“… the war will be over and then we can be together always”: World War I Letters Home from an Army Lawyer in France

By Fred L. Borch and Jennifer L. Crawford

From the early days of the U.S. Army, soldiers at war have relished contact with their families and friends at home.  From the Civil War through Vietnam, it was letters and postcards; today it is email and Skype.  Not only has the desire to stay in contact with the home front remained constant, but what generations of soldiers have had to say to their loved ones—and these loved ones to them—has changed little as well.

The same can be said about the letters written by an Army lawyer, Major Edwin C. McNeil, to his wife, family, and friends during World War I.  “Mac” McNeil, who arrived in England in March 1918, exchanged more than 100 letters with his wife, parents, and friends until he returned to the United States in September 1919.  As McNeil left New York on a troop ship, he numbered the outside of each envelope in sequential order, not knowing that he would be writing daily for over eighteen months.  McNeil saved countless pennies by utilizing free “Officer’s Mail,” while his wifeMary put a three-cent stamp on each of hers.

What seemed to keep the McNeils connected during this part of their forty-year marriage was not the shared bond of battle. but rather the mundane particulars of everyday life.  Mary McNeil’s letters to her husband provide him with the day-to-day details of teas, outings, expenses, and doctor’s appointments.  These musings presumably kept him closer to home and engaged in New York life, providing a respite from his duties in France.  McNeil frequently reminisced in his writing to Mary, “I often imagine we were at San Antonio, and I go thru our day—early breakfast, drive to camp, looking for you at evening, our ride in the car, maybe a party, or a ride in the Park, home again and all alone . . . I have to smile because that one twin [bed] was never used but for a clothes rack.”

The McNeil letters provide perspective on what it was like to serve as a relatively junior staff officer in France in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).  Perhaps more importantly, however, the McNeil letters show that the same attitudes, worries, and concerns of a soldier serving in France nearly 100 years ago are no different from the issues soldiers wrestle with when deployed today.  McNeil’s musings about love, work, daily life, duty, money, and his thoughts on the war’s progress could all have been written today.  Similarly, his wife’s concerns—infidelity, finances, and their future together—are the same topics raised by spouses to deployed soldiers in recent years.  These valuable letters prove that while the nature of warfare has changed dramatically since the lead elements of the AEF landed in France in early 1917, human nature has not.8

Born in Minnesota in November 1882, Edwin Colyer “Mac” McNeil graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1907.  Ranking fifty-fourth in a class of 111, he was commissioned as an infantry second lieutenant and served with the 14th Infantry in the Philippine Islands.  He returned to West Point as an instructor in the Law Department before enrolling in Columbia University Law School in New York City, graduating with a Bachelor of Laws in 1916.  Upon graduation, the Army promoted McNeil to captain and assigned him as the Judge Advocate, 11th Division, with duty in El Paso, Texas.

After America’s entry into World War I in April 1917, then-Major McNeil served as a judge advocate at Fort Sam Houston and Camp Travis, both in Texas.  In February 1918, McNeil sailed for England; he arrived at AEF headquarters in France in March 1918.  Upon arrival in Europe, McNeil completed his studies at the Army’s newly created General Staff College at Langres, France, before serving on the staff of Brigadier General Walter A. Bethel, the top Army lawyer in the AEF.  In the spring of 1918, McNeil took over the Disciplinary and Miscellaneous Division for the AEF, thus beginning what would be a long career focused on military justice.  Promoted to lieutenant colonel in July 1918, McNeil remained in France until September 1919, when he departed Europe aboard the USS Leviathan with such distinguished travel companions as General John J. Pershing and Colonel George C. Marshall.  When the ship reached Hoboken, New Jersey, 100 officers and 3,109 enlisted men disembarked for future assignments or home; McNeil returned to West Point as a professor of law.  He was one of only a handful of judge advocates to be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his service during World War I.

The McNeil letters are the only known collection of letters written by an Army lawyer in France in World War I.  After the war, over the course of several Army moves, the McNeils saved their letters.  After their deaths, their daughter Mary kept the letters, a reminder of a remarkably personal love story between her parents and a lost snapshot of World War I.  While it is no surprise that official military efficiency reports from later in McNeil’s career consistently rate him as “excellent” or “superior” in his abilities, these reports tell little of the man about whom the reports are written.  In one fitness report, McNeil’s superior evaluates him as having “a reserved, somewhat cold personality,” and “[t]emperamentally he is inclined to be somewhat aloof unless he knows you well.”  The McNeil correspondence demonstrates that, in private, this officer was warm, generous, engaging, and anything but aloof.  It was Mary McNeil who knew her husband best; the personal letters complement the official military records to reveal the personal side of a man deemed to be “[a]n industrious and well informed judge advocate of good judgment, sound common sense and fine character.”

