Luke Lea in the Great War

by Doris Boyce.

Luke Lea of Nashville, Tennessee, believed in doing the right thing. Having been elected to the U.S. Senate in 1911, at age 32, he voted to punish espionage acts and to arm merchant ships. When Congress declared war in April 1917, Lea organized a group of Tennessee volunteers to take up arms against Germany, the aggressor.

Col. Luke Lea

Within three months after completing their final training in Brittany, Colonel Lea and the 114th Field Artillery he commanded were transported to the front lines. They were in battle continuously until the cease-fire on November 11, 1918.  

Following the armistice, peace talks got underway in Paris, with tensions running high and accusations rampant. Luke Lea was determined that Kaiser Wilhelm II should be held accountable for the death and destruction he had caused, even though, having lost the confidence of the German civilian government and military leaders, the Kaiser had abdicated on November 9, two days before the Armistice. Luke Lea believed that Kaiser Wilhelm should still be forced to stand trial for his war crimes, fearing that, otherwise, harsh terms levied against the German people would sow the seeds for yet another war.

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Deciding upon a course of action, Lea took a five-day leave and brought along several of his officers and men, who had no idea what he had in mind. He confided in no one as he quietly arranged passports and transportation. The group travelled in two cars, driving from Luxembourg through Belgium to Amerongen Castle in the neutral Netherlands, where the Kaiser had fled.

As the castle came within sight, Lea said, “Men, I have come to convince the Kaiser that he must come forward before the peace conference and take responsibility for his actions.”

“But,” Luke went on, “if he won’t come willingly, then we will take him unwillingly.” Cheers went up as the men agreed.

Amerongen Castle

Driving up to the castle, the men got out of their cars and knocked on the door. They were admitted and asked to state their business. Lea and his men gave their names. “We are here on a journalistic investigation and request an interview with Kaiser Wilhelm Hohenzollern,” they said. They heard their words repeated in the next room, followed by a response from a man who was almost certainly the Kaiser.

Surmising that the Kaiser was guarded and surrounded by German military personnel, Lea quickly realized that his mission would have to be aborted. There was no chance of success.

Although the visitors were treated politely and served water and cigars, the Germans reminded them that they were uninvited guests and soon asked them to leave. By this time, their cars were completely surrounded by armed Dutch civilians. Luke and his men calmly returned to their cars and drove away. The civilians fell back on either side as the Americans sped through the village.

Amerongen Castle from the air

Immediately upon returning to his regiment, Lea was faced with charges of military misconduct. He defended his actions by insisting that he had acted purely as a private citizen. “Never once,” he said, “did I state that I represented the U.S. Military.”

As a Colonel he took full responsibility and received a stern reprimand from General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. He would have accepted further punishment, but the charges were dropped.  (1997)

Luke Lea: A Biographical Sketch

by Doris Boyce.

Luke Lea was born in Nashville in 1879. His grandmother was a descendant of Judge John Overton, law partner of Andrew Jackson. His grandfather, John McCormack Lea, was mayor of Nashville in 1849. His father, Overton Lea, was an attorney. At the time of his birth his parents owned 1,000 acres of land between Granny White and Franklin Pikes known as Lealand, part of the original acreage of Travellers Rest.

Judge John Overton, 1766-1833 (Tennessee Portrait Project)

Lea enrolled at the University of the South at Sewanee in 1896 and was awarded his master’s degree in 1900. Later that year he travelled briefly in Europe and then entered law school at Columbia University, becoming editor of the Columbia Law Review in 1903. After graduation he opened a law office in the Cole Building in downtown Nashville. In 1906 he married Mary Louise Warner, daughter of Percy Warner, and their sons were born in 1908 and 1909.

Lea organized The Tennessean Company in 1907, and by 1908 the paper was up and running efficiently enough that he was able to return to his law practice. In 1910 he chartered the Belle Meade Company for future real estate development of the 5,000-acre farm of that name, and the company presently donated 144 acres to the golf club which later became the Belle Meade Country Club.

Luke Lea was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1911, at 32 years of age, in office until 1917, at which time he took on the task of recruiting volunteers for the 114th Field Artillery. He served as their colonel until the end of the First World War.

Senator Luke Lea (1911-1917)

When Lea came home from World War I, he shifted his focus toward managing his newspapers, the Nashville Tennessean and the Evening Tennessean. Late in the 1920s he also became publisher of the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Knoxville Journal, which he jointly owned with Rogers Caldwell.

During that same decade Lea acquired a number of properties, and he built Nashville’s first ramp-style parking garage on Seventh Avenue between Church and Commerce Streets. In 1927 he donated 868 acres for a public park that would be named for his father-in-law, Percy Warner.

In 1929 Tennessee Governor Henry H. Horton appointed Lea to the U.S. Senate to fill an unexpired term, but Lea declined, saying he could “do the greatest good and be of more service to Tennessee as a private citizen.”

Depression-era bank run on the American Union Bank, New York City. April 26, 1932.

The Great Depression brought ruin to Lea’s business affairs because of devalued assets, cash flow problems, and political maneuvering by his enemies. He was convicted of banking law violations in 1931, and his newspapers were silenced. He served two years in the North Carolina State Prison.  

Less than a month after Lea was paroled, backers approached him about running for governor of Tennessee. Still hoping to re-enter the publishing field, he turned them down.

Although Lea eventually regained his health, which had deteriorated while he was imprisoned, he never regained his wealth. When he died in 1945 at age 66, a congressional investigation was underway that might have restored the Nashville Tennessean to him once again. (1997)