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A forgotten hero: Charles Young

22 October 2009

Bicen-cen-1

In editing the (now very far behind) daybook of the Mexican Revolution (I’m still not happy with the working title “The Mexican Revolution Day by Day”), I admit my first fact checking source is Wikipedia… which is generally sufficient for most minor details, but when I run across huge gaps, I’m always tempted to write an entry myself… and trust someone else will pick up the slack.

So far, no one took the hint I dropped in my highly biased post on the career of the important (to the Mexican Revolution) United States writer and diplomatic hostess, Edith O’Shaughnessy.  So, I’m afraid the entry for the maddening Mrs. O’Shaughnessy is probably not exactly a paean to an American woman who managed balance marriage, family and a successful career as a journalist, travel writer and screenwriter, but a portrait of a early 20th century reactionary and the kind of imperialist that — outside of dolts like T. Boone Pickens — one hopes are less overt in their statements these days.

Tom Dogget from Reuters, quotes Pickens, an Oklahoma oil man  (and well-remembered “corporate raider” of the 1980s, and, of late, a hedge fund manager… i.e., one of the guys who got the world into the mess in which it finds itself), as telling the United States Congress that

U.S. energy companies are “entitled” to some of Iraq’s crude because of the large number of American troops that lost their lives fighting in the country and the U.S. taxpayer money spent in Iraq.

The “War Against Iraq” (as Mexican newspapers labeled it) has its parallels to the Punitive Expedition of 1916.  If you remember, the United States had already intervened in Mexico to protect oil resources.  And… having sustained what was perceived as a “terrorist attack” when Pancho Villa rode across the border into Columbus, New Mexico (9 March 1916), invaded the country.

Admittedly, it was on a much smaller scale than the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and at least targeted the country where the “terrorist” actually lived.  But — like Iraq — the invasion was supposedly for the benefit of the invaded, who don’t see it quite that way, and are largely seen as historical failures.

The Punitive Expedition included legendary military figures  — John Pershing, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur: but their fame would rest on other wars, other more worthy military ventures.  The only genuinely heroic figure among the invaders is, as far as Wikipedia (and just about every military history of the United States is concerned), forgotten.  The best I could do was add some information about Young in Mexico from a “free use site” written by Standford L. Davis for the Buffalo Soldiers Net

"Cadet Charles Young", . W. Shannon, Courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, Ohio

"Cadet Charles Young", . W. Shannon, Courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, Ohio

Charles Young, the son of slaves, was only the third African-American to graduate from West Point (in 1889).  In the segregated Army of the time, more settled parts of the United States were a bit uncomfortable with the idea of armed black men (especially in the South after the Civil War!). African-American officers were almost unknown at the time — most officers were white *(including “Black Jack” Pershing — how do you think he got his nickname?).

Although he was willing for a time to be “loaned” to the National Parks Service (overseeing road building in Sequoia National Park, and as acting superintendent, becoming the first African-American to run a National Park,  Young was a career military man, who knew the only way to promotion was a combat officer’s posting.   Although the Indian Wars had ended by the time he was commissioned, the “Buffalo Soliders,” the 9th and 10th Cavalry which had chased various Indians throughout the far west, were the only real options he had.   He would serve in the two units for a total of 29 years.

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1916: Black Archives of Mid America, Kansas City

Even in 1916, the United States still had a need for a frontier Cavalry, especially when it came to invading northern Chihuahua, where there were few roads, and few settled communities. As frontier Cavalry, the “Buffalo Soldiers” performed well. On April First, now Major Young (the highest ranking African-American soldier in any service at the time) led the 10th Cavalry in their first formal engagement with Villista forces, at Agua Caliente. This was the stuff of legends… the Cavalry riding over the hill, bugles blaring, pistols blazing (just like in the Westerns) to rescue the besieged troopers. Young’s charge — the last of its kind in American history — “routing the opposing forces without losing a single man. The swift action saved the wounded General Beltran and his men, who had been outflanked.”