The one constant in McNeil’s letters, other than his love for Mary, was his frustration with the mail service.  Today’s soldiers may grumble about access to, and the speed of, the Internet, but for McNeil, who relied on “snail mail” and the rare telegram, the wait for news from home was excruciating.  As early as April 1918, he wrote to his parents, “The mail situation has been pretty bad, but [the mail clerk] now has 90 men working on it, and is about caught up.”  In May 1918, he wrote to Mary, “The mails don’t come very regularly, and I get so lonesome for you.  It is about a week now since I have had any letters, and a few days ago I checked up and found that I was short 13 of your letters . . . Lord knows where they go to but I suppose they will get around sometime when the news is stable.”  For McNeil, like soldiers today, who was to blame but the government, of course:  “No matter what they may say in Congress, the mail service here is very bad.  My baggage from San Antonio arrived after more than 2 ½ months, and the box of books, which I needed the most of all, has not come yet.”

During the war, officers like McNeil availed themselves of free postage by writing “Soldier’s Letter” in the spot where a three-cent-stamp otherwise would sit.  For this benefit, officers were required to self-censor their letters home.  Each envelope from McNeil features an ink stamp impression reading “censored” with his own initials marked on top.  Under the assumption that one of the top judge advocates in Europe would take caution not to violate operational security, McNeil’s grumbling about the mail might just have been a way to fill pages and let everyone at home know that he was doing just fine.7

While telegraphs could be sent from the United States to soldiers overseas during World War I, often it was regular mail that broke tragic news.  In late June 1918, after being away for less than six months, McNeil received a cable from Mary telling him of his mother’s sudden and unexpected death earlier that month.  A shocked Mary, having herself received the news by letter from her father-in-law in Minnesota, was too late to attend the funeral.  Indeed, before McNeil even received the sad news on 20 June 1918, stateside relatives were writing letters of condolence to him.  “You are so far away—and separated from us all—I guess that is why I feel the loss most keenly for you,” wrote McNeil’s aunt in a rare, preserved piece of correspondence from someone outside the immediate family.  One of the few acknowledgments of his mother’s death was in a letter to his father after he received the news by cablegram:  “I am not able to realize that it is true.  It has all been so sudden, and out of a clear sky, and being so far away I just can’t realize that anything has happened.”  He continued, “I can’t imagine why such things have to be.”  Without the sometime advantage of receiving real-time news, be it by email, television, or radio, McNeil processed the events back home as they came to him in the mail:  “It seems so strange to read in your letters . . . about receiving letters and a lace yoke from Mother and then to know how soon after that she was called away.”

With the benefit of hindsight, modern readers can attribute some of the mail delays to in-theater operational requirements.  Much like recent conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan, when there is a major offensive or regional battle, mail and Internet service is disrupted and temporarily halted.  “One week I get a lot of mail and the other one I get none—that is the way it has been running,” wrote McNeil after no less than six major operations in the two preceding months.  McNeil identified the cause for mail delays during the Allies Hundred Days offensive on the Western Front by writing in October 1918:   “[E]verything is upset during the offensive.”   Even after the Armistice was signed, when he was perhaps looking for news from home more than ever, he recognized, “I have been looking for mail—the service doesn’t seem to get any better even tho [sic.] the war is fin.”  But still, for “Mac,” mail was his lifeline:   “I have had no news of you for 34 days, and it has been two weeks since I have had a single letter.  The people who have charge of the mail over here certainly [can’t] be too proud of themselves.”  Whether military operations or soldier incompetence caused the delays, for at least one officer mail was an ongoing necessity, a connection to a life back home.

