Home Land War Other Theatres of War The 370th Infantry - Chicago's 8th Illinois National Guard In WW1

The 370th Infantry - Chicago's 8th Illinois National Guard In WW1

Chicago's Black South Side Regiment.

On the Near South Side of Chicago, in an area of the city once blighted, but now experiencing new growth and revitalization, stands a monument erected to African American soldiers of WWI, but particularly to the soldiers of the 8th Illinois National Guard, better known during WWI as the 370th U.S. Infantry. Located at Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, the "Victory" monument is a column of stone with bronze tableaus picturing a black soldier, a black woman representing motherhood, and a Columbia. a personification of the U.S., holding a tablet inscribed with the regiment's battles. Atop the stone column is a Negro doughboy advancing with fixed bayonet. wearing a greatcoat and round helmet. But something is not quite right about the bronze figure. A truer representation of the typical soldier of the 370th would be wearing a French Adrian helmet, for the 370th has the unique distinction of having served exclusively under French command, and as such, wore French helmets and carried French Lebel rifles during the war.

370-infThe Near South Side, an area known as Bronzeville after WWI and as the Black Belt before the war, is historically significant as being the area of Chicago where AfricanAmericans first settled in large numbers. Like New York's Harlem, Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood would blossom in the 1920's and 1930's as a center of black urban culture. And like the better known "Harlem Hellfighters" of the 369th Infantry (15th New York National Guard), the 370th would distinguish itself on the battlefields of the Western Front.

The "Black Belt", as Chicago's major Negro settlement of 1917 was called, was descriptive of the neighborhood's shape, a consequence of geography and racism. Four of the city's six major rail terminals were situated just south of the city center, and rail lines passing through the South Side created barriers that demarcated settlement. The tracks adjoining South Wentworth Avenue, for example, formed the western boundaty of the Black Belt, a barrier along which black settlement spread but did not cross, forming a long, narrow corridor or "belt" running north and south for several miles and surrounded by neighborhoods of often hostile nativeborn and ethnic whites.

White and black Chicagoans were united in the fight against Germany in 1917, but two years later, in the Summer of 1919, whites and blacks were instead fighting each other in a race riot which began on the city's South Side on July 27, 1919.


The First Migration of southern blacks to northern cities began around 1910. The cities of the north were booming at the turn of the centuty, and AfricanAmerican migrants streamed north at the same time that immigrants were pouring into American cities from Southern and Eastern Europe. The Europeans and Negroes came for similar reasons: to escape oppression and to find economic opportunity. With the coming of WWI, European immigration stopped, but migration of southern blacks accelerated. The war meant plenty of work for the steel mills and meat packing plants of cities like Chicago. In 1910, two percent of the city's population was black; by the end of the decade, that number had doubled. Most of the newcomers crowded into the segregated "Black Belt" on Chicago's South Side, where blacks paid on average 25% higher rents than whites for similar housing.At the time of WWI, a preponderance of AfricanAmerican migrants were males between the ages of 20 and 44, accounting for 60% of AfricanAmericans moving north. These young black males, primarily from the urban south (rural migrants came later) were lured north for the chance of a more free, prosperous life. The Chicago Defender, the newspaper voice of Negro aspirations in Chicago and America, actively solicited southern blacks to follow the Illinois Central Railroad out of the deep south to Chicago.Many of these young migrants found their way into the Black Belt's 8th Illinois National Guard. The 8th had been organized twenty years before, just prior to the SpanishAmerican War, and was stationed in Cuba on garrison duty during that conflict. The 8th was active again on the Mexican Border in 1916.

With the coming of WWI, AfricanAmericans saw another opportunity; the chance to prove themselves loyal Americans,activelyconcerned citizens, and competent soldiers. The war for them would be a means by which greater respect would be won from white America, and thereby greater opportunities accorded black America. WEB. DuBois, foremost AfricanAmerican spokesman of the era, called upon Negro Americans to "forget our grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens."

