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date: 23 October 2019

York, Alvin Cullumfree

(13 December 1887–02 September 1964)
  • David D. Lee

Alvin York

At the site of his successful 8 Oct. 1918 battle in the Argonne Forest, France.

Courtesy of the National Archives (NWDNS-111-SC-49191).

York, Alvin Cullum (13 December 1887–02 September 1964), World War I soldier, was born in Pall Mall, Tennessee, the son of William York and Mary Brooks, farmers. A skillful hunter and marksman, York worked as a farmer, a laborer, and a blacksmith before the war. He received approximately three years of formal schooling. His drinking and brawling earned him a reputation as a local rowdy, but an emotional religious experience in 1915 prompted him to join the Church of Christ in Christian Union, a deeply conservative congregation originally founded in reaction to the carnage of the Civil War period. Because church members rejected violence, York sought conscientious objector status when the United States entered World War I, but the Selective Service denied his appeal. Once York was drafted, his Eighty-second Infantry Division superiors persuaded him that America was fighting God’s battle in the war, an argument that transformed the pacifist from the Tennessee mountains into a veritable soldier of the Lord.

On the smoke-shrouded morning of 8 October 1918, during the battle of the Argonne Forest, York and his patrol were isolated and under fire behind enemy lines near the French village of Châtel-Chéhéry. With half of his sixteen men dead or wounded, York outshot an entire German machine gun battalion, silencing some thirty-five guns and killing approximately twenty of the enemy. In addition he captured 132 prisoners. Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch described his exploit as the “greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all the armies of Europe.” Promoted to sergeant, he received the Medal of Honor and decorations from most of the Allied nations.

Initially York’s exploit attracted little public attention, but on 26 April 1919, Saturday Evening Post correspondent George Pattullo published “The Second Elder Gives Battle,” an account of the firefight that made York a national hero overnight. York’s explanation that God had been with him during the fight meshed neatly with the popular attitude that American involvement in the war was truly a holy crusade, and he returned to the United States in the spring of 1919 amid a tumultuous public welcome and a flood of business offers from people eager to capitalize on the soldier’s reputation.

These offers would have brought him in excess of $250,000, but York had religious scruples about capitalizing on his military service. Instead he returned to Pall Mall, where he devoted himself to public service, most notably securing a state-supported high school in Fentress County. He married neighbor Gracie Williams in 1919, and the couple had eight children. On the eve of World War II, he finally permitted a film biography after producer Jesse Lasky convinced him that such a portrait would be a patriotic service. With Gary Cooper in the title role, Sergeant York opened to popular and critical acclaim just a few months before the United States entered the war. Poor management of his income from the film created tax problems that plagued York’s last years, but public donations settled his account with the Internal Revenue Service shortly before his death in Nashville.

York’s Appalachian heritage was central to his popularity because the media portrayed him as the archetypical mountain man. At a time of domestic upheaval and international uncertainty, York’s pioneerlike skill with a rifle, his homespun manner, and his fundamentalist piety endeared him to millions of Americans as a “contemporary ancestor” fresh from the backwoods of the southern mountains. As such, he seemed to affirm that the traditional virtues of the agrarian United States still had meaning in the new era. York represented not what Americans were but what they wanted to think they were. He lived in one of the most rural parts of the country when a majority of Americans lived in cities; he rejected riches when the tenor of the nation was crassly commercial; he was pious when secularism was on the rise. For millions of people, York was the incarnation of their romanticized understanding of the nation’s past when men and women supposedly lived plainer, sterner, and more virtuous lives. Ironically, while York endured as a symbol of an older America, he spent most of his adult life working to bring roads, schools, and industrial development to the mountains, changes that were destroying the society he had come to represent.

Bibliography

No significant collection of Alvin York papers exists. The most complete study of his life is David D. Lee, Sergeant York: An American Hero (1985). Dated but valuable are Thomas Skeyhill, ed., Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary (1928); Skeyhill, Sergeant York: Last of the Long Hunters (1930); and Samuel Cowan, Sergeant York and His People (1922). Nat Brandt, “Sergeant York,” American Heritage 35, no. 2 (1981), is a fine summary of York’s exploit. An obituary is in the New York Times, 3 Sept. 1964.