On June 2, President Barack Obama bestowed the Medal of Honor on Henry Johnson (1897-1929) for his heroism during World War I when he had been a private in the all-African-American 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed “the Harlem Hellfighters.” The award was made possible when an historian working with U.S. Senator Charles Schumer’s office, found a contemporaneous account of his heroism in a letter by his commanding officer, Col. William Hayward, printed in the September 4, 1918 Congressional Record. (Hayward wrote the letter to Johnson’s wife as Johnson was recuperating from his wounds. It is reprinted in full in Emmet J. Scott’s 1919 book, The American Negro in the World War here. The dramatic story of Johnson was well known in the United States within hours of the event. It was named “The Battle of Henry Johnson.”
That Johnson, who died in 1929, was buried in Arlington Cemetery came to light in 2001 by a Tuskegee Airman named Johnson who believed at the time that he was his relative. See here and here. Johnson’s receipt of the Medal of Honor marks, presumably, the last chapter of the story of the Harlem Hellfighters.
What a story, what a turnabout, not only for a porter-private-hero, but for this military unit! In its first days, it used broomsticks instead of guns. Sent to Spartanburg, S.C., for training, it met resistance by the local white population. Ready to deploy, the leaders of a New York City parade refused to allow it to participate. Deployed to France, the unit worked as stevedores in a shipyard. Rejected for combat by General John J. Pershing, the French accepted them, trained them, put them on the front line, and the unit was in combat for more days (191) than any other American unit. Their engagement with the enemy ended only when officers responded to a command to advance with the words that there were too few men able to continue. The men of the 369th had given their last full measure of devotion.
The Harlem Hellfighters had yielded no ground and had had no soldier captured. Private Henry Johnson helped to secure that fame. The Hellfighters returned home the most decorated American unit in the war, and marched in a parade New York City – the first victory parade in the city and they shared the honors with no other unit. No wonder that New York houses the Museum of the 369th Historical Society.
Who was Col. William Hayward? There may be a few living today who might, as a piece of entertainment trivia, know that his only child was Leland Hayward (1902-1971), who, among other things, produced Mister Roberts, Anne of a Thousand Days, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music. Leland’s daughter, Brooke Hayward (b. 1937), wrote a best-selling book about her family, Haywire (1977) and it was made into the 1980 TV movie by the same name.
How, and why, did a 39 year old white lawyer from Nebraska come to recruit, organize, and command an all-black military unit from Harlem? The short answer is: Because he was a Republican. The longer answer follows.
William Hayward was born in Nebraska City, Otoe County, Nebraska, in 1897. He graduated from the University of Nebraska in 189. To place him in context, Willa Cather was a schoolmate. He graduated from its law school in 1897. In April 1898, the same month in which the Spanish-American War commenced, Hayward was made a captain in the Second Nebraska Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the Nebraska National Guard, a unit not deployed outside the country during the Spanish-American War. He was made a colonel before he concluded his military service in 1901 and carried the title throughout his life.
Meanwhile, his father, Monroe Leland Hayward, who had served during the Civil War in the Twenty-second Regiment, New York Volunteer Infantry, and in the Fifth Regiment, New York Volunteer Cavalry, had been elected in March 1899 a U.S. Senator from Nebraska. Even though Hayward Senior had lost his campaign for governor, the new legislature elected him Senator. Young William, 22, served as his father’s private secretary until the father’s death that December.
Nebraskans 1854-1904 p. 68 (1904)
Hayward returned to Nebraska. For the next ten years, Hayward was engaged in the private practice of law. He served as an Otoe County judge, 1901-1902, and then entered politics. There are over 120 photos of Hayward’s hometown published in 1906 while he was still a resident in Pictures from Nebraska City, see here. The pictures include churches, schools, residences, and a wide variety of businesses. They show the home of his father, the interior of his law office, the county courthouse, and his residence to which he, age 23, and his (first) wife, 18, moved after their 1901 marriage, below.
Hayward was elected chair of the Nebraska Republican State Central Committee three times from 1907 to 1909. When first elected, at age 30, he was the youngest state chair in the country. From 1908 to 1912 he was the secretary of the Republican National Committee, holding this office during the Republican National Conventions of 1908 and 1912 held in Chicago.
