Murray, Robbins: WW I POWs at Fort Oglethorpe

Murray, Robbins: WW I POWs at Fort Oglethorpe

July 19th, 2015 by Smith Murray and Mickey Robbins in Opinion Columns
Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Dr. Karl Muck was held as a spy.

Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Dr. Karl Muck was...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

The World War I prisoners at Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., were a different breed from those of World War II, who came from the European battlefield.

The main group of prisoners in World War I came from within the U.S. and were classified as "enemy aliens," those who had not completed the naturalization process. At the onset of the war, 3.5 million Germans or Austro-Hungarians living in the U.S. were unnaturalized. During the war about 4,000 were arrested, mostly on suspicion of spying or sabotage and a few for making pro-German statements.

The second group of prisoners included sailors and merchant men taken off German ships anchored in U.S. ports when World War I broke out. These were military men, properly called Prisoners of War.

The third group included the "trouble-makers," radical members of the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World, the so-called"Wobblies").

At the behest of President Woodrow Wilson, this diverse group was held in three prison compounds: Fort Oglethorpe, Fort McPherson, Ga., and Fort Douglas, Utah. At its peak, Fort Oglethorpe, the largest, held 3,400 prisoners.

Those held included businessmen, musicians, scholars, poets and journalists, as well as illiterate laborers.

One of the most famous at Fort Oglethorpe was the Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Dr. Karl Muck, a native of Bavaria and a Swiss citizen, who was imprisoned for more than a year as a potentially dangerous alien. A June 1995 News Free Press article noted that as a conductor Muck was praised for following the classics to the exact note. His problems began when he reportedly refused to play the "Star-Spangled Banner" at an October 1917 concert in Providence, R.I. The orchestra founder maintained that he, not Muck, did not want to change the program schedule.

Muck subsequently ended symphony concerts with the national anthem. However, many Americans, including Theodore Roosevelt, lashed out at him.

Muck was arrested in March 1918 at his Boston home on charges of being a spy. He was sent to Fort Oglethorpe where other Boston symphony musicians as well as Earnest Kunwald, the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, joined him behind three rows of barbed wire and several sentry posts.

His friend, William Howard Taft, reportedly sent Muck a piano. When the 80-piece symphonic orchestra played, Chattanoogans would line up their automobiles along the road to hear the renowned prison musicians. Commandant Col. W. C. Penrose called the orchestra one of the best in the country.

Prisoners fell into two classes. The upper class included the wealthy enemy aliens. They paid for their own upkeep and were quartered in a separate compound. They were not required to perform any labor and could hire the nonwealthy — the sailors and the Wobblies — who were required to work. Refusal to work meant going on half rations.

Prisoners were served three meals a day, which could be supplemented by items grown in their well-tended vegetable gardens. Family and friends could send comfort items, which included food (not canned) and money. Goods in the Prison Exchange were extensive and less expensive than those available outside the camp.

Medical and dental care were free, and camp health was generally good at Fort Oglethorpe. The exception came with an influenza outbreak in 1918, which claimed 48 lives.

Wives of prisoners were allowed two-hour visits and ordered to speak in English.

Fort Oglethorpe permitted a wide assortment of diversions including sports and offered abundant educational material. Prisoners conducted classes including science, language and literature. Remedial instruction was provided for the less educated.

Moving pictures were shown twice a week.

The prisoners printed their own German newspaper, the Orgelsdorfer Eulenspiegel, and a degree of irreverence ran through it. The Dec. 15, 1919, edition stated: "Secondary to the influenza more or less 50 people died — unofficially." It then states: "All here greater than a short time are more or less crazy — officially."

Tension ran high between the military prisoners (sailors and merchant men) and the civilian enemy aliens. A prisoner swap with Fort McPherson resulted in Fort Oglethorpe holding more of the culturally elite. Keeping the Wobblies isolated in a separate compound also helped produce a tranquil camp.

Escape attempts were rare. Only two prisoners were shot while trying to escape from Fort Oglethorpe. The last prisoner was released in June 1920.

Dr. Smith Last year, 44 Tennessee companies did $226 million worth of business selling transportation equipment, manufactured chemicals, food and wood products and other goods to foreign purchasers with the help of financial assistance from the Export Import Bank of the United States (Ex-Im). is a retired urologist. Mickey Robbins is an investment adviser at Patten and Patten. For more, visit or call LaVonne Jolley 423-886-2090.

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