A flag covered a bronze tablet, and a Gold Star mother who had lost a son to the Great War stood ready.
Silhouetted against the sky of a 1925 July day at the gateway of a new public highway outside Washington was a 40-foot-tall monument of rose-colored granite and concrete shaped like a cross.
At a cue, the mother pulled away the flag at the monument’s base, revealing the names of 49 local men who had died a few years earlier during World War I, permanently and forever recalled at the Peace Cross in Bladensburg, Md.
The names are still there on the giant war memorial in a traffic circle, passed by thousands of commuters a day outside the nation’s capital. But the men’s stories have been all but lost to history. And the permanent and forever aspect of the cross-shaped memorial is in doubt, just as the United States marks the 100th anniversary of the closing months of World War I.
As soon as Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court could decide whether to step into a legal skirmish over the future of the memorial.
A federal appeals court ruling on a challenge brought by atheists has said the Peace Cross is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion and told a state commission that maintains the cross on public land to remove it, reshape or reassign its ownership.
Legal pushback against that ruling has come from state politicians of both parties and more than 100 members of Congress who say the war memorial on government land should stand untouched and unmodified, and that if it does not, other memorials with religious features, whether in Arlington National Cemetery or in small town squares, could face destruction.
Ninety-three years after the Peace Cross was dedicated, with a fife and drum corps leading a parade and a Maryland lawmaker saying the memorial would “keep fresh the memory of our boys who died for a righteous cause,” the legal fronts in the struggle over the memorial are being newly mapped.
Still resting in the background, behind those battle lines, are the 49 old warriors.
Who were they?
They were farmers from Southern Maryland, a prominent surgeon and medical school professor at Georgetown University, and a British-born, Medal of Honor recipient who was president of the Marine Corps baseball team.
Draft registration cards, census and burial records, and historical newspaper articles show that most were single men in their 20s.
But one was only 18 and enlisted in Maryland after he was told in Washington that he was too young to join. One was a man in his 50s, already wounded in battle and having no business being on the front lines.
They were killed in action overseas, mostly in France, or died of disease closer to home.
Alvergia E. Guyton never knew her uncle John Henry Seaburn, a private in the 372nd Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, an all-African American unit fighting with the French army. But she heard stories about the 16-year-old, who left the town of North Brentwood in Maryland to join the Army, propelled by a desire to support his mother, Annie, and escape his father, John.
Seaburn, somber in his uniform, looked out for decades from a framed photograph displayed in the formal living room of Guyton’s family home.
The refrain among relatives was: “John Seaburn is at the Peace Cross.”
The idea of knocking down or moving the memorial is an affront to Guyton, who donated her uncle’s letters and military records to the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center.
“I’m shocked they would even think about that. It’s been there all my life,” said Guyton, who is 84 and lives in a Leisure World senior community in Maryland with her husband, James, a military veteran.
“It’s history, and people can’t see it when they start tearing it down. You’re robbing the next generation,” she said. “Sometimes I think I’m too old-fashioned.”
By the summer of 1918, Germany’s great spring offensives in France had run out of steam, and Allied forces were starting to shove the German army backward. Newly arrived Americans joined French and British forces that had been fighting bloody battles on the Western Front for almost four years.
In June 1918, U.S. Marines and soldiers, at great cost in lives and over three weeks, drove the Germans out of Belleau Wood near the Marne River in France. In July, there were more Allied gains in fighting near Soissons.
And on Aug. 8, British, French, Canadian and Australian forces launched a massive surprise attack near the French town of Amiens that stunned the enemy and wrecked the morale of the German leadership. What followed were 100 days of almost continuous fighting, including a huge American push in the Meuse-Argonne sector of the Western Front in September, until the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918.
Many of the men whose names are on the Peace Cross were killed during those 100 days.
In the summer of 1918, Army Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in France, went to an American encampment on the Marne River, about 40 miles east of Paris, to bestow medals for heroism on 37 U.S. Marines.
The ceremony was held in a broad field on the river bank. A regimental band played “Yankee Doodle” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
As the general went down the line of young men, he paused at a gray-haired Marine who stood before him soaking wet. He was Gunner Henry L. Hulbert, who had been in the Corps for 20 years and was on his fifth enlistment.
Hulbert, who was British by birth and often wore a handlebar mustache, was based at Marine headquarters in Washington and lived in Maryland. He was 51 and had been wounded in bitter fighting at Belleau Wood a few weeks before.
But at this moment, Pershing and others wondered why he had appeared wet at a ceremony where he was to receive the Distinguished Service Cross. Hulbert said he had been on the other side of the river, and, not wanting to be late for the general, plunged in and swam across. Pershing was so impressed that he recalled the event in his memoirs 13 years later.
Hulbert had already lived an adventurous life. He joined the Marines in 1898, after having an affair with his wife’s sister and fleeing the scandal. In 1901, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic action during fighting in Samoa two years earlier.
