Alvin C. York
Sgt. York, by Gladys Williams*
The Early Years
The boy destined to become Fentress County Tennessee's most famous son was born at Pall Mall in the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf on December 13, 1887. He was christened Alvin Cullum York and was the son of William and Mary Brooks York. Alvin was the third son after oldest brother Henry and second son Joe. Alvin was followed by brothers Sam, then Albert, sister Hattie, brothers George and James, sister Lillie, brother Robert, and last, sister Lucy.
There was little in the York family history to indicate that the boy was destined to make Fentress County and Pall Mall household words throughout America and much of the world.
He hailed from hardy pioneer stock of colonial ancestors who had migrated from North Carolina on his father's side and Coonrod (Conrad) Pile, first settler in the Valley of the Three Forks, on his mother's side. Old Coonrod had been his great-great-grandfather. The little farm on which Alvin was born and on which the York family eked out a precarious living was part of the once extensive land holdings of Coonrod Pile. The cabin where Alvin was born stood only 150 to 200 yards from the cave above the big spring where Old Coonrod spent his first night in the valley. Alvin's father ran a blacksmith shop in the cave for many years, moving it down to a small building beside the public road only a few years before his death in 1911.
Great estates, when divided among large families for two or three generations, can be reduced to small, marginal farms barely capable of keeping the wolf from the door. This had happened to the Coonrod Pile estate. His vast holdings had been reduced by division until third generation Nancy Pile Brooks had only 75 acres which she gave to her son, William Brooks, while her daughter Mary, was given the share from her Aunt Polly Pile. This was 70 acres, "part level and part hilly." Mary got her portion when she married William York and the two set up housekeeping in what was once a crib on the Coonrod Pile land. Seventy acres of rocky hillside has very little production capacity when there are thirteen mouths to feed. It was said of Alvin's father that "he just about succeeded in making a hard living."
Alvin's immediate ancestors came over the mountains from Buncombe County, North Carolina, and settled in the Indian Creek section of Fentress County. John York was the father of Uriah York who was the father of William York who was Alvin's father. The Indian Creek Yorks were farmers, but Alvin's grandfather, Uriah, started one of the few schools then in Fentress County. His school ran for three months starting after crops were laid by in the summer. He used only two textbooks, the Blue-Backed Speller and the Bible.
In addition to farming and teaching, Uriah York was a soldier in the United States Army during the Mexican War and again in the Civil War. He was one of the Fentress County volunteers in war with Mexico and was with American troops that stormed the heights at Chapultepec. When the Civil War began, he went north into Kentucky and joined Federal forces. Becoming ill, he returned to the home of his wife's father in nearby Jamestown. He was recuperating in bed when he heard that a band of Confederates was approaching. Rising from his sick bed, he fled through rain and sleet to a shack in Rock Castle where three days later he died from exposure. Thus, the life of Alvin York's paternal grandfather was terminated at age forty after serving his country in two wars as well as serving his fellow man as a teacher. He had cared for his family by farming and was an early settler of Fentress County, Tennessee.
Alvin's maternal grandfather met an even more tragic death after the war, also as a direct result of lingering hatred. William Brooks was a Union soldier who had joined the Army at his home in Michigan and moved south with General Burnside's forces. At Pall Mall he fell in love with Nancy Pile, daughter of Elijah Pile and granddaughter of the renowned Coonrod Pile. Brooks deserted the army declaring that the only victory in the South that he was interested in was the conquest of Nancy Pile.
Two years and one daughter after the marriage of William and Nancy, an old feud flared up between Pres Huff and William Brooks and Brooks killed Huff. Brooks then fled knowing that Huff's friends would soon arrive to avenge his death. Several months later Nancy Pile Brooks and her daughter also disappeared. More months passed and finally a letter from Nancy to her family arrived. It was intercepted by Huff's friends and the Brooks family was located in a logging camp in the wilds of northern Michigan. Extradition papers and warrants were prepared, and Huff's former business partner was sent to Michigan to return William Brooks to Jamestown where he was lodged in jail.
