Books on Big Subjects with Local Roots

Two narratives provide compelling holiday reading

By Kevin E. Foley

Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War

Writing history about soldiers in war wasn’t Jeffrey T. Sammons’ first choice. The New York University history professor’s primary interests are race and sports. He has a book on boxing to his credit, with one on golf soon to be published. But when a suggestion came his way to chronicle the path of a regiment of African-American soldiers through the travails of the American entry into World War I and the country’s resistance to fully accepting the role of those soldiers, he believed he had to do it.

Jeffrey T. Sammons

Jeffrey T. Sammons

Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War was a “labor of love, with a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” that took over a decade of research to complete, Sammons told an audience at the Desmond-Fish Library on Sunday, Dec. 7. Appearing with Sammons for a discussion of the book was the heir to a storied Hudson Valley name, the library’s president of the board of trustees, Hamilton Fish V.

The library is named in part after Fish’s grandfather (the third H. Fish), who played a significant role in the formation, deployment and aftermath of the 369th Regiment. Fish V has had a varied and interesting career involving journalism, documentary film, politics and campaigns for social justice.

The regiment, according to Sammons, flew under a Gadsden flag featuring a coiled snake and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me,” which dates back to a Revolutionary War general, hence the name “Rattlers” even though the unit was better known by the early 20th-century media-imposed name of the Harlem Hell Fighters.

Ever since the end of the Civil War, New York state’s African Americans had sought to form an all-black National Guard regiment. Over the years, such efforts were met with hardened opposition, in part, said Sammons, because the National Guard of the day was as much a prominent social institution as a military one, and members, especially the leaders, could not accept the idea that blacks would attain anything resembling a similar social status.

Hamilton Fish with Flora Jones of Beacon, who attended the discussion (photo by K.E. Foley)

Hamilton Fish with Flora Jones of Beacon, who attended the discussion (photo by K.E. Foley)

Even when a law establishing such a unit passed in New York, National Guard opposition curtailed it for two years, until the need for troops to fight in Mexico and then in Europe created a necessity for it. Still, the regiment was not formally included in the New York guard, achieving only detachment status. The commander of the guard demanded no blacks be made officers, and while a few were ultimately appointed, they held minor positions. Hamilton Fish was made a captain.

Sent into the maelstrom of WWI, the Rattlers at first were limited to a role as laborers by the American commanders until French army demands for assistance resulted in their assignment to the trenches. The French, according to Sammons, awarded 179 Croix de Guerre (cross of war) medals to the regiment during their years under fire.

Their combat service, he said, was the longest of any American outfit. One severely wounded member, Henry Johnson, is still under consideration for the Congressional Medal of Honor. Gaining American recognition for combat service, rather than just the music from the regimental band, proved a hard road for the Rattlers.

Hamilton Fish III was a legendary Harvard football player who went on to a long career in politics, including 13 two-year terms representing the Hudson Valley in Congress. He was a forceful, ambitious character given to lecturing people on what was wrong with their approach to issues, whether on the football field or in national debate.

“There was always this assumption, with never a shred of doubt, there would be interest in whatever subject he spoke about,” said his grandson. But during the war, Fish was “incredibly loyal to his troops; he stood up for them in difficult situations under domestic attack from their own military and under fire in Europe,” said Sammons, “long after he stood up for their right to serve in the military.”

Both men spoke of Fish’s drive and personal ambition, which sometimes overtook his good intentions. He wanted to run the regiment, not thinking much of the leadership. Yet we are told that for all his pushing and breaking of dishes, “there was something about doing the right thing that came from a sense of who he was that restrained him,” said his proud grandson. When Fish V, a progressive Democrat, first ran for Congress, his grandfather, a conservative Republican, supported his opponent.

A defining moment for the Rattlers’ role in the American war effort came when they began the journey home after the fighting ended, to find themselves less than full citizens despite their contribution to making the world safe for democracy. In Europe, a planned monument to them was blocked by the American military. They traveled across the ocean alone and not with their larger National Guard unit. And then fearful authorities tried to block a homecoming parade.

“They didn’t want 3,000 black soldiers marching in New York City. They weren’t the same men who had gone over. War is a transformative experience … I’m going to be blunt. They had killed white people and they had seen Paree … so how were you going to keep them down on the farm?” asked Sammons rhetorically, referencing a famous WWI song.

The parade took place. While the public that turned out was enthusiastic, Sammons described the media coverage as “vulgar and dreadful.” Still, he recounted, the event gave rise to greater African-American pride and is seen as the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance in the arts. Many of the soldiers went on to play roles in the nascent civil rights movement over the next 50 years. “The genie was out of the bottle,” said Sammons.