Hayward as Secretary of the Republican National Committee
Between conventions, Hayward lost his race for Congress from Nebraska in 1910. Demoralized, he and his wife took a trip around the world, from San Francisco to Japan, China, and Europe. Landing in New York in 1911, he decided to stay and joined a private firm.
In 1913, he became an Assistant District Attorney in New York County under District Attorney Charles S. Whitman (1868-1947) who had been elected to that office in 1909 and re-elected in 1913. Whitman made Hayward his First Assistant in 1914. Hayward served as Whitman’s gubernatorial campaign director and, when Whitman became governor in 1915, his legal counsel. Governor Whitman charged him with investigating the Public Service Commission and then appointed him a Commissioner.
Charles S. Whitman, District Attorney, in his office, 1914
Edward Everett McCall, Chairman (in center), Milo R. Maltbie and William Hayward, Members, of the New York State Public Service Commission. Notice Hayward’s height and injured right foot.
After the First World War began, but a year before American involvement in it, there were discussions between Hayward and Governor Whitman about an all-black regiment – at a time when the U.S. military was not integrated. Accounts differ on which of the men initiated the topic and what prompted the discussion. One recent book said that Whitman agreed to the idea, based on the success the Buffalo Soldiers had had at Carrizal, Mexico – but that was on June 21, 1916, after the New York regiment was formed two weeks earlier. Another book stated that Hayward had seen African-Americans in combat during the Spanish-American War, but this also was not true.
Of course, both men were politicians and desired the African-American vote. But it went deeper than that. Whitman and Hayward were both members of the Union League Club of New York and would have known of that Club’s pride in sponsoring the 20th, 26th, and 31st Colored Infantry 50 years earlier during the Civil War. Here is that story from the 1886 obituary of a regimental commander.
There was a lawyer named George Bliss whose father had been a founder of the Republican Party and had served as a captain in the 4th New York Heavy Artillery. On behalf of the Union League Club, of which George Bliss had been one of the original 533 founders in 1863, he organized these three regiments of New York colored troops. Lieut. Col. Nelson B. Bartram was chosen to lead the 20th Regiment. “As the day of its departure for the front approached, most of the regiment’s friends advised against marching it through the city, where the draft riots had taken place a few months before, and colored men had been hanged from the lampposts. Col. Bartram felt that the bold course was the wiser one, and he determined to march down Broadway from Twenty-fourth-street to the transport steamer Ericsson, near the Battery. The event took place March 5, 1864. The members of the Union League Club testified to their support of the regiment in the most emphatic manner by 300 of them, among whom were…George Bliss…, escorting the regiment down Broadway.” (N.Y. Times, Dec. 12, 1886 (obituary of Col. Bartram).) Ten thousand New Yorkers watched the 1,000 troops.
Part of the 26th Regiment on Riker’s Island
“The Twentieth United States Colored Troops Receiving Their Colors on Union Square, March 5, 1864.” Harper’s Weekly, March 19, 1864.
For his part, Hayward agreed to help organize such a regiment on the condition Whitman appointed him its colonel. Harlem leaders accepted the white colonel with Hayward’s promise to recruit black company-level officers. On June 6, 1916, Whitman appointed Hayward and on that day, Hayward became responsible for recruiting, organizing and training the 2,000-man regiment.
Col. Hayward with Maj. Arthur W. Little, author of From Harlem to the Rhine (1936).
The regimental badge, a coiled rattlesnake, is on the Major’s shoulder.
After American involvement in the war had commenced, Hayward persuaded the authorities to have the regiment pulled from its guard duty in locations around the state and sent for training to Spartanburg, South Carolina. When racial relations grew tense, however, Hayward rushed to Washington, D.C. and returned with Emmett J. Scott (1873-1957), President Wilson’s special adviser on black affairs to the Secretary of War. Scott said the War Department had three choices: remove the regiment and set a bad precedent, stay and risk additional confrontations, or deploy overseas. The last route was chosen.
Emmett J. Scott, the frontispiece to his The Amerian Negro in theWorld War (1919).
