Obamas, Today in FLOTUS History

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2 replies »

  1. Awesome she is continuing on the tradition. I was stationed at Camp Casey in 1993 when the Clintons came to visit us, I attended the event and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was pretty cool of them to do so, even though I was not a Clinton supporter, it was appreciated and I was not about to miss it.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. And what’s great is just what you say – that someone can appreciate the gestures and actions of an Administration regardless of whether they politically agree or not. That’s good, fair and rational. I think that there have been times when a President may not have always kept in mind the human and family needs of those willing to make the supreme sacrifice – but that a First Lady has, and reminds him.

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