The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This soldier was a ‘hero among heroes.’ So why was he denied a Medal of Honor?

William Butler of Salisbury, Md., was a celebrated hero of World War I. (War Department Files)
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Why do we have to keep opening old wounds, removing Confederate statues, debating reparations for slavery, acknowledging history’s injustices?

Let’s start with the story of Sgt. William A. Butler, an African American soldier who fought in the French countryside in the Champagne region on an August night in 1918.

This was during World War I, a brutal conflict we rarely talk about, the one with the mustard gas and terrible trenches, a war that only rates a dinky little gazebo on the Mall.

A German raiding party had just rushed those American trenches and ripped through them in a bloodbath of slashing knives and blunt clubs. The young Americans who weren’t killed were taken prisoner.

Butler, a slight, 27-year-old from rural Salisbury, Md., was nearby and knew the raiding party would have to pass him on their escape. He waited until they were close to him, so close, then he unleashed his own, personal version of German hell.

Newspaper reporter Herbert Corey said Butler came “a-roaring and fogging, through the darkness with his automatic, and nobody knows how many Germans he killed.”

The final count was 10 dead Germans, according to World War I historian Emmett J. Scott. But that wasn’t it. Butler also took a German lieutenant prisoner, freed all the American prisoners and hustled them back to the safety of the trenches.

His exploits were incredible, especially for a man who had endured Jim Crow racial oppression and segregation his whole life.

Butler did return to a hero’s welcome in America. There was a parade in New York and then a ceremony with more than 5,000 New Yorkers cheering “themselves hoarse” as 23 men were awarded the French Croix de Guerre and the American Distinguished Service Cross, according to the New York Tribune.

He was the first in line to be honored before that crowd because the War Department decided he was the most heroic of them all, even among the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” none of whom were ever captured. After the way he fought in World War I, William Butler’s race shouldn’t have mattered. But it did.

The story of the Harlem Hellfighters, captured in a famous photo

“Bill Butler, a slight, good-natured colored youth, who until two years ago was a jack-of-all trades in a little Maryland town, yesterday came into his own as a hero among heroes,” the New York Tribune reported.

Butler was at the top of the list of men nominated for the Medal of Honor when the U.S. government began handing those out to World War I heroes.

The men who understand war knew what he’d done. But to the United States? The country he was ready to die for?

He was black, so no Medal of Honor for him.

So as our nation reluctantly — even violently — reckons with the way we remember our past, knocking some men off their pedestals is as important as elevating the ones who should have been there all along.

One of Maryland’s senators, Chris Van Hollen, wants the country to finally honor Butler. The Democrat introduced the World War I Valor Medals Review Act this week, legislation that would require the Defense Department to look at forgotten black war heroes like Butler.

Congress did this for World War II and forward, but now they want to look even further back.

“The fact that the heroism of African American soldiers was ignored, that it was overlooked is obviously jarring,” Van Hollen said.

If this bill passes, and it’s one of the few things on Capitol Hill that has bipartisan support and will probably breeze through, more men like Butler will finally be honored.

But all of them, like Butler — who hanged himself in his Washington home in 1947 and is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery (with a typo on his tombstone) — are dead. And will a posthumous award mean anything at this point?

Like the reparations that Georgetown University students voted this week to pay to the families of the 272 slaves that the university sold in 1838, like the Confederate statues we’re removing and the schools we are renaming, is it worth digging up the past?

Breaking the memorial cycle of war, horse, man, horse, man, man


Because it’s never too late to go back and understand and acknowledge our past as it really was. Because it’s crucial to see that what was once legal was also immoral.

And because there are thousands of William A. Butlers among us today.

The job applicants who have identical résumés but different skin color.

The drivers who get pulled and the ones who sail past.

The children who get suspended and the ones who don’t.

The more historian Linda Duyer, who researches and records the forgotten history of African Americans in Salisbury, read about the heroics of Butler, the more appalled she was.

“I just couldn’t understand why no one really knew this,” Duyer said. “This hero, right here, and he wasn’t recognized. I gradually got angrier and angrier the more I read. It must have been so horrific for him at the time. There was a lynching in Salisbury in 1931.”

It’s about acknowledging all of this.

“You can never go back in time,” Van Hollen said.

“But it’s about a reckoning with the racist history,” he said. “It’s still our opportunity to do the right thing.”

Twitter: @petulad

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