But William Brooks never went to trial. The next night a mob rode up the Wolf River Valley, up the mountain and across the plateau to Jamestown. They took William Brooks from the jail, tied a rope around his feet, unbridled a horse, tied the other end of the rope around the horse's tail, fired a shot, and as the horse ran down the road dragging William Brooks the men rode behind firing bullets into his squirming body until he was dead. Now both of Alvin York's grandfathers were dead, both dying tragically as a result of the hatreds engendered by the Civil War.
The lives of both William York and Mary Brooks had been scarred by the tragic loss of their fathers. But life must go on regardless of the suffering along the way. Perhaps these two young people were drawn together by their common tragedies. At any rate, when Mary Brooks, daughter of William Brooks, was fifteen years old she met William York, son of Uriah York, and the two fell in love and were married. Alvin York, who became world famous as Sergeant York, was their third son.
William York was a simple man whose philosophy of life had never been complicated by the corrupting influence of over-ambition and selfishness. He believed contentment and peace of mind were the children of fair play and honest labor. He was so fair and just in his dealings with the people of the valley that he came to be called "Judge York," and people were so convinced of his honesty and impartiality that he was often called upon to arbitrate neighborhood disputes. These were the values that William York taught his children to hang onto. Yet, in spite of his honesty and his fair dealing, and his unselfishness, William York was always a poor man. He was a farmer and a blacksmith, but he was also a hunter and a man of the mountains. He never let the accumulation of material possessions stand in his way when he felt the call of the wild stirring in his hunter's blood. It was his one great weakness, and often at the most inopportune times he would call his hounds and be off on a hunt that sometimes stretched into days or even weeks.
While these long hunts may have had an unhealthy effect upon the family budget, they did serve a purpose as training for his sons who were old enough to accompany him. They all grew up next to nature, learned the ways of the forest, how to stalk game; learned to know all the trees by their leaves and bark; learned the haunts of animals and how to use the long rifle. Mountain men lived by their rifles. They were not weapons to be used in a fight; they were tools with which to supply the table. Those who became truly expert with a rifle used it very effectively each Saturday afternoon to supply meat for the table and even change for the pocket at the weekly shooting matches. These matches brought together the elite of the shooting fraternity, and William York was in the top echelon. In this sport, too, Alvin followed more closely in his father's footsteps than any of the other boys. His skill with his rifle was to play a major role in later years in bringing him worldwide acclaim.
If he learned the lore of the forest, the habits of its creatures and the art of handling a long rifle from his father, he also learned the art of living from his mother. The cornerstone of her philosophy of life was self control. She never allowed anger or excitement to drive her to irrational acts. This inner calm and self control she instilled in all her children, but it was Alvin who fate placed in a position to profit most from it. Neither she nor he could know that years later, after he had grown to mature manhood, the lessons in clear thinking and self control he learned from his untutored mother would save his life and make him an international celebrity. Both parents contributed much to the training of Alvin York that enabled him to perform the feat that made him famous.
William York died in 1911, leaving the entire burden of bringing up the large family on Mary Brooks York. Alvin, at 24, was the oldest of the children still at home and custom thrust upon him the obligation to help his mother support the family. Perhaps the added responsibility helped drive him to drink, or perhaps the loss of the disciplinary effect of his father tended to make him more reckless, who can say, but for some reason Alvin York became a hard-drinking, gambling, carousing, rough-housing young man. This kept up for some three or four years.
As titular head of the family, he divided the farm work up among his younger brothers, reserving for himself the privilege of working outside to bring in the cash money the family needed. He worked at whatever jobs he could get. In summer he worked on neighboring farms; in winter he hauled staves, logged, or worked at sawmills. He worked six days a week, but Saturday night and Sunday were his days to howl, and the "Shack" near the Bald Rock on the Tennessee-Kentucky line was his place to howl. At the Shack he met his wild friends and associates, and there was much drinking, fighting, wild parties and gambling. Often they would visit the Shack, get drunk, then spread out over the whole area wherever there was a meeting, a box supper, or other activities where they could find a crowd to disturb.
