Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Lost Battalions: the Great War and the Crisis of American Nationalism
reviewed by Clark Shilling

Lost Battalions: 
the Great War and the Crisis of American Nationalism

by Richard Slotkin
Henry Holt & Company, 2005

In Lost Battalions Dr. Slotkin has deftly woven several story threads into a thought-provoking book exploring from a unique perspective the American Expeditionary Force and the concept of American nationality. The first of these threads is a narrative history of the recruitment, training, and deployment of two regiments of the AEF, one of which is the 308th Infantry Regiment of the 77th Division. Known as the "Melting Pot Division," the 77th was raised in New York and reflected all of the diversity to be found in the streets of New York City. It was said that 42 languages were spoken in the 77th. The second unit was the 369th Infantry, formerly the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard. Recruited from Harlem, it was a unit of black soldiers given the name "The Harlem Hell-Fighters."

Scene from TV Film The Lost Battalion

Both units served on the Western Front, although under very different circumstances. Both would undergo a supreme test by combat, both would deport themselves heroically, and, ultimately, both would be destroyed as fighting units.

The 308th became THE famous Lost Battalion, the unit which on 2 October 1918 moved into the Argonne Forest and lost contact with its flanking units. Quickly cut off and surrounded, it suffered for six days, going without food and water, being subject to withering German attacks as well as friendly artillery fire. It was finally rescued on 8 October, but of the 675 Doughboys who advanced with the 308th, only about 200 could walk out when rescued. Because of their ordeal, the 308th became the most famous unit in the AEF.

The service history of the 369th Infantry Regiment is much less well known. Upon its arrival in France in early 1918 it was used as a labor unit. During the crisis of the first Ludendorff Offensive in March, several black units, including the 369th, were loaned to the French along with several white units. When the crisis passed, General Pershing took back control of the white units but left the black units to serve with the French for the balance of the war. These black Doughboys would see combat at least a month before white units of the AEF. In fact, the first American troops to be decorated by the French were members of the 369th. On 26 September the unit would participate in taking the French village of Sechault and would fight there for the next six days, holding it against incessant German counterattacks. By the time it was relieved on 6 October the 369th had been destroyed as a fighting unit.

The second thread in this story has to do with the concept of American nationality. Dr. Slotkin points out that there are two important aspects of nationality, the first being some type of kinship: blood, race, language, or religion, and the second being a civic aspect: belief in those self-evident truths that binds citizens together. The United States, as a nation of colonists and immigrants has long emphasized the civic portion of nationality in the sense that people could come from other nations and become naturalized as full American citizens. In practice, however, American nationality applied to whites only, as Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and blacks were excluded from obtaining the full rights of citizenship.

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The issue of American nationality was further complicated by the huge wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe in the decades leading up to World War I. This influx of Jews, Poles, Russians, Italians, and others triggered a reaction from old stock Americans that sought to restrict the flow of immigrants and called into question whether many of these new arrivals were capable of passing through the melting pot and becoming true Americans.

Then the war came. The author cites population statistics showing that by 1917, a third of the American population was either foreign born or first generation Americans. In addition, another 8 percent of the population was black. National leaders realized that the war would be difficult to pay for and armies difficult to man if 40 percent of the population was apathetic or alienated. Slotkin says a new social bargain was struck between the formerly demeaned immigrants and blacks on one hand and political leaders on the other. If Jewish, Polish, Italians, Russian, Chinese, and black Americans purchased enough war bonds and sent their sons to fight then they would have proven their right to be accepted as true Americans. And so they answered the call, buying war bonds and joining units like the 77th Division and the Harlem Hell-Fighters.

In his narrative on American nationality, the author places Theodore Roosevelt center stage as the leading opinion maker of his time. Roosevelt was well known for calling the presidency the "Bully Pulpit," but in truth he preached all of his life from a number of platforms. While Roosevelt paid lip service to the concept of the melting pot and civic nationalism, he was very much a social Darwinist and what the author calls a racialist when it came to nationality. War in Roosevelt's opinion was a positive good, and the highest calling of an individual, a nation and of a race. Dominant races were duty bound to conquer weaker races and bring civilization to them. He viewed this as part of the story of the settling of the American West, and this served as part of the basis for his support of American imperialism.

