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Sergeant Alvin York
“I’m a-telling you the hand of God must have been in that fight. No other power under heaven could save a man in a place like that. Men were killed on both sides of me and all around me and I was the biggest and the most exposed of all. Without the help of God I jes’ couldn’t have done it.”
--Sgt. Alvin York
If you were to try to come up with the ideal background for creating the perfect Great War soldier, you could scarcely do better than having him grow up in the Cumberland Valley in Tennessee; and as it happened, Alvin York was born there in 1887.
He was the third child of William and Mary York and was raised along with his ten brothers and sisters in a one-room log cabin on the family’s 75-acre farm, not far from Pall Mall. Alvin was not quite born with a gun in his hand, but he was shooting at an extraordinarily young age — when he was “knee high to a duck,” as York himself would put it. There was nothing Alvin loved more than going on hunting trips with his father, and bagging foxes, raccoons, turkeys, wild hogs, possums, squirrels, and even skunks—all of which landed on the York dinner table, or were turned into pelts, which the Yorks would sell.
As he grew, Alvin followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming an expert with both rifles and pistols and like his father was known for his marksmanship, often winning turkey shoots. He later said that when he wanted to show off, he would “get on my mule and gallop around and shoot from either hand and pump bullet after bullet in the same hole . . . I could take that old pistol and knock off a lizard’s or a squirrel’s head from [so] far off that you could scarcely see it.”
Life was difficult for the hard-working York family, but happy. From an early age, Alvin helped his mother by caring for the younger children, and bringing in water and kindling for the stove. The family raised chickens and hogs and grew corn, and before he was six, Alvin was helping chop weeds out of the cornfield and taking care of their animals. When Alvin’s father wasn’t hunting, he worked as a blacksmith, which Alvin later helped him with. York’s heroes were Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Jesse James, all of whom were celebrated marksmen.
On Sundays, the York family attended church meetings, which often lasted all day, and now and then, itinerant circuit preachers rode into the mountains on horseback to conduct revival meetings.
Though it’s not surprise, given where and how he grew up, Alvin did not receive much of an education. The local school was only open two-and-a-half months each year, during the summer, and even during that time, it was closed for two to three weeks so children could help their parents bring in the crops. York later estimated that he actually attended school about three weeks a year for five years—enough for him to learn how to read and write, but little else. All his life, York regretted his lack of education. But a skill he learned outside of school—how to creep through woods unseen and unheard—would one day come in handy, on a foreign battle field.
In 1911, tragedy struck the family when Alvin’s father died of typhoid fever. A distraught Alvin “sorter went to pieces for a few years,” as he writes in his autobiography. “I was at that age, too, when a young man thinks that it’s right smart to drink and cuss and fight and tear things up.” He also smoked and gambled and chased women, and “was ‘most always spoiling for a fight.” Drunk on moonshine whiskey, he once got into knife fight over a girl.
York’s mother watched and worried, her heart aching for her son as he bounced in and out of jail. But no matter how drunk he was, or how much he’d gambled away, “She never had a short word for me, never,” York recalls. “She would shake her head and look at me, with a hurt look in her eyes, and sometimes she would cry and always she would beg me to give it up and lead a better life.”
Mother York never let Alvin forget his father’s good example — of how he never drank, cussed, or gambled. She prayed for her son, and reminded him of the parable Jesus told about how the biblical shepherd left his flock to go after the one sheep that had wandered off.
Gradually, York’s heart began to soften. He started praying as he walked the mountain paths, and thought and struggled, knowing how difficult it would be to give up his many bad habits.
As York was thinking and praying, an Indiana preacher, the Rev. Melvin Russell, visited the valley and began holding revival meetings at the Wolf River Church. A huge crowd attended the services each night, with many conversions taking place.
“In that-there little church,” York remembered years later, “out in the hills and at home with Mother, I began to see how wrong I was and how terrible it was for a man to be wasting his life like I was.” He knew he would likely die young if he did not change his ways.
On January 1, 1915, at the age of 28, Alvin was in church, listening closely to the Rev. Russell’s message, based on Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
It was, York recalled, “As if lightning struck my soul.”
When the Rev. Russell gave the invitation, York approached the “mourners’ bench,” where Russell led York in prayer and welcomed him into the body of Christ.
“I truly felt as though I had been borned again,” York notes. “I felt that great power which the Bible talks about and which all sinners feel, when they have found salvation.”
His mother was overjoyed.
