CHRISTOPHER HUFF T&D Editor
A local military historian, along with a number of local soldiers, helps lead the charge to raise funds for a monument for an oft-forgotten Black Army regiment from World War I along with a number of local soldiers.
The 371st Infantry Regiment was a black regiment that fought in several battles in France, said Orangeburg resident Russell Wolfe.
“They’ve been pretty much forgotten,” he said.
He and other organizers from the nonprofit 371st Infantry Regiment WWI Memorial Monument Association are seeking to raise $300,000 to erect a monument on the grounds of the State House.
“It started in the fall a year ago. Sonya Hodges, who is the chair of our effort, helped restore Childs Cemetery, a historically black cemetery on the former Hampton Plantation “in Columbia,” Wolfe said.
“Some of the soldiers from the 371st were actually buried there,” he said. “She (Hodges) became interested in the 371st five or ten years ago. And I helped her work on it, I helped her get information.
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After holding a ceremony at the cemetery attended by state lawmakers, Hodges had a plaque made that she wanted placed on the grounds of the State House, Wolfe said.
“I was talking to him, ‘Why just a plaque? Why not put up a monument?’” he said. “These soldiers, they were from South Carolina. on the grounds of the State House.”
“Many more Orangeburg County soldiers died in World War I than in World War II,” Wolfe said. “We lost over 130 men – to disease, injury and (those who were) killed in action.”
Wolfe said he was new to fundraising, so Hodges reached out to District 75 Representative Kirkman Finlay.
“He kind of became our champion at State House,” he said. “We have to get approval. You have to go through the legislative process.
Unfortunately, things were ramping up just as the state legislature went into recess, he said.
“So now we’re into the new season, and from what I understand, Sonya is working with Rep. Finlay to get him nominated and put on the State House lot,” Wolfe said.
“We want to place it near the African American monument that currently sits on the grounds of State House.”
Once they decided to pursue the monument, they hired Jim Legg of SC’s Department of Archeology and Anthropology.
“He’s a historian of the Western Front and the First World War, and I knew him. I asked him if he would like to participate,” said Wolfe.
They spoke of an existing monument at the 371st in Ardeuil, France.
The monument “was erected by the 371st itself to their deaths in the Champagne Offensive,” Wolfe said. “It’s a truncated obelisk.”
They decided to base the new monument on this concept, with the pointed top of the obelisk flattened to accommodate a statue.
On the advice of another historian, the group contacted sculptor Maria Kirby Smith of Camden.
“I looked at her. She had done Judge Matthew Perry, she had done (basketball player) Larry Doby, she had done Freddie Stowers, the Medal of Honor winner with the 371st,” Wolfe said.
They told Smith about the regiment and troopers, and she came back with the concept – a tri-fold design.
“Rather than a single soldier, it’s a high relief with three soldiers – one with the French equipment they got when they arrived in France, one with the American equipment and a bugle,” Wolfe said. . “She had read about one of the bugles in the regiment…and just thought it would be interesting.”
The buglers were signalmen when they arrived in France, he said, adding: “They had critical jobs.”
He said the base of the monument will list the names of soldiers killed in action.
So who were the soldiers of the 371st? They were mostly conscripts from the South, sent to the bloody trenches of the First World War. They emerged as heroes – having won numerous individual awards for their bravery, including the Distinguished Service Cross, Croix de Guerre, Legion of Honor, Military Medal and a Congressional Medal. of honour.
Most African American recruits came from South Carolina, with additional members from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and other southern states, as well as states like Maryland and Pennsylvania. Several were from the Orangeburg area, Wolfe said.
“The 371st was the only regiment made up entirely of drafts. These men had received no military training before arriving,” he said.
And the white officers in command were all “fresh out” of boot camp, he said.
“You only had a few officers who had previous military experience,” Wolfe said. “And it was probably a good thing that they delayed the arrival of these troops because it gave the officers time to train. And they didn’t have sergeants. They didn’t provide a cadre full.
“They were mostly from the south, and all of them, the regiment, were related,” he said. “And the men and the officers came together as a team. And that didn’t happen in some of the other black units, like the 92nd Division (which) had this terrible leadership, from some general officers down.”
After training at Camp Jackson in Columbia, where it was considered the best trained unit, the regiment arrived on the Western Front in April 1918. The regiment was placed under the command of the French Army due to their desperate need for new troops, as well as the belief that the French could better integrate black soldiers.
“They were coming (to train) until November 1917. And they were in the trenches in France in April 1918,” Wolfe said. “Within six months they were overseas and in combat.”
After training in new French equipment and tactics, on June 12, 1918, the 371st entered the trenches as part of the 157th “Red Hand” Division. The 371st remained in line for over three months, first holding the Avocourt and then Verrières subsectors northwest of Verdun.
The regiment was then withdrawn from the line and launched into the great offensive of September 1918 in Champagne. He took Côte 188, Bussy Ferme, Ardeuil, Montfauxelles and Trieres Ferme near Monthois.
The regiment captured numerous German prisoners, 47 machine guns, eight trench engines, three 77mm field guns, an ammunition depot, numerous wagons, and huge amounts of wood, hay, and other supplies.
The 371st shot down three German aircraft with rifle and machine gun fire during the advance. In combat between September 28 and October 6, 1918, her casualties—most of which occurred in the first three days—were 1,065 out of 2,384 actually incurred. The regiment was one of the most advanced units of the attacking army in this great battle.
“You have to think, a bunch of southern white officers, black men, (many of them) illiterate, and almost none of them had probably been out of state, probably not out of county they lived in,” Wolfe said. . “And put them together, and they would bond and do so well.”
Wolfe said the logic in bringing them together was that the Army believed that because many black soldiers were farmers, they were used to working with men like white officers.
“Many of these officers were farmers or worked together in businesses,” he said. “And it worked.”
Check donations can be made payable to 371st Infantry WWI Monument and sent to:
Attention 371st Infantry Regiment
First World War Memorial Association
To learn more or to donate online, visit www.371stmonument.org.
Contact the writer: email@example.com or 803-533-5543.