In World War I, the Meuse-Argonne was the scene of bloody fighting inflicted and sustained by the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Nearly two hundred-thousand casualties were suffered by the Allies, making it one of the deadliest battles ever fought by American soldiers. Shining through the fighting were courageous acts of bravery, valor, 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, including the commanding lieutenant. His actions merited an immediate promotion to Sergeant and the Distinguished Service Cross. Later after an official review, the DSC was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, awarded personally by General John J. Pershing. The international attention earned him a celebrity status following the war and became known by his sobriquet, Sergeant York.
Alvin York did not imagine the acclaim he received after returning from France. After all, he initially registered as a conscientious objector. York was brought up in a devoutly religious family and belonged to the Church of Christ in Christian Union denomination (CCCU) which forbade the use of violence. The Selective Service Act of 1917 required all able bodied men after the age of 21 to 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 wholly exempt from military service in 1917 however as they were normally given non-combat assignments. When training began 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 (the agricultural school established by the foundation in 1926 now exists as a state operated high school, the Alvin C. York Institute). During the Great Depression, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 and oversaw the construction of the Cumberland Mountain State Park. When the United States entered 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 during the war. 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.”
(Alvin York's draft card, World War I Selective Service Draft Registration Card, National Archives at Atlanta, note on Question 12 asking ' do you claim exemption from draft (specify grounds)' York answers 'yes, don't want to fight.')