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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 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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805081381
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/03/2006
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 656
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.45(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

Lost Battalions

The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality

By Richard Slotkin

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2005 Richard Slotkin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6093-3


Safe for Democracy: The Lost Battalion and the Harlem Hell Fighters

The world must be made safe for democracy. ... To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have.

Woodrow Wilson, Address to Congress (April 2, 1917)

On Monday April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson summoned Congress into joint session to hear his call for a declaration of war against the German empire. For two and a half years he had resisted with determination all pressures for the United States to intervene in Europe's Great War, in the hope that American diplomacy and economic influence could bring about a negotiated "peace without victory." But pressure for U.S. entry had become intolerably great. A chain of political and economic decisions bound the United States to the Allies despite our official neutrality. The nation's leaders were convinced that if the United States did not now decisively intervene, it would lose its power to influence the ordering of the post-war world.

That decision committed the United States to full participation in the worldwide competition of the Great Powers, and broke the political tradition that had restricted overseas engagements to the Caribbean and the Pacific. To fight the war the United States would disrupt and transform its political institutions, licensing Washington to regulate every aspect of civil life from the purchase of consumer goods to the expression of opinion. Opposition to the war was considerable, the risk of social disorder serious, victory by no means assured. To win the public to his cause, Wilson framed U.S. war aims as the defense of ideals at once universal and distinctly American: to make the world "safe for democracy" and create a League of Nations to govern the world of nations as our own civil institutions governed the citizens of the republic.

Wilson's dream of a new world order was the culminating expression of a vision of American power that had captivated the nation's intellectual and political elites for thirty-five years — the so-called Progressive Era of American political history. In that time the United States had developed into the world's leading industrial power. Its population, its productive capacity, its technology, its wealth, and its military potential had grown with astonishing speed. Rapid change produced social disruption. But the success with which the nation had overcome the destruction of the Civil War and mastered the technology and organizational problems of industrial mass production inspired a generation of leaders with a heroic vision: the belief that a combination of scientific method and the will to action would enable enlightened leaders to rationally control the future course of development. That belief was shared by both the captains of industry who had created the gigantic corporations and trusts, and the Progressive reformers who wanted to regulate them. The pragmatist philosopher William James expressed their creed succinctly: the world is "essentially a theater for heroism. In heroism, we feel, life's supreme mystery is hidden."

The leading opinion makers of the Progressive Era conceived of war as an expression of that heroic vision. Even James, who abhorred violence, believed that to sustain both social solidarity and the dynamism of the quest for progress, a "moral equivalent of war" was required: "something heroic" that could rouse men's idealism and public spirit as war does, but without the violence and destruction. At the other extreme, nationalist Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt saw war as a positive good, the means by which "the great fighting races" spread their superior civilization to the "red wastes" of savagery and barbarism. "Aggressive fighting for the right," Roosevelt wrote, "is the noblest sport the world affords." The Progressives who organized the nation's war effort in 1917 believed the quest for world power could go hand in glove with the labor of perfecting American democracy at home, because the war itself would mobilize and unite public opinion, and vest those in command with authority to get things done.

Events would prove their vision of war an illusion. Governing elites had the power to unleash war, but could not control the violent forces of nationalism, racism, and class conflict that shaped its course. 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?

There were two regiments whose presence among the American Expeditionary Forces in France symbolized this unresolved dilemma. The 308th Infantry was part of the AEF's 77th Division; the 369th Infantry was on loan to the French Fourth Army's 161st Division. Both regiments were raised in New York, the city whose cultural complexity and power would shape the form American society would take in the twentieth century. They would fight their greatest battles within twenty miles of each other, as part of the all-out Allied offensive that broke the German army's will to resist.

The 77th was a unique outfit: sometimes known as the "Melting Pot" Division, because its ranks were filled with "hyphenated Americans" from the Lower East Side, Chinatown, and Little Italy, Red Hook and Flatbush in Brooklyn, the tenements of Harlem and the Bronx. It was said that its men spoke forty-two different languages, not including English. In their ranks were "all [the] races and creeds" of the great metropolis,

men who had only recently been subjected to the pogroms of Russia, gunmen and gangsters ... Italians, Chinamen, the Jews and the Irish, a heterogenous mass, truly representative both of the varied human flotsam and the sturdy American manhood which comprise the civil population of New York City.