The Eighth Illinois.

Four hundred thousand AfricanAmericans served in the Great War, most as laborers. But at the beginning of the war, black fighting men, numbering 10,000 Army Regulars, were well represented in the then small United States Army. They manned four regiments: the famous "Buffalo Soldiers" of the 9th and 10 Cavalry, and the infantry of the 24th and 25th Besides these 10,000 regulars, there were 10,000 more National Guardsmen of several states, among them the 8th Illinois, the 15th New York, the 1 Separate Battalion of the Distinct of Columbia, the 9th Battalion of Ohio, the 1st Separate Company of Maryland, the 1st Separate Company of Connecticut, and one company each of the Massachusetts and Tennessee National Guards.

Despite a pledge by Secretary of War Newton Baker to WEB. DuBois that 35% of black doughboys would be fighting men, the army decided it had need of only one complete division of "colored" doughboys, the 92w1, made up of draftees. The U.S. Government was very reluctant to create combat divisions proportional to the number of blacks in the Army, and by war's end 80% of AfricanAmericans overseas were assigned labor duties.

A clerk with the headquarters staff of the 33rd Division, made up of many Illinois men, rightly described the motivations of both AfricanAmericans and white society when he said that He (The Negro) likes to be in the army because there he approaches nearest to the equality with the white which he enjoys in theory but never knows in practice."

370-inf-2The reluctance to form divisions of Negro soldiers was most clearly manifested in the case of Comma the black 93rd Division, which was a division in theory but not reality: it was denied the supporting units necessary to make it a fully functioning American Army division. This oneofakind American unit was composed of the 15th New York (369th Infantry) and 8th Illinois (370th Infantry), plus the other smaller Negro National Guard units augmented with draftees, forming an organisation of four regiments of infantry but unsupported by divisional field artillery, divisional machine guns, divisional engineers, etc. Because this American "division" was never capable of fighting as such, the four regiments of infantry were turned over to the French to fight under French command. These four black regiments were the only American regiments fully integrated into the French Army during WW1.

On the day it reported for federal service, the 8th Illinois was the only regiment of the United States Army with a complete complement of "colored" commissioned officers, from second lieutenant on up to colonel. (Only Lt. Colonel James H. Johnson and Major William H. Roberts were white). The following is a list of the senior officers.

* Colonel Franklin A. Denison, commanding the regiment
* Lt. Col. James H. Johnson, duty with the regiment
* Major Rufus M. Stokes, commanding the 1st Battalion
* Major Charles L. Hunt, commanding the 2 Battalion
* Major Otis B. Duncan, commanding the 3rd Battalion
* Captain John H. Patton, Regimental Adjutant
* Major William H. Roberts, Regimental Surgeon

Pursuant to the call to federal service by order of the President on July 3rd 1917, 42 officers and 1405 men of :he regiment reported to these various rendezvous points on July 25th (the regiment was afterwards brought up to gull strength).

* At Chicago, Illinois Headquarters, Headquarters Company, Machine Gun Company, Supply Company, Detachment Medical Department, and Companies A, B, C, D, E, F, G and H.
* At Springfield, Illinois Company I
* At Peoria, Illinois Company K
* At Danville, Illinois Company L
* At Metropolis, Illinois Company M

Chicago's Black Belt was proud of he 8th Infantry during the regiment's active service in France. Photographs of the men adorned shop windows, surrounded by helmets, rifles and canteens that had been sent back from the front. There was scarcely a public meeting in the Black Belt without a prayer or a cheer for the 8th.

Frank Dennison, an attorney by profession, would take his regiment to France as its colonel in 1918. Dennison, relieved of duty in July of that year, ostensibly for illness, would later call the men under his command "cheerful and earnest," saying that "they believe that their fighting will provide a fuller measure of equality for you and for them when it is over that the democracy for which they are fighting will include the American Negro when peace is signed in Berlin." He added, "Chicago's black soldiers [were] not complaining now... their complaint will come when it is all over."

