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Army military convoy in western Nebraska during its 1919 trek on the Lincoln Highway across the U.
S. from Washington DC to San Francisco.
The Transcontinental Motor Convoys were two US Army convoys that crossed the United States from Washington, DC to the west coast. The first convoy in 1919 traveled from Washington, DCmarker to San Franciscomarker on the then still incomplete Lincoln Highway, the first road across Americamarker. It was the first motor convoy to cross North America from the east coast to the west coast. The second in 1920 traveled from Washington, DC to San Diegomarker via the Bankhead Highway. Both convoys were undertaken to determine how well military troops could be moved from the Eastern United Statesmarker to the Western United States.

Dwight D. Eisenhower's experience as a member of the first 1919 Transcontinental Convoy on the Lincoln Highway and his appreciation for the German Autobahn system he gained during World War II led him to his initiate support for the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 and the establishment of the Interstate Highway System.


World War I had made extensive use of motor vehicles, both trucks and tanks, and the military questioned whether American roads could accommodate military traffic.

After the war ended, the Lincoln Highway Association wanted to increase awareness of the poor quality of roads which comprised the Lincoln Highway's route. Consequently, LHA president Harry Ostermann encouraged the War Department to undertake a transcontinental convoy to test and demonstrate the realities of east-west transportation in the United States. Conception and planning of the convoy itself was undertaken by Captain Bernard H. McMahon. McMahon was to have been the expedition's commanding officer, but he was replaced three days before its departure. McMahon served as Train Commander, reporting to the Expedition Commander Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. McClure.

The first convoy

The first convoy had five purposes.:
  1. Determining through experimentation the difficulties associated with sending the Army to the Pacific Coast in the event of war
  2. Road testing of the US Army's vehicles
  3. Demonstrating United States Department of War participation in the Good Roads Movement
  4. Recruiting students to enroll in motor transport schools
  5. A demonstration to the general public of the importance of motor vehicles in winning the First World War.

The convoy, consisting of eighty-one vehicles, was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. McClure It departed from the zero milestonemarker in Washington, DCmarker on July 7 1919. During the sixty-two day trip, the convoy passed through three hundred fifty villages and towns and arrived in San Francisco on September 6, four days behind schedule, with only seventy-two vehicles. En route, the convoy found bridges collapsing beneath the weight of their vehicles and exceedingly poor roads after the end of the main paved segment of the Lincoln Highway in Illinoismarker. The trip had averaged fifty-eight miles per day—a mere six miles per hour.

The convoy was to test the ability of the United States to respond in the event that California was attacked by an "Asiatic enemy" and was meant to be self-reliant, treating all the area it passed over as potential enemy territory. It included an engineering unit to construct bridges and improve roads to make them passable for US truck movement. Twenty-four officers, 15 War Department staff observers, and 258 enlisted men were part of the convoy. Twenty-one men injured during the trip were left behind for treatment.

Photograph of the 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy at a service station in a western desert town.
Conditions on the convoy were meant to simulate an extended tour in the advance area of a war zone. Nearly (54.7%) of the trip was over dirt roads. They had 230 breakdowns and incidents; nine vehicles were lost during the trip. Many vehicles got stuck in mud or quicksand. The entire convoy was nearly lost due to quicksand in Utah and Nevada.

1919 Lincoln Highway Convoy Medal
Personnel averaged five and a half hours of sleep each night and often worked 24-hour days. Colonel McClure, though unpopular with his troops, worked tirelessly to bring the convoy to San Francisco as close to schedule as possible while avoiding losses. To keep the convoy on the proper route in the often-difficult terrain, two motorcycles scouted ahead of the main body of the expedition, leaving marker triangles and reporting back with road conditions.

One of the Army's observers was Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Eisenhower, who joined the convoy on its first stop in Frederick, Marylandmarker; Eisenhower at the time was assigned to nearby Fort George G.marker Meademarker. Eisenhower wrote a report on the convoy, noting the overall poor condition of many of the roads, especially in the west:

Eisenhower also noted that each of the various kinds of touring cars, trucks, tractors, and other vehicles in the convoy had its own best speed, which made maintaining the convoy's formation difficult. Eisenhower found the convoy's officers "poor" and its troops badly disciplined due to lack of training.

