A new book by Professor of American Studies Richard Slotkin examines the heroism of U.S. African-American troops fighting in World War I and the heartless reception they received back home.
IN 1918, THE AFRICAN AMERICAN TROOPS OF THE 369TH INFANTRY–also known as the Harlem Hell Fighters–staged a heroic five-day attack from Sept. 26 through Oct. 1 against the Germans in Sechault, France. Casualties among some 2,500 men were so high that by the end they barely survived as a fighting force. The French awarded the entire regiment the Croix de Guerre.
Twenty miles away, 700 men of the 308th Infantry entered the thick woods and marshland of the Argonne Forest, and on Oct. 1, broke through the German lines, only to be cut off and surrounded at Charlevaux Mill. The 308th was part of the 77th Division, dubbed the Melting Pot division because it was full of “hyphenated Americans”–Jewish, Italian, Chinese, eastern Europeans, and other sons of immigrants from New York’s Lower East Side, Chinatown, Little Italy, Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx.
These men of the 308th, disdained as riffraff back home, fought valiantly. They withstood five days of battle and starvation, as well as a friendly fire and flamethrower attack. By the time they were relieved, fewer than 200 left the field alive. Four soldiers received Medals of Honor, and a number were awarded Distinguished Service Crosses.
The stories of these two units, among the first Americans to fight in France, play an important role in Richard Slotkin’s revealing new book, Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality. Slotkin skillfully combines combat narrative with vivid social history to examine nationalism, racism, and class conflict in the United States from before World War I until 1965. As he notes: “The stress of war would pry apart the fault lines in American society, and reveal that the democracy for which the world was to be made safe had not resolved the most fundamental issues of its own national organization: Who counts as American, and what civil rights must citizenship guarantee?”
Slotkin, Olin Professor of American Studies, has taught at Wesleyan for 40 years. His current book developed out of one of his favorite courses to teach, a course on combat films, which explores the power of movies to convey historical attitudes on nationality.
“This course traces the evolution of a national mythology that developed in the second half of the 20th century, which represents the nation as a multiethnic, multiracial democracy–as opposed to an earlier national myth, which I call the ‘myth of the frontier,’ which represents the nation as a country of white Anglo-Saxon males,” Slotkin says. “I trace the development of this myth through its changes and through the incorporation of new ethnic groups and ultimately gender groups into the empowered community of the military, which represents the nation.”
In the early 1900s, what constituted being an American was up for debate. Was being an American simply a kind of social and cultural belonging or was it tied to a racial identity? Who was an American national?
“I wrote this book because this was a period in which the fundamental terms of nationality were being contested and hammered out,” Slotkin says.
In the time preceding World War I, many American leaders regarded native-born whites as superior in “intelligence, morality, and general fitness for citizenship” compared to African Americans, Native Americans, and those who had immigrated to the United States in great waves after 1881: Italians, Jews from Eastern Europe, Poles, Russians, Romanians, Slovaks, Greeks, Serbs, Lithuanians, and Chinese. African Americans and the new immigrants did not fit into a vision of a unified American nationality, one that nativist organizations such as the Immigration Restriction League defined as descended from “a single race, with substantially the same social and political instincts, the same standards of conduct and morals, the same industrial capability.”
Many American leaders felt that African Americans (who were already robbed of their civil rights by Jim Crow laws in the South) and the new immigrants would “make poor citizens and soldiers and might be susceptible to subversion by radical agitators and foreign influences.” While African Americans were thought inferior because of their race, the new immigrants were under suspicion because they still had ties to their motherlands, were sympathetic to socialist and Zionist movements, or had alien ways and values that made it difficult for them to live and think like “regular Americans.”
But when it became clear that America would go to war, the United States needed the participation of its ethnic and racial minorities to raise a sufficiently large army.
To attract them, American leaders had to mask their prejudices and offer enticements to encourage blacks and new immigrants to enlist. The Committee on Public Information was assigned the task of marshaling public opinion to support the war, the draft, and the president. America’s racial and ethnic minorities were offered “a new version of the American social bargain: acknowledgment of their civic equality and acceptance as full-fledged Americans, in exchange for loyal service in battle.” The promise of being given the rights and benefits of other Americans if they served in the military convinced many African Americans and new immigrants to enlist, including those who would make up the 369th and 308th infantries.
The 308th Infantry of the 77th Division consisted of immigrant men who were mostly raised on the Lower East Side.
“The 77th Division was the first National Army draftee division to be raised during the war,” Slotkin says. “It was raised locally so it had a community tie. The men were trained right outside the city, so there was a lot of press coverage of their training, interviews with soldiers, all that kind of detail.”
