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For nearly one hundred years, the 92nd Division of the U.S. Army in World War I has been remembered as a military failure. The division should have been historically significant. It was the only African American division of the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Comprised of nearly twenty-eight thousand black soldiers, it fought in two sectors of the great battle of the Meuse-Argonne, the largest and most costly battle in all of U.S. history. Unfortunately, when part of the 368th Infantry
For nearly one hundred years, the 92nd Division of the U.S. Army in World War I has been remembered as a military failure. The division should have been historically significant. It was the only African American division of the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Comprised of nearly twenty-eight thousand black soldiers, it fought in two sectors of the great battle of the Meuse-Argonne, the largest and most costly battle in all of U.S. history. Unfortunately, when part of the 368th Infantry Regiment collapsed in the battle’s first days, the entire division received a blow to its reputation from which it never recovered.
In Unjustly Dishonored: An African American Division in World War I, Robert H. Ferrell challenges long-held assumptions and asserts that the 92nd, in fact, performed quite well militarily. His investigation was made possible by the recent recovery of a wealth of records by the National Archives. The retrieval of lost documents allowed access to hundreds of pages of interviews, mostly from the 92nd Division’s officers, that had never before been considered. In addition, the book uses the Army’s personal records from the Army War College, including the newly discovered report on the 92nd’s field artillery brigade by the enthusiastic commanding general.
In the first of its sectors, the Argonne, the 92nd took its objective. Its engineer regiment was a large success, and when its artillery brigade got into action, it so pleased its general that he could not praise it enough. In the attack of General John J. Pershing’s Second Army during the last days of the war, the 92nd captured the Bois Frehaut, the best performance of any division of the Second Army.
This book is the first full-length account of the actual accomplishments of the 92nd Division. By framing the military outfit’s reputation against cultural context, historical accounts, and social stigmas, the authorproves that the 92nd Division did not fail and made a valuable contribution to history that should, and now finally can, be acknowledged. Unjustly Dishonored fills a void in the scholarship on African American military history and World War I studies.
THE TRAINING OF the Ninety-second Division did not differ much from training of other divisions organized by the War Department after the nation entered the world war in April 1917. After its organization in October 1917, the Ninety-second trained in the United States and then, upon arriving in France the next summer, began more training under a schedule set out by the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), General Pershing. It barely got started on the new training when it took over a quiet sector in Alsace, was there for three weeks, and left hurriedly for the Argonne Forest.
Two huge tasks faced the administration of President Woodrow Wilson after the declaration of war, only one of which was to organize and train an army. The other was to produce the weapons of war necessary to arm an army and the ships to take the army and its equipment to France. Unfortunately, the nation's enormous industrial plant—the United States had become the world's largest steel producer years before, in 1880—proved unable to equip its troops and build ships quickly enough to take them to France, and for these necessities had to rely upon its allies, principally Great Britain. In the work of raising and training an army the War Department in Washington was more successful, although its achievements left much to be desired, training less than it should have been.
The U.S. Army prior to 1917 had been largely a constabulary force, designed to fight Indians in the West and then, after the Spanish-American War of 1898, to put down the Filipino Rebellion that opened even before the United States annexed the Philippine Islands, and upon ending the rebellion turned into the guerrilla outbreaks of the Moros. For almost twenty years after 1898 the army, which increased from 25,000 men and officers to 130,000 by 1917, took on whatever tasks appeared in the Far East and the protectorates in Central America and the Caribbean, including an excursion into northern Mexico in 1916–1917. After the declaration of war against Germany the army needed a vast enlargement, eventually to nearly 4 million men. The task included construction of cantonments for the new divisions, tent camps in the South, barrack camps in the North. Upon their approximate completion in the autumn of 1917, the camps, especially the barracks in the North, required much work, which extended into the winter.
The Ninety-second's drafts of new men found themselves in a series of northern barrack camps. For the Ninety-second the War Department naturally decided upon cantonments in the North, and unlike the other cantonment divisions scattered the division across a range of camps from Kansas to Long Island. The reason for scattering was the department's decision that African Americans in an individual camp should be in a minority in that camp, not more than one to three. Critics said at the time and later that this precluded training of the troops in large units. The division necessarily could not come together, nor could it assemble the two infantry brigades. The largest unit in a camp would be a regiment. Cantonments comprised thousands of acres, plenty of room for maneuvers, and the War Department rule on size had its disadvantages, but white racists in the North could not claim they were in danger of some sort or other from masses of black troops in their midst.
