Elliott: Chattanoogans joined in an 'orgy of joy and gladness' on Armistice Day, 1918

Elliott: Chattanoogans joined in an 'orgy of joy and gladness' on Armistice Day, 1918

November 11th, 2018 by Sam D. Elliott in Opinion Columns

The top headlines in the Chattanooga Daily Times announced the surrender of Germany in 1918.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

As the calendar turned to November 1918, normal life was slowly returning to Chattanooga after a terrible month of October in which the Spanish Flu took lives and disrupted business. Even as local headlines eased on the matter of the contagion, the front page, dedicated to national and world news, blared news of the impending collapse of Imperial Germany and its allies, Ottoman Turkey and Austria-Hungary.

A highly unusual extra edition of The Chattanooga Times on Nov. 10 solemnly noted the collapse of the Kaiser Wilhelm II's government's authority in Germany itself, the headline self-righteously proclaiming: "Liberty Has Destroyed Autocracy." The regular edition featured a headline reporting Wilhelm's abdication from the throne of the "Hun Empire."

As Europe was several time zones ahead of Chattanooga, the news of armistice greeted the readers of the Times when they opened their papers on the morning of Nov. 11, the headline reading: "Germany Surrenders" and in slightly smaller type: "War Ended at Six O'Clock This Morning." But as reflected in a page 4 headline of "Monday Morning in Chattanooga," Chattanooga celebrated much earlier.

The following are excerpts from the Nov. 11, 1918, description in the Times of the scene that occurred after the arrival of The Associated Press flash at the Times office at 1:46 a.m.

"However, The Times boomed the news from the roof of the Times building with cannon shots, red lights, rockets and huge balooons (sic)... Within fifteen minutes from the time the first boom boomed from the roof of The Times, the people began to pour in streams from their homes. By 2:45 Market Street was packed with humanity.

"Yes, packed with men, women and children, jamming the sidewalks on either side from Sixth Street to Eleventh, and pouring into the street to the street car lines on either side. And through this massed legions of automobiles filled with people slowly made their way.

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"It all seemed to happen within fifteen minutes — that is, the congregating of the crowds ... And down the center, going and coming, walking and riding, were thousands shouting, crying, laughing, waving flags, singing, whooping and making every conceivable noise. It was a sight most extraordinary. It's like [has] never before been witnessed. It's like will never again be witnessed ... . And over it all the rockets were blazing, the pistols, guns and bombs were cracking, whistles were blowing, sirens were whistling, balloons were flying, bells were ringing, horns were tooting and red lights were burning.

"The Times signal that the war had ended met such response in the wee small hours as the oldest inhabitant ever witnessed and the youngest inhabitant will never again witness in Chattanooga.

The next day, after the celebration presumably had run its course, an editorialist for the Times observed of the "orgy of joy and gladness" that transpired the previous day:

"One of the most striking features of the day was the equality of all the celebrants. The rich, the poor, the high, the low, all classes and conditions of men and women mingled and shouted and yelled together, each seeking to outdo the other in the good natured vociferousness and fanfare of his or her joy. From the moment of the bomb from The Times building set off at 2:15 o'clock announcing the signing of the armistice until midnight every moment was given over to the noise and bedlam of shouting, yelling patriots. In it all was recognized the one central fact that liberty and justice had prevailed, and through the unconquerable help of the American soldier, and that these same soldiers would soon be free to return to their homes and receive the homage, honor and deference due them for their valor, their courage and their splendid achievements.

"With only a few exceptions, it had none of the features of the ordinary holiday celebration, it had, besides the manifestation in face, features and actions of the participants of a delicious and very genuine joy over the accomplishment an epochal achievement and the dawn of a new and better era for the world."

Sam D. Elliott is an attorney with Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott and Cannon, and the author or editor of several books and essays on the Civil War, the latest being "John C. Brown of Tennessee: Rebel, Redeemer and Railroader," the winner of the 2017 Tennessee History Book Award. For more information, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.

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