The 369th black regiment was a National Guard unit also raised locally. It had a very close bond with Harlem. These were not men and officers drafted from different parts of the country and thrown together.
“That gave it a kind of unique psychology,” Slotkin says, “It had mostly white officers, but in a sense, they were appointed with the consent of the community, with a negotiation and an agreement. In other black units in other parts of the country, random white officers were brought in to control random black soldiers so the morale in that kind of unit was much more tenuous and subject to stress.
“In the 369th, the soldiers and officers, white and black, had a long period of getting to know each other to establish a basis of trust–limited trust, to be sure–but they had a morale which could be sustained under the most extraordinary circumstances,” Slotkin adds. “In this regiment, white officers mixed with black officers from the beginning. The soldiers eventually lost their black officers, but they had a core of white officers they had learned to trust.”
The soldiers of the 308th and 369th Infantry did fulfill their part of the bargain, fighting bravely and sustaining great losses. But though they returned to victory parades, their heroic contributions to the war, the stuff of legend, quickly faded from the national consciousness.
The 308th was called the “Lost Battalion” because its men were cut off behind enemy lines and in danger of being wiped out. Slotkin, however, saw a larger meaning in the nick-name.
“The 369th can also be considered a ‘lost battalion’,” he says, “because the memory of their deeds was wiped out in the public arena.”
The soldiers from both regiments, moreover, did not receive the equality and civil rights they were promised upon their return.
“As veterans, they got next to nothing,” Slotkin says. “Inflation had tripled the price of essentials, and a decent suit of clothes to apply for a job cost $100. Yet soldiers received only a $60 bonus on discharge.”
An economic depression hit within a year of the soldiers’ arrival home. They couldn’t find work, and the government didn’t help. In addition, many of the soldiers suffered from injuries and diseases they had picked up overseas, such as the after-effects of influenza or malaria, parasitic infections, and lung damage from poison gas or from smoke inhalation. They had no medical coverage for their ailments.
The ideological commitment to equality made in 1917 was conveniently forgotten. Congress’s refusal to pass anti-lynching bills signaled a broad acceptance in society of white su-premacy.
By the end of 1919, there was a consensus among U.S. leaders in favor of immigration restriction, so even though many new immigrants had sacrificed their lives for their country, they were still not accepted as equal to native-born whites. The Johnson-Reed Act, passed in 1924, restricted the influx of new immigrants from certain countries with non-Anglo-Saxon populations, and made it more difficult for older immigrants to travel between the United States and Europe. Chinese immigration had already been restricted by previous legislation.
“The Johnson-Reed Act made racism an official doctrine of the American government, and licensed academic institutions such as Harvard to exclude not only Jews but also blacks,” Slotkin says.
Lost Battalions explores the plight of these war heroes in a racist society by focusing on the lives of about 20 soldiers from different classes and ethnic backgrounds. Slotkin chose individuals depending on how much information was available about them.
“It was partly catch-as-catch-can,” he admits. “The Internet provided me with leads to family sites of the soldiers and to some mail exchanges. In one case, I was able to get in touch with the son of Henry Johnson, a great hero of the black regiment. His son had been a Tuskegee Airman. We corresponded, though he died before the book came out.”
Johnson, who before he enlisted was a porter at Albany’s Union Station, returned from battle “a genuine hero, the first U.S. soldier to win a major decoration for valor, the first to win the Croix de Guerre. Theodore Roosevelt praised him as ‘one of the five bravest’ to have fought in the war. He was famous on both sides of the color line, hailed as ‘Black Death’ by his own people and interviewed by reporters for the great white daily papers and magazines.?”
But his fame turned out to be a heavy burden. As Slotkin writes: “He was asked to represent his people to a white American public sitting in unfriendly judgment on the Negro race, and to compel that public to recognize in him the proof that black people were valiant, patriotic, and fit for citizenship in modern America.”
In 1919, Johnson addressed the state legislature on a bill to give preference to veterans in hiring for the civil service. But when he spoke in St. Louis as the main speaker of a program honoring Negro contributions to the war, he did not deliver the positive speech the audience was expecting. He bemoaned the lack of racial comradeship at the front and accused white marines of refusing to fight alongside blacks not only because they were bigots, but also because they were cowards. “The war made Henry Johnson a hero,” Slotkin notes, “but it wasn’t his war, and it wasn’t a black man’s war. Look at what white men made out of it, and see what little was conceded to black men for their service.”
