Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality


During the bloodiest days of World War I, no soldiers served more valiantly than the 369th Infantry—the fabled Harlem Hellfighters—and the legendary "lost battalion" composed of New York City immigrants drawn from the 77th Division. At separate times during the war, both units found themselves cut off behind enemy lines, lost, in fierce battles that claimed the lives of more than half the men from each unit.
As Richard Slotkin follows the Negro soldiers of the 369th and the ...
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Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality

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During the bloodiest days of World War I, no soldiers served more valiantly than the 369th Infantry—the fabled Harlem Hellfighters—and the legendary "lost battalion" composed of New York City immigrants drawn from the 77th Division. At separate times during the war, both units found themselves cut off behind enemy lines, lost, in fierce battles that claimed the lives of more than half the men from each unit.
As Richard Slotkin follows the Negro soldiers of the 369th and the Jewish, Italian, and other immigrants of the 77th into combat, he depicts an America where these soldiers were viewed as lesser citizens. Even after they demonstrated their loyalty and bravery, nothing changed. They had lived up to their side of the bargain, earning the right to first-class citizenship. But the America to which they returned chose to maintain and even extend the laws and patterns of social behavior that had stigmatized these men. Denied benefits, further armed forces employment, and basic respect, these heroes were treated with utter indifference. But the soldiers' sacrifices were not entirely in vain. Their struggle to create consensus in favor of ethnic and racial pluralism would finally prevail, the first engagement in a fight for equal rights that would last half a century.
Both a riveting combat narrative and a brilliant social history, Lost Battalions delivers a stinging reminder of how unattainable the ideals of America often were for those who fought hardest to preserve them.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The history of two regiments, one of black soldiers and one of immigrants, revealing racial assumptions of white Americans, an unspoken bargain, and thwarted hopes after the war. (LJ 11/1/05)
Publishers Weekly
Slotkin (a National Book Award finalist for Gunfighter Nation) examines the relationship between war and citizenship in this trenchant, gracefully written military and social history of the African-American 369th Infantry, known as the "Harlem Hellfighters," and the 77th Division, dubbed the "Melting Pot" for its ranks of Italians, Jews and other eastern Europeans. At the time of America's entrance into WWI, blacks and immigrants were deemed racially inferior-less than full members of the commonwealth. But total war necessitated national mobilization of these excluded minorities, so the government advanced an unwritten (and uncertain) bargain: acceptance and equality in return for loyal service. In an outstanding synthesis of operational analysis and unit dynamics, Slotkin shows the dilemmas of the elite, Anglo-Saxon officers leading the 77th and the 369th, and that the soldiers' performance in battle paid in full the blood price of their bargain. At an extraordinarily high cost, the 369th Infantry captured the French town of Sechault from the Germans, and the 77th Division fought in the Argonne, an ordeal that earned it the name the Lost Battalion. Slotkin smoothly telescopes from the trenches to the political and social implications for decades to come in this insightful, valuable account. Agent, Carl Brandt. (Dec.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
For the African American soldiers of the 369th Infantry and the immigrant (Jewish, Italian, Irish, etc) soldiers of the 77th division of the 308th Infantry, American entry into World War I was a social bargain. In exchange for their blood spilled in the trenches of Verdun and the Meuse-Argonne, they expected, upon victorious return, the respect and rights of first-class American citizens. Despite the distinguished combat records of the 369th and the 77th, America was not quite as dutiful in living up to its end of the bargain. It would take decades, particularly for African Americans, to achieve the equality and respect they deserved and that they had experienced briefly fighting alongside the French. During the years immediately following World War I, Americans resisted the transformation of their culture by African American, Jewish, Italian, and Irish cultures, often with violence, discrimination, and neglect. The war was a key step in the struggle for equality, but it would take decades to achieve significant progress. As much a military as a social history, Slotkin's comprehensive, well-researched work, using a multitude of sources, chronicles the history of these units from their creation to their postwar impact on the social bargain. Recommended for academic and public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/05.]-Patti C. McCall, Albany Molecular Research, Inc. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Heroes today, gone tomorrow: Revisionist historian/novelist Slotkin (Gunfighter Nation, 1992, etc.) once more limns the national character by probing history that the nation has overlooked, in this instance the forgotten soldiers of WWI. The soldiers of the Harlem Hellfighters and the so-called Lost Battalion were never really found in the first place; they worked at the edges of the nation's consciousnes. Doubtless, Slotkin suggests, the nation would have preferred to fight the Kaiser with an army of white native-born sons, but one in eight Americans in 1917 was either foreign-born or of African descent. A detachment of New York blacks, many recent arrivals from the Jim Crow South, were formed into a command attached to the French Army, while Jews and Slavs and Italians newly arrived through Ellis Island were formed into a unit informally called the "Melting Pot Division." Each would fight valiantly, the 369th Battalion on one flank of the Argonne Front, the 77th Division only some 20 miles away; each would be badly bloodied, such that of the latter, "nearly three-quarters . . . were either killed, wounded, or captured," whereas the black soldiers-who, Slotkin notes in passing, introduced jazz to France along the way-were so badly mauled by German attackers that "the French withdrew them from the line and awarded the entire regiment the Croix de Guerre." (One of their white officers, Hamilton Fish Jr., would become a leading isolationist politician.) So why don't all American schoolchildren know of the exploits of these soldiers? Because they were embarrassments to the status quo; as Slotkin observes, the soldiers would barely be remembered except in the abstract, with the reshaping oftheir stories in films such as Bataan, whose makers "persisted in placing African-Americans in their war stories even when the premise for inclusion was rather thin" and allowed immigrants a voice. Solid work, as is Slotkin's custom, and of much interest to students of American history and ethnicity.
From the Publisher
"A landmark account . . . Slotkin has written an extraordinary tale not only of their exploits on the battlefield but of their equally epic social struggle for recognition as worthy Americans untainted by their race and ethnic background."—Carlo D'Este, author of Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life

