“And David was wise in all his ways and the Lord was with David” Those words, taken as the text of the second sermon heard by the Class of ‘92 after reporting as new cadets, were prophetic of the life of at least one of the members of that class.
Charles Pelot Summerall was born March 4, 1867, at Blounts Ferry, near Lake City, Florida, the son of Elhanan Bryant and Margaret Cornelia Pelot Summerall. His early life, spent as it was in the South during the Reconstruction, knew the abject poverty and privation that was so widespread at that time. At ten years of age, Pelo, as he was known to his classmates, was proud to do a man’s work. His mother taught school and it was from her that he received most of his early education. Her lovely character and fortitude were such as to inspire a tribute to her some years later on the floor of Congress.
In 1882 he was admitted to Dr. Porter’s school in Charleston, South Carolina, subsequently known as Porter Military Academy. Here his unusual ability and manly deportment asserted themselves and he took a leading part in the life of the school. Following graduation in 1885, he taught school at Astatula and Leesburg, Florida. An opportunity presenting itself to compete for an appointment to West Point, he took the examination and won the appointment.
Charles P. Summerall’s military career began in June 1888, when he joined The Corps with the Class of ‘92. Academically he stood well throughout the four years. His military attributes, measured by a lofty integrity, unsurpassed moral courage, an uncompromising sense of duty and a rigid observance of the disciplinary standards of the Academy, won for him high cadet rank. Appointment at the end of the plebe year as fourth ranking corporal was followed by that of senior first sergeant and finally as First Captain of the Corps of Cadets. Although inclined toward the artillery, there were few vacancies in that arm and most of his classmates who entered it were faced with an immediate future as extra second lieutenants. On graduation, therefore, he chose the infantry but in March 1893, transferred to the artillery. Thus did destiny again enter into the life of him who was to become one of History’s great artillerymen.
It has been said that some men are born great while others have greatness thrust upon them. Charles P. Summerall was born with the spark of greatness within him and by his deeds was this spark fanned into a flame that will forever illuminate the pages of history with a wonderful light. As a lieutenant in Reilly’s Battery, he won early fame, being three times recommended for brevet for gallantry in action in the Philippine Insurrection and twice during the Boxer Rebellion in China. Of his citations for gallantry in action during the Boxer Rebellion, one was awarded for his legendary heroism in blowing open with his platoon of two field pieces the gates of the four successive walls of the Imperial City. His experience in the Philippines and China impressed indelibly on the young officer the vital necessity for eradicating the prejudice held by the infantry against the artillery and for creating, between these two arms a spirit of mutual trust and cooperation. How superbly he accomplished this is now a golden chapter of military history and a part of the glorious heritage he bequeathed the United States Army.
On August 14, 1901, the anniversary of the fall of Pekin, he and Miss Laura Mordecai, daughter of Brigadier General Alfred Mordecai, Ordnance Department, were married at Benicia Arsenal near San Francisco. A short time later, as a captain, he was ordered to Alaska where he located and initiated construction of Fort William H. Seward. Assuming command in 1903 of the 3rd Battery, Light Artillery, at Chickamauga Park, Georgia, he marched the battery over seven hundred miles to Fort Myer, Virginia, being one of the longest marches of horse-drawn artillery on record. From 1905 to 1911 he was Senior Instructor of Artillery Tactics at the United States Military Academy where his example as an officer, his professional attainments and his enlightened instruction were an inspiration to the cadets.
Through his purchase of artillery ranges at Anniston, Alabama; Monterey, California; and Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania he contributed in large measure to the training of both Regular Army and National Guard field artillery that proved so effective in the First World War. He, personally, developed the reservation at Tobyhanna into a center of instruction for artillery of the National Guard from Massachusetts to Georgia, duplicating, as nearly as possible, the School of Fire at Fort Sill. To all who went through those days under Summerall, Tobyhanna, for a time known as “Camp Summerall”, will ever stand as a symbol of an unconquerable will.
Then came the First World War that marked General Summerall, in the eyes of many, as the unrivaled battle leader in the American Army. The accounts of his fearless and inspiring leadership are legion and remain the pride and the glory of all who served under his command. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism during the battle of Soissons, in which he led the First Division to undying fame. His employment of artillery was unequalled and enabled his commands to advance when others could not. The artillery support of the First Division at Soissons and the V Corps, which he commanded during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, are classic examples of his genius. The devastating concentration of artillery and machine guns in support of the V Corps on November 1, 1918, became known as the “Summerall Barrage” It probably never has been equalled and will long remain a model in the planning, organization and effect of supporting fires. General Summerall instilled into his commands his own warrior spirit and it was under him that the “Spirit of the First Division” was born and flourished. His devotion to the Division and his profound feeling for those who suffered and those who died were at once the inspiration and the theme of “The History of the First Division”, which he wrote, and the First Division Monument in Washington, which he envisioned and brought to fruition, as he stated in his Memoirs, “To keep my pact with our dead on the battlefields and erect some worthy memorial to them”. Each is a dedicated work and each a triumph of achievement.