The change in York was instant and remarkable. He instantly gave up tobacco, drinking, gambling, cursing, and brawling. And York never backslid, even later on when he was in the army, where his fellow soldiers urged him to join them in drinking and carousing. York now joined the church, and began leading the singing and helping out with Sunday School classes.
And Alvin faithfully read his Bible. He believed firmly in what the scriptures taught, including the Sixth Commandment: Though shalt not kill.
There was another big change on the horizon: Some time before his conversion, York had begun to notice that a dark-haired, blue-eyed girl he’d known all his life, Gracie Williams, had grown up. He began seeking her out while he was hunting squirrels, accidently on purpose meeting Gracie when she was bringing in the cows on her family’s farm. But Gracie’s father took a dim view of allowing a well-known heathen like York associate with his daughter, and refused to allow him to court her. And although she liked Alvin, Gracie herself would never have considered marrying an unbeliever.
After York’s conversion, however, this impasse was removed, and two-and-a-half years later, the couple were engaged.
Winston Churchill once remarked that looking back on his life experiences, everything that happened to him seemed a preparation for leading England to victory in the Second World War. The same might be said of Alvin York regarding the First World War. Growing up, he’d been taught to work hard, and had become an excellent shot. And now, he was a firm believer in God’s leading in his life. He gained experience resisting temptation, even as his friends urged him to return to his old lifestyle, and learned how to deal with mockery by his peers.
In April of 1917, President Wilson declared war on Germany and Uncle Sam joined the Great War. Up until this time York had been indifferent to the fighting in Europe, believing it had nothing to do with own life in the Tennessee mountains. But shortly after the United States entered the war, York received a card in the mail instructing him to register for the draft.
He suddenly faced a serious dilemma: How could he reconcile his belief that men were not to kill one another with the attitude of his government that he should do so — and must? As he later wrote, “I wanted to follow both . . . but I couldn’t reconcile them nohow in my soul . . . I wanted to be a good Christian and a good American, too. If I went away to war and fought and killed, according to my reading of the Bible, I weren’t a good Christian. And if I didn’t go to war and do these things, according to Uncle Sam, I weren’t a good American.”
Seeking answers, York spent much time in prayer, and consulted a man he deeply trusted: His minister, Pastor Rosier Pile. Go ahead and register for the draft, Pile advised, but request an exemption as a conscientious objector, based on York’s religious beliefs. This York did, writing simply and bluntly that he “Don’t Want to Fight.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, York’s exemption was refused, and he was ordered to report for a physical exam. He obeyed this order, as well, but — this time with Pastor Pile’s help — he filed for an exemption a second time to the County Draft Board, explaining that he was “a member of a well-recognized sect or organization, organized and existing May 18, 1917, whose then-existing creed or principles forbade its members to participate in war in any form . . . ”
The draft board turned him down a second time for two reasons: First, the board didn’t consider the church York belonged to — the Church of Christ in Christian Union — a well-recognized sect. Second, the board pointed out that the church’s only creed was the Bible, “which [church] members more or less interpret for themselves . . . ”
Deeply troubled, York walked the mountains night after night, praying that he would not be called up, and that God would intervene in the hearts of draft board members. He also prayed for a clear answer from God regarding what he should do.
Adding to York’s inner turmoil was the knowledge that several of his ancestors had proudly fought in wars, and that he himself had been brought up to believe in serving his country.
York again talked the matter over with Pastor Pile and prayed with him. But “no matter how we looked at it, we always come up against ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ That was the word of God and that was how it was revealed in His Holy Book,” York writes. So he appealed the decision of the county draft board to the State of Tennessee Draft Board. The appeal was denied. So was a fourth appeal for exemption. York was ordered to be ready to be called up on very short notice.
Now, all York could do was pray he would not be called up. But on November 14, 1917, a card arrived telling York to report to the local draft board in Jamestown, Tennessee. He briefly considered hiding in the mountains, but decided against it. Pastor Pile offered him comfort, telling York that if he remained faithful to God’s Word, he need not worry about the future.
The next day, York began the long journey to Camp Gordon in Atlanta, where he was assigned to the 157th Depot Brigade. Here, he encountered, for the first time, people of different ethnic groups and religious beliefs: Slavs and Italians, Greeks and Jews, Poles and Armenians and Irishmen.
Despite his heavy heart, York obeyed every order and never complained. The homesick Tennessean kept his anti-war views to himself, but had to endure hearing other soldiers brag about how many Germans they were going to kill, while others did not brag at all, because they were immigrants who could not yet speak English.
York’s feelings of alienation were lifted somewhat when he discovered that Camp Gordon offered a number of Bible Studies. He took part in them, happy to meet and mix with fellow Christians. And he met a man who would become his best friend in the Army: Private Murray Savage.
