Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Harlem's Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Harlem's Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality

Article excerpt

Harlem's Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality

By Jeffrey T. Sammons and John H. Morrow, Jr.

University Press of Kansas, 2014

616 pp. $34.95

ISBN: 978-0700619573

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois, the eminent American sociologist, scholar, and leader, wrote that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line." Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; and North Charleston, South Carolina should make us realize that, despite America's recent racial progress, the problem of the 21st century is still the color-line. Harlem's Rattlers lays bare the bigotry that African-American citizens faced in the early 20th century and, more importantly, details the innumerable accomplishments by black American soldiers despite the racism propagated by the President of the United States, U.S. military, and bigoted American civilians.

This book is the definitive history of the 369th Regiment in World War I, an outstanding black infantry regiment comprised of 3,000 men led by a white command element. It is the most complete, scholarly, and fully documented account of this famous (and underpublicized) unit, unlikely to be superseded. The authors, both prominent historians, are renowned experts in their fields.

Sammons and Morrow tell the complete story of the 369th--a combat unit that grew out of the 15th New York National Guard Regiment--from the bigotry that black leaders initially had to overcome to create the unit and the herculean efforts required to convince both New York city and state politicians hostile to the idea of an all-black unit to their valiant service in France and their ultimately humiliating return to the United States after having spent more time in the trenches that any other U.S. combat unit. The book also examines the postwar tribulations of the 369th and contains several epilogues that detail the unit's combat losses, postwar histories of the key officers and men, and unfortunate lives of two of the unit's most famous warriors: Henry Johnson, who, nearly 100 years after the war's end, is under consideration to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, and Neadom Roberts.

Why the title Harlem's Rattlers? That was what the men called themselves--not "Men of Bronze" or "Harlem's Hellfighters," terms often used incorrectly in other histories of the unit. The men of the 369th thought of the rattlesnake as a symbol of power (like the Gadsden flag used during the Revolutionary War that depicted a coiled snake atop the words "Don't Tread on Me!"). This and many of the other myths associated with the 369th are rewritten by the authors, bringing truthfulness and clarity to a story that has long been riddled with inaccuracies.

The authors devote approximately one-fifth of the book to describing the domestic political issues within both the New York state and the federal governments, as well as the turbulent conflict within the black community, over the formation of an all-black combat unit. Once formed, training for the 15th New York National Guard Regiment was difficult for a number of reasons, most of them racial.

Black political and social leaders including W.E.B. Du Bois thought there was a positive correlation between serving as uniformed soldiers and possessing full citizenship. Why they believed they could improve the situation of black Americans through military service is difficult to understand. …

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