His mother pleaded with her boy to change his ways. He was not himself, she told him, when he was drinking, and she begged him to stop. After one of these sprees she begged him so earnestly and was so convincing in her arguments that he promised her he'd never drink again. From that day on, no drop of whiskey ever tickled the throat of Alvin York.
About that time, too, Alvin took a liking for squirrel. Late afternoon often found him, gun in hand, headed for the woods back of the York farm and along the F.A. Williams farm. Gracie Williams's mother noted also that Gracie, her sixteen-year-old daughter, didn't object to driving the cows in from the backfield pasture any more. But remember this: Whatever is said here about this courtship between Alvin York and Gracie Williams is pure speculation. They didn't talk then nor later, but it is common knowledge that a large flat rock surrounded by great beech trees lies in the area where he hunted squirrels and she drove the cows home. There were carvings in the bark of the beech trees that were not known to the public until the spot was selected as the place where Governor A.H. Roberts performed the wedding ceremony of Alvin York and Gracie Williams on June 7, 1919.
In the light of all this, the historian wonders if the influence of Gracie Williams might not have carried considerable weight, along with Alvin's mother, in bringing to an end his "wild oats" days. A further change in his life came soon after and here, almost certainly, Gracie was very influential. On New Year's day, 1915, Alvin York professed religion and cast his lot with the church instead of the Shack. From that day until his death forty-nine years later, his faith never wavered.
Before the War
So spoke Alvin York in 1917 when Uncle Sam pointed a finger at him and said, "I want you." The big red-headed, raw-boned, son of the forest thought he had a grip on life. Before the arrival of a certain card on June 5, 1917, the future never looked brighter for Alvin York. For him life had always been good, even if hard at times. Now it looked better than ever. Hadn't Gracie agreed to marry him when last they met on the limestone ledge under the giant beeches? And hadn't he just been named an elder in their little Church of Christ in Christian Union? With his wild oats days behind him for good, he had learned that leading the singing in church was far better than fighting and brawling and drinking and gambling at the Shack on the Tennessee-Kentucky line. And finally, his terribly pinched financial circumstances were beginning to show unmistakable signs of improvement. Up until now he had never been able to earn more than one dollar a day. Now he was driving steel on the new highway being built through the valley, and he was making the unbelievable sum of one dollar and sixty cents a day. Alvin York still labored under the delusion that he had a firm grip on all the good things. Even at this late date, he could not imagine opening his hands and finding them empty, all his good things taken away by a war 4000 miles from his valley across mountains and plains and an ocean.
The card that arrived on June 5, 1917 was his notice to register for the draft. Not until then would he acknowledge, even to himself, that fate had caught up with him. Describing this day when his world began to disintegrate around him, he wrote: "I kind of lived in a dream the next few days (after Gracie had promised to marry him) and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, so it seemed to me, life sort of took me by the back of the neck and tried to lift me out of our little valley and throw me into the war over there in France. I received from the post office a little red card telling me to register for the draft." He did.
The small cloud on the horizon of just a few months before had now spread all the way around the world, casting its shadow over the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf. Alvin York "opened his hands" to find there was "nothing in them."
He started keeping a diary on that fateful June 5th, the day he got his notice to register for the draft. From that day on until May 29, 1919 when he arrived back in his Valley of the Three Forks, Alvin recorded every activity he took part in. The tempo of the military machine shifted into high gear for Alvin York after June 5th. On that date he registered. On October 28th he reported for his physical examination. After that he had no doubt about going to the army. He says: "They looked at me and weighed me and I weighed 170 pounds and was 72 inches tall. So, they said I passed all right. Well, when they said that I almost knowed that I would have to go to the army." On November 14, he reported for induction, on the 15th he left Oneida for Camp Gordon, Georgia, and on the 16th he arrived in Camp Gordon.
The world has been under the impression that Alvin York was a conscientious objector who tried unsuccessfully to avoid serving in the army. Technically, this was not so, although at one point he admitted it and at another denied it categorically. Let the reader make up his own mind after reading the next few pages.
