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Sergeant York: The Conscientious Objector and Frontline Hero
By Thomas Richardson
The Meuse-Argonne was the scene of bloody fighting inflicted and sustained by the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Shining through the fighting were acts of bravery and sacrifice by those saving their comrades and leading troops against deadly odds.
One of the most well-known of these heroes was Alvin Cullum York of Tennessee. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Corporal York approached a German machine gun emplacement and killed its crew, survived a German bayonet charge, and captured 132 enemy soldiers.
His actions merited a promotion to sergeant and the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). The DSC was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor, awarded personally by General John J. Pershing. The international attention earned him a celebrity status and became known by his sobriquet, Sergeant York.
Alvin York did not imagine the acclaim he received. After all, he initially registered as a conscientious objector (CO). York was brought up in a devoutly religious family and belonged to the Church of Christ in Christian Union denomination which forbade violence.
The Selective Service Act of 1917 required all able bodied men older than 21 register for the draft, and when York’s claim for CO status was denied, he appealed this decision on religious grounds. Conscientious objectors were not exempt from military service in 1917, however, as they were normally given non-combat assignments. At Camp Gordon, Georgia, York routinely felt conflicted between his military duty and religious conscience on pacifism.
Two of his commanding officers, Capt. Edward C.B. Danforth and Major G. Edward Buxton argued that his religious beliefs didn’t conflict with his duties as a soldier, citing Bible verses which eventually convinced York that his military service wouldn’t force him to compromise his morality.
York was assigned to the 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Division and saw his first combat during the St. Mihiel Offensive. On October 8, 1918, Cpl. York led the charge on Hill 233 in the Meuse-Argonne that catapulted him to international renown and earned him the Medal of Honor.
Following his homecoming, York immediately went back to work in his home state. In the 1920s, he founded the Alvin C. York Foundation for the purpose of providing educational and agricultural training for students in Tennessee. During the Great Depression, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 and oversaw the construction of the Cumberland Mountain State Park. In World War II, he re-enlisted but, because he suffered from a myriad of health issues, he was not given a combat assignment. Instead, York was commissioned as a major in the Army Signal Corps and inspected training camps.
Alvin York continued to campaign for proper education and training for everyone, and on September 2, 1964, he died at the Nashville Veterans Hospital.
Alvin York never lost his religious conviction while in the Meuse-Argonne and when asked by his brigade commander General Julian Lindsey what happened, he replied “A higher power than man guided and watched over me and told me what to do.”
Thomas Richardson works for the National Archives and Records Administration. In graduate school, he taught U.S. history and world geography. He also worked on the World War II veterans’ oral history project at the Eisenhower Presidential Library. Thomas volunteers with the Midwestern History Association helping with their social media outreach as a contributing editor. He lives in St. Louis and spends much of his time with the Scottish St. Andrew Society.