The regiment, landing in France on New Year’s Day 1918 had received only eight weeks’ combat training. Pershing used the troops for labor, not sending them into combat because they were African-American. The French nickname for the unit was les enfant perdus, the abandoned children, abandoned that is by their American generals. Hayward wrote to Pershing, complaining, but did not persuade him. That Hayward knew Pershing did not help Hayward’s quest.
None of the recent books about the Harlem Hellfighters mention that Hayward knew Pershing from their days at the University of Nebraska. During Hayward’s undergraduate days, he was a member of the University’s corps of cadets. Lieutenant Pershing was its commanding officer from 1891-1895 and obtained a law degree from the University in 1893. The drill unit became known, to this day, as the “Pershing Rifles.” (In 1919, after the war, Hayward wrote an article about his undergraduate days with Pershing. “The Birth of Pershing Rifles,” from The Literary Digest, April 5, 1919. See here.
University of Nebraska
Sombrero Yearbook 1892, p. 142
Nebraska Memories (www.memories.ne.gov); Townsend Studio, 1892
2d Lieut. Pershing and his staff, University of Nebraska
Not deterred by Pershing’s decision, Hayward turned to French Marshal Foch and was easily successful. The 369th was attached to the Fourth French Army under General Gouraud who, having experience with black Sengalese troops, had no reluctance in deploying the regiment for combat. So, while initially, attachment to the French forces was a great disappointment to the officers and men of the American 369th who wanted to go into the field as Americans with Americans, they obtained combat training from the French, they were viewed as equals by the French forces, and . . . they went into combat.
After time in France, Hayward wrote a long letter to Emmet J. Scott who published it in full in his illustrated official history, The American Negro in the World War (1919). Hayward wrote in part:
I’ve always told these boys I’d never send them anywhere I would not go myself, so I went first to the trenches, prowled around, saw it all and came back to the regiment to take in the battalion which was to go in first. When they saw me covered with mud, but safe and sound, they said “How is she, Kunnel?” “She’s all right,” I said. They all laughed and then the sick and the lame of that battalion began to get well miraculously and begged to go. Captain Clark called for twelve volunteers for a raid and the company fell in to the last man – all wanted to go, and he had to pick his twelve after all. Do you wonder that I love them, every one, good, bad and indifferent?
During action on June 6, a French general ordered the Americans to retire, yelling about the intensity of the German fire. Hayward tore off his officer’s insignia, took a gun, and dashed forward to lead an American charge, yelling to the French general, “My men never retire! They go forward or they die!” He, and his second in command, were quickly wounded, but the Germans turned. In July, informed that the Germans would commence the decisive battle of the war, Hayward left the hospital and appeared at his command post on crutches. For the next four weeks, the regiment was under constant artillery attack. (Hayward wrote a long account of the mid-July battle for the New York Times, July 1, 1923, in conjunction with General Gouraud’s visit to New York.)
For the unit’s assault on Sechault, September 28-October 1, Hayward was “limping into action on a partly healed broken leg…” During this offensive, the regiment’s 2400 men lost 144 killed, 1000 injured.
THE REGIMENTAL BAND
No account of Hayward’s command of the Hellfighters can ignore what he did with the regimental band. Hayward persuaded civilian band leader James Europe, who had already enlisted, to lead the regimental band with the purpose of using the band’s marching parades to recruit in the African-American community. Hayward accepted Europe’s demand that the band would exceed the 28-man limit by at least 16. Hayward accomplished this by assigning band members regular military duties in addition to band duties so they would not count as full-time band members. Hayward went to a wealthy friend, Daniel G. Reid, for introduction to Reid’s friends to obtain donations, but accepted Reid’s donation for the entire $10,000 Hayward need for musical instruments and musical scores.
To help understand the pride Harlem took in its regiment and its band, consider that African-Americans composed and wrote lyrics for a piece for the band entitled “Billy Boy.” The lyricist was Lester A. Walton (1882-1965), at the time a manager and theatrical editor for the New York Age. The composer was C. Luckey Roberts (1887-1968), a member of the band. The band played the song, among other occasions, on its march to Camp Whitman.
An audio for the song is found here, and its score is available online at Johns Hopkins University.