Alvin York did not want to go to war. He freely admits that and tells why. He says, "There were two reasons why I didn't want to go to war. My own experience told me it wasn't right, and the Bible was against it too..... but Uncle Sam said he wanted me, and I had been brought up to believe in my country."
If there is anything one can say about Alvin York without fear of contradiction, it is that he was patriotic. He loved his country, and what is more, he came from a long line of patriots who had fought for their country all the way from King's Mountain to New Orleans, Chapultepec and Shiloh. In addition to York's direct family ancestors who had fought for their country since the Revolution, he also felt a close kinship with such frontier greats as Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett and Sam Houston. The influence of all these patriotic ancestors, both by blood and by culture, weighed heavily on the mind of Alvin York as the day of his induction into the army moved closer and even after he got to Camp Gordon. He describes his dilemma in these words:
Up to this point in the sheltered life of the isolated valley in which Alvin York had lived, he had never come face to face with and had to choose between two great principles or courses of action. He had always just assumed that being a good Christian and being a good, patriotic American were one and the same thing. At least they were so closely connected that a man dedicated to one would automatically be dedicated to the other. Now he was learning it was not so in the light of what he had always been taught about Christianity and about patriotism. The complexities of theology and its application to living in a world far more complex than he had imagined, drove him to cry out, "I am a soul in doubt."
The records in the War Department in Washington will always make it appear that Alvin York was a conscientious objector. He was not. He was a "soul in doubt" as he said. He was torn between what he thought was his duty to his country and his God. When this conflict was resolved in his mind, he never again voiced objection to fighting, killing if necessary, for his country. The petitions filed asking exemption from military duty were initiated by Pastor Pile and his mother. "My little old mother and Pastor Pile wanted me to get out," he wrote in his diary.
Here we have a direct statement from Alvin York denying categorically that he ever was a conscientious objector. But we have another direct quotation from another book stating that "....so long as the records remain I will be officially known as a conscientious objector. I was. I joined the church. I had taken its creed, and I had taken it without what you might call reservations. I was not a Sunday Christian. I believed in the Bible, and I tried in my own way to live up to it."
Here we have two direct statements which appear to be flatly contradictory: "I never was a conscientious objector," and "So long as the records remain I will be officially known as a conscientious objector. I was."
How do we reconcile these statements? Or can we reconcile them? I think we can.
Those who knew Alvin York personally knew how confused he was at that time. In that confused state of mind he interpreted the term "conscientious objector" in two different ways, as it was used by the War Department and as he saw it in the light of his church creed and the Bible. By the former interpretation he was not a conscientious objector; by the latter he was. His lack of education made it impossible for him to comprehend entirely the two horns of the dilemma upon which he was impaled. In his own writing he gives us a basis for this explanation: "Only the boy who is uneducated can understand what an awful thing ignorance is .... I know what I want to say, but I don't always know just how to put it down on paper. I just don't know how to get it out of me and put it in words."
The conflict raged on in his mind. He was still the "soul in doubt knowing that he really wanted to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors and fight for his country, but finding no way to reconcile war and killing with his own conscience and the creed of his church.
In the Army
Appointment with Destiny
Throughout the investigation that followed York's fight in the Argonne, he consistently played down the importance of the action. In his diary he sums up the fight in which he killed more than twenty men and captured 132 with this line: "So we had a hard battle for a little while." No boasting in that simple statement. When he marched his prisoners back to the battalion post of command, Brigadier General Lindsey said to him, "Well, York, I hear you have captured the whole German army," to which York replied modestly, "No, I only have 132." He seemed almost apologetic for bringing in a mere handful of prisoners.
The next morning twenty-eight dead Germans were found at the scene of the fight. York says that is the number of shots he fired. They also found thirty-five German machine guns and a lot of other small arms and ammunition.
The officers of the 82nd Division made this official report to General Headquarters: "The part which Corporal York individually played in the attack (the capture of the Decauville Railroad) is difficult to estimate. Practically unassisted he captured 132 Germans (three of whom were officers), took about thirty-five machine guns, and killed no less than twenty-five of the enemy, later found by others on the scene of York's extraordinary exploit. The story has been carefully checked in every possible detail from headquarters of this division and is entirely substantiated. Although York's statement tends to underestimate the desperate odds which he overcame, it has been decided to forward to higher authorities the account given in his own name. The success of this assault had a far-reaching effect in relieving the enemy pressure against American forces in the heart of the Argonne Forest."
