This WWI Army Captain Fought To End Racial Segregation in the Military

This WWI Army Captain Fought To End Racial Segregation in the Military

New York blue-blood Hamilton Fish III helped lead the “Harlem Hell Fighters” throughout World War I.

Key Point: Fish lived long enough to see the entire U.S. Armed Forces fully integrated with both blacks and women.

In July 1918, 30-year-old U.S. Army Captain Hamilton Fish, Jr., was in war-torn France with the 15th New York National Guard Regiment—also known as the (U.S.) 369th Infantry. This would not have been unusual, except that the regiment was an all-black unit led by white officers. Furthermore, the regiment was under French command because it was not allowed to fight with the then rigidly segregated American Army proper. Nevertheless, blood was red no matter what the skin color, and battle was about to be waged.

As Fish noted in his 1991 autobiography, Hamilton Fish: Memoir of an American Patriot: “The Germans launched an all-out offensive—the Battle of Champagne-Marne—against our lines. Just before the battle began, I wrote what I thought would be my last letter to my father:

“‘Dear Father: … I am assigned with my company to two French companies to defend an important position [a hill] against the expected German offensive.

“‘My company will be in the first position to resist the tremendous concentration against us and I do not believe there is any chance of any of us surviving the first push. I am proud to be trusted with such a post of honor and have the greatest confidence in my own men to do their duty to the end. The rest of our Regiment is dug in far to the rear except for L and M companies; the latter is holding a village in our rear.

“In Case I Am Killed…”

“‘My company is expected to protect the right flank of the position and to counterattack at the sight of the first Boche [as the French called the Germans]. In war some units have to be sacrificed for the safety of the rest and this part has fallen to us and will be executed gladly as our contribution to final victory. How fond I am of you, and to thank you for all your care and devotion—words utterly fail me. I want you in case I am killed to be brave and remember that one could not wish a better way to die than for a righteous cause and one’s country. Your affectionate son, Hamilton.’”

He was not killed, however. “When the attack did come, my company was ready, holding its position despite the ferocity of the fighting. Company K—my company—lost three dead, and had six wounded and four poison gas casualties. I survived unscathed, though my horse was killed during an artillery attack, my helmet was hit by shrapnel, and I had a few other close scrapes.”

The German offensive had failed, leading to what their Quartermaster-General Erich Ludendorff was to call “the black day of the German Army,” August 8, 1918. The French commander of Fish’s regiment, General Gouraud, noted that “It was a hard blow for the enemy. It is a beautiful day for France.”

Added Fish, “We began to sense that the tide of victory was turning in our directions.”

Actually, Hamilton Fish, Jr., had almost not become a soldier. He came from a dyed-in-the-wool Republican political family and hailed from the same district as his later “friend” and bitter foe, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His great grandfather, Nicholas Fish, was a colonel in the Revolutionary War, the first Adjutant General of the State of New York, the first Supervisor of Revenue in New York, and, as he told it, “An intimate friend of Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton.”

His grandfather, also named Hamilton Fish, was a member of the House of Representatives, Lieutenant Governor and Governor of New York, one of its two U.S. Senators, and U.S. Secretary of State under President Ulysses S. Grant. Our Hamilton Fish was born in Garrison, NY on December 7, 1888, while his father—also named Hamilton Fish—was Speaker of the New York Assembly at the state capital of Albany as well as a member of Congress.

Our “Ham” Fish attended St. Mark’s School and graduated from Harvard University (as did FDR) at the age of 20 with a cum laude degree in political science. He was offered an appointment to teach government and history at Harvard, “which I regretfully declined,” he noted.

As he added later, he was proud of his pre-World War I heritage and record, and had every right to be: “I am directly descended from Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Governor of New Amsterdam, and Louis Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Robert Livingston, the first Lord of the Manor, and of Thomas Hooker.” (His later nemesis, FDR, was also of Dutch descent.)

From Harvard to War

“Was Captain of the Harvard football team and am the only remaining [in 1979] member alive of Walter Camp’s All-Time All-American Football Team. Was three times elected on the Progressive Ticket [Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party], and a member of the [State] Assembly from Putnam County.” (FDR had also served in the State Legislature.)

After graduation from Harvard in 1910 as an All-American tackle (and later being named to the College Football Hall of Fame), young Fish earned two law degrees before going on to the State Assembly. Then came the war.

“I had served for two years in the National Guard,” he remembered later, “training at Plattsburg, N.Y., while I was an Assemblyman in the New York State legislature. My commanding officers were impressed by my performance and recommended that I be promoted to captain. An examination was required to achieve the promotion, but I had studied the drill regulations extensively and knew I could pass the exam.…

“On the day of the examination, I was met by a major I did not know who himself had not been made captain until he was well over 50 years old. He asked me a number of questions that had nothing to do with military training and declared me too young for a captaincy. I did not know then that my great grandfather Nicholas Fish had been the youngest major ever commissioned in the Army, aged 18 years and three months. If I had known, I would have invoked his example. As it was, I merely told the major that I thought my age, experience and background were sufficient to make me a qualified candidate.

“But the major would not even allow me to take the exam, and told me that if I did take it, he would ask me questions about cooking that I would be sure to fail. I protested that whatever my knowledge of cooking, I knew the drill instructions as well as he did, but the major persisted in his refusal.”

In New York City, a disappointed Fish ran into Colonel William Hayward of the National Guard, who was then organizing an all-black regiment to train for combat duty in France. “He asked me if I wanted to join the Regiment as a captain. I accepted his offer on the spot and became one of the first officers of what was later designated the 369th Infantry Regiment, the famed Harlem Hell Fighters.”

War was declared on Imperial Germany on April 2, 1917, and the following summer two thousand regimental men began their training at Camp Whitman, NY. In October they received orders to travel to Spartanburg, SC for more combat training.

Dealing With Racial Tensions

Fish sensed trouble. He wrote: “Realizing that the presence of so many black troops in the predominantly white and segregated town … could cause trouble, I telegrammed Franklin Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, telling him of my fears and requesting that he do what he could to have us sent directly to France.… Despite my appeal to Roosevelt, our orders remained unchanged, and we went to Spartanburg for 12 tension-filled days. It was made obvious that we were not welcome in the town. Soldiers were assaulted, forced off the sidewalk and subjected to other racial harassments.”

Calling a hasty conference with local officials, a forceful Captain Fish informed them “that if any of the town’s citizens sought by force to interfere with the rights of the black troops under my command, I would demand that swift legal action be taken against the perpetrators. This quieted things down temporarily.” On October 24, the regiment was recalled to Camp Whitman.

There, however, the 369th faced more trouble when it found itself housed next to a white Alabama regiment. “Early one afternoon, I learned that the Alabamians intended to attack us during the night … I had to borrow ammunition … as we had none. After arming our soldiers, I and my fellow officers told them that if they were attacked, they were to fight back; if they were fired on, they were to fire back.”

A midnight meeting between Fish and a trio of Alabama officers led to a later newspaper story that he had challenged them to a fistfight (which he denied), but in reality, all three returned to their regiments to prevent what he asserted “would be a massacre … and I was left standing there with my revolver cocked in the firing position, unsure how to release the hammer without discharging a round,” as he recalled in 1991.