Married less than three years at the time of “Mac’s” departure, the McNeil’s letters are replete with expressions of love and devotion from husband and wife.  Mac endearingly called Mary “my Bridesmaid” to honor their first meeting when McNeil was a groomsman at Mary’s sister’s wedding.  From the earliest days of their separation, they recognized, “[i]t is not easy but the separation is one thing you must give to the war.”  In their letters, each reminisced about the intimate times they spent together and each made promises about future liaisons.  With separations of time, distance and, culture, both McNeils also voiced concerns about the potential for infidelity.  “To the Sweetest Girl in the World” began much of Mac’s sentimental correspondence to his wife.  From the first letters, while McNeil is awaiting transportation to Europe, his devotion to his wife is clear:  “You are a wonderful girlie and I never cease to congratulate myself that you belong to me. . . . [Y]ou are so attractive in your nightie, and the way you snuggle up in bed like a little child, and look at me out of one eye slyly when you are sleepy.  Didn’t we used to have lots of fun together, dear, and we are going to have lots more, and even better times, I know – don’t you?”   These missives often included the acknowledgement that “I hope we don’t have to be separated too long.  A little while doesn’t hurt much for it teaches us to appreciate the other, but long separations are terrible.”   However, while still at sea on the Atlantic Ocean and before he can even drop his letter into the mail, Mac assures his bridesmaid, “I shall be far too busy to ever look at a woman, and even if I had lots of time, I would have no inclination.”  This inclination may have softened by May 1918 when, after a dinner party that included French guests, McNeil writes home:  “The ladies are attractive, especially when you have not seen ladies 2 ½ months.  Mrs. Q. is much the more attractive and very pretty, tho the other night I was inclined to think the other one was, perhaps because she speaks English, and the other one doesn’t.”  Perhaps having received her husband’s letter, Mary wrote to McNeil on June 3, 1918:  “Please don’t look at those little Hello girls because I can be very jealous you know when it comes to you and other women.”

After six months of separation, infidelity weighed even heavier on Mary’s heart and mind.  Her August correspondence avows:

I couldn’t bear to think of you ever being untrue to me because I always want to be first in everything.  What meaning has the marriage vow if it is to be disregarded and why marry if a man can go out and do with any woman thing that are supposed to be only for his wife.  I do know nearly all the awful diseases women can have come because their husbands love has not been deep enough to make them true to their wives before they marry them.  Luckily the doctors never tell the women how they have gotten such conditions.  You can rest assured, dear, that I have every confidence in you and always have and I could trust you anywhere to be true to me.

LTC Edwin C. McNeil, Professor USMA Department of Law 27 August 1923 (as a Major) - 1928(?)
LTC Edwin C. McNeil

On Sunday, 11 August 1918, Mary asked Mac, “Do you love me just as must?  Are you true to me like you promised?”  Without even receiving her letter, he must have known what was on her mind because two days later he writes to her, “You need not worry about Frenchies, for tho some of them are cute to look at, they could never take your place in any possible way.” Despite her husband’s assurances, Mary’s loneliness and fears persisted:  “Mac, I had three letters today and they were very nice but very short and I am panic-stricken for fear you are growing away from me.  Tomorrow it will be nine months since you left and you are amid strange surroundings and people and goodness knows how much longer we are going to be apart and I am most awfully unhappy and lonesome.”

Mary’s reference to “strange surroundings and people” is a polite way of masking reference to what she fears may be her husband’s undoing:  French women.  Mary’s receipt of correspondence from Mac while on leave in the French Riviera surely did not assuage her fears:

If one was so inclined, there were plenty of swell looking girls to be picked up, but not for me.  They are interesting to see but that is all.  There are some who look so classy that you would never suspect them of being bad, except that in France and Italy a respectable girl is never allowed out alone, so if you see them walking around alone, they are approachable.

While the McNeils correspondence did not indicate that the couple was anything but faithful to each other, not all those affected by the war were as fortunate.

In December 1918, McNeil and his colleagues remained billeted in the home of a French family whose patriarch was off fighting for the French.  Upon notification that the French patriarch was to return, McNeil and his colleagues were compelled to find alternate billeting.  In an effort to secure future quarters McNeil, late one evening, wrote to Mary:  “Tonight we are going to make the raid on the third floor and see what we can find.  Isn’t that exciting!”  With a marked break in the letter he fills her in on the details of the “raid”:

Well the deed is done!  [General Bethel] went above while I waited below.  The door was locked but he called to the French soldier to open it, which he did.  The maid was covered up in bed.  The General flashed his light about and said, “Vous couchez avec la femme de chauffre?” [Old French translation: “You sleep with the wife of the heater?”] and he replied, “Oui, mon general,” at the same time saluting.  That is a great joke on the general.  I would have booted him out at once but the general let him stay . . . The maid gets fired tomorrow.  I hope the cook will stay.