York kept a record of his army life and thoughts in a small red notebook. As he drilled and marched and learned everything from how to salute to how to wear a gas mask, York knew that his training with bayonets and rifles were intended to teach him how to kill other human beings in the most effective manner. If, after his basic training, York was assigned to a non-combat unit — for example, one involving clerical work — his problem would be solved.
But after finishing three months of basic training, on February 9, 1918, York was assigned to 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Division, which was also located at Camp Gordon. It was a fighting division, one that would be sent to France as soon as the soldiers finished training.
“I knowed that unless something happened I would have to go up into the front-line trenches and shoot and kill my brother men,” York writes in his autobiography, “and I didn’t want to do that nohow.”
As he continued to train, York kept praying for the right moment to approach his superiors and explain his beliefs about killing. Meanwhile, the Army was discovering just how good a soldier it had in Private Alvin York.
The ability to shoot well was highly valued in the soldiers of the First World War. Out on the rifle range, the tall, gangly, red-haired Tennessean proved to be the best shot in his battalion. Impressed, his officers invited him to teach his entire platoon how to hit their targets.
They badly needed training. As York later writes in amusement, “Them-there Greeks and Italians and Poles and New York Jews and some of the boys from the big cities hadn’t been used to handling guns. Some of them didn’t even know how to load them, and when they fired they not only missed the targets, they missed the backgrounds on which the targets were fixed. They missed everything but the sky.”
York was wise to put off telling his officers about his religious beliefs until after he had impressed them with his cooperation, good character, and excellent shooting. He also knew, by now, that many of them were, like him, devout Christians. One day, he approached his company commander, Captain E.C.B. Danforth, and explained his beliefs to him.
“I told him I belonged to a church that was opposed to war and that I didn’t wish to be placed in a position that it might be necessary for me to kill a fellowman,” York writes. “I hain’t never refused to do anything he had ordered me to do, and I wasn’t planning on refusing. I told him I knowed I was in the army and would have to obey. I would continue to be a soldier if I had to. I would go overseas. I would go in the front-line trenches. I would even kill Germans if I was ordered to. But I told him I wanted him to know I didn’t believe in killing nohow, and that it worried me a-plenty.”
Danforth knew there were a number of phony “conscientious objectors” at Camp Gordon who simply didn’t want to serve in the army. But he believed York was sincere. He told York that he would “consider everything I had told him and give me a right-square deal.”
Danforth spoke to the battalion commander, Major G. Edward Buxton, who, like Danforth, was a Christian. A few days later, Danforth brought York to Major’s Buxton’s quarters for what would be one of the most important conversations of York’s life. York prayed for guidance beforehand, and brought his Bible with him. Buxton invited York to sit down, and told him he wanted to discuss York’s concerns, not as a battalion commander to an officer and a private, but “as three American citizens interested in a common cause.”
Why, Buxton asked, did York object to going to war? York explained that he belonged to a church which taught that fighting and killing were wrong. Buxton asked him what the creed of the church was? York said the only creed was the Bible—the inspired word of God and the final authority for all men.
“So then he asked me what did I find in the Bible that was agin’ war, and I told him it was written, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ He kinder looked at me for a moment and then asked if I accepted everything in the Bible . . . jes’ as completely as I accepted the Sixth Commandment . . . I told him I did.”
Buxton began quoting other passages in the Bible illustrating his point that under certain conditions, a Christian could fight and kill in a war without offending God. He mentioned Luke 22:36: “He that hath no sword, let him sell his cloak and buy one.” In response, York reminded him that Christ also said, “If a man smite you on one cheek, turn the other to him.” (Luke 6:29)
Yes, Jesus did say that, Buxton acknowledged — but he asked York “if I believed that the Christ who drove the money changers from the temple with the whip would stand up and do nothing when the helpless Belgian people was overrun and driven from their homes,” York writes.
Buxton also discussed Luke 20:25, in which Jesus says, ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s,’” and introduced York to Augustine’s Just War theory. Buxton “drew parallels between the German aggression, its atrocities against Belgium, and the obligations of government to protect the liberties and freedoms of people.” [Mastriano, p. 39]
For an hour, the men went back and forth, without anger and without raising their voices. “We jes’ examined the old Bible, and whenever I would bring up a passage opposed to war, Major Buxton would bring up another which sorter favored war. I believe the Lord was in that room,” York writes. “That-there Major Buxton knowed his Bible right smart.” What Buxton does not seem to have said, which might have made things simpler, was that “Thou shalt not kill” is really better translated as “Thou shalt not murder,” since the Bible is full of places where killing is indeed justified, while out and out murder is not. In any event, even without making this simplest of points, Buxton seems to have gotten his point across.
