The Real Uncle Sam

I was tickled to read “Patriotic Poster Boys” [July/August], featuring my great-grandfather, James Montgomery Flagg. It is always a joy to find current publications on the history behind Uncle Sam and the infamous “I Want You” World War I poster. I am a true believer that only history can tell the past, and if that history is lost or forgotten, so then are the stories for future generations. At the same time, misinformation can replace facts.

Your caption states that Flagg “sketched Uncle Sam’s face after his own, to avoid having to hire a model.” It was my grandmother Faith Flagg’s lifelong quest to right history of the misinformation passed along by so many uninformed agencies and organizations that consider themselves master historians. I feel it my duty to continue the quest and share the true story of how James Montgomery Flagg originated the image that would become an icon.

One rainy night on a train bound for Parris Island, Flagg spotted a handsome (young) straight-backed figure headed for Marine boot camp. He said, “That’s what I call a Symbol of His Country, by Christ! Not some old hayseed in striped pants and galluses.” Flagg was delivering a portrait of one of the officers and was able to secure a 24-hour pass for the young recruit, as “boots” were not allowed off post until they had finished basic training. He was no more than 17, but my great-grandfather aged his face by 40 years and turned a circus clown’s costume into symbolic dignity.

By 1941, at age 64, Flagg had grown to look like the original and began to use himself in several later pieces. The “model hire” misquote comes from his letter from Franklin Delano Roosevelt regarding an early war poster (“Jap…You’re Next!”). The last paragraph says: “By the way, I congratulate you on your resourcefulness in saving model hire. Your method suggests Yankee forebears.” Flagg did indeed use himself for Uncle Sam in this World War II poster, hence the comment by FDR.

Kylie A. Hendricks

Temple, Ariz.

War Declared!

I found the section of “War Declared!” [by Jonathan Turley, July/August] about the start of the Mexican-American War to be misleading. Turley insinuates that the U.S. provoked Mexico into war. The real problem was that Mexico would not accept the loss of Texas and was willing to go to war with the U.S.

Since 1836 Texas was an independent nation recognized by the U.S., England and France. Texas claimed its border as the Rio Grande and not the Nueces, as claimed by Mexico. The U.S. had every right to accept Texas as a state. Mexican President Herrera stated that if necessary, he would defend Texas by arms.

President Polk sent John Slidell to negotiate the border with Mexico and purchase additional land, but he was refused a meeting and dismissed. Mexico sent large numbers of troops to the Texas border, and President Polk responded, ordering General Zachary Taylor to Texas to defend the border as the Rio Grande. On April 12, 1846, Mexico gave Taylor 24 hours to remove his army from the Rio Grande. He refused. On April 24, the Mexican army crossed the Rio Grande and killed or wounded 16 American soldiers. This incident started the war.

Texas claimed the Rio Grande before it became a state. Mexico refused all negotiations, and the boundary dispute over the Rio Grande was just an excuse for war. Mexico wanted all of Texas back. President Polk was not the “wild-eyed” warmonger Turley made him out to be.

John McTernan

Millerstown, PA.

I wondered why [Turley] didn’t reference the Greek city-state of Sparta? It seems that just as our founders decided to not let the power of declaring and making war reside in one person, Sparta also seemed to have had difficulty in allowing just one person to have so much authority. The same conclusion was reached, at different points in history, for the same vexing problem, at the same social level within their respective societies: The investment of supreme power into one person has proven, by historical record, to be a disastrous choice.

Thomas J. Baglin

Rochester, N.Y.

Italian Lessons?

“French Lessons” [Voice, by Geoffrey Norman, July/ August] was written in defense of France’s martial endeavors. [According to the article,] British historian J.F.C. Fuller even equates Napoleon with Alexander the Great and Augustus. For completeness, Norman should have mentioned that Napoléon was of Italian descent. He was born in Corsica and spoke Italian as a child. The original spelling of his name was Napoleone Buonaparte. Viva la France?

B.A. Randazzo

Via E-Mail

Field Marshal Haig

[Re. “The Worst General,” by Geoffrey Norman, June:] While Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig made many mistakes during the Great War, the British army learned a great deal from the mistakes it made during the Battle of the Somme. Where is it mentioned that 30 percent of all the artillery fired during the Somme were duds or that afterward artillery officers changed their targeting techniques and learned to fire over the heads of infantry so as not to devastate the landscape the infantry would have to traverse? Or the increased use of tanks? I could go on and on with the lessons learned and changes in tactics the British employed. While Haig deserves blame for the failures, doesn’t he also deserve credit for the successes?

Gregory R. Samuels

Mansfield, Conn.

Geoffrey Norman picks and chooses his facts. Quoting Churchill as an expert on strategy is really pressing the issue; the man largely responsible for the disaster and slaughter at Gallipoli is no one to cast stones at others. The Somme became a grim episode in a battle of attrition.

Haig might not be the brightest light in the sky, but he gradually learned his lessons. The Somme gave out by the fall of 1916; the German army’s regular cadres were devastated by this battle. The imperial German army was never the same. Too many regular cadres killed, captured or wounded. Paschendaele should have been stopped halfway through. The prime minister had the authority to do so. David Lloyd George understood the issue of war weariness in the collapse of Russia. He took extraordinary measures to keep the British public sympathetic to the war and to keep working.

None of the armies engaged in the First World War performed with perfect strategy or tactics. I am afraid the Field Marshal Haig “straw man” doesn’t do the job.

Daniel David

Flushing, N.Y.

Haig’s appalling ideas in World War I parallel those of Russians in the East. My father graduated from his “West Point” in 1912 and was accepted into an Imperial Guard rifle regiment. As an elite force, they were thrust into battle immediately using the same obsolete tactics as Britain. His memoir describes the Austro-Hungarian attack on Warsaw at Opatov, September 21, 1914, as a bitter introduction for the guards to machine guns, trenches and artillery.

Ironically, a cavalry general, Vladimir Bezobrazov, commanded the Imperial Guard. His order of battle dated July 14, 1916, urged victory in the Brusilov Campaign. He signed it “General of Cavalry.” My father described an attack on the village of Tristen on July 29: “As expected, our losses were colossal. It’s enough to say that in my company of 250 men we ended the attack with only 32. In our neighboring company there was about the same, and its commander, Col. V., was killed the moment they had seized the enemy guns. Farther than the battery they could not advance, and they had to draw back a few steps to old German trenches, leaving their commander’s body behind.” (It was later recovered at night.)

Along with the rest of the world I am astonished at how stupid we are. Your magazine teaches clearly of the past, but we learn nothing for the future.

George Toumanoff

Peterborough, N.H.


On P. 38 in the September feature “La Libération!” the caption to the upper right photo reads in part, “Leclerc is all smiles as he congratulates officers of the Free French divisions.” Leclerc is pictured with a mixed contingent of Allied officers.

On P. 52 of the September feature “Children at War,” the photograph in the lower right corner was dated to 1939. It was taken in April 1945.

On P. 8 of the July/August News section, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is incorrectly referred to as Kim Il Jung.


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here