With shared tales like this from France, it is no wonder Mary wanted her Mac home as soon as possible.

While still sailing for France, and before being preoccupied with the daily course of the war, McNeil provided Mary with a detailed plan for how to manage their finances while he was away.  “I have made a little program of what you may do with your money… I have put the amounts down from memory but I think they are about correct.  I am going to try and send you $100.00 so you can clean up all the accounts in April . . . You will notice I have left a small balance each month to help you out and cover any little thing I have forgotten.”

Initial correspondence showed that Mary is receptive to her husband’s financial assistance from afar.  In June 1918, she tells her husband, “Now let me tell you how delighted I am with the new allotment and I hope you have not run yourself short to send that extra $50 to me.  It will be fine to be able to start a Savings account, write the Columbia balance and each month I will be able to save a little something.  . . . I’ll send you little account next month again so you can keep in touch with your family finances.”  She jokingly wrote, “Do you like being married or would you rather be a bachelor and have all the money?”  Whether Mary truly needs the financial advice or was simply humoring a lonely man at sea is unclear.  What is clear is that as time progressed, Mary felt less need for her husband’s involvement.  She used humor to appease her absent husband’s scrutiny of their accounts.  .  In a mock-official letter “Mary Kingsbury McNeil, Wife” wrote to “Lt. Col. Edwin Colyer McNeil”:  “I wish to inform you that on Oct. 31st 1918 I sent to you a full account of the McNeil family’s finances.   In answer to your inquiry as to why they had not been sent before I will state that I didn’t have the time.  I would also remark that said Colonel is very fresh.”  In a softer tone, Mary subsequently wrote to her husband, “Darling, I did send you an account list last month and you frighten me when you talk as if I ought have about a Million Dollars saved.”

Despite these minor differences on how their money is spent, the McNeils are united on the timeless and universal truth that the military never pays its soldiers enough.  Even in 1918, Mac expresses, “If the Government paid its officers what it agrees to do, we wouldn’t owe anything.”  As a major, McNeil’s salary  was “over $200.00 per month.”  By 30 July 1918, the date of his promotion to lieutenant colonel, McNeil enthusiastically shared, “I sent you a cable today saying that I was a Lieut. Colonel.  It means $62 more each month also.”

McNeil, like many Allied officers, was billeted in the home of a French officer who was away at the front.  As the mess officer for the staff, McNeil ensured that his colleagues did not suffer for lack of cuisine.  In the summer of 1918, he hosted a dinner party in which, “We had tomato soup, sweet breads, peas, chicken, salad, yellow and white egg pudding, grapes, Rochefort cheese, nuts and coffee—also wine.”  These summer months, prior to the Allied Hundred Days offensive, seemed to have provided some relief from operations.  Writing from the French military officers club, Cercle Militaire des Armées, McNeil reported, “Last night I went to dinner at the Belgian Mission at a chateau about six miles from town.  There were five Americans there and we certainly had a wonderful dinner—soup, stuffed tomatoes, filet mignon, chicken, & salad, a wonderful sort of cake like French pastry that simply melted in your mouth, and peaches, coffee, three wines, champagne and cordial.”

While today’s soldier will recognize “steak and lobster night” at a remote dining facility’s celebratory meal for the 4th of July and other American holidays, officers in World War I France celebrated a bit differently.  On 5 November 1918, possibly with thoughts of the impending Armistice on his mind, McNeil’s colleague, Colonel Greer contacted him late in the afternoon wanting to take the West Point Class of 1907 out to dinner.  After the celebratory meal that evening, Mac wrote Mary, “The dinner cost the Col. a lot of money I guess for he told the French lad that he wanted a very special French dinner . . . she served the costliest Burgundy and Champagne.  Therefor I think I better go to bed and write more later.”

6Once the war ended, McNeil and his comrades had a bit more freedom to travel and to see the countryside and the war’s effects.  In January 1919 alone he visited Verdun, Châtillon-sur-Seine, and Doulaincourt in the Champagne-Ardennes region of France.  In February, McNeil embarked on two weeks of leave to the French Riviera “by the special American leave train to Marseilles and the Riviera.”  Though he stayed at one of the finest hotels of the era, the Hotel des Anglais & Ruhl in Nice, McNeil told Mary, “The Riviera is a beautiful place but I don’t enjoy any place so much without you.”  Acutely aware of his finances and looking for the illusive “military discount,” McNeil reported to Mary, “Our room costs us 20 francs each for a day which is about $3.60.  Breakfast is 3, but only includes coffee, rolls and jam; lunch is 12, and dinner 15—all those have 20% off on account of being Allies officers.”  After enjoying a particularly elaborate lunch while on leave at the Riviera, he shared with Mary,  “Just to show you what a classy place it was, they had no bill of fare at all, the head waiter just suggested things till you were suited and you had no idea what it all would cost.  I don’t think I’ll tell you for you’ll think I am squandering my family fortunes.”

