Sources Cited: Jonathan Bratten
The Lewiston Evening Journal and one unit's World War I story
An admission: I’ve known Jonathan Bratten, the subject of today’s Sources Cited, for what I now officially consider a long time. In this case, that’s determined by profession. I’ve worked with him in my current iteration, as a writer, and before that as a journalist, and even before that, while I still worked in Washington, DC. We traveled in similar circles as we each wrote in our particular forms and blends of history and conflict. I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with him a few times in a few different forms.
I hoped Jonathan would join this series because of the particular form of history he practices most every day. Jonathan is a historian for the U.S. Army. From almost the first moment I knew him, I was fascinated by the way he navigated that role, specifically how he balanced those institutional mandates while keeping in mind his own interests and desires as a storyteller. I saw this wayfinding in spades when I read a draft of his first book, To the Last Man: A National Guard Regiment in The Great War. As the title describes, the book follows the history of a National Guard unit in World War I. It can be safely said that it was meant for institutional eyes. But in my reading, I saw how deeply Jonathan cared about the subjects he wrote about, not only as members of a unit but as individuals. I was curious to hear from him how he balanced what I thought might be competing interests and how this balance manifested in his research process. Apart from this book, his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Army History and he has chapters in a few different anthologies, including Strategy Strikes Back and Armies in Retreat.
Could you trace the path of how you came upon this material?
As I was writing this book in 2019, I had been lucky to have been given a commander’s account by his family—one of many incredible primary sources I was able to use because families sought me out. One of the family members had even written about this officer, which the author graciously provided to me. I was reviewing this as I was—I thought—finishing up my book. This was also around the time that I was also triaging about 20 boxes of primary sources from the National Archives and Records Administration. So, one could say that I believed I was about done. Then I happened to see an eyewitness account of severe fighting on July 20, 1918 which was one of the regiment’s bloodiest days in action. And not just an eyewitness account, but a grippingly written account. I dropped down to the footnote and there saw my first reference to “The Pine Tree Legion” by 1st. Lieut. Donald McGrew.
How did you first interact with it?
Now, I had already known who Donald “Dangerous Dan” McGrew was at this point, but only as the commander of the regiment’s 37-millimeter gun battery. A few Google searches later, I was finding out a lot more about Dangerous Dan. Most significantly, that he was an adventure writer – traveling all over the world to have different interesting experiences and write about them. He had been a railroad engineer, an ore miner, a journalist, and many other things. Which would explain why the quality of his writing was just so different from anything else I had read in first-person accounts. It was riveting! It was funny! It was colorful! I immediately fell in love with his sardonic, snarky but heartfelt style. He wrote in a way that not only captured the inimical doughboy (or American Expeditionary Forces, or AEF) voice, but one that resonated strongly with me a hundred years on. After reading the first entry, I knew I had stumbled on a goldmine. Soon I was ransacking the digital archives of the Lewiston Evening Journal from 1921-1922 to frantically read as much of “The Pine Tree Legion” as I could.
What did the material unlock for you in your work?
McGrew’s writings covered the entirety of the war, from the first, chaotic muster of the regiment in the summer of 1917 up until the Armistice. Through it all, he catalogs the average experience of the AEF soldier in WWI. He includes vivid imagery of battles, long conversations between comrades, the oddities of war, and anything else that strikes his fancy. I write this in the present tense, because he makes you feel as if you are included in this journey. For that alone, it was marvelous. But he also provided fantastic small details that filled in gaps in my own historical narrative. It was from him that I found out about the incredible courage of two Native American soldiers which saved part of the regiment from being surprised and overrun by a German raid. He also described in great detail the actions of his own 37mm guns, which is a viewpoint rarely found in AEF primary sources. It was not just his detailed descriptions, though; the most valuable thing he brought to me was another voice that could be woven into the narrative. This helped to bind together what could have otherwise been a stale work of nonfiction and give it some life.
Where did it lead to next?
By about April or May, 2020, in the height of the pandemic and mourning the death of my father, I was about ready to write a conclusion for To the Last Man. One piece of that was writing an epilogue to some of the voices which had contributed to the work. I spent some time gathering information on ol’ Dangerous Dan, finding out that he kept writing after the war - and kept being quite the character. I lost track of how many times he got married and divorced. It was in this environment of global loss and personal mourning that I found out that Donald McGrew committed suicide in his California cabin in 1955. At the time, I remember that the loss shook me as much as if I had known him, personally. I think I laid my head on my desk and cried for a man who I never knew; but through his writing, I felt like I knew him. In the end, I’m grateful for having met Dan. His writing enriched my understanding of his generation and the experience of getting to know him through it helped me realize that, yes, historians can get attached to their sources. I’ve hung on to this realization for a while now.
What materials weren’t you able to include in the book?
Not one document, per se, but the entire National Archives collection is just incredible. Hint to military history WWI researchers: sure, check out Record Group 120, but also check out Record Group 391. You can thank me later, with gin. The collections of that record group have everything from random memos that are often hilarious, to the actual field messages sent in combat. Shout-out to everyone at NARA at College Park, whose assistance made my research possible, and specifically to the gent who pointed me to RG 391.
We’ll be back in two weeks with the next edition of Sources Cited. In the meantime, you can subscribe to receive it in your inbox as soon as it’s released. Sources Cited will remain free for all readers, but if you like what we’re doing, we appreciate you subscribing.