The official history of the 82nd Division states that York's exploit in the Argonne Forest "will always be retold in the military tradition of our country. It is entitled to a place among the famous deeds in arms in legendary or modern warfare." Following this exploit which made him famous, York stayed on in the front lines in the Argonne from October 8 until November 1. It was during this time that he had his closest call. "The nearest I came to getting killed in France," he wrote, "was in an apple orchard in Sommerance in the Argonne." They were digging in during a German artillery barrage when a big shell hit immediately in front of them. York describes the experience: "I have dug on farms and in gardens and in road work and on the railroad, but it takes big shells dropping close by to make you really dig. And I'm telling you the dirt was flying. And then Bang!....one of the big shells struck the ground right in front of us and we all went up in the air. But we all came down again. Nobody was hurt, but it sure was close."
On November 1, York's outfit was relieved from the front lines and sent back to a rest camp. In his diary he writes that "I was made a sergeant just as quick as I got back out of the lines." And then he adds: "But oh, my! So many of my old buddies were missing and we scarcely seemed the same outfit." On November 7, he was given a 10-day furlough to Aix-les-Bains. While resting in Aix-les-Bains, the Armistice was signed on November 11 ending the war.
What did Sgt. York think about the Armistice and the ending of the war? "I don't know that I can just exactly tell my feelings at that time," he writes, "It was awful noisy. All the French were drunk, whooping and hollering. The Americans were drinking with them, all of them. I never did anything much, just went to church and wrote home and read a little. I did not go out that night. I was all tired. I was glad the Armistice was signed, glad it was all over. There had been enough fighting and killing. And my feelings were like most of the American boys. It was all over and we were ready to go home. I felt they had done the thing they should have done, signing the Armistice."
Between November 11, 1918, when the Armistice was signed, ending the war, and May 10, 1919, when Sgt. York boarded ship for his return to the States, he traveled extensively in France. For several weeks he traveled to military installations in France speaking to the soldiers. On February 11, 1919 he took part in a Division Review at Prauthoy, France where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He attended the organizational meeting of the American Legion in Paris on April 7, 1919, and became a charter member of that organization. On April 18, at a review at St. Silva, France, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and On April 24, also at St. Silva, Marshal Foch pinned the French Croix de Guerre on him.
During all the months after the war's end he was anxious to get started home. He wrote in his diary: "I wanted all the time to get back to the mountains where I belonged. I wanted to live the quiet life again and escape from the mad rush of the world. We had done the job we set out to do, and now, like all the other American soldiers, I wanted to get back home."
On May 10, 1919 he boarded the U.S.S. Ohio in Bordeaux, France, and after a stormy crossing of the Atlantic, landed at Hoboken, New Jersey at 2:00 P.M. on May 22. The war was over for peace-loving Sgt. Alvin C. York.
Marriage and the Future
Alvin York, in the days after his return from the war, began to feel a kind of calling; a feeling that God had picked him to do a job and protected him while preparing him to do it. Along with his conviction that the isolation of the mountains had kept many good things from his people, he got the new idea that it was his mission in life to break down the barriers and bring education and enlightenment to his valley. He writes: "I kind of figured my trials and tribulations in the war had been to prepare me for doing just this work in the mountains. All of my suffering in having to go and kill were to teach me the value of human lives. All the temptations I went through were to strengthen my character."
Inspired by what he believed to be a mandate from God to do something for his people, Alvin York conceived the idea of establishing schools for mountain children. This way he could save many a mountain boy from the embarrassment he had had to face many a time when he was forced to confess that "I'm just an ignorant mountain boy."