Most likely for operational security issues, McNeil rarely wrote to his wife about the course of the war itself.  An absence of such details to a spouse cannot be considered unusual then or in modern war.  It is not until several months into their separation, in late April 1918, that McNeil shared a glimpse of what he was experiencing in France:  “I am rather worried about Peace since our President has forced the Italians to leave Paris, on the eve of the appearance of the Boche, but there is one comfort—the next two weeks will show what course things are going to take.”  In the same month he wrote a bit morosely:  “If it wasn’t for the old subs, I should ask you to come over, but if you should get sunk I would never forgive myself, and I would leave the staff and go right up in the front trenches, and get killed.”

Yet, a mere six weeks later he assures Mary that a colleague says, “The Germans are stopped and that our men did finely and the French now have great confidence in them.  It is impossible to stop these big drives of 600,000 men with gains/guns, but soon we will be able to attack and then it will be all up with Mr. Boche.”  With only three letters to Mary in June 1918 and sporadic mail service, he attempted to assuage her fears in his last letter of the month by telling her, “Anyway all leaves are declared off on account of active operations.”

On the eve of the Battle of Château-Thierry, one of the first major operations conducted by the AEF, on 18 July 1918, Mac must have felt that he should give away nothing if German soldiers intercepted his letter:

“Nevermind tho, there is a big operation on as the world knows, and it may bring hope for us.  Some of the rumors we hear about internal conditions in Austria and Germany must be true and a real defeat might bring them to a head.  I really believe Austria is in a bad way, and I also believe that when the Huns start to go to pieces they will go pretty fast.  And the Americans are convincing them in every fight that there can be but one end to the war.  If we only had 5000 airplanes dropping bombs now, it would help mightily to convince the population of Germany.”

Only days later, he wrote to Mary, “I am cheered by the little news for it seems certain next year will end the war and it won’t go on indefinitely.  If Russia had only stayed in the game to any extent we would end it this year.  Even now I have hopes there will be a considerable Allied offensive before winter—a real big setback . . . would be very bad on their morale and excellent for the Allies, to think about over winter.”  He added, “Tomorrow I am going on a little trip up toward the front all by myself, and I hope to get closer than I have ever been yet.  It is straight north of here if you know where I am.  I have an investigation to make for the [Commander-in-Chief] which will take about two days.  I won’t mail this letter till I come back so you won’t need to worry for fear I have been hit by a shell.”

The last mention of the war from McNeil came on 28 August 1918:  “The French did very well today and every gain we made just brings the war to an end and you and I closer together.”  McNeil mentioned nothing of the Armistice to his wife or family in any letters home.  Rather, it is McNeil’s brother , Robert “Bob” McNeil, who wrote to Mac from his own European posting on 11 November 1918:  “The report here this morning is that Germany has accepted the terms of the armistice and hostilities will be suspended at eleven this morning, but from the sound, their [sic] going to keep going right up till that time.  And small bets are being placed as to whether they stop at eleven or not.”

When deploying in support of any conflict, one never really knows how long one will be gone.  Orders may say one thing but the reality is often different; this proved no different in World War I.  In February 1918, as he sailed for Europe, McNeil projected that he may be home in “six or eight months, perhaps sooner,” unknowingly giving false hope to his wife whom he would not see for over another eighteen months.  What is surprising from the correspondence is that both McNeils truly believed that the War Department would permit the officers’ spouses to join their husbands in France.