His action, leading a small squad of 10th Cavalry troopers to the rescue of the 13th Calvary pinned down in a skirmish at Parral on the 12th of April were factors in Young’s promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel.

Ironically, though, it was a white officer, Captain Charles Boyd, who put the 10th Cavalry’s actions in Mexico on the front pages of American newspapers, and made the African-American soldier “one of ours” in the eyes of most gringos. Boyd, supposedly hunting down the “insurgents” loyal to Pancho Villa, got into a firefight with his nominal allies, the Mexican Federal Army at Carrizal (21 June 1916). As I wrote in Gods, Gachupines and Gringos:

An arrogant U.S. officer [Boyd] followed up a correctable misunderstanding (his soldiers had taken several lost Mexican soldiers prisoner and abused them) by insisting on free passage though the town and firing on the Mexican army when they refused. The result was a rare mexican victory, with ten dead U.S. soldiers and twenty-three taken prisoner. A later inquiry was complicated by the fact that the U.S. was using ammunition then prohibited by international treaty.

The first reports on the battle came from Captain Boyd.

Concern for the fate of the prisoners  (twenty-two black troopers and one white “contract employee” from the local Mormon colony) pushed aside the usual pattern of racial anomosity of the time.  Interestingly enough, the Mexicans didn’t seem to notice the “race” of their prisoners, although the contractor — was a  “white man” to the gringos, and a renegade Mexican to the Mexicans.  Lem Spilsbury, the local Morman hired as a scout:

… later described how the prisoners’ dark skin merited no special consideration. Originally lining up the “gringo dogs” for execution, the Mexicans instead stripped all the captives naked and marched them to a nearby rail line for incarceration in Chihuahua City. Mistaken for a Hispanic, Spilsbury claimed several Mexicans favored shooting him as a traitor…

Outrage in the United States over “our soldiers” being taken prisoner put pressure on President Wilson to order General Pershing to retaliate against the Mexican Army.  Pershing  had no illusions of success, and every reason to expect a disaster, but the best man for the job was Young, whom he insisted be put in command.  However, it became clear that Boyd’s version of events was not the whole truth, the prisoners were returned and throughout the next month, opinion changed as the United States government began the withdraw from Chihuahua.

Now Lieutenant Colonel, Young commanded a border post, and should have led the 10th, or all “Colored” units during the First World War, but a medical examination showed he had high blood pressure, and was prematurely given a medical discharge in 1917.  He was able to return to the Army in 1919, but — with his combat career behind him, had to settle for a post as United States Military Attache in Nigeria (then a British protectorate), where he died at the relatively young age of 58.


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95th Engineers in the Yukon. Photo from National Archives, not the Grabman collection, though I think my father designed this bridge

* A rare personal note.  The U.S. Army was segregated until 26 July 1948.  Until desegregation, the officer corps, even in “Colored” units was mostly white, including my father, who was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 95th Engineers in 1938, which worked on the Al-Can Highway in 1942-43 as a military road, and as combat engineers in Britain before D-Day and then built roads (or rebuilt them) through  France, Belgium and Germany. He left the Army (as a Captain) in 1946, and even though I’d seen his photos [the Al-Can highway photos are now in the South Peace River Historical Society of Dawson Creek, British Colombia; the wartime photos went to various African-American Studies and military archival collections] I had to be 16 before I realized all the soldiers were black.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary O'Grady permalink
    22 October 2009 11:47 am

    No doubt it was “a frontier Calvary” for some, but most would know it as the cavalry.
    –The Proofreader from Hell

    • 22 October 2009 8:34 pm

      Uh, that’s what I meant. Heck, I was lucky to still be coherent at 6 this AM when I posted, thinking it was “only” about 3.

  2. 29 October 2009 6:48 pm

    <<<<>>>>>>>

    Maybe “Days of the Mexican Revolution”

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