The Eight Goes South.

At the end of October, 1917, on the date of the closing of the Second Liberty Loan campaign, out of a total of 2,166 officers and enlisted men belonging to the regiment at the time, 1,482 officers and men had subscribed $151,400 to the Second Liberty Loan. Approximately 96% of the regiment took out $10,000 of War Risk Insurance.

In October, 1917, the 8th headed south, towards Camp Logan. At train stations in Arkansas and Texas, the black troopers drew attention to themselves when they refused to respect the segregated facilities. The regiment arrived in Houston soon after a mutiny by some of the black regulars of the 24th Infantry in which armed black soldiers battled white policemen and civilians. Two blacks and seventeen whites, including five policemen, died in the fighting. One hundred fiftysix men of the 24th, 5 3rd Battalion were courtmartialed for murder, making it the largest murder trial in American history. Thirteen were given the death sentence on December 8, 1917, and four days later all 13 were hanged.Into this highly charged atmosphere the 8th Illinois made camp. When men of the regiment bristled at Houston's Jim Crow laws, they were banned from riding the Houston streetcars. In this dispute the 8th received support from another of Chicago's South Side regiments, the all white 7th Illinois.

370-3Under the prevailing circumstances, it was incumbent that the 8th be very careful during its stay in the deep South. Fortunately, Colonel Dennison was successful in steering his men clear of any serious trouble at Camp Logan and later at Camp Stuart, in Newport News, Virginia.

A Place With the French Army.

The regiment arrived in France in April, 1918. When the 8th Illinois, now the 370th U.S. Infantry, reached Grandvillars, France, it was relieved of its American equipment and was reequipped with French rifles, pistols, helmets, greatcoats, machine guns, horses, wagons, and even French rations, though the two quarts of red wine a day allotted a "poilu" was denied the Americans, who were unused to being issued alcohol. A double sugar ration was substituted.

After about six weeks training under French instructors, the regiment was brought to the St. Mihiel sector and intermingled with French troops. Except for occasional shelling and rifle and machine gun fire of the enemy, nothing of interest occurred while in the sector, and there were no casualties.

On June 14, Colonel Franklin Dennison was replaced as commander of the regiment by a white officer, Colonel T.A. Roberts, the first white commanding officer in the 24 year history of the 8th Illinois. Dennison was replaced ostensibly due to illness, but the men of his regiment were still resentful and suspicious that the Army was seeking to purge the regiment of its senior black officers.

On the night of July 34, 1918, the regiment was withdrawn from the St. Mihiel sector and moved by train to the Argonne Forest. On July 16, Lt. Harvey Taylor received six wounds during a raid, earning him the Croix de Guerre. Various positions were occupied in the Argonne until August 16, 1918. The particular sector occupied by the 370th Infantry was exceptionally quiet; however, at this time, the regiment suffered its first casualty, namely, Private Robert E. Lee of Chicago, Company E, Machine Gun Company No. 2.

On August 16, 1918, the 370th was relieved from its position in the Argonne and sent for a rest behind the lines near BarleDuc. On September 1, the regiment again began to move toward the front lines, and by easy stages, proceeded to positions in the Soissons sector, approximately 60 miles northwest of Paris. On September 16, Companies G, H, I, and L were pushed forward to positions in front of Mont des Signes, and from that date to September 21 took part in various battles and engagements incident to the capture of this enemy position.

One platoon of Company F, under command of Sergeant Matthew Jenkins, especially distinguished itself by capturing a section of enemy works, turning their own guns on them and holding the position for thirtysix hours without food or water, until assistance came and the position was strengthened. For this meritorious work Sergeant Jenkins received both the American Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de Guerre.

The regiment took over a full regimental sector in September, and from September 27 to October 4, the 2nd Battalion pushed forward along the OiseAisne Canal (Aisne) until relieved northeast of Guilliminet Farm by the 1st Battalion.

