Earlier in the week I finished Richard Slotkin’s Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality. It is a dual history of the 369th Infantry Regiment and the 77th Division. Those looking for a triumphalist account of the war should look elsewhere. Slotkin tells a sobering tale of how and why men joined the Harlem Hellfighters and Melting Pot Division and what they hoped to get out of it. Briefly put, men joined for many reasons. The most important, though, was the idea that they were helping their people by by making this sacrifice. And understand, many of them made the ultimate sacrifice. The hope of the Armistice soon led to disillusionment with the failures of the League of Nations, the social and racial unrest, and the economic difficulties in the 1920s and 1930s.

The 369th was comprised of African Americans from many neighborhoods; the 77th was primarily immigrants who were new to the country. Fittingly Slotkin does not end the story on Armistice Day but takes the story all the way to the mid twentieth century. It was only then, after the Second World War, that social gains began to be made in any meaningful way.

The New York State Military Museum has begun digitizing the military records of the men of the 369th. So far staff and volunteers have digitized 2,500 of the 10,ooo documents. They can be viewed online. Reading them is addictive. The cards go all the way to 1949 and should be invaluable source for both military and social historians. Genealogists will find them useful as well.

(image/NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)