So York was now more confused than ever. Buxton had opened his eyes to another view of scripture, although York was still not entirely convinced it would be permissible for him to fight and kill. He considered Buxton’s arguments, praying inwardly. Guessing what was going on in York’s mind and heart, Buxton “sorter looked at me and smiled, jes’ like my father used to,” York writes, and suggested that, if York still believed it was wrong to kill, he might be allowed to transfer to a noncombat job, or even be allowed to take off his uniform and go home.
York told Buxton that he would like some time to think the matter over. Buxton agreed to this, and told York to come back and see him when he’d made up his mind.
Back in his own quarters, York spent the entire night praying, but still could not come to a decision. He wanted to go somewhere where he could be alone to think the matter through.
The news that York held anti-war beliefs had leaked out, leading to threats and accusations of cowardice. Amidst the constant noise of camp and the crowds of soldiers, York desperately wanted to go home to think and pray about this all-important decision — home to the mountains, home to Tennessee.
York applied for leave and was given a 10-day pass. He took the train as far as it would go, and hiked the last twelve miles over the mountains. Once home, he spoke several times with Pastor Pile, thought and prayed — and remained bewildered. But Buxton’s arguments were beginning to change York’s outlook.
“Something in me had kinder changed. I was beginning to see war in a different light . . . I knowed that if it was His will He would even use war as an instrument in His hands,” York notes in his autobiography.
Struggling to sort out the chaos in his mind, York climbed up on the mountainside in the company of his beloved hounds. He knelt down and prayed, all afternoon, through the night, and the next morning, pleading for God’s wisdom.
“I asked Him to have pity on me and show me the light,” York recalls. As he fasted and prayed, “I begged Him to comfort me if it was His will and tell me what to do. And as I prayed there alone a great peace kinder come into my soul and a great calm come over me and I received my assurance. He knowed I had been troubled and worried, not because I was afraid, but because I put Him first, even before my country, and I only wanted to do that which would please Him.”
York did not fully understand why it was God’s will for him to go to war and kill others, but it didn’t matter. “It was His will and that was enough for me.” Rising from his knees, he thanked his Lord and walked home, singing a hymn as he went.
Back at the cabin, York announced to his mother, “I am going to war with the sword of the Lord and of Gideon . . . I have received my assurance . . . from God himself — that it’s right for me to go to war, and that as long as I believe in Him, not one hair of my head will be harmed.”
Back at Camp Gordon, York told Captain Danforth of his decision, and asked him to explain in greater detail what they were fighting for. Danforth described how Germany — in what became known as The Rape of Belgium — had overrun Belgium, killing many innocent civilians. They would continue to do so, if they were not stopped, until they overran the world.
“They jes had to be stopped and we Americans were going over there to help stop them,” he writes. Slowly, York began to understand the role he and his fellow soldiers were meant to play. Into his mind came the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
“That was we-uns. We were to help make peace, the only way the Germans would understand,” York notes.
On April 19, York’s regiment traveled to Camp Upton, New York by train. After drilling for nine days, they traveled to Boston and boarded a ship headed for France, joining a convoy of sixteen ships. It was York’s first sight of open sea — and his first experience with seasickness. As they rode the waves, their training continued. In his free time, York and his friend, Murray Savage, continued to study the Bible together.
They arrived in Liverpool on May 16th, and five days later crossed the English Channel on a ship that was “more like a bucking mule than a boat,” York observes. They landed in Le Havre amidst the cheers of the French people. The men continued to train, and to fight amongst themselves—since they could not yet get at the Germans, York recalls. He continued to read his Bible, pray, write in his diary, and follow orders. But he worried about the time, soon to come, when he would be asked to kill.
“Though I knowed now that we were fighting for peace, still it made me feel queer to think I might have to cut up human beings . . . I still did feel somehow that it was wrong—terrible wrong for human beings to take each other’s life.”
York’s regiment left Le Havre by French troop trains and traveled 100 miles east to the village of Eu. Two days later, York wrote in his diary, they were in Floraville, where they stayed for a few days, billeting mostly in barns.
The British Expeditionary Force taught the Americans how to use bayonets, machine guns, and hand grenades. They learned to “navigate through wire entanglements, properly react to incoming artillery, and prevent death and injury from gas attacks.” [Mastriano]
The men also did a great deal of marching—so much so that the weary Americans were beginning to wonder if they were ever going to see the front.