Lester A. Walton
In the summer of 1917, when the unit was stationed in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Hayward arranged with town authorities for the band to conduct concerts for the townspeople to improve race relations. And in France, while Hayward was pressing for a combat assignment for his regiment, he obtained permission for the band to tour France where it played for French civilians and military, introducing and endearing the French to jazz. The all-French audience at the Opera House in Nantes on Washington’s Birthday was jubilant.
According to Hayward’s July 1, 1923 reminiscences, French Fourth Army General Gouraud heard the band on his first visit to the 369th. He would return more than once to hear the band, including the general’s favorite “Joan of Arc.”
On Armistice Day, Hayward ordered the band to play so the Germans could hear it as the Germans vacated a French village. After the Armistice, the band played for eight weeks in Paris. Hayward had the band play upon the regiment’s arrival in Brest.
FEBRUARY 17, 1919 VICTORY PARADE
Upon returning to the States, the band played for the massive parade – again arranged by Hayward. That parade, on February 17, 1919, five days after landing in New York, is considered to mark the beginning of the “Harlem Renaissance.” Hayward had been terribly disappointed for his men when the regiment had been denied permission to march in a New York parade in August 1917. Maj. Arthur Little (1873-1943) recounted that Hayward had vowed then and there to “see to it that the glory and honor of the Negro race of America may be served having our welcome home parade celebrated all alone – in the same manner in which we have been born and trained.”
Lt. Reese and the regimental band, at the Feb. 17, 1919, victory parade
For the beginning of this victory parade in New York, up Fifth Avenue, past the reviewing stand of Governor Smith, former Governor Whitman, and Emmet C. Scott, Hayward had the regiment in a tight “French phalanx” formation, 16-wide across. Once the unit was in Harlem, however, Hayward had the formation in narrower columns so that every observer could see every soldier. He had commanded the unit when it marched with broomsticks and he had commanded the unit when he had promised to give them a parade upon their return that would match that given departing all-white divisions. Now he commanded it after it had garnered more medals than any other American unit. Hayward led the parade, on foot, despite still recovering from his leg wound. After mustering out, the band conducted a 10-week tour of 18 northeastern and midwestern cities.
Marching past New York Public Library, Feb. 17, 1919
You can see Hayward and the Hellfighters, including interviews with surviving veterans, in “Men of Bronze,” a PBS documentary (1977), and “Harlem Hellfighters,” History Channel (1997). There are also a number of videoclips on YouTube. See: “James Reese Europe and the Hellfighters ;
“African American Soldiers in France,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytmvFHW1fIA;
“The 369th Infantry 93rd Division negro troops of the New York National guard arrives at Hoboken New York end of World War I,” ; and
AFTER THE WAR
In 1919, Hayward married his second wife, a widow with a net worth of $50 million. They resided in what had been her home, on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street and it became known as the Hayward House, now known as the Cartier Building.
Appointed by President Harding, Hayward was sworn in as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York on June 4, 1921. As he toured the Office with his predecessor, Francis G. Caffey, who had himself organized a regiment of African-American soldiers in Alabama, Hayward was asked by a New York Times reporter if he intended to find places for many of the “negro” soldiers who fought under his leadership in France. He didn’t say, but on July 6, 1921, Hayward appointed James C. Thomas, Jr. (1889-1958), the first African-American Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He was a 1912 graduate of Cornell Law School. Thomas or his well-known father (the record is unclear) had helped Hayward recruit for the 369th, and Thomas, Jr., had been a member of the regiment. Thomas was “an organization Republican;” he had run as a Republican for Alderman in November 1917 (and lost). He would become one of the richest men in Harlem in the 1930’s.
James C. Thomas, Jr., and his signature
Hayward had already made another first during his first month in office. The 19th Amendment had been ratified on August 18, 1920. In his first two weeks in office, Hayward had appointed the 53 year old Mary Rutter Towle (1867-1952) – an 1899 graduate of Bryn Mawr and a student at N.Y.U. Law School. Admitted to the bar in 1912, she had most recently served as general counsel for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She was “the first woman to hold such an office…east of the Mississippi.” When asked what work she would do, Colonel Hayward said “a regular lawyer’s work,” noting that Towle had tried many cases and “is a real lawyer and a real person.” In a 1924 profile in a Bryn Mawr alumnae publication, she described the kinds of matters she was handling: customs, government contracts, harboring of illegal aliens aboard ship, statutory violations carrying civil penalties, and New York Harbor Act pollution cases.
