When Congress declared war on Germany in April 1917, part of South Carolina was already on a war footing. Charleston buzzed with rumors and fear on February 1917 when a German freighter, interned since 1914, tried to block the Navy Yard channel. The ship’s skeleton crew failed, and all were convicted and imprisoned. Inland, the cities of Greenville, Spartanburg, and Columbia had started lobbying for army training centers in their communities, for both economic and patriotic reasons. Led by Governor Richard I. Manning, this patriotic zeal grew stronger after the United States entered the war. However, not all of the state’s leaders agreed with the nationalistic fervor. During the spring and summer of 1917, former governor Coleman Blease publicly spoke out against the war, trying to garner support among textile workers. His efforts drew few supporters.
More than 65,000 South Carolinians served in the armed forces, while others supported the war effort through liberty bond drives, home gardens, and meatless and wheatless days. Through the Women’s Committee of the South Carolina State Council of Defense, many women made significant, but often unrecognized contributions. With the onset of war-time food shortages, the committee provided instructions on how to can and preserve foods and methods to grow “Liberty Gardens.” Women also entered the workforce as young men went to war. A few joined the army nurse corps. Patriotism cut across racial boundaries in broad support of bond drives and the Red Cross.
The war revitalized the state’s main livelihoods—agriculture and textiles. Total farm incomes in South Carolina rose from an average of $121 million in 1916 to $446 million during the war. The value of textile production doubled between 1916 and 1918, from $168 million to $326 million. New military installations also improved the economic outlook of many South Carolina communities. Camp Sevier in Greenville, Camp Jackson in Columbia, and the Charleston Navy Yard sparked large population increases, from the arrival of both armed forces personnel and civilian employees.
However, most of the changes wrought by World War I in South Carolina would not survive the war. With Germany’s surrender in November 1918, military and naval bases quickly demobilized, with most closed by the early 1920s. Only the Charleston Navy Yard and the Parris Island Marine installations remained active, but at severely reduced levels. These closings foreshadowed an economic tailspin throughout the state in other important areas. War-time food and cotton surpluses after 1918 saw farm prices drop precipitously. Cotton prices fell from a war-time high of 40¢ a pound to less than half that by the early 1920s. Textile mills slashed war-time wages, which mill hands protested in a series of massive, yet unsuccessful strikes. Although race relations had relaxed somewhat during the war, they regressed in the postwar period. Many returning African American servicemen were greeted with race riots across the United States, including one in Charleston in 1919. Segregation grew more pronounced, and opportunities for African Americans returned to the more limited prewar levels, leading to their mass exodus to northern cities in the following two decades.
Hemmingway, Theodore. “Prelude to Change: Black Carolinians in the War Years, 1914–1920.” Journal of Negro History 65 (summer 1980): 212–27.
Moore, John H. “Charleston in World War I: Seeds of Change.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 86 (January 1985): 39–49.
South Carolina. Adjutant-General’s Office. Official Roster of South Carolina Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the World War, 1917–1918. 2 vols Columbia, S.C.: Joint Committee on Printing, 1929.
West, Elizabeth C. “‘Yours for Home and Country’: The War Work of the South Carolina Woman’s Committee.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (2001): 59–68.