Lt. Colonel Otis B. Duncan described some of the fighting in September.

"Beginning September 27, 1918, we sailed into them and drove them back to the Ailette Canal, where they made a stand, facing us not 50 yards away. The fighting here was fierce. The Germans had placed barbedwire entanglements in the canal, but we avoided these with pontoon bridges and continued our drive. We reached what was known as Mont des Signes, or "Monkey Mountain." We took up our position here between "Monkey Mountain" and the German line, near a narrowgauge railroad. Here we encountered more concrete emplacements, dugouts, and barbed wire, and in getting to the Germans every man of us had to climb up on that railroad embankment, where we were fair marks for any kind of shell the Germans sent over. Naturally, we lost many of our men."

Lt. Colonel Duncan, a National Guardsmen for 16 years, would later be awarded the Croix de Guerre with Silver Star and would have the distinction at war's end of being the highest ranking AfricanAmerican in the U.S. Army.

On September 30, Duncan's 3rd Battalion attempted an attack across the OiseAisne Canal. During this fight, some units became confused and lost. Fighting continued in front of Bois de Mortier until October 4, when it became evident that the enemy had withdrawn to the far side of the OiseAisne Canal.

Pursuit of the Enemy Into Belgium.

In October 12, various units of the regiment proceeded to the Zones of Assembly for a general advance. The 1st Battalion was given the mission of clearing the Bois de Mortier. The 2nd Battalion was placed at the disposition of Lt. Colonel Lugand of the 232nd Infantry, French Army. Company F and Machine Gun Company No. 2 were likewise detached for service with the French 325th Regiment of Infantry. One company of the 325th was attached to the 2nd Battalion to replace Company F. The 3rd Battalion was placed in reserve in the command of the regiment's colonel, Colonel T.A. Roberts.

During the pursuit of the enemy, the 1st Battalion advanced through the Bois de Mortier and successfully reached the first objective, Penancourt. The 2nd Battalion began pursuit on October 13 while the 1st Battalion continued its advance via Cessieres to a point west of Molinchart. The 3rd Battalion rested in the Bois de Mortier and the next day passed on to Manneux Farm. For the work in the general advance, the lst and 2nd Battalions were complimented by the Commanding General the 1st for its passage of the strong enemy positions in the Bois de Mortier and the 2nd for a wellconducted advance via AnizyleChateau.

Late in the evening of October 13th, the regiment was ordered into a 12 days rest. The first 10 days was spent doing road repair work, and the last two days were given over to the issuance of badly needed clothing and equipment.

On October 27, the regiment was again ordered into the lines to rejoin the chase of the German Army towards the Belgian border. The 2nd Battalion assumed positions of support to the 59th (French) Division until November 5th On October 29, the 1st Battalion began moving into support positions to defend Grandlop in the event of enemy attack. It was on November 3, with Company A in positions southeast of the village of Grandlop, that a German shell fell among the mess line of Company A, killing 35 men and wounding 41, making it necessary to withdraw the company.

On November 5, the enemy began again to retreat and the pursuit recommenced and continued until November 11. On the night of November 5, the 2nd Battalion, commanded by Capt. John H. Patton, was shelled as they bivouacked in the woods north of Erhecourt Farm. The pursuit was taken up at 6:00a.m. the following day in a heavy rain. After rest and other movements, the battalion moved to the attack at 6:30a.m. on November 8. The battalion successfully crossed the River Thon and pushed the enemy east towards Aubenton. During this operation, Company H was exposed to enfilade fire from machine guns. A renewed attack in the afternoon reached the battalion's objective. the HirsonMezieres Railroad. The day's fighting had cost the battalion four men killed and two officers and 33 enlisted men wounded. On November 9, the advance of the 2nd Battalion began again and continued towards the objective of La Verte Place, Belgium.