As early as April 1918, McNeil envisioned that Mary would join him in Europe.  “[W]e must figure out some way to get our families over,” he wrote of himself and his fellow officers.  He believes that wives will be able to stay in Cannes on the French Riviera, the American leave area.  Further, he wrote, “I think you can come over on one of the Government boats, and probably have to pay only for your meals, which will permit you to buy some Paris clothes, if you want them and need any, so you better do it, don’t you think?  Tho it is possible there will be a lot of red tape about that, and if you get a passport perhaps you could arrive several weeks earlier on a commercial boat like the La Lorraine of the French Line, or one of the English boats to Liverpool.”  Ever budget-conscious, and unsure of the cost of the trans-Atlantic ticket, McNeil estimated $125.00 for a one-way fare for Mary.  Even McNeil’s French landlady provided advice for how to bring Mary over to France:  “[She] says if you will come over, you can live with her and we can have half the house.  She said couldn’t you wear breeches and come over as an officer?”

In May 1918, Mary came up with her own “scheme” to take a nurses’ aid course and then journey to France in support of the war effort.  She and her husband were of like-mind as he wrote to her in the summer of 1918:  “Did you read in the Journal about an Amy School of Nursing to be established by the Medical Dept of the Army?  . . . you better say that you are an Army lady, and see what they say as to that.  They are treating the Army ladies pretty hard, but it may be necessary.”

During Mac’s absence, Mary, like many military spouses separated by deployment, spread her wings outside her comfort zone.  She manages the household finances, maintains family correspondence, applies for a passport and emboldens herself for a trans-Atlantic voyage to France.  Mary wrote, “I am scared to death at the thought of making this trip alone but I’ve made up my mind to see it through.  I never thought I could stay alone in [San Antonio] at night or come home from camp alone but I did it and I guess I can do this.”   She took stenography lessons, contemplated further schooling, and even walked home by herself at night in Brooklyn, almost unheard of for a woman of her high social status in 1918.

On several occasions, both McNeils worried and wondered about their next assignment with full recognition that the needs of the Army will prevail, even in 1919.  In his first letter home, McNeil encourages Mary to keep in touch with the stateside unit because he “imagines there is a good chance of my coming back there again.”  During the summer of 1918, he speculated, “I am delighted the way the war is going to, Sweetheart, for I want it to be over soon so we can be together somewhere—it may be the Philippines but we won’t care for that.  I hope it may be Governor’s Island.”  As the war concluded and Allied troops begin to head home, rumors reached McNeil in France, which he shared with Mary:  “[W]e will be in Washington, as a sort of AEF headquarters, for perhaps several months, before we get other assignments.  I think you better ask such people as you can, and see what is the best thing to do there about a place to live for a few months.”

While the McNeils guessed as to where their next assignment would be, they also expressed concerns about their reunion after such a lengthy separation.  “I have been away so long that I can barely imagine living with you again, but I do know that I have been very lonely and unhappy all the past year, and I do want you more than anything in the wide world I would like to have you over for a few months and then I would be perfectly content to go home in the fall—to some good station,” wrote McNeil.  Thus, until their future assignment became certain, the most the McNeils could hope for is a joyous reunion and some much-deserved rest and relaxation.  Daydreaming by letter, he wrote, “We will stay for several days, at least, at some New York hotel . . . and have a regular honeymoon.  We will pretend that we are just married, and everyone will take us for that, I am sure, for they always do—you look so young and I am so devoted.  I am so happy to know that you love me better every day, that is perfectly wonderful, and we should be awfully thankful for that.” 9

McNeil remained in the Army after World War I and graduated from the Army War College in 1923.  He returned to USMA to teach law, remaining there until 1929, when he was assigned to Washington.  In 1933, McNeil was designated Judge Advocate of the 1st Division, whose headquarters was on Governor’s Island, New York.  He was promoted to brigadier general in April 1942 and named the Army’s Assistant Judge Advocate General.  During World War II, McNeil was in charge of the Judge Advocate General’s Office for the European Theater.  He returned to Washington in 1945 and retired in 1947 after more than forty years as a judge advocate.  In 1951, McNeil was made Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army and sent to Europe to investigate the living conditions of soldiers serving in the occupation and their relationships with the people of the occupied countries.  He died in Washington in 1965 and was interred at West Point Cemetery.

“Mac” McNeil’s letters to his wife and family provide a wealth of information about what life was like for an AEF staff officer in World War I.  Historians writing about soldiering in that era are now unable to conduct interviews, or even speak with men and women who knew these World War I veterans, as too much time has passed. Consequently, those researching this period must often rely on official military personnel records, unit histories, and the like.  The McNeil letters give historians a unique opportunity to see the future Brigadier General McNeil as a flesh-and-blood human being, with the same attitudes, worries, and concerns that occupy the thoughts of deploying American soldiers 100 years later.  The nature of war has changed, but human nature has not.