After the brutal fighting in Belleau Wood, Hulbert was hospitalized with exhaustion. He would soon be erroneously reported killed in action. But three months later, he was in fact killed, on Oct. 4, 1918, and was buried on the battlefield at a place called Mont Blanc Ridge.
His body was moved twice, and in 1921 was finally transported on a refrigerator ship back to the United States. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on Sept. 15, 1921.
Of the 49 men listed on the Peace Cross, more than a dozen are buried at Arlington.
When American soldiers died overseas, the War Department gave families the option of leaving the bodies in Europe for permanent burial or shipping them home at government expense for interment in national or private cemeteries, according to Mitchell Yockelson, a military historian and an investigator with the National Archives.
The bodies of at least three of the men named on the Peace Cross remain in American cemeteries in France, one is at Congressional Cemetery in Washington and the whereabouts of seven are unknown, according to an extensive review of records led by Jennifer Stabler, an archaeologist with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
The religious affiliations of all 49 are not known. Six of the 17 men buried at Arlington have gravestones marked with a cross. Others are buried in small Episcopalian or Catholic cemeteries primarily in Maryland.
The relatives of one soldier, Maurice Snyder, were contacted in 1921 by the American Jewish Committee in New York, which thought the family was Jewish and sought to honor Maurice. Snyder’s father wrote back to say that the family was not Jewish, adding: “There was no distinction between Jew and Gentile. Truly they played the part of good Samaritans.”
Felled by battle and disease
Snyder and George Washington Farmer were two of the first local boys killed. They grew up in Hyattsville and, according to court records in the current litigation, died on the same day — Oct. 8, 1918. They perished within a few minutes of each other while “routing a German machine gun nest” in France, according to a news report.
Farmer, 23, was working for the Corby Baking Company in Washington when he enlisted in the Maryland National Guard.
Snyder, 24, had studied business in Washington before training for eight months at Camp McClellan in Alabama. He “was [fatally] wounded in the back by either a rifle or machine gun,” his company commander, Capt. Philip C. McIntyre, wrote. “Cpl. Snyder fought gallantly and bravely stood by his post, at which place he rendered the supreme sacrifice.”
Fifty-six men from Snyder’s unit, Company F, 115th Infantry Regiment, had been killed or wounded the day before.
The local American Legion in Hyattsville was initially known as the Snyder-Farmer Post.
The bodies of the two men arrived home from France almost three years after their deaths. A procession of more than 100 cars followed caissons bearing their flag-draped caskets from the National Guard Armory in Hyattsville, along Pennsylvania Avenue and west to Arlington National Cemetery for a short burial service.
It would be Snyder’s mother, Bernice, the head of the American Legion auxiliary, who would help unveil the Peace Cross six years after his death.
Disease claimed others whose names are on the Peace Cross. Those include a well-known Washington surgeon, who died in the early years of the war. Ernest Pendelton Magruder grew up in Upper Marlboro, the son of the clerk of the Court of Appeals of Maryland. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1895 and received a medical degree in 1902 from what is now George Washington University.
During a tour of surgical clinics in Europe, Magruder met and married a Scottish woman, Maryel Alpina MacGregor, the daughter of a British navy admiral. He later returned home to teach clinical surgery at Georgetown. Magruder also tended to thousands of fruit trees, mostly peaches, in Prince George’s County, Md.
Before the United States officially entered World War I, Magruder volunteered with the American Red Cross and in 1914 sailed from New York for Serbia to serve as a chief surgeon. Magruder wrote of “frightful casualties of grenade and shrapnel,” which he described as far different from the wounds caused by rifle bullets.
“The work has been so heavy altogether with converting buildings into hospitals, organization of the whole plant, sanitation, care of the sick and wounded — we began with thirteen hundred patients, mostly surgical — that when night came one could only tumble into bed,” he wrote in notes recounted in a speech by a Red Cross colleague, Ethan Flagg Butler.
A typhus epidemic broke out in Serbia, affecting many of Magruder’s medical colleagues in February 1915. He escaped but soon developed a high fever and headache, and after 11 days it was clear he would not recover. He died on the morning of April 8, 1915.
In the speech about Magruder, which was published in the Johns Hopkins Alumni magazine, Butler described his former colleague as “giving freely of his skill and sympathy to those who could never repay him” and for “honorably upholding, in the foreign war zone, the ideals of one of the noblest institutions of his native land.”
The doctor is buried alongside three generations of Magruders in a private plot in Mitchellville, Md., tucked into a suburban subdivision that was once the family farm.
The flu pandemic that followed in 1918 was devastating. The disease killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, about 30 million more than died in the war, according to the National Archives.
Between April 6, 1917, and July 1, 1919, influenza killed 57,460 American fighting men, 7,100 more than were killed in combat, according to a National Institutes of Health tally.