On November 6, the 1st Battalion took up the pursuit in support of Battalion Michel of the 325th (French) Regiment of Infantry. On November 7, Company C of the battalion, commanded by Captain James H. Smith, by a series of flanking operations, drove the enemy from a position they occupied with three 77mm field guns and two machine guns. This action earned Company C the French Croix de Guerre. By way of Mont Plaisir and Farm LaHayette, the battalion found itself at Fligny, France, on November 11.

The 3rd Battalion, 370th U.S. Infantry, began its pursuit of the retreating German Army on November 5, passing on up to the front lines by way of Mount Plaisir to Rue Larcher. On November 7, at Rue Larcher, command of the battalion passed to Colonel Pernin, 325th (French) Regiment of Infantry, and on November 9th, battalion command was passed to Lt. Colonel Lugand, who had orders to attack Pont d'Any. The objective was reached, the enemy retiring before the battalion's advance. At Etignieres, on November 10, the battalion was held up by heavy shell fire. Just before the Armistice on November 11, the battalion reached its objective of Gue d'Hossus, Belgium.

Awards and Commendations.

The performance of the regiment in France is open to controversy: in some instances the regiment was known to push aggressively forward in a desire to be at the very forefront of fighting; and in at least one instance, it was blamed for being slow to the attack and becoming disorganized on the battlefield.

The 370th was asked to perform under uniquely difficult circumstances for an American fighting unit. The regiment consisted of American fighting men using French arms and equipment. commanded by French generals adhering to French military doctrines. This clash of cultures may have been mollified somewhat by the fact that the French held to much more tolerant racial attitudes. Yet the black Americans must have felt somehow in limbo, neither fully part of one army or another. The 370th never operated in concert with the other three black American regiments of the 93rd Division (the 369th, 371st and 372nd, and during the summer of 1918, the 370th was shifted between four French divisions: the 73rd, 10th 34th and 36th. Never having a permanent organizational home no doubt adversely affected morale in the regiment.

In addition, after the removal of Frank Dennison from command, several other Negro officers were replaced by whites. Although by some accounts the 370th's officer corps was deficient, and by others competent, the replacement of blacks for whites caused illfeeling among the men, again a cause for lowered morale. Yet by the Armistice, there were only three white officers remaining with the regiment.

The 370th Infantry earned streamers for the battles of Lorraine and OiseAisne. Sectors occupied and engagements participated in with the French army were St. Mihiel, Argonne Forest, St. Gobain Forest, Bois de Mortier, Mont des Signes, OiseAisne Canal, Loan, Grandlup, Soissons, and the OiseAisne and Lorraine offensives.

Although the 370th Infantry Regiment was not awarded the French Croix de Guerre, 71 individuals were, with another 21 winning the American Distinguished Service Cross, and one, the Distinguished Service Medal. In addition, the Croix de Guerre with Palm was awarded Company C, under the command of Captain James H. Smith, for conspicuous gallantry, a rare occurrence whereby each officer and enlisted man of an infantry company were so decorated. These laurels do not come up to the record of the 369th (15th New York National Guard), but neither is it a bad regimental record. Perhaps the 370th would have performed better if they had had the greater confidence of senior officers, an advantage that the 369th had.

The record of the 370th shows that it suffered 20% casualties, with 95 men and one officer killed outright.

The Reception in Chicago. On February 15, 1919, the regiment entrained at Camp Upton, Long Island, New York, en route for Camp Grant, Illinois, via Chicago. On February 17, the regiment arrived at Chicago, detrained, and proceeded to the Coliseum, an exposition hall on the South Side. The Chicago Defender characterized the return of the city's black doughboys as "a day of wild rejoicing," awaited for months, for the old 8th Infantry was "the first of the city's fighters to come back as a unit." Four hundred thousand cheering people lined Michigan Avenue as the 8th marched by the reviewing stand filled with white and black dignitaries. Offices and stores had closed for the day, and 60,000 exuberant Chicagoans jammed the Coliseum to welcome the unit. The speakers included the 8th's black officers, who thanked their friends for coming. But in the midst of the speeches, Mayor William "Big Bill" Thompson, "who just couldn't miss the fun," burst into the hall. For "your devotion to our country and your heroism in battle," he shouted happily, "I bespeake for you that justice and equality of citizenship which shall... enable you and your posterity.., as a living truth, to sing in a mighty chorus, "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty."

