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Collections >> Highlights >> From Soldier to Statesman: William Bradley Umstead
Umstead's checkers set: one of several artifacts of Umstead's military service
Umstead's checkers set: one of several artifacts of Umstead's military service
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Highlights
From Soldier to Statesman: William Bradley Umstead

William Bradley Umstead, teacher, soldier, lawyer, governor, and North Carolina native, lived and wrote during one of the most tumultuous and dynamic periods in American history.

William Umstead was born May 13, 1895, to Lulie Lunsford and John W. Umstead in Mangum Township, Durham County, North Carolina. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1916 and began teaching high school in Kinston, North Carolina. In May of 1917, Umstead left his post and volunteered to join the allied forces in World War I. Umstead would spend two years in service as a second lieutenant and later as a lieutenant in the 317th Machine Gun Battalion, part of the Eighty-First "Wild Cat" Division of the United States Army.

Umstead recorded his wartime remembrances in a ready-made blank journal for soldiers labeled My Diary: A Soldier's Record. The unpublished diary is part of the William Bradley and Merle Davis Umstead papers in UNC's Southern Historical Collection and covers just under a year of Umstead's military service, from August 1917 to July 1918. For some of this time, Umstead was on leave after three months of basic training at Camp Oglethorpe, Georgia. During leave, Umstead traveled to Durham County to see his parents as well as to Kinston and Roxboro. He then reported to Camp Jackson, South Carolina, and later to Camp Hancock, Georgia, where he worked as a supply officer until the Eighty-First Division was deployed to France for combat duty. Throughout the diary, Umstead describes his interactions with the enlisted men he was assigned to lead and the teaching roles he took on. Umstead also kept many of his belongings from his war experience, and these artifacts are part of the North Carolina Collection. Several are presented on DocSouth and are available in the section "Outfitting the Soldier."

After he was officially discharged from the army on April 19, 1919, Umstead soon began studying law at Trinity College (now Duke University). He passed the bar two years later and went on to be elected prosecuting attorney for the Durham County Recorder's Court. He would serve in a variety of elected positions over the course of his career, including solicitor for North Carolina's Tenth Judicial District, chairman of the State Democratic Executive Committee, U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator (by appointment after the previous seat holder's death), and Governor of North Carolina. Unfortunately, Umstead suffered a heart attack only three days after his inauguration on January 8, 1953. He recovered partially and was able to take over some of his gubernatorial duties, but he died on November 7, 1954, in Durham, before the end of his term.

Umstead's diary is part of the "North Carolinians and the Great War" collection, which examines how World War I shaped the lives of different North Carolinians on the battlefield and on the home front as well how the state and federal government responded to war-time demands. The collection focuses on the years of American involvement in the war (between 1917 and 1919), but it also examines the legacies of the war in the 1920s.

Jennifer L. Larson