Letter from Colonel Hayward

A highly significant letter written by Col. Hayward to the author shortly after the 369th reached France and went into training may be quoted


"Am writing this from away up on the French front where the 'Fighting Fifteenth,' now the 369th U. S., is really fighting in a French Division. We are known to the French as 369 R. I. M. S. and our Secteur Postal is No. 54, France.

"I have two battalions in the trenches of the first line and the third in relief at rest just behind our trenches. The three rotate. Our boys have had their baptism of fire. They have patrolled No Man's Land. They have gone on raids and one of my lieutenants has been cited for a decoration. Of course, it is still in the experimental stage, but two questions of the gravest importance to our country and to your race have, in my opinion, been answered.

"First: How will American Negro soldiers, including commissioned officers (of whom I still have five), get along in service with French soldiers and officers---as for instance a Negro regiment of infantry serving in a French combat division?

"Second: Will the American Negro stand up under the terrible shell fire of this war as he has always stood under rifle fire and thus prove his superiority, spiritually and intellectually, to all the black men of Africa and Asia, who have failed under these conditions and whose use must be limited to attack or for shock troops?

"We have answered the first question in a most gratifying way. The French soldiers have not the slightest prejudice or feeling. The poilus and my boys are great chums, eat, dance, sing, march and fight together in absolute accord. The French officers have little, if any feeling about Negro officers. What little, if any, is not racial but from skepticism that a colored man (judging of course by those they have known) can have the technical education necessary to make an efficient officer. However, as I write these lines, Capt. Napoleon Bonaparte Marshall and Lieut. D. Lincoln Reed are living at the French Officers' Mess at our division Infanterie School, honored guests.

"The program I enclose gives you an idea of the way I've cultivated friendship between my boys and the poilus. You should have seen the 500 soldiers French and mine, all mixed up together, cheering and laughing at the show arranged while the Boche shells (boxcar size) went screaming over our heads.

"Now, on the second question, perhaps I am premature. But both my two battalions which have gone in have been under shell fire, serious and prolonged once, and the boys just laughed and cuddled into their shelter and read old newspapers. French company got shelled and it was getting very warm around the rolling kitchen. The cooks went along about their business in absolute unconcern until the alarmed French soldiers ran to them and told them to beat it. One of the cooks said, 'Oh, that's all light, boss. They ain't hurting us none.' They are positively the most stoical and mysterious men I've ever known. Nothing surprises them. And we now have expert opinion. The French officers say they are entirely different from their own African troops and the Indian troops of the British, who are so excitable under shell fire. Of course, I have explained that my boys are public school boys, wise in their day and generation, no caste prejudice, accustomed to the terrible noises of the subway, elevated and street traffic, of New York City (which would drive any desert man or Himalaya mountaineer mad) and are all Christians. Also, that while the more ignorant ones might not like to have a black cat hanging around for fear it would turn into a fish or something, they have no delusions about the Boche shells coming from any Heathen Gods. They know the child-killing Germans are firing at them with pyrocellulose, and they know how the breech mechanism works.

"I am very proud of what we've done and are doing. I put the whole regiment through grenade (live grenade) practice. Nasty, dangerous business. They did it beautifully. I found one rank arrant coward, who refused to throw. Said he couldn't. Another threw prematurely after igniting the bomb. We asked him why he did not wait for the command to throw (barrage). He said, 'Kunnel, that old grenade, she begun to swell right in my hand.' The boys keep writing home that the 'war is not so bad if you just go at it right.' Well, a very wise command somewhere, I don't know where, has let us go at it right. You know I've always told these boys I'd never send them anywhere I would not go myself, so I went first to the trenches, prowled around, saw it all and came back to the regiment to take in the battalion which was to go in first. When they saw me covered with mud, but safe and sound they said 'How is she, Kunnel?' 'She's all right,' I said. They all laughed and then the sick and the lame of that battalion began to get well miraculously and begged to go. Captain Clark called for twelve volunteers for a raid and the company fell in to the last man---all wanted to go, and he had to pick his twelve after all.

"Do you wonder that I love them, every one, good, bad and indifferent?

"Personally I am well, strong, and the happiest man in the world. I've learned more about the military game, at least the fighting of this war, since I have been here with the French than I learned in all the years as drummer boy, private, Sergeant, Captain, Major and Colonel Second Nebraska Infantry, Spanish War, Maneuvers, Officers' School, Gettysburg and Leavenworth problems, etc., etc., and all the time I spent with my present regiment in the New York National Guard.

"And another thing, I believe I know more about Negro soldiers and how to handle them, especially the problem of Negro and white officers, than any other man living today. Of course, the other regiment I commanded for three years was a white regiment, so I had a lot to learn, but I've learned it and I wouldn't trade back now.

"Suppose after I've held my sector up here by blood and iron two or three months, some National Guard Brigadier, who has just arrived in France, will come along and point out all the mistakes I've made and tell me just how to do it. Well, 'C'est la guerre' as we French say.

"Brother Boche doesn't know who we are yet, as none of my men have been captured so far, and the boys wear a French blue uniform when they go on raids. I've been thinking if they capture one of my Porto Ricans (of whom I have a few) in the uniform of a Normandy French regiment and this black man tells them in Spanish that he is an American soldier in a New York National Guard regiment it's going to give the German intelligence department a headache trying to figure it out.

"We a proud to think our boys were the first Negro American soldiers in the trenches. Jim Europe was certainly the first Negro officer in. You can imagine how important he feels! In addition to the personal gratification at having done well as a regiment I feel it has been a tremendously important experiment, when one considers the hosts of colored men who must come after us. I wish I had a brigade, yes, a division or a corps of them. We'd make history and plant the hob-nailed boots of the 'Heavy Ethiopian Foot' in the Kaiser's face all right.

"We were so disappointed that the Secretary didn't get up to see us. The town we were holding then had been named by me 'Bakerville' and it is so on our maps.

"Regards and good wishes to you.