Power on the Hudson

Imagine for a moment going to the Cold Spring dock and looking across the Hudson toward a giant hydroelectric power plant built into Storm King Mountain. Atop the mountain would sit a large lake of pumped-up water waiting for release to create electricity. Imagine thick electrical power lines emerging from the river and moving across Philipstown aboveground toward eastern Putnam County and Westchester carrying the power from the water.

Hardly seems possible that any entity would propose such an idea now, but in 1962, Consolidated Edison (Con Ed), the New York City–based energy company, did just that, and they spent more than a decade and a fortune in company funds trying to make it happen.

Ironically, the proposal was announced on the same day, Sept. 27, as the publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal environmental book Silent Spring. Both that book and the struggle over Storm King Mountain had enormous impact on the history, laws and politics of considering our natural environment in an advanced industrial age.

Power on the Hudson by Robert D. Lifset, a professor of energy history at the University of Oklahoma, closely studies the Storm King controversy. For anyone interested in understanding the past and how it informed the present in the Hudson Highlands and in the larger world of environmental awareness and energy production, this accessible, 300-page work can provide the prospective and the details.

The book is an outgrowth of Lifset’s Columbia University doctoral dissertation. As a student, he had a broad interest in the politics of environmental conflict but was uncertain where his scholarly research should be directed. At the suggestion of an uncle he decided to focus on the Storm King battle, which was a precedent-setting legal imbroglio with a healthy dose of politics in the mix. With voluminous records to review and people to interview, the work took up much of the 2000s, Lifset said in an interview with The Paper.

“What took time was understanding the positions of all sides. Good history involves the extension of empathy. Con Ed honestly thought it was doing the right thing. History is often written by the victors,” said Lifset, emphasizing he wanted to help dispel any mythologies around the struggle to protect Storm King, such as the idea that the entire environmental movement was born during this particular episode.

Lifset sets the historical context by fully exploring Con Ed’s thinking and the issues surrounding the economics of energy production during the period. He points out that during the years of the Con Ed proposal, other projects such as a gypsum plant at what is now Little Stony Point Park were also proposed and that the Hudson Valley region had a long history of industrial activity.

He also covers the varied activities of groups and individuals, some famous and some forgotten, involved in political machinations and protest, educational initiatives, aggressive advocacy and effective fundraising within the growing environmental movement. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (and brother Laurance), Congressman Richard Ottinger as well as heads of federal agencies and New York City officials all play a role.

The origins of present-day groups such as Clearwater and Riverkeeper and leaders like Pete Seeger and Robert Boyle and their associates all find a place in Lifset’s narrative.

Central to the book’s perspective, however, is the long battle involving committed legal opponents engaged in hearings before the Federal Power Commission and in the federal courts where environmental advocates would gain new standing for citizen opposition to the siting of power plants and other projects that raise questions of degradation of the natural world.

Lifset’s highlights as groundbreaking the introduction of ecological evidence as the basis for an argument before a board or a court to deny permission to proceed with a project. “The evolution, direction and effectiveness of environmentalism changed after its proponents placed ecological arguments front and center; this book argues that a strong focus on ecology is a central component of modern environmentalism,” wrote Lifset in his introduction.

Protecting nature’s aesthetic beauty had long played a part in the national conversation in the expansive western regions of the country as well as the more settled east, including the Hudson Valley. Lifset maintains that demonstrating that a human enterprise will harm the balance of nature, in the case of Storm King, the killing of large quantities of fish for example, opened a new citizen relationship with nature, science and the political and governmental system that accounts for a broader consensus today on preserving open spaces, protecting wetlands and closely examining any large construction, especially an energy-related one.

The current significant regional influence of the Scenic Hudson organization, with its network of parks and open spaces (Cold Spring’s West Point Foundry Preserve and Beacon’s Long Dock Park among them), its planning prowess (the proposed Fjord Trail) and lobbying heft ($1 million in state funds for the Fjord Trail), derives directly from the Storm King fight.

According to Lifset, when Con Ed first proposed its plant on Storm King it worked to blunt possible opposition by securing negotiated support from the two leading local environmental organizations of the day, the Palisades Park Interstate Commission, which controlled the Storm King site, and the Hudson River Conservation Society.

However, individuals from smaller groups interested in maintaining hiking trails and preserving open space began meeting to discuss possible strategies for opposition and fundraising. Out of those deliberations, which Lifset discusses in detail, arose the idea of forming a new group dedicated at the time to just focusing on opposing the plant.

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