At 4:00p.m. the regiment entrained for Camp Grant, Illinois, arriving the same day and proceeding into barracks. Demobilization of the regiment began on February 24, on which date the first officers and enlisted men were discharged, continuing until March 12, 1919, at which time the 370th U.S. Infantry formally ceased to exist.

In the last time he would address a public audience, former President Theodore Roosevelt on November 2, 1918, had these words for America's Negro citizens. "I expect, that as a result of this great war, intended to secure a greater justice internationally among the people of mankind, we shall apply at home the lessons that we have been learning and helping teach abroad; that we shall work sanely, not foolishly, but resolutely, toward securing a just and fairer treatment in this country of colored people, basing that treatment upon the only safe rule to be followed in American life, of treating each individual accordingly as his conduct or her conduct require you to treat them." Commenting on an envisioned new day of justice, Roosevelt added, "I want to warn you that that is only going to come gradually; that there will be very much injustice, injustice that must not overmuch disappoint you, and it must not cow you, and above all it must not make you feel sullen and hopeless."


Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919. With the war's conclusion, Americans needed to get back to the ways of a peacetime society. But tensions abounded; adjustments from a wartime mentality to a peacetime mentality would in some cases be difficult and bloody.

By July, 1919, while government agencies had abruptly terminated war contracts, the army had issued 2,600,000 discharges, at a rate of 15,000 per day. Veterans thus glutted the labor market during a period when jobs were becoming less plentiful.

The demands of organized labor, held in check by the crisis of waging war, burst forth after the war's conclusion. The nation saw 181 strikes in March, 1919; 262 in April; and 413 in May.

The paranoia over Bolshevism, the "Red Scare" of 1919, engendered an atmosphere of mistrust and intolerance in American society. This atmosphere was an extension of the recently concluded war in which Americans had subscribed to a cult of patriotism, had functioned in a generalized climate of violence, and had demonized their enemies. It was the taking hold of just such an atmosphere of fear and mistrust that President Woodrow Wilson had cautioned against when war was declared just two years before.

The uglier impulses in American society sought an outlet with the German enemy beat, a need for a replacement enemy was felt. Foreigners and immigrants to America came under a new scrutiny. But especially American Negroes, for hundreds of years the victims of gross injustice, again found themselves a favored outlet for fear, mistrust and hatred. There were 15 blacks lynched in 1918, 78 in 1919.

July, 1919, found Chicago suffering under one of its summer heat waves. Temperatures soared into the 90's, and what relief could be found was sought by both blacks and whites at Chicago's Lake Michigan beaches. When a black youth strayed from the confines of a segregated beach into the realm of a white's only beach, a rock was thrown and the boy was hit, causing him to drown. Tensions mounted when the white policeman called to the scene did not attempt to take the suspect into custody.

Ignited on July 27, the riot went on for five days. Day and night, white toughs assaulted blacks, and teenage blacks beat white peddlers and merchants in the Black Belt.

White gunmen, in scenes reminiscent of 20's gangster films, sped through the Black Belt in automobiles, shooting indiscriminately. The gunfire was returned, in some cases by black World War One veterans, from fire escapes and windows. Veterans and students took up positions to guard the YMCA on Wabash Avenue, between 37th and 38th Streets.

In the end, numerous blacks and whites died. The unrest was put down with the help of a regiment of Guardsmen sent from the capital, Springfield. The dream of Chicago's Black Belt community for social justice, a dream carried to France with the officers and men of the old 8th Illinois National Guard, had suffered a terrible setback.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 13 November 2008 22:37 )  

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