The convoy was well-received throughout the course of its journey, and was welcomed with barbecues, festivals, and at its conclusion a special dinner in San Franciscomarker on September 7, 1919. The convoy was also lent two trucks from the Firestone Tire Company in Columbiana, Ohiomarker to replace a missing vehicle.

The convoy's journey set a world record for the greatest continuous distance traveled by a motor convoy.

The military report on the convoy made several conclusions:
  1. The expedition was generally successful in achieving its goals
  2. Using a wide variety of vehicles increased the difficulty of maintaining and organizing a large convoy
  3. While public support for improved roads and for the Army was high, direct recruitment was not effective and enlistment through the convoy was sparse
  4. Motorcycles and heavy trucks should both be eschewed in favor of light trucks

The second convoy

A second Transcontinental Motor Convoy left Washington on 14 June 1920 and followed the Bankhead Highway to San Diegomarker, California, where it arrived on 2 October. A smaller expedition than the first, the second convoy consisted of 50 vehicles, 32 officers, and 160 enlisted men under Col John F. Franklin. A rate of 45-60 miles per day was initially estimated, commensurate with that of the first convoy.

The convoy's trip proceeded smoothly as far as Atlantamarker. However, as it moved west into Tennesseemarker, its progress slowed. Detours became necessary due to flooding and the crossing of the "black gumbo" of the Mississippi River proved very problematic. However, despite high hopes, the Southern United States proved to be the worst part of the trip. The convoy encountered almost impassable sands between Maricopamarker and Wellton, Arizonamarker.

Like the first convoy, at every stop the expedition was met by local celebrations and dances. After 111 days and an average rate of less than 30 miles per day, the convoy reached the West Coast where an officer's banquet was given in San Diego. After its arrival in San Diego, the convoy then went north to Los Angelesmarker and was broken up, its equipment distributed to California's public services as part of a program to make use of war surplus.

The officers of the expedition became convinced by their experience that the maintenance of a national highway system should be the province of the federal government, as supported by the Townsend Bill. However, despite the widespread friendly greetings received by the convoys across the nation, neither generated enough public support to ensure passage of the Townsend Bill, which failed and was replaced by the Federal Highway Act of 1921.

Influence of the convoys

Eisenhower's support of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 can be directly attributed to his experiences in 1919 as a participant in the first convoy. His experience was so memorable that Eisenhower included a chapter about the trip, titled "Through Darkest America With Truck and Tank," in his book At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends (Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1967). "The trip had been difficult, tiring, and fun," he said. His experience on the Lincoln Highway, plus his observations of the German autobahn network during World War II, convinced him to support construction of the Interstate System when he became President.

His "Grand Plan" for highways, announced in 1954, led to the 1956 legislative breakthrough that created the Highway Trust Fund to accelerate construction of the Interstate System.

Both convoys are memorialized by the Zero Milestonemarker on the Ellipsemarker in Washington, DC.

Historical re-enactment

In the summer of 2009, on the 90th anniversary of the original trek, the Military Vehicle Preservation Association is sponsoring a re-enactment of the 1919 and 1920 convoys. Beginning June 10, following the original route as much as possible and duplicating the original schedule, the convoy will set out from Washington D.C. Over the length of the convoy includes more than 150 historic military vehicles, including 50 military jeeps, 19 3/4 ton trucks, seven 1 1/2 ton trucks, six 2 1/2 ton trucks, three cargo trucks, nine motorcycles, and four sedans will take part. The oldest vehicle scheduled to take part is a 1917 four-wheel drive 3 ton ammunition truck. Not all of the historical vehicles will be driven to the starting point or from the end point to their home destination, as the Association is planning on using transport companies to move vehicles from place to place.

The reenactors have three purposes: along with retracing the route of 1919 convoy over the historic Lincoln Highway, they plan to pay tribute to the U.S. military and to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln.


  1. Program at their reception in San Francisco

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