In June, York’s division was sent to Toul. Before hitting the trenches, the men were allowed a few days of R&R. York himself avoided drinking, and usually avoided the bars, but here, he did go along with his friends, and watched his comrades drink and carouse.
“Being soldiers, they was right smart when it come to finding them-there pretty French girls,” York comments. ”Some of them shore knowed more about hunting and finding them, too, than I did about trailing coon and fox back there on the mountains at home.” For his part, York continued to do “a heap of reading from the Bible.”
As the men hiked roads crowded with troops, they saw deserted trenches, gun emplacements, and many graves topped with wooden crosses. It brought home to them the gravity of what they were doing.
In late June, the 82nd Division took a train to Rambucourt. As they began marching toward the front line trenches, York could hear the sounds of guns in the distance, sounding like thunder.
Approaching the front, the men now ducked as stray bullets whistled overhead; and then, under cover of darkness, the men took over the front line trenches for the first time. It was far from the glorious battle some had anticipated. Instead, they were “shocked by the reality of war . . . the smell of death and decay,” and “the condition of the trenches, which often were filled knee-high in water,” one biographer writes. The men endured hour after hour of watch, gas warnings, and patrolling no-man’s land, all of which “wore the men out mentally and physically.” During his free time, York continued to read his New Testament, taking comfort from its words.
York impressed his officers as a soldier who could be relied upon to stay steady under fire, and do what he was told. It was not long before York was promoted to corporal, and given command of an automatic weapons squad. York led his men on several raids into No Man’s Land. He prayed constantly, even as German bullets buzzed “around our ears, jes’ like a lot of mad hornets.”
Over the next two months, the Americans “rotated in and out of the Lagny Sector trenches, slowly gaining experience.” On August 10, the 82nd was ordered to “the Marbache Sector in the town of Pont-a-Mousson,” putting “the division on the eastern edge of the St. Mihiel salient, where it would support the first American army offensive on the Western Front . . .” [Mastriano]
On September 12, the allies (14 U.S. divisions and four French ones),* began attacking the Germans with artillery, tanks, and by air. “It done opened with a most awful barrage from our big guns. It was the awfulest thing you ever heard,” York writes. “It made the air tremble and the ground shake.”
On the second day of the St. Mihiel Offensive, York’s battalion captured Norroy, with the men leaping out of their trenches and charging “across an expanse of wire and craters,” enduring intense German fire. [Mastriano, p. 62-63]
Squad leader York was astonished at the behavior of his men when the attack began. “I was supposed to be in the front and they were supposed to follow. But no matter how fast I went they wanted to go faster, so that they could get at the Germans. . . . They were that full of fight that wild cats shore would have backed away from them . . . They cussed the Germans out for not standing and they kept yelling at them to wait and fight it out.”
After capturing Norroy, York and his men searched houses for German soldiers. The 82nd then “advanced 1.25 miles north to seize Vandieres ... against heavy German resistance.” [Mastriano p. 65]
A few days later, the men of the 82nd hopped aboard some 100 trucks and traveled sixty-two miles west “to support the Meuse-Argonne Offensive,” which was “the first of four Allied attacks that spanned some two hundred miles of the Western Front,” designed to finally end the war. As military historian Douglas Mastriano writes of this Offensive, General Pershing believed the Americans “had the most difficult task,” as they “had to fight against some of Germany’s best divisions, across impossible terrain that threatened the heart of their vital Western Front command and control network: the Sedan-Mezieres rail line.”
An astounding 1.2 million Americans took part in this offensive—the largest in American history. York was now just days away from the battle that would make him famous. Knowing they would soon be called into combat, York recalls that he prayed and thought about what they were about to get into.**
While the war “turns you into a mad, fighting animal . . . it also brings out something else, something I jes’ don’t know how to describe, a sort of tenderness and love for the fellows fighting with you,” York writes. “I never knowed I loved my brother-man so much until I was a doughboy. I knowed men could be strong and rough, but I never understood before that they could be so tender and loving, and I jes’ couldn’t bar to think of anything happenin’ to them. . .Somehow, I seemed to jes’ know that we were going to get into it right in them-there woods.” [York, p. 212-214]
*Belgian and British forces also took part in the offensive.
** York’s journal and autobiography do not include many details about the war outside of his own experiences, and these details can be found in longer biographies about Sergeant York.
York, Alvin. Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary. 1928, the Sergeant York Foundation. First Racehorse Publishing Edition 2018.
Mastriano, Douglas. Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne. 2014, the University Press of Kentucky.
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