In hiring the first African-American and first woman in his federal prosecutor’s office, Hayward following in the steps of his mentor, Charles Whitman. In 1909, newly-elected District Attorney Whitman had hired Cornelius W. MacDougald, the first African-American in that office since Asa Bird Gardiner had done so a decade earlier.
In September 1921, Hayward joined a group of New Yorkers that included Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), founder and president of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, in commending the New York World in publishing an exposé of the Ku Klux Klan. At the time, the KKK was at the height of its power. It numbered four to five million men and the Democratic Party’ National Convention of 1924 defeated an anti-KKK plank which the KKK then celebrated in its infamous “Klanbake.”
U.S. Attorney Hayward, June 20, 1922
In 1924, Hayward was considered for governor, but Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., was nominated (losing to the incumbent Al Smith who had defeated Whitman in 1918). After leaving office in 1925, Hayward, in private legal practice, served as general counsel to the new American Professional Football League. He became a hunter and explorer. In East Africa, in two months (December 1926 through January 1927), he was on safari with 60 “trackers, skinners, porters and gun bearers,” traveling 600 miles overland and 1,000 miles by paddleboat. On a 1929 excursion to the Arctic, he captured live polar bears for the New York Zoo.
Colonel Hayward died in October 1944. At his funeral, 17 officers of the Harlem Hellfighters served as honorary pallbearers and 60 members formed a guard of honor. His remains were interred at Cedar Grove Cemetery, New London, Connecticut.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum holds a picture of a statuette of Hayward mounted on a horse. It is likely that it is the statuette that Hayward’s granddaughter wrote Hayward had given her and was melted by a house fire.
Sculptor: Sally James Farnham (1876-1943)
Hayward’s granddaughter donated a black-and-white portrait of Hayward to the Museum of the 369th Historical Society which has it on continuous display. It was done by James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960), an artist who in his time was as famous as Norman Rockwell. He is most famous in our time for his self-portrait in the war poster, “Uncle Sam Wants YOU!”
So, let’s go back to the question I posed at the beginning: How, and why, did a 39 year old white lawyer from Nebraska come to recruit, organize, and command an all-black military unit from Harlem? We have detailed the “how.” What about the “why?” There is nothing in the record that states Hayward had ever seen an African-American growing up in Nebraska. Most likely, he did not see a black person until he traveled to Washington, D.C., at age 22, to serve as his father’s private secretary. Without anything in the historical record to support this statement, one can readily agree there was a political motive by Governor Whitman and his protégé Hayward – to garner the African-American vote. Since in those days the African-American vote was overwhelmingly Republican, it would be to “maintain the base in the general election” and to garner the vote against other Republicans in any primary.
But the deeper answer is that Hayward was Republican to the core of his being. His father was Republican. His father had served the Union in the Civil War. His father was a Republican U.S. Senator. Hayward had served as chair of the Nebraska Republican State Central Committee and as secretary of the National Republican Committee for two national conventions. He was a member of New York’s Union League Club. He served Republican Governor Whitman. He hired the first African-American lawyer in his federal office. He attacked the KKK. Yes, Colonel William Hayward was a Republican. And Republicans, founded as an anti-slavery Party, and African-Americans were tight.
The story of Col. Hayward, the story of the Harlem Hellfighters, is not just for the history books. These men, white and black, had put their lives in each other’s hands. The French taught them to fight . . . and fight they did. They returned home victors. They returned home much-decorated heroes.
Even today, nearly one hundred years later, we, black and white, residents of Harlem, New Yorkers, all of America, can swell with pride. Thank you, men, for your service.
Spero columnist James Thunder is a Washington, D.C., attorney and the son of Ivan D. Thunder, author of The Pacific War and the Battle of Iwo Jima: Recollections & Essays by a Seabee Lieutenant (2012), which was revied at Spero News here. This essay incorporates, with permission, material from K. Chris Todd, 225 Years (1789-2014): The United States Attorneys for the Southern District of New York (2014), also available on Amazon, to which the author was a contributor.