The division had fought with awkward courage in the battles of August and September, and its assignment in the great offensive was critical and exceptionally difficult: to protect the AEF's left flank and take by assault the heavily fortified Argonne Forest. But it was only the chance of their location and the haste with which the campaign was planned that forced Pershing's staff to rely on them. The army still did not entirely trust the men of this division. It was not simply that they were draftees and inadequately trained: that was true of most divisions in the AEF. These men were suspect because of who they were and what they represented: "hyphenated Americans" at a moment when nothing less than "100% Americanism" seemed an adequate standard of patriotism and loyalty. Many were first- or second-generation immigrants, and traced their ancestry to countries with which the United States was now at war.

Beneath the question of loyalty was a more insidious doubt. Most of the men in the 77th belonged to ethnic groups that had come to the United States in the great waves of immigration after 1881: Italians, Jews from every country and province in eastern Europe, Poles and Russians, Romanians, Slovaks, Greeks, Serbs, Lithuanians, and Chinese who came despite the various state and federal laws intended to exclude them. They represented peoples or cultures that seemed utterly alien in customs, religion, language, and physical appearance to native-born American Whites, and even to the assimilated immigrants who had come to the United States in the large migrations of 1848–65. In a society that had always been most critically divided by the color line, differences in that degree were inevitably likened to the racial differences dividing Negroes and Indians from Whites. In 1907 — the year in which Ellis Island processed the largest number of immigrants in American history — an official report of the United States Commission on Immigration declared that these new immigrants belonged to "races" whose inherited and biologically fixed characteristics made them unfit for American citizenship. They were said to lack the "basic qualities [of] ... intelligence, manliness, cooperation," without which "democracy is futile." While the men of the Melting Pot Division were fighting to make the world safe for democracy, powerful parties back home were questioning whether democracy was safe when entrusted to their kind of people and developing plans for restricting their presence in American life.

The other New York City outfit could have given the hyphenated Americans of the 77th an earful on the consequences of being marked as racially different. Unfortunately, that conversation could not happen: in war they served in different armies, in peace they inhabited different worlds. The 369th Infantry was an African-American regiment attached to the 161st Division of the French Fourth Army, with which the 308th Infantry was supposed to maintain liaison. It was formerly the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard, known to its hometown as the "Old Fifteenth" and to history as the Harlem Hell Fighters. Its enlisted men and noncommissioned officers had been recruited for the most part in the five boroughs. They had been elevator operators and salesmen, redcaps and shopowners, ironworkers, ballplayers, hatmakers, house painters, boxers, small-time gangsters, farmers. Among them were world-class musicians who would introduce France to American jazz and a quiet pious foundryman from the rural Catskills who would become a famous painter. Some were lifelong New Yorkers, but many were "immigrants" who had fled the Jim Crow South. Among their small cadre of Black officers were a noted civil rights lawyer and the world-famous jazz musician James Reese Europe, who also commanded a company in the line. Their White officers were scions of some of the nation's oldest and most prominent families. Colonel Hayward was handsome and famous enough to be portrayed by James Montgomery Flagg on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Hamilton Fish Jr. was the great-grandson of Grant's secretary of state, and would become a leader of the isolationist Republicans in the 1930s.

If the immigrants of the 77th Division were objects of suspicion, the Black men of the 369th were subject to something worse: a prejudice so deep and cruel it could justify the segregation, degradation, and lynch-mob violence of Jim Crow; so ingrained that every offer made in proof of the Black man's humanity provoked not only rejection but "personal disrespect and mockery ... ridicule and systematic humiliation ... distortion of fact and wanton license of fancy ... the all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil."

These men had had to fight for the right to fight for their country: overcoming the reluctance of White politicians to authorize a Negro regiment, the violent antagonism of the Jim Crow town in which they had to train, the War Department's unwillingness to accept them for federal service, and finally the refusal of AEF commanders to use them as anything but labor troops. During the German spring offensive, when the French were begging for American units to shore up their lines, Pershing loaned the 369th to the French. The loan became a gift, and the "enfants perdus" found a home in the French Fourth Army commanded by General Gouraud. The French accepted them as Americans, without any marked distinction as to race — in itself a liberating experience. The men had been in combat almost continuously since April, learning their trade, taking losses. Now they were qualified to go in with Gouraud's storm battalions, not quite as expert as French veterans who had been fighting for three years, but more proficient than the vast majority of White troops in the AEF.

The presence in the battle line of the Black 369th and the "Melting Pot" 308th Infantry symbolized a crisis stage in a social and cultural conflict that was as vital to the future of American democracy and nationality as the decision to go to war. The exigencies of total war required that all the country's available manpower be mobilized, and this could hardly be done without including African-Americans and "hyphenated Americans." In 1917 roughly one-eighth of the population were African-American, and one-third of the population were either foreign-born or the child of a foreign-born parent. Many in the press and the political leadership feared that these alien or alienated groups would be indifferent or hostile to the war effort. Immigrants from Germany and Austria-Hungary might actually sympathize with the enemy; African-Americans might be subverted by enemy agents playing upon their grievances. In the anxious weeks following the declaration of war stern measures were proposed to compel these peoples to prove their loyalty or go to jail.

