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Wood, Leonardlocked

(09 October 1860–07 August 1927)
  • Jack C. Lane

Wood, Leonard (09 October 1860–07 August 1927), army officer and colonial administrator, was born in Winchester, New Hampshire, the son of Charles J. Wood, a physician, and Caroline Hagar. Following in his father’s profession, Wood entered Harvard Medical School in 1880, finished his training there in 1883, receiving an M.D. in 1884, and assumed a position as intern at Boston City Hospital. Wood’s persistent violation of a hospital rule prohibiting intern surgery led to his dismissal, revealing an early attitude toward authority and regulations that would later plague his military career.

The dismissal, and a somewhat unremunerative private practice in Boston, forced the young surgeon to consider other alternatives. Acting on a boyhood wish to enter West Point, he impulsively joined the Army Medical Department in June 1885. Assigned as military surgeon in the Department of Arizona at Fort Huachuca, in May 1886 he joined a special unit created by Commanding General Nelson A. Miles to run down a group of Apaches led by the redoubtable Geronimo. The unit chased the Indians through Arizona and deep into the rugged and searing Sierra Madre of Mexico, marching without rest throughout most of the summer and finally forcing Geronimo to surrender in September. Amid much opposition from those who thought a regular army officer should have been selected, Wood alone of all those involved in the chase received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Following the capture of Geronimo, Wood served several pleasant years of post life in California under General Miles. While stationed at the Presidio he was promoted to captain and married Louisa Condit Smith, the legal ward of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field; the couple had three children. In 1895, after a two-year tour in Georgia, Wood secured appointment as attending surgeon general at the War Department in Washington, D.C. Because he served as physician to some cabinet members and President William McKinley’s invalid wife, he made additional contacts with influential figures. None, however, rivaled his friendship with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). When the nation went to war with Spain in 1898, the two enthusiasts of the strenuous life and American expansion used their influence to secure command of the First Volunteer Calvary Regiment, popularly known as the Rough Riders. Their military exploits in Cuba launched both men’s meteoric rise to prominence, Roosevelt to the presidency, Wood to commanding general of the army.

Wood found his niche after the war as a talented colonial administrator. Appointed military governor of the Cuban province of Santiago late in 1898, he assumed command of the entire island within a few months. He immediately undertook economic, municipal and educational changes that resembled early American progressive reforms. A public works department initiated vast projects from dredging the Havana harbor to constructing hospitals and schools. He restructured municipal governments and created an American style public school system. Finally, he encouraged and supported with government funds the Walter Reed experiments that identified the cause of yellow fever. His aggressiveness in attempting to reform the Cuban society was and still remains highly controversial; some have seen it as evidence of benevolent colonial progressivism, others as a failed attempt to impose an American social and political system on a Latin culture. Whatever the case, his work conformed to the Republican administration’s Cuban policy and captured the imagination of the American people.

By the time the United States returned the island to Cuban control in 1902, Wood had received a regular army commission as brigadier general and had become, in the eyes of many, the United States’s foremost colonial proconsul. More importantly, by then his comrade in arms was in the White House. In 1903, President Roosevelt appointed him military governor of the Moro Province in the Philippines, a group of islands ruled by recalcitrant Islamic Malays. Wood’s policy of subduing the Moros by military force led to several expeditions that culminated in a bloody battle in 1906 at Mount Dajo that left over 600 Moro men, women, and children dead or wounded. Only President Roosevelt’s firm support saved Wood from the adverse publicity that ensued from this battle. Such support was not unusual; a few years earlier Roosevelt had promoted Wood to major general, making him one of the highest-ranking officers in the army. This controversial promotion over the heads of hundreds of officers led to Wood’s selection as chief of staff of the army in 1910.

As chief of staff, Wood helped bring to completion progressive professional army reforms that had begun several decades earlier. After a bitter and protracted struggle, he deposed the adjutant general as the de facto head of the army and established the dominance of the chief of staff as intended by the act of 1903. Wood’s victory was essential to the ultimate consolidation of military leadership in a general staff system that, along with other administrative reforms intended to ensure more efficient administration, served the War Department well when it began organizing the country’s World War I Expeditionary Force.