Infantry training in the cantonments, one must say, and this included training in the Ninety-second's units, was at best uninspired. The army did not have many trainers, the best of them going abroad in the summer of 1917 in the First Division, for which General Pershing had his choice from officers of the Regular Army. And the army's officers during the period of American neutrality, when they might have learned a good deal about European ways of war, learned little or nothing. A few had gone to Europe as attachés in embassies and legations and gotten out with troops of the Allies and Central Powers. Their dispatches came into the War College in Washington, where they lay in great piles and by testimony of officers present were almost completely unread. A further confusion was that the high command of the German Army on November 11, 1917, an interesting date, decided to embark on a new kind of war that they hoped would take their troops out of the trenches. It would virtually abolish the trench war that had characterized the western front almost from the war's beginning in 1914. The new German tactics stressed infiltration by small attack groups with machine guns, which would penetrate front lines and get into back areas. The German general staff would not allow frontal assaults and would depend, for attacks and retreats alike, on machine guns and artillery. All this required new tactics by opposing infantrymen, and the Ninety-second's troops received no such instruction, relying in the cantonments on French and British instructors sent from the lines and possessing the tactical wisdom of 1917, not what was to come on the western front beginning March 21, 1918, when the German Army opened the first of five massive attacks in a spring and summer offensive that almost broke through to Paris—which would have ended the war before the Ninety-second and other cantonment divisions got into action or some of them arrived.
The shipment of American divisions to France was delayed because the United States proved unable to launch enough shipping—the American merchant marine had shrunk to a low level, one million gross tons of oceangoing shipping—and it was only when the British government offered shipping in January 1918, anticipating the German spring offensive, that the divisions could get to France, which they did in the spring and early summer. The Ninety-second was one of them.
Another factor in the training of the African American divisions and other divisions was the cold winter of 1917–1918. That winter recalled the Great Blizzard of 1873. The winter taxed memories and broke records, and for the soldiers, whether in tents or barracks, neither of which was designed for unusual weather, there was little but unmitigated misery.
The initial need of the division was a cadre of officers, for which the army approved a special Officer Training School in Des Moines, Iowa. A debate arose over whether a black OTS should be organized, the cause of which was Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, who was in command of the military district centered in New York City. In 1915 he organized the first OTS, strictly for whites, in a camp near Plattsburgh, New York. Its success led to schools across the country. Early in 1917 he offered to organize one for African Americans if two hundred candidates were available. The general was a close friend of former president Theodore Roosevelt, hence a Republican and hostile to the Democratic Wilson administration. It does not seem that he made his proposal to embarrass the administration. He did create sentiment about a camp, pro and con, with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the person of one of its white officials, Joel T. Spingarn, urging a black OTS. Some African Americans argued that the segregation of such a camp if held in the South would be wrong, and Spingarn said the South's congressmen and behind them its people wanted such a camp to fail and that blacks should accept a southern camp for the opportunity to create black U.S. Army officers. When the army finally offered an OTS at Des Moines, one African American described it as the most important move of the federal government since the Fifteenth Amendment. Harvard-trained black historian W. E. B. DuBois declared that when Secretary Newton D. Baker announced the camp, it was the most that any member of Wilson's cabinet had done for blacks.
At Des Moines the school organized under the direction of a Regular officer, Col. Charles C. Ballou, who when the division was organized became its commanding general, with promotion to major general. Ballou proved an intelligent officer who believed in the need for African American officers. He saw to it that relations between the students and local citizens were of the best. No serious incident arose, and the city did everything possible to make the men feel at home. The officer candidates undertook a formal drill in the Drake University stadium, and ten thousand people turned out to watch them. A reception at a place named White Sparrows brought hundreds of citizens. The churches, in a surprising event for the time, welcomed the black men to their services.
The first class finished in October, having been kept a month after the usual officer training of three months (whereby graduates of an OTS were known to their men as "ninety-day wonders"). Secretary of War Newton D. Baker in Washington told OTS representatives that the department had delayed because of southern protests against the camp, especially after race riots in East St. Louis and Houston. The official department explanation was that it had to delay the black draft for a month because of lack of places in several northern cantonments—it could not use the officers until solution of that problem.
The graduating class consisted of some six hundred men, with one hundred captains, the rest divided between first and second lieutenants. Of the candidates a fifth were drawn from noncommissioned officers, sergeants and corporals, from the four Regular regiments of black troops the army maintained in peacetime usually in the West, the 9th and 10th Cavalries and the 24th and 25th Infantries, a natural recourse among the men at Des Moines, with others coming from civil life.
In decisions on what candidates should receive what ranks there later was argument that to commission as captains the sergeants and corporals of the Regular Army was a mistake, for many of them had only sixth and seventh grade educations, whereas lieutenants often were college graduates. The answer to that has to be that men of the Regular Army needed recognition for the years, sometimes twenty and more, spent in the military, and that educational standards differed widely, with some grade schools certainly equal to high schools; many college degrees of the time were from very small and almost primitive institutions, not worth much. The officers in charge at Fort Des Moines had to choose some course and did so, and disagreements were inevitable.
The draft of African American men turned out remarkably well, in that there was little shirking or refusal to cooperate. Everything was as orderly as for the draft of whites. In the first draft 6,451,856 men registered, blacks and whites, of which 342,247 blacks and 1,416,750 whites were chosen for service. The percentage of African Americans chosen was higher than for whites, though the difference was not marked: 31.74 for blacks, 26.84 for whites. Half of the blacks qualified served abroad.