But the War Department and army command knew — and the political and journalistic leadership would soon recognize — that in an open society it was impossible to build an effective army on the basis of coercion alone. A systematic effort would have to be undertaken to win the hearts and minds of the alien and the alienated, to awaken in them that intense identification with the nation that is the foundation of military morale. By a variety of means, and through several agencies, the nation's social and political leaders reached out to the leadership of the minority communities: heads of civic and civil rights organizations, religious leaders, newspaper editors, artists and writers. They worked out a set of useful understandings (and equally useful misunderstandings), some embodied in formal agreements and others left implied or suggested, which together amounted to a new social bargain between the government and its racial and ethnic minorities. If the minority communities demonstrated their Americanism by buying war bonds and sending their young men into the service, and if those young men served loyally and effectively on the battle line, then the government would support them in their quest for equal citizenship and acceptance.

The terms of that bargain were displayed in the vast outpouring of propaganda with which the government appealed for popular support of the war, the draft, and the purchase of bonds to finance the war. They were spelled out in the military primers and instruction manuals with which all soldiers were supplied, and elaborated in the curriculum of the training camps. For all that, what the government would actually do to fulfill its part of the bargain was implied rather than formally stated. Indeed, with respect to Blacks the War Department explicitly said it would not make the war the occasion for solving the "so-called race problem." Nonetheless, leaders of the minority communities affirmed their belief in the bargain, and urged their people to register for the draft and subscribe to the Liberty Loan; and Blacks and "hyphenated Americans" responded by buying bonds, and by enlisting and serving in numbers exceeding their share of the general population.

They believed in the bargain because it matched so precisely the expectations and desires aroused by America's promise of liberty and justice for all. Moreover, the government demonstrated its good faith by adjusting the terms of military service to meet the special needs of minority communities. Special cultural and religious facilities would be provided, and assurance given that in the army their young men would not be subject to discrimination or unfair treatment in the assignment of tasks or the making of promotions. More than that, the government conceived of the new training camps as gigantic "universities" for educating Americans of every region, race, and creed in the fundamentals of an American national ideology. The war curriculum would acknowledge that Negroes, Jews, Irish, German-Americans, Poles, and the rest had contributed to this national history, and were entitled to place their own heroes — Frederick Douglass, Haym Salomon, Thomas Meagher, Carl Schurz, Christopher Columbus, Thaddeus Kosciusko — in the national pantheon with Washington, Lincoln, and Daniel Boone.


Excerpted from Lost Battalions by Richard Slotkin. Copyright © 2005 Richard Slotkin. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
List of Illustrations and Maps,
1. Safe for Democracy: The Lost Battalion and the Harlem Hell Fighters,
2. "The Great Composite American": Theodore Roosevelt and American Nationalism, 1880–1917,
3. No Black in the Rainbow: The Origin of the Harlem Hell Fighters, 1911–1917,
4. "The Jews and Wops, the Dutch and Irish Cops": Recruiting the Melting Pot Division, July–December 1917,
5. The Politics of Ridicule: The 15th New York Goes to War, October 1917–May 1918,
6. The Slamming of Great Doors: Entering the World of Combat, May–September 1918,
7. Home Fires Burning: Political and Racial Reaction, Summer 1918,
8. "Tout le Monde à la Bataille!": The Allied Offensive Begins, September 12–27, 1918,
9. The Last Long Mile: The Hell Fighters at Bellevue Ridge and Sechault, September 26–October 1, 1918,
10. The Lost Battalion: Whittlesey's Command at Charlevaux Mill, October 1–8, 1918,
11. Print the Legend: The "Lost Battalion" as Public Myth,
12. "No Man's Land Is Ours": The Hell Fighters and the Lost Battalion Return, February–May 1919,
13. The Black and the Red: Race Riots, Red Scares, and the Triumph of Reaction, 1919–1924,
14. Unknown Soldiers: Charles Whittlesey and Henry Johnson, 1919–1929,
15. "Say, Don't You Remember ...?": Public Memory, Public Myth, and the Meaning of the War, 1919–1930,
16. The New Deal and the Renewal of American Nationalism, 1930–1941,
17. The Bargain Renewed: The Myth of the "Good War" and the Memory of the Lost Battalions, 1938–1965,
Selected Bibliography,
Also by Richard Slotkin,
About the Author,

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