He was undoubtedly the first victim of the first World War whose name I learned. As a freshman at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, I would lower my stress levels by walking. I traipsed around the expansive campus, but I’d also venture onto city streets. I discovered that near the stately Llenroc mansion (built to be the home of Cornell founder, Ezra Cornell – though he never lived there), there was an impressive stone staircase, with a large terrace that was a perfect spot for looking down on “the bustling town” (as the Cornell anthem calls the city). A plaque identified the structure as a memorial for Morgan Smiley Baldwin, a 1915 graduate of Cornell, whose body lay “where he fell at Boni-France, September 29th, 1918.”
For years, this was what I knew about Baldwin. I assumed – as probably others have – that “Smiley” was a nickname, but it turns out it was his given middle name (his mother’s maiden name was Smiley). I did learn that the stairway had been erected by his aggrieved father. We are in the midst of the centennial of the “Great War,” and I decided to take a fresh look at Baldwin’s story.
Morgan S. Baldwin was born in North Tonawanda, New York on January 8, 1894. He received his Bachelor’s diploma at the 47th Cornell Commencement on June 16, 1915. His father, Arthur J. Baldwin, and his uncle, Leonard D. Baldwin were both Cornell grads, and were both attorneys. They had grown up on a farm in Cortland, New York, but relocated to North Tonawanda, where they practiced law together. Leonard was instrumental in establishing the city’s charter in 1897, and Arthur was noted for his speeches at Niagara County Republican events. By 1900 the family had moved to East Orange, New Jersey.
Arthur and Leonard had a law firm in New York City: Baldwin & Dill (later, Griggs, Baldwin & Baldwin). Over time, they became involved in a number of varied businesses: publishing, general contracting, glass manufacturing, and even a reindeer farm in Alaska. They also operated the Grosvenor Hotel on Fifth Avenue. In time, Arthur switched his political affiliation and was connected with Charles F. Murphy, a Tammany Democrat. Arthur was even a delegate to the national Democratic convention in 1928..
Morgan, after completing his studies at Cornell, enrolled in law school at Columbia, was admitted to the bar in 1917, and began working with his father and uncle. But fate had something else in store for this promising young attorney.
On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Military records at the New York State Archives show that Baldwin enlisted in the National Guard that same day (his address on these documents was the Grovesnor Hotel in Manhattan, though his main residence was probably East Orange). After his unit was federalized, he was stationed in South Carolina. Maryland, and Virginia. He was offered a chance to receive officer’s training, but he passed up the opportunity, choosing instead to stay with his unit. Prior to leaving for France, he did receive a promotion to corporal, however. He went overseas in May 1918, as part of Company G of the 107th Infantry. In a few months, the men of the 107th were facing the Hindenburg Line. During the evening of September 28, according to a history of the regiment, they were issued extra ammunition, water, and rations – along with shovels which were to be used to dig themselves in after the assault had started. Non-Commissioned Officers, like Baldwin, checked their companies to insure that all the soldiers had obtained these supplies, as well as first aid kits. Intelligence officers used tape to mark the line of attack to be followed the next day. At 4:00 o’clock on the morning of September 29, 1918 – four months after his arrival in France – Baldwin took part in what the regimental history called “one of the most momentous battles of the whole war.” Allied soldiers advanced along a 40-mile-wide front, just after their artillery units at the rear fired a barrage of shells. The Germans responded with their own artillery and machine guns, which “flung death and destruction squarely into the faces of these men who meant to sweep through Jerry’s impregnable defense.” As described by a comrade of Baldwin’s (recorded in the book, Military Records of Cornell University in the World War), Baldwin rushed forward following two men: one was immediately shot in the hand, and the other was killed. Baldwin was also hit, and friends pulled him into a nearby shell hole, where he lay for a good part of the day. In a letter home, he told how he wondered how he would get back to safety, about four miles to the rear. But luck was with him: “I was finally carried there by a party of Australians who are splendid men and soldiers.” Despite Baldwin’s misfortune, the offensive was a successful one.
