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

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

by Richard Slotkin
     
 

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"A work of stunning density and penetrating analysis . . . Lost Battalions deploys a narrative symmetry of gratifying complexity."—David Levering Lewis, The Nation

During the bloodiest days of World War I, no soldiers served more valiantly than the African American troops of the 369th Infantry—the fabled Harlem Hellfighters—and

Overview

"A work of stunning density and penetrating analysis . . . Lost Battalions deploys a narrative symmetry of gratifying complexity."—David Levering Lewis, The Nation

During the bloodiest days of World War I, no soldiers served more valiantly than the African American troops of the 369th Infantry—the fabled Harlem Hellfighters—and the legendary 77th "lost battalion" composed of New York City immigrants. Though these men had lived up to their side of the bargain as loyal American soldiers, the country to which they returned solidified laws and patterns of social behavior that had stigmatized them as second-class citizens.

Richard Slotkin takes the pulse of a nation struggling with social inequality during a decisive historical moment, juxtaposing social commentary with battle scenes that display the bravery and solidarity of these men. Enduring grueling maneuvers, and the loss of so many of their brethren, the soldiers in the lost battalions were forever bound by their wartime experience.

Both a riveting combat narrative and a brilliant social history, Lost Battalions delivers a richly detailed account of the fierce fight for equality in the shadow of a foreign war.

Editorial Reviews

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

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781466860933
Publisher:
Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
12/24/2013
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
656
Sales rank:
1,112,331
File size:
2 MB

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.


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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