Sgt. York, the Giver
York and WW II
York's farming, civic and community work, his church work, and raising a family of seven children occupied his time from the mid 1920's until the outbreak of World War II. Five sons (Alvin C. Junior, Edward Buxton, Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson) and two daughters (Betsy Ross and Mary Alice) were born to Alvin York and Gracie Williams York. During these years between the two wars a major portion of his time had to be devoted to the "home front". Later, however, when war clouds began to hover over America a second time during his lifetime, he took to the road again to kindle patriotic fires all over America.
Alvin York spoke out for democracy and our vital need to break up the complacency that was threatening that democracy in every part of the country prior to World War II. He spoke in dozens of major cities and in numerous military bases to thousands of soldiers. After an impassioned plea for unity and preparedness in New York on July 31, 1941, he said,
The above speech was delivered four months before Pearl Harbor plunged us into World War II. Two weeks after Pearl Harbor in a speech broadcast from York Institute in Jamestown, York said, "Our hands are on the plow and we dare not, cannot turn back from our determination to rid the world of the Hitler menace. Life, not death; liberty, not enslavement; the pursuit of happiness, not the pursuit of sorrow and misery, will keep democracy fighting until victory is assured."
Wars are not won by men alone. Men must have materials with which to fight, and materials cost money. York worked hard to sell Americans on the importance of buying war bonds. In a radio program sponsored by the War Bond Office of the Eighth Corps area, he said, "This war is everybody's war. The sooner everybody is wholeheartedly behind it, the sooner it will be over. It will never be finished quick as long as we put more store by our private, personal, and selfish wants than our national liberty and democracy. And the way I see it, liberty and democracy are prizes that come only to people who fight to win them and then keep on fighting eternally to hold them. Though all of us may not be front line fighters, all of us can still help with the fight. We can buy war bonds to the limit just as those American fighting men keep fighting to the limit. Men couldn't win with their bare hands in 1918. Men can't win with their bare hands today."
Wherever there was work to be done to help win the war, Alvin York was there. A man was needed in Fentress County for the thankless task of member of the draft board. Would he accept? He would. He was made chairman and served through the war and for years afterward, giving up the post only after his health became so bad that it was impossible for him to continue.
He was a close friend of General Lewis B. Hershey who headed the Selective Service System, and on July 31, 1941 he appeared on a round table discussion over the Mutual Broadcasting System with General Hershey and Major General George B. Duncan, commander of the 82nd Division, to argue for preparedness. "If we want to keep our democracy we've got to be ready to fight for it," York said.
Though serving as chairman of the Fentress County Selective Service Local Board, Sgt. York did not approve all the policies of the Selective Service System. He strongly opposed the rejection of strong able-bodied men because they did not have enough education. This objection was based on his belief that planes, missiles, and atomic bombs are not enough. Alvin York firmly believed, and said so from many a platform, that "You can't fight a war without the foot soldier. You can't take territory and hold it without the foot soldier. You can't hold territory with missiles," the old soldier argued. Then he continued, "Draft Boards reject a lot of men who are physically able. Maybe a man hasn't got enough education to fly an airplane or a missile, but he can still be a good foot soldier. York even asked permission to lead a force of 5,000 picked men rejected for reasons of education, but the project failed because he could not pass the physical examination.
More than twenty years after his return from France as the most decorated soldier of World War I, York signed a contract with Warner Brothers for a moving picture telling the story of his life. The picture, in which Gary Cooper played the part of York, was called "Sergeant York," and was released in 1941. It made him some money but not a great deal. A report from Warner Brothers covering the period from the release of the picture to March 2, 1946 shows that York's share of revenue from the movie amounted to $169,449.84.
With this money York paid off most or possibly all of his debts. In the Farm Credit Manager in 1942 he says, "I'll bet I'm the first person who ever paid off a Federal Land Bank loan with money from a movie." And in the same magazine he pats himself on the back when he says, "It's the wise farmers who get their debts in shape for anything that might happen."
Uncle Sam's Final 'Thanks'
Highlights of Sgt. York's Life
* Gladys Williams was a dedicated teacher at York Institute for many years and was very interested in the life of Alvin C. York. She wrote this unpublished biography on his life. Portions have been edited by Concord Learning Systems.
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