During the period before American entry into the war, the Preparedness Movement would give Roosevelt a new platform from which to preach. As a leader of the Preparedness Movement, Roosevelt influenced a generation of young men who had grown up while he was president. These young men attending the training camps sponsored by Roosevelt and his allies would go on to become junior officers in the AEF, and many would become political, social, and intellectual leaders for a generation after the war. Slotkin calls them "Sons of Theodore Roosevelt," men who shared his view of what it was to be a man and what it was to be an American.

After the United States entered the war, Roosevelt was influential in drumming up support to suppress dissent and to purge everything German from American culture. Roosevelt expounded the concept of 100 percent Americanism, and he called traitors those who identified themselves as hyphenated Americans. The author states that Roosevelt, through his impassioned wartime exhortations, fueled hyper-nationalism, vigilantism, and intolerance.

Then the war ended. The final thread in this story is how though both "Lost Battalions" came home to acclaim and parades in their honor, they soon found that the social and political bargain they had sought was not going to be honored. By the middle of 1919, labor strikes had broken out and bomb plots uncovered. Something called the First Red Scare had begun, targeting immigrants who were identified as radical terrorists and suspected of spreading socialism, bolshevism, and anarchy. Jewish Americans were accused of being Bolshevik sympathizers. Black American soldiers came home to the same Jim Crow laws in the South, to lynching, and to race riots in American cities such as Washington D.C. and Chicago.

Color Guard of the 369th Infantry

A new Ku Klux Klan was growing in all areas of the country, targeting not only black Americans but also Catholics and Jews. Attempts by Republicans in Congress to outlaw lynching repeatedly failed. In 1921immigration quotas were set up temporarily to block immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, and these quotas would be made permanent in the Johnson Reed Act of 1924. The author concludes that it would only be in the early 1930's that first generation immigrants would find acceptance and a voice in politics as "urban ethnics" in the New Deal Coalition of the Democratic Party. Black Americans however, would have to wait another 45 years and serve in two more wars before the promises of 1917 were redeemed with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This book is elegantly written and offers a perspective not usually covered in other treatments of the AEF. Who knew the American Army sent overseas was so diverse? I thought they were all like Harry Truman and Alvin York. Who knew that black American soldiers serving in the French Army saw combat weeks before their white Doughboy brothers? Dr. Slotkin's account of the Lost Battalion is excellent, and his narrative of the experience of black soldiers in the AEF is groundbreaking. In fact the information on the black experience was the most important thing I gleaned from this fine book. Preparing for this review, I surveyed five general histories of the AEF; Edward Coffman's The War to End All Wars (1968), Byron Farwell's Over There (1999), John S.D. Eisenhower's Yanks (2001), Gary Mead's Doughboys ( 2000), and Edward G. Lengel's To Conquer Hell (2008). Coffman devotes two pages to the "Negro" experience in the war. Farwell devotes a 12-page chapter to "Blacks and Indians in the American Army" and covers the 369th in about three pages. Meade devotes several pages to black regiments but has only a few details about the 369th. Eisenhower makes no mention of any black contribution to the war effort that I can find, and Lengel devotes about half a page to the 369th's attack on Sechault. Finally, the discussion about immigrants and nationality has a modern significance to it as we face the current issues about who among us should enjoy the benefits of American citizenship and who should not.

Dr. Richard Slotkin was a professor of English and Director of American Studies at Wesleyan University before retiring in 2010. His previous works include an award winning trilogy that looked at the influence of the American frontier on American values and outlook.

Clark Shilling


  1. Excellent review: deeply informative and very appealing.
    Slotkin's frontier work is classic.

  2. Thank you very much, Bryan. I have added Slotkin's trilogy on the frontier to my "to read list".

  3. The blame can be placed on Woodrow Wilson's desk, who pushed back progress African-Americans had made since Reconstruction. He fired black civil servants and pushed a number of racist programs, one of which was to deny a combat role for black troops under US command (the French, of course, had no such qualms). The portion of his Fourteen Points dealing with self-determination of European nations may have had its origin in Wilson's fondness for the Confederacy.

    1. Definitely.
      Wilson still retains the fondness of many Americans, including a disturbing number of historians.