"An interesting and important book."—San Francisco Chronicle

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805081381
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/3/2006
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 656
  • Sales rank: 462,548
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.45 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Slotkin is the Olin Professor and the former director of

American Studies at Wesleyan University. His previous books include Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln, National Book Award Finalist Gunfighter Nation, and Regeneration Through Violence, also a National Book Award Finalist and

winner of the Albert J. Beveridge Prize. He lives in Middletown, Connecticut.

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Table of Contents

1 Safe for democracy : the lost battalion and the Harlen Hell Fighters 1
2 "The great composite American" : Theodore Roosevelt and American nationalism, 1880-1917 12
3 No black in the rainbow : the origin of the Harlem Hell Fighters, 1911-1917 35
4 "The Jews and wops, the Dutch and Irish cops" : recruiting the melting pot division, July-December 1917 72
5 The politics of ridicule : the 15th New York goes to war, October 1917-May 1918 112
6 The slamming of great doors : entering the world of combat, May-September 1918 153
7 Home fires burning : political and racial reaction, summer 1918 213
8 "Tout le Monde a la Bataille!" : the Allied offensive begins, September 12-27, 1918 241
9 The last long mile : the Hell Fighters at Bellevue Ridge and Sechault, September 26-October 1, 1918 275
10 The lost battalion : Whittlesey's command at Charlevaux Mille, October 1-8, 1918 305
11 Print the legend : the "lost battalion" as public myth 364
12 "No man's land is ours" : the Hell Fighters and the lost battalion return, February-May 1919 395
13 The black and the red : race riots, red scares, and the triumph of reaction, 1919-1924 428
14 Unknown soldiers : Charles Whittlesey and Henry Johnson, 1919-1929 462
15 "Say, don't you remember ... ?" : public memory, public myth, and the meaning of the war, 1919-1930 489
16 The New Deal and the renewal of American nationalism, 1930-1941 522
17 The bargain renewed : the myth of the "good war" and the memory of the lost battalions, 1938-1965 551
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