As for what they did upon arrival, men in infantry units served in them; the same held for whites. Far more blacks than whites went over assigned to stevedore or other labor behind the lines, units with white officers, not black. It could be argued that the large numbers of African Americans who—in labor units it often was three-fourths—were illiterate militated in that direction, although it was difficult to see that infantry training had any large reliance on the written word. The army had manuals for everything about combat and support operations. Many of them were copied from French and British manuals. These field manuals found their way up from soldier to divisional level. How closely they were read by the men was something else.
Divisional headquarters were at Funston in Kansas, meaning that the newly promoted General Ballou had to direct, if he could, men in all units out to Long Island from the far western cantonment. Just what he could do in that regard was at the least problematic. Ballou reported to the inspector on the period of May 18–27, 1918, on what the units were doing in "the school of the soldier." Apparently he was speaking only of the troops at Funston, not his entire division scattered at the cantonments. The units had undergone disciplinary training regardless of the special purposes for which they were organized. There was also instruction in march discipline and in extended order. In addition to this training, each unit received "the technical instruction its character demanded." Disciplinary training meant saluting, perhaps not an essential for troops at the front. March discipline presumably taught troops the quickest way to get from one place to another but was useless on a battlefield where any troop concentration invited a rain of shrapnel and, if close enough, machine-gun bullets. Extended order drill had value, teaching troops to spread out, but nothing could teach troops to stay apart when under fire, for the urgent impulse for all raw troops was to come together. As for "technical instruction," the general did not specify. The dates for the above instruction, elementary as it was, were uncomfortably close to the time in June when the division went overseas.
A few machine-gun companies trained at Funston. Such companies were smaller than infantry companies (the latter comprised 250 men). According to a division table of organization, each division had three machine-gun battalions, each with three companies. Training of men at Funston in machine guns must not have been better than that of all the divisions as long as they were in the United States, for the army had almost no guns with which to train them. The Browning guns, heavies and lights, excellent weapons, used in World War II and Korea, did not go into production until after the war began and the American inventor showed his weapons to the War Department. In France for most of the war—Brownings were released to some of the divisions during the last weeks—the troops used French heavy Hotchkisses and the light guns known as Chauchats, arguably the worst light guns used by any of the major national armies during the war.
At Camp Dodge in Iowa there was training of the 366th Infantry, a sizable body of troops, in 1917–1918 four thousand men. Its training at Dodge is difficult to discern. When a group of Regular officers, members of the general staff, did a study of the Ninety-second in 1923, using all the records they could easily go through, they were struck by the dearth of records, as well as the vague statements used by inspectors to describe what they were about—officers from the Inspector General Department visited and drew up appraisals but showed caution or disinclination to get into details. Inspectors included men of rank, two brigadier generals, free of pressure from the officers in charge they met. The single report on training of the 366th spoke of lack of winter apparel. The 366th reported zero-degree weather or below on twenty-nine days after December 1, impossible to train outside of barracks.
The other cantonments were all east of Funston and Dodge. The inspector at Camp Grant, Illinois, reported that training of the 365th Infantry and a machine-gun battalion began November 5 and followed the schedule prescribed for the Eighty-sixth Division, also at Grant. The command was in its sixth week of training, and progress had been satisfactory. He added that the regiment and battalion had full complements of officers, averaging fifty men per company, and with daily duties required for all units, guard duty and so on, turnout for training exercises in each company averaged fifteen or twenty.
At Camp Sherman in Ohio was the Ninety-second's engineer regiment, some fourteen hundred men. Training was uncertain, for at that time the regiment had two engineer-trained officers. The remainder were trained in Des Moines.
A battalion of the Ninety-second's 317th Machine Gun Regiment was in training, six hundred men, for what little was possible without the guns. The battalion in late April 1918 was in quarantine for scarlet fever. The camp trained signal corps men, as well as sanitary, meaning medical, units. Here the present writer can offer personal detail, for his father trained at Sherman in a white medical unit, not that of the Ninety-second. The winter was cold, and my grandfather, an Ohio farmer, sent a horse blanket. According to the author's father, Sherman was inhabited by a legion of hoot owls, which each night made sleep impossible.
The 368th Regiment was at Camp Meade, Maryland, and this regiment that obtained a poor reputation in the Argonne may have had good training, but the few reports for January 1918 covered everything in general statements: "performed the usual camp duties, etc."; "training schedules were carried out in so far as weather conditions permitted." In February the weather improved. In March attention went to security, probably guard duty, and minor tactics, perhaps bayonet practice. The regiment pitched shelter tents and bivouacked on the reservation to the south of the cantonment, on the night of March 20, 1918. In April the regiment took part in a parade in Baltimore reviewed by President Wilson.
Excerpted from UNJUSTLY DISHONORED by Robert H. Ferrell Copyright © 2011 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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