Orange County mobilizes, 1917
"Dark days ahead, and the first to face those days were the men of..."
One hundred years ago, Congress declared war. Although leaders in Washington, D.C. were working to prevent entering the ongoing global war, mobilization had in fact begun two months earlier in February of 1917. At that time, diplomatic relations had broken down when it was revealed that Germany was preparing to attack U.S. vessels at sea. On February 5th, President Wilson moved to protect the home front by activating the 1st and 10th Regiments of the New York National Guard. Companies within these regiments were comprised of Orange County men.
The guardsmen were given less than 24 hours notice to outfit for a winter campaign and leave the armory in Newburgh. Captain Rafael A. Egan marched the men down Broadway during a blizzard with snow above their knees; they boarded the ferry, crossed the river to Beacon and marched south to Peekskill. It was too cold for musicians to play as the soldiers were sent off. A second day of marching brought them to Tarrytown where they discovered the purpose of their destination. They were assigned to protect the New York City aqueduct system because German operatives were planning to blow up the dams and pump stations. The enemy's goal was to sever the water lines so there would be no relief when they then set fires throughout New York City. Company L stayed in Pleasantville and Company E eventually stretched all the way to New Paltz. Soldiers remained in huts and houses along the pipeline until August of 1917 when they were sent to bases in the south for combat training.
When a declaration of war was made by Congress on April 4th, the Newburgh Daily News published an article asking for the reformation of the famed "Orange Blossoms" volunteer regiment to lead the way to the enemy lines. New York State Governor Charles Whitman was contacted and he gave his approval of the plan saying it was "a fine and patriotic idea." Enrollment papers were placed at the offices of the Middletown Times Press, Goshen Democrat and Port Jervis Union within two day 23 men signed up. By April 20th Captain George E. Whitmore of Sloatsburg reported that over 150 men were organized to "emulate" the proud reputation of the old Orange Blossoms adding "we are going to the front and want to get there as quickly as possible." The group sent a letter to Theodore Roosevelt requesting that if he were approved to lead a regiment in France, that they would like to be his men.
However in early May, the War Department decided to organize National Guard and regular Army units rather than allow for local volunteer units. National Guard recruiters arrived to place many of those men into the 1st Regiment (soon to be the 107th) and the Navy set up an office in Newburgh as well. The recruiters were located at "the store of John Schoonmaker and Son, and at the same time Major Hamilton Fish, Jr., came here seeking recruits" for the 15th New York Regiment (soon to be the 369th), the first African-American regiment raised to serve in the Great War.
Prestigious diplomatic visitors arrived from Britain, France, Italy, Belguim and Russia within the weeks after war was declared. On May 11th former Governor Benjamin Odell and current Governor Charles Whitman met with the French General Joseph Joffre at Washington's Headquarters in Newburgh. He was in America to bring direct news from the battlefields and plea for reinforcements. In Newburgh on official State business, General Joffre was welcomed by a crowd of 10,000, made an honorary member of the Society of Cincinnati and given a commemorative medal (which is now on display at Washington's HQ museum). After expressing his deep reference for the site where George Washington and French General Comte de Rochembeau met and referencing the importance of Marquis de Lafayette's accomplishments during the Revolution, he departed for West Point by train.
In late July, the men of the 15th Regiment were called to service at Camp Whitman in Poughkeepsie where they learned basic military practices such as marching in formation. They were soon split into three battalions and sent to guard the rail lines throughout New York State.
The citizens of Newburgh held and clam bake at Orange Lake to bid farewell to the soldiers of the 1st regiment who were being sent to training camps to prepare for service in Europe. On August 19th soldiers of the 1st New York Regiment marched from the Armory to the Newburgh waterfront where they were then transported to Van Cortlandt Park to await other units. By late September they were moved to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, SC where they would remain for the next 8 months.
On October 8th the soldiers of the 15th Regiment were transported to join the white soldiers from the 1st Regiment who had arrived at Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, SC for combat training a few weeks earlier. There the black soldiers faced racism from local shop owners and townspeople. One serious incident occurred when Sergeant Noble Sissle, an accomplished musician with the regiment band, was physically assaulted as he tried to purchase a newspaper in a segregated hotel. A group of white soldiers from New York came to his aid and "threatened to tear up the hotel lobby" but they were stopped by another black soldier and musician, Lieutenant James Reese Europe, who urged them to deescalate the situation. After only two weeks of combat training, markedly less than any of the white units, the 15th Regiment was sent back to New York to await transport to the front.
While at the training camp, on October 17, 2017, the 1st New York Regiment was combined with the 7th New York Regiment (the "Silk Stocking" Regiment of New York City) to create the 107th New York Regiment. This was done simply by having Companies E and L of each regiment join together as one. According to Company L's historian Harry T. Mitchell, who witnessed the morning of the merge, "all the boys of Co. L, Seventh Regiment, gathered at the head of the company street to shout a welcome to about 100 men from Newburgh and it's environs who were being transferred from the First Regiment. As they watched their new bunkies from upstate tramp up the dusty road and swing in between the rows of tents awaiting them, they could not help but be impressed by the size of the newcomers. The first few squads were made up literally of young giants, men who bore striking witness to the benefits of outdoor life." Ahead of them a cold winter in tents at Camp Wadsworth and then departure for France in the Spring.
On December 27, 1917, the men of the 15th regiment arrived in France, the first black unit to reach Europe. They were assigned to the 16th French division and although they continued to wear their American uniforms, they were given French helmets, rifles and gas masks. Facing the language barrier, lack of extensive training at Camp Wadsworth, and the challenge of adjusting to French Lebel rifles, the men soon-to-be-known as the "Harlem Hell-fighters" marched to the Argonne Forest.