Taken to Number 12 General Hospital, run by the British at the villages of Dannes and Camiers, Baldwin was able to send some messages to his family (which were reprinted in the Tonawanda Evening News on November 5, 1918. In his first letter he sounded very upbeat: “Here I am, snug as a bug in a rug, on this 3rd day of October….I am in a base hospital and very comfortable.” A machine gun bullet had hit his left leg, but his right hand was positioned under his head, forcing him to write with his left hand. He was expecting a long stay in “blighty,” (slang used by WWI soldiers to refer to England). Despite that, he reported he was “feeling better every day.”
Two days later, he dictated a letter to his brother, Donald, which was taken down by “H. M. Dilla” (probably Harriette M. Dilla, Ph.D., LL.B., who was a social worker with the Red Cross). We can surmise that his condition had worsened, since he was unable to write the letter himself. But Baldwin tried to put things in the best light possible. He now said he’d been wounded in the shoulder, but that he was “in an excellent hospital, and receiving the best of care from American nurses. I have not felt any doubts from the beginning as to my quick recovery.” He did admit, though, that “I have seen all the war I shall see for some time.”
A letter to his parents, also dictated on October 5th, said: “Since I last wrote you I have improved a good deal. My temperature is nearly normal and the doctor assures me that I will leave here for England in a few days.” He reported he’d be in England at least six months, promised to notify them once he knew his address there, and explained that “I have been carefully treated here and I understand that the treatment over there is also excellent. So I know that you will not worry.”
Baldwin perhaps was purposely understating his condition so as not to upset his family. Just a few days later, he passed away. A telegram, dated November 3, 1918, from the office of Peter Charles Harris, Adjutant General for the American forces, tersely informed his family: “Deeply regret to inform you that Corporal Morgan S. Baldwin, Infantry, is officially reported as having died October ninth from wounds received in action.”
Any battle death is sad, but the death of this man, who probably would have had a notable career in a very successful law firm emphasizes the opportunities lost to the fallen. Baldwin was among over 200 Cornell students or alumni who died in service during the war. Among them were six from the Class of 1922, who may not even have begun their studies. These war dead were commemorated at a service held on June 8, 1919 at Cornell’s Bailey Hall. Rev. Newell D. Hillis observed that the deaths of these Cornellians had deprived the nation of some of its finest young men: “Their bodies sleep, but their souls live evermore.” As was the case with so many American soldiers, Baldwin was buried in France, in a cemetery at Bony (or Boni). In 1920, the New York Times said it was the most visited of the American cemeteries in France.
In a letter to the Times that year, Anna Schoellkopf told of a visit to the cemetery, which contained about 2,000 graves “on a pretty slope near the little wrecked village of Bony” (Bony was a village near the city of St. Quentin). Each soldier’s grave was marked by “the whitest cross,” along with a stake holding the man’s identification tag. Local residents, she wrote, often visited the burial ground, placing flowers and praying at the American flag that floated over it. The cemetery today is called the Somme American Cemetery, and Baldwin’s cross can be viewed at findagrave.com.
On the Cornell campus, fallen students and alumni were honored via a housing unit known as the War Memorial. Baldwin’s brother Donald donated $5,000 for a room (Number 514) memorializing him. But Baldwin’s father came up with a creative and unique memorial. All the Baldwin’s had been members of the Delta Phi fraternity (which used Llenroc as its residence), so Arthur decided to finance construction of a stairway that would benefit members of the frat house as well as all Cornell students and Ithaca residents. As a student, Arthur had made use of an old footpath called “the cemetery cut” in order to walk between the city and the campus. The stairway took the place of that passage, which had been walled up and fenced off by the city.
Built on property owned by Delta Phi, the stairway went from University Avenue (with a 24-foot wide entranceway) up to Cornell Avenue above. A wide platform, framed by Gothic stone walls, provided a grand overlook of the city below.
A dedication ceremony took place in November 1925, and the stairway was completed quickly. Since then it has been used by innumerable students and city residents. Many may have wondered about Morgan Smiley Baldwin. Now they know.
Photos from above: Morgan S. Baldwin, 1915 Cornell yearbook photo; and Baldwin Memorial Stairway, provided by Cornell University.