Still, Wood left the chief of staff office in 1914 believing that in one area his efforts had fallen far short of creating a modern American army. Convinced that the United States would fight its future wars with citizen soldiers, he and Secretary of War Henry Stimson tried to establish a permanent reserve training system. Their efforts were thwarted by a budget-cutting Congress and professional officers who distrusted the idea of citizen soldiers. He decided to take the military issue to the American people, a decision that placed him at odds with the apolitical tenets of military professionalism. The outbreak of war in Europe gave Wood a sense of urgency about his cause. Taking advantage of his assignment as commander of the Department of the East, he exploited the mass media of the Northeast in support of military preparedness, making speeches and writing articles and letters spreading the preparedness doctrine. In addition, he persuaded the War Department to sponsor summer civilian training programs—the famous Plattsburg Camps—which he used both to popularize his concept of universal military training and to make converts to preparedness.

Wood’s public behavior as a uniformed officer set him on a collision course with the Wilson administration, which initially opposed military preparedness as contrary to its neutrality policy. When the Republicans seized the issue as a way of opposing Woodrow Wilson, Wood found himself in a political struggle with his commander in chief. Public clashes between a determined president and an equally stubborn general pushed Wood to the brink of insubordination and created a serious civil-military crisis. Finding Wood’s behavior to be short of a court-martial offense, Wilson administered an even more damaging punishment: he kept the ambitious general out of the war in Europe.

Wood’s prophetic prewar preparedness proselytizing gave him a sizable public following. After the war, posing as a victim of partisan politics, he became a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in January 1920. A stalemate at the convention eventually resulted in the nomination of Warren Harding. Although embittered by this defeat, Wood supported Harding’s successful campaign, hoping to be appointed secretary of war. Instead Harding offered him the governorship of the Philippines, and Wood reluctantly accepted it.

In 1921 Wood began the last and, possibly, the stormiest and most controversial of his public endeavors. Committed to Philippine independence, the Wilson administration had passed the Jones Act, which promised independence as soon as a stable government could be established. By 1920 a native assembly and council governed the islands, reducing the governor general to a figurehead. Convinced the Filipinos were not ready for independence, the Republicans were determined to restore their former policy. Wood was more than anxious to secure that restoration but was confronted with a militantly nationalist Filipino leadership that refused to relinquish its newly acquired authority. He managed to bring greater financial stability to the islands and to secure some economic reforms, but his dogged attempt to reassert the authority of the governor general precipitated a contentious struggle that lasted throughout his term. Wood never finished his final task. He died while in Boston undergoing a brain tumor operation.

Wood played a significant role in shaping many of the United States’s major developments in the early twentieth century: progressivism, expansionism and colonialism, military reform, preparedness and American intervention in World War I, and the election of 1920. He was particularly representative of an era that valued moral and physical strength. Although admired by his generation for his honesty, forthrightness, and his intense and vigorous approach to life, he fell short of greatness. Early in his career he developed a self-righteousness that made him intolerant of those who differed with him, a dangerous trait for one holding high military office, prompting him to violate the same principles of military professionalism he had worked hard to establish.


The voluminous Leonard Wood Papers are located in the Library of Congress. The authorized biography is Hermann Hagedorn, Leonard Wood: A Biography (2 vols., 1931). The Hagedorn Papers in the Library of Congress contain valuable interviews with Wood’s contemporaries. Jack C. Lane, Armed Progressive: Leonard Wood (1978), is a recent biographical study. Lane has also edited and introduced Wood’s journal in Chasing Geronimo: The Journal of Leonard Wood, May-September 1886 (1970). For Wood in the context of military professional reform see Russell Weigley, Towards An American Army: Military Thought from Washington to Marshall (1962), and Walter Millis, Arms and Men: A Study in American Military History (1956). Wood plays a large role in A. J. Bacevich, Diplomat in Khaki: Major General Frank Ross McCoy and American Foreign Policy, 1898–1949 (1989), a study of Wood’s principal aide and admirer.