As in war, so in peace, did the Army, and therefore the Nation, profit from General Summerall’s peculiar abilities. To each successive command he brought the same enlightened vision, energy, fearless performance of duty and unerring judgment that characterized all that he did. His concern for those under his command and his tireless, unremitting efforts to improve their well-being as well as the military capabilities of the troops were reflected in the high state of morale and efficiency that he invariably created. His administration as Chief of Staff from November 1926 to November 1930, was marked by monumental accomplishment in improving conditions throughout the Army at a time when military appropriations were undergoing severe retrenchment. The Army has him to thank for such important contributions to its well-being as increasing the soldier’s ration, proper housing on military posts and accommodations for officers and enlisted men and their families at ports of embarkation. The Kiluea Military Camp and the Army-Navy Country Club near Washington also are attributable to him. He infused new vitality into the training and administration of the Army and ordered the assembling of the first experimental mechanized force. One of his first acts as Chief of Staff was to direct that West Point Graduates be awarded, retroactively, the degree of Bachelor of Science, thus assuring them an equality with graduates of civilian colleges in the field of science. His concern for the comfort and well-being of all ranks and their families was paramount and was reflected in his numerous thoughtful and considerate acts for which he is remembered with gratitude by the many who knew his kindness. General Summerall’s active military career ended with his retirement March 31, 1931.
The following September, General Summerall assumed the presidency of The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina at Charleston, bringing to the college the same attributes that distinguished his military service. Disheartening as were the conditions he found, he nevertheless remained to not only save for the State of South Carolina its military college but to establish it as foremost among that type of institution in this country. By infusing in the cadets much of his own high code of ethics and integrity, his deep sense of duty and unsurpassed standards of military deportment, he extended and multiplied through others his unequalled qualities of mind and heart. As in everything else, he built for the Future and the Future welcomed and profited by his works. His administration of The Citadel stands alone and will always evoke emulation. The plaudits that accompanied him into retirement on June 30, 1953, as President Emeritus of The Citadel were like unto an accolade. As always, his reward lay in having served his fellow men.
Made a Mason at sight in 1934, he identified himself prominently with Scottish Rite Masonry in the United States. In 1939 he became an active member of the Supreme Council, 33rd Degree, Southern Jurisdiction. At his death, General Summerall held the offices of Grand Minister of State, Supreme Council, having previously been Grand Treasurer General; and Sovereign Grand Inspector General in South Carolina. In addition, he represented Canada and France on the Supreme Council, Southern Jurisdiction, and was an active member of the Supreme Council of Canada.
Civic minded to a superlative degree. General Summerall considered it his duty to serve in the many civilian capacities that solicited his leadership and for which he was so eminently fitted. He contributed generously of his time and energy, and often of his personal funds, to the many activities with which he was associated. Deeply religious, he was especially active in the Episcopal Church, to which he gave his unstinted support. No more convincing evidence of his realization of the importance of religion in the lives of young men need be sought beyond the Cadet Chapel of The Citadel that now bears his name as a fitting memorial to one of God’s noblemen.
Perhaps his creed is best expressed in one of his favorite quotations, taken from the works of James Russell Lowell: “Be noble and nobleness that lies in other men, sleeping but never dead, will rise in majesty to meet thine own”. Certainly his own life gave meaning to those lines. Most men have their faults and I suppose he had his. Be that as it may, it will be the good that he did that will live after him and by his humility, his dauntless spirit in health and throughout the terrible affliction that finally took his life, his exalted leadership, his lofty integrity and his uncompromising sense of duty will he be remembered. To me, and to many who were closely associated with him, he will ever remain pre-eminent as a military and civic leader and the personification of those virtues that are finest in the human race. Like Chevalier Bayard, he has earned the title of “Le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche”.
In August 1954, he entered Walter Reed hospital suffering from an incurable disease. On May 14, 1955, Death finally released him from a long and distressing illness. He was laid to rest beside his beloved wife in Arlington National Cemetery with appropriate military honors. He will be honored always in the hearts and minds of those who loved him. While troops paid final earthly homage, I am sure there was formed Above the Chosen Corps of the First Division awaiting their old Commander.
A peer of the greatest soldiers who, through the years, have trod the way of Duty, Honor, Country, he has caused this path to glow anew with his own career, and his knightly qualities. God rest his soul and grant him everlasting peace.
—C. P. S., Jr.