War had been raging in Europe for almost three years when a generation of young Tennesseans left home uncertain of their return. Between 1917 and 1918, these servicemen boarded trains and ships bound for military camps and foreign shores. At home, families proudly hung small flags with blue stars in their windows to announce that their loved ones were "doing their bit" to win the Great War. In less than two years, around 4,000 of those Tennesseans’ blue stars were exchanged for gold ones as families received notice of their soldiers' deaths.

The gold star quickly became a national symbol of mourning and patriotic pride as fierce fighting and the Influenza Epidemic of 1918 claimed more American lives than any conflict in living memory since the Civil War. After peace was won, Americans incorporated the gold star in their commemorative efforts at home and abroad. They erected monuments, established cemeteries, and launched state-based historical projects, including the Tennessee World War I Gold Star Records.

Tennessee began memorializing the contributions of its soldiers and sailors just two months after the Armistice was signed. The General Assembly tasked John Trotwood Moore, chairman of the Tennessee Historical Committee and state librarian and archivist, to "collect, compile, index, and arrange all data ...relating to the part that Tennessee has played in the great world war." Moore sent questionnaires to families asking for items related to their "gold star boys" to be preserved in the Nashville War Memorial Building. As early as 1919, patriotic "mother-chairmen" in most counties were organizing and supervising the work, which included identifying and locating these families. Due to their efforts, more than 1,000 gold star records were collected at the Tennessee State Library & Archives.

These records represent a diverse group of Tennesseans—drafted, enlisted, and commissioned—who died in service of their country. Soldiers’ files offer insights into the lives of turn-of-the-century Tennesseans, unique genealogical source material, and deeply moving accounts of loss on European battlefields. Now, explore their stories and join the Library & Archives in commemorating the centennial anniversary of their sacrifice.

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  • Budreau, Lisa M. Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933. New York: New York University Press, 2010.
  • Moore, John Trotwood. "In the Mail Bag: The Memorial Building." Nashville Tennesseean, September 24, 1919, morning edition, p. 4. http://search.proquest.com/hnpnashvilletennessean (accessed April 4, 2016).
  • "Records of War Heroes is Being Sought by the State." Nashville Tennesseean, June 11, 1922, early edition, sec. B, p. 14. http://search.proquest.com/hnpnashvilletennessean (accessed April 4, 2016).
  • Tennessee General Assembly. Senate. Relative to Historical Committee to collect data on Tennessee’s part in the World War. 61st G.A., 1st sess., 1919. S.J.R. 12.
  • Watson, Griff, "A Profile of the Tennessee Serviceman of World War I" (PhD diss., Middle Tennessee State University, 1986). http://jewlscholar.mtsu.edu/handle/mtsu/4146