Albert N. Baden, a farmer with his father in Southern Maryland and member of the 17th Infantry Regiment, died of pneumonia, almost certainly from the flu, at Camp Meade, Md. The base was hit with an influenza outbreak in September 1918, prompting a quarantine. By the end of the month, 2,000 men were sick. Baden was one of 32 soldiers who died there Oct. 10.
Fellow Southern Maryland farmer Walter E. Wilson also died of disease, succumbing to meningitis at Camp Gordon, Ga. Both are buried in a small cemetery at the historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church near Brandywine, Md. A painting created in their honor still hangs in the church with a plaque that reads: “For God and Country.”
A photo of Wilson, who went by “Ernest,” hung on a wall in the sitting room at the family’s farm. Wilson’s niece, Sue Jenkins, a parishioner and vestry secretary, remembers thinking as a teenager, “He was a handsome fella.” Her mother kept the leather calf covers that were part of her brother’s uniform.
In the 1970s, on her way to work as a nurse in Prince George’s County, Jenkins drove around the grassy traffic median where the Peace Cross stands. Even then, the traffic circle was challenging to navigate, but it wasn’t until she saw news reports about the lawsuit that she learned that her uncle’s name was on the bronze plaque.
Jenkins announced a year ago at church that the memorial honoring two former parishioners was in jeopardy.
“We can’t take it down,” she said. “It wouldn’t be the same if it’s moved” to another location.
Erecting the Peace Cross
The Prince George’s Memorial Committee initially began raising money for the cross in 1919. Donations ranged from 50 cents to $100. There were ice cream sales, lawn fetes with moving pictures, a dance and an excursion to Chesapeake Beach with prizes for “loudest” costume and “best girl swimmer.”
Department stores, including Woodward & Lothrop and S. Kann and Sons, donated money. The three local newspapers — the Star, the Times and The Washington Post — each contributed $100.
In September 1919, hundreds of people gathered in Bladensburg to break ground for the monument and for a new 26-mile “National Defense Highway” to connect Washington and Annapolis.
The cross, with its horizontal bar extending five feet on either side, was designed by a Washington architect and sculptor, John Joseph Earley, who was known for his innovations in concrete. Initial payments were made for the foundation, but by 1922, the committee’s fundraising was lagging and construction stopped.
The American Legion took over the project, and the land was transferred from the town of Bladensburg to the post. To kick-start fundraising, small pins with a replica of the cross were distributed to donors.
To meet the July 12, 1925, deadline for the dedication ceremony, community members used picks and shovels to level the ground around the base. The cross and a stone retaining wall were completed at a total cost of $25,000, according to Prince George’s County Historical Society records.
At the initial groundbreaking ceremony, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels spoke of the men who had faced “every duty expected” and said the memorial was “a cross that will stand for time and eternity, like the principles they defended.”
The cross has stood tall for decades. It survived flooding and earlier legal battles over ownership because of its location. A circuit court declared the state the owner in 1956. It was transferred to the park and planning commission in 1961 to allow the agency to address traffic concerns.
The state agency has since paid for maintenance and repairs, and has hired high-profile attorney Neal Katyal, a former acting U.S. solicitor general, to defend the cross at the Supreme Court.
The court battle
The case before the high court was initially brought by the American Humanist Association, a national nonprofit organization that has filed similar challenges throughout the country. The group won a similar case this month in Florida for the removal of a 34-foot-tall, World War II-era cross displayed in a city-owned park.
In Maryland in 2015, a federal judge declined to order the removal of the Peace Cross, calling it a historically significant and secular war memorial.
In a closely divided vote in March, the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit characterized the monument as an unconstitutional government entanglement in religion and “preeminent symbol of Christianity.” One judge had suggested that stripping the arms from the cross could resolve the case.
At its first conference, on Monday, preceding the new term, the Supreme Court could decide whether to review the ruling from the 4th Circuit.
The appeal to the high court has the support of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) and members of Congress. The American Legion is represented in the litigation by First Liberty Institute, a religious-freedom organization. Allowing the 4th Circuit ruling to stand, the appellants say, puts other monuments at risk.
“The decision below calls into question the constitutionality of countless federal monuments, historic places, and national traditions that use a cross or other ‘inherently religious’ symbols or language to commemorate our nation’s history and to reflect values shared by the American people,” attorneys for a coalition of 109 members of Congress said in a court filing.
Monica Miller, an attorney for the American Humanist Association, told the justices in a court filing that a cross on public land “discriminates against patriotic soldiers who are not Christian, sending a callous message to non-Christians that Christians are worthy of veneration while they may as well be forgotten.”
It is the memory of the 49 local World War I servicemen that relatives and supporters of the monument say they are working to protect.
“Life and change flow by the small park in the form of impatient cars and trucks. That is disturbance enough,” 4th Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in dissenting from the court’s ruling. “I would let the cross remain and let those honored rest in peace.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.