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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

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014. Pp. xiv, 616. Illus., appends., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0700619577.

New York’s Black National Guardsmen in the Great War     

Although the 369th Infantry has been the subject of several books over the years, Profs. Sammons (NYU) and Morrow (Georgia) have drawn upon resources not available to earlier authors, making their book a very comprehensive account. 

They open with three chapters on the origins of the regiment, a matter of remarkably complex “Byzantine politics”, as the desire to form an African American National Guard unit ran up against numerous obstacles. They follow these chapters on the formation, recruiting, and training of the “15th New York” and the struggle to secure Federal recognition, despite opposition from both the U.S. Army and much of the New York National Guard, including arguments over the commissioning of black officers, which remained contentious throughout the Great War. 

Then we get a chapter on the regiment’s call up for war service, and its difficulties with racism in the Army (which initially sent it to South Carolina for training!), which prompted its early movement to France, where it was not just one the first American units to arrive, but one of very first American units, white or black. 

In France, the regiment ended up being “lent” to the French for the duration, and its war experiences are recounted in five chapters, including one on Henry Johnson, who although among the first Americans awarded the Croix de guerre, who had to wait until 2015 to receive the Medal of Honor which most people thought he merited as early as 1918. The 369th spent more days at the Front than any other American unit, taking part in a number of major actions, several of which are covered by some excellent battle pieces, and became the first American troops to reach the Rhine.  

There follow chapters on the regiment’s famous homecoming parade, the postwar slighting of its record and the struggle to maintain its existence in the National Guard and to secure a black commanding officer. In a short coda, the authors address the fates of Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, who went from being “Our Colored Heroes” to total obscurity, a product of the institutional racism that constantly dogged the regiment and its men. 

As they tell the story of the 369th, the authors often give us short profiles of individual soldiers, black and white, French as well as American, who played parts in the history of the regiment, and they tie its story into that of the larger struggle for black civil rights in America, particularly on the Home Front during the war. 

A volume in the University Press of Kansas series “Modern War Studies”, although marred by a lack of maps, which would have helped greatly to follow the regiment’s movements and fights, Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War is an outstanding work.

Note: Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War is also available in paperback, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-7006-2138-5, and as an e-book.

Reviewer: A.A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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