Johnson was condemned in Midwestern papers for speaking against white soldiers and was kept under surveillance by the Military Intelligence Division who feared he might incite racial insurrection. His life quickly went downhill after his speech in St. Louis; he found only sporadic work and his health suffered, worsened by alcoholism and possible drug use. He died alone in 1929 at age 32 in an Albany V.A. hospital. Though he was buried in Arlington Cemetery, his son, who had lost contact with him, thought he had died in 1937 and had been buried in Albany in an unmarked grave.
One of the most compelling and complex individuals in the book is Charles W. Whittlesey, who became the commander of the 308th Lost Battalion. As Slotkin writes: “In most ways, he fit the ‘Son of Roosevelt’ profile: Harvard Law and Wall Street, well-born and well-read, physically fit, with a strong sense of moral idealism.” Although Whittlesey was a socialist and pacifist, he did enter the military and wound up one of the war’s most famous leaders.
Whittlesey suffered enormous guilt over the death of so many of the men in his regiment. Even though his superior claimed that he had done the right thing by following orders, Whittlesey was obsessed with the question of whether he could have saved more.
“There’s no right or wrong answer to the question,” Slotkin comments. “If Whittlesey had failed to carry out his orders, he would have hated himself. Carrying out his orders, he hated himself for having led his men to death and wondered if he might have done something different or better. It’s just a psychological trap from which he could not escape.”
After the war, Whittlesey devoted much of his time to working with wounded veterans and helping to raise money for the Red Cross. He avoided the limelight and never sought to exploit his war hero status for financial gain. Instead, he questioned whether he deserved to be considered a hero.
He was featured prominently in a 2001 television movie, The Lost Battalion, but Slotkin notes that this and other accounts do not usually tell the tragic side of his life after the war. Slotkin sought to put together a total portrait of the man, to recount his suffering from post-traumatic stress and his suicide. One challenge in creating such a picture is that Whittlesey or his family destroyed almost all his papers. Williams College, his alma mater, has only six of his letters.
Slotkin believes, but could not prove, that he was a highly repressed gay person. He does not appear to have had any sexual relationships.
“His friends lay peculiar stress that he was never involved with a woman,” Slotkin adds. “I think that is a coded message.”
Slotkin’s writes about Whittlesey’s tenderness for his men. One particularly poignant story he found buried in a newspaper article published after his suicide. During battle, Whittlesey fell asleep one night next to a wounded boy he was particularly worried about: “At last ‘he awoke in the middle of the night to find his cheek touching the soldier’s, which was cold in death.’ His men were not mistaken in thinking that he cared about them.”
Two other black soldiers captured Slotkin’s interest: James Europe, a well-known musician and entertainment entrepreneur, who was stabbed to death after the war, and Horace Pippin, who became a productive oil painter later in his life.
“Europe’s role as an artist, a cultural and political activist, was uniquely significant, both for what he achieved and for the promise that was cut off when he was murdered,” Slotkin says. “His own writings revealed how powerful his ambitions were, for himself and for black people–it made the potential radicalism of black politics come alive.”
Slotkin found a different appeal in Horace Pippin.
“He’s not an intellectual like Europe, but a vivid painter in images and in simple direct language. His autobiographical notes opened up the human impact of battle from a soldier’s point of view– and his experience of war was more traumatic than Europe’s.”
Lost Battalions includes detailed battle scenes that succeed in keeping the reader intensely involved.
“The hardest part of writing these sections was trying to connect psychologically with those past experiences,” he says. “What makes these work–if they do–is rooting the events in the perspective of a psychologically valid character. Where I could, I gave the testimony of men who fought in those actions; but I also drew on other experiences to represent the kind of thing a typical soldier might have seen, heard, felt, smelt.”
Slotkin hopes that his book will resonate with today’s readers.
“I think it offers a window to the way culture and politics work together and in particular, the difficulty in which American nationality and American democracy have been con-structed.”
He believes that the struggles for certain ethnic groups to be accepted as belonging to the United States still exist today, as well as questions of their loyalty to the country. For example, he cites a recent book by Samuel Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to National Identity, in which the author singles out Latinos as a huge threat to American culture at a time when 14 percent of the U.S. Marine Corps are soldiers with Latin American heritage.
Slotkin’s book also makes clear the centrality of war in the creation and re-creation of American culture.
“Without World War I, would there have been any impulse to promise equality to all? Without the Second World War, would the nation have followed through on that promise? Without the Cold War would America have accepted the end of Jim Crow? I don’t think it would have.”