“There are about 6000 Negro troops here and you never saw a lively bunch of fellows as they are. There are some dandy singers among them…”
In his fifth letter home from Camp Lee, Virginia, dated December 7, 1917, PFC Charles “Dutch” Riggle, a WWI soldier from Wheeling, WV, tells his brother James “Abe” Riggle that Charles and his brother-in-law “Less” (our second letter writer, Wagoner Lester Scott), have applied for Christmas furloughs. Charles talks about hunting rabbits, fox, and raccoon and asks about the corn, potato, and apple crops back home. He still thinks he won’t have to go to France because the Germans are “getting the fur knocked out of them,” and “bound to get licked,” especially since the submarines (aka “U-boats”) aren’t doing much now. He says he’s been “hungry” for his snuff and was happy to get some from home. Importantly, he notes the arrival of 6,000 Negro troops raising the company’s number to 40,000. Charles is impressed by the spectacle of thousands of uniformed troops marching past Secretary of War [Newton D.] Baker, who was visiting the camp.
For African Americans like those seen by Charles Riggle, the First World War was a transformative experience. Blacks were dealing with the horrors of full-blown “Jim Crow” segregation in the American South (including Wheeling, West Virginia), and the “Great Migration” was taking place, as thousands of African Americans moved to northern cities seeking opportunity. President Wilson’s pledge to “make the world safe for democracy” gave many African Americans hope that the war would also increase freedom and equality for them at home. Others decried the hypocrisy of asking people who were not treated as equals in their own country to fight for democracy overseas. In reality, the men Riggle saw at Camp Lee were likely part of segregated service battalions (probably the 510th and 511th Engineer Service Battalions) who were expected to do manual labor, such as ditch digging and burial of war dead, or, as Riggle notes, to provide entertainment as musicians or singers. More than 200,000 African American soldiers were eventually sent to France. Those who did see combat were often assigned to French command and were treated with greater respect by the French. Many served with distinction, especially members of the 92nd Division and the 93rd Division’s 369th Infantry Regiment from New York, nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters.” Unfortunately, the hoped-for improvement in race relations at home, out of respect for honorable service, did not happen. The achievements of African American soldiers were largely ignored or diminished for decades. But the WWI experiences of African Americans, both military and civilian, had also proved empowering and eyeopening, and many were inspired and emboldened to fight for racial justice.
Charles “Dutch” Riggle was drafted into the US Army in 1917 and trained at Camp Lee, Virginia, where so many Wheeling draftees and volunteers—including his sister-in-law Minnie Riggle’s brother, Lester Scott—were trained. Dutch Riggle was a Private First Class in the 314th Field Artillery Supply Company, in France. Riggle was a farm boy with little formal education who grew up in the hills of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. He spelled many of his words phonetically. His letters have been transcribed exactly as they were written. This is his fifth letter from Camp Lee, dated 100 years ago today, December 7, 1917.
To listen to the podcast, visit our SoundCloud page, or subscribe through your favorite podcast app.
December 7, 1917 Letter Home – Charles Riggle to his brother James Riggle
Camp lee Va
December 7 1917
To JD Riggle
Hello there Jim. I received your letter yestard am. surly was glad to hear from you once more. am glad to hear that you an boss is well. this letter leaves me in good health an feeling fine. well abe i never felt better in my life than i have since i came down here. me an less has sine up for a furlo for Christmas but we only get 5 days an that hant very long to stay but i expect we will want to get back here. there was a fellow went home an he said he was anxious to get back but i dont know wheather he ment it or not. i think ever body is going to get get a furlo for xmas an new years. i sine up for xmas but i might not get to come before new years. the solders all cant leave at one time. they haft to divided them up. well abe we are having nice weather down here now. haven’t had any snow yet an it dont look much like any very soon. i expect we will freeze to death when we come up there. were drilling in are shirt sleeves. it was a pretty good frost this morning. well abe I supose the rabet seson will be over before i get home but i know the follow will be in. i surly want to have a race when i am out. is there any fox at the pont this winter. how doze rags perform after coons. is he any good or not. is tom an david hunting very much this fall. do they take old speed out with them hunting. we got paid today. i draw thirty dollars and i am going to keep it to come home on. tell them at home they dont need to look for any money this month. tell them to look for me about 24 i think. we leave here on Sunday 23th if i come home for xmas. that will be my last time to come till after the war is over. i wouldent come this time but them at home want me to come an that is the reson I am coming. it take so much money to come on but if i go to france i might not need any money but i don’t think we will haft to go but a fellow cant tell very much about it. i think the germans is geting the fur knocked out of them now. the american have a good bunch of troops over there now. the submerine isent doing very much develement now. it seems funny how germany hold out like she dos. she is bound to get lick after while. i recond you are done husking corn by this time. is crisey helping tom an david husk corn. are they done yet. the corn wasent a very good crop was it. have you sold your potatoes yet. you want to save me some of them apples for i want a good mess of them when i come out. i been having some to eat. i have pretty good eating know since i got that stuff from them. i got a box from vince an 2 from oll an bess an also i got plenty of honest snuff. i tell you i got pretty hungry for my snuff. i couldent get any down here. well abe it would be worth a good bit for you to be down here an see this place an see this bunch of troops. there are about 6000 negro troops here an you never saw a lively bunch of fellows as they are. there are some dandy singers among them. the Secrearty of War Baker was here yestard an the solders all march a pass him. it took them 2 hours to pass him four in a breast. there is about 40,000 troops here. now it surly look nice to see that many fellows in a bunch all dress the same. you said someting about the kitchen. i like it all rite. i have only been in the kitchen 4 times since i been here. i was in the kitchen yestard an maby i wont haft to be in there again for a month. ever body have to take there turn an that isnt very hard on any of us. they hant drilling us very much. now they got us out working at something the most of the time. i havent got any gun drill yet. well abe i have scribel anough for this time. i will close hoping to see you an boss Xmas. from your Brother
Battery F 314 FA Camp lee
Petters Burg Va
I’ll rite more the next time. i tell you all the news when i come home.
Listen to Episode 17 of “From Camp Lee to the Great War: The Letters of Lester Scott and Charles Riggle”
To subscribe to this podcast, go to iTunes, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app, search for “From Camp Lee to the Great War,” and click “subscribe.”
From Camp Lee to the Great War: The letters of Lester Scott and Charles Riggle” is brought to you by Archiving Wheeling in partnership with the Ohio County Public Library (Wheeling, WV) and the Wheeling Academy of Law & Science (WALS) Foundation.
Vince Marshall is the voice of Charles Riggle. The letters of Lester Scott and Charles Riggle were transcribed by Jon-Erik Gilot. This podcast was edited and written by Sean Duffy, audio edited by Erin Rothenbuehler with music courtesy the Library of Congress.
[Music in December 7, 1917 episode: “Porcupine Rag,” Johnson, Chas. J. (composer), New York Military Band, 1915, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200035782/]
Many thanks to Marjorie Richey for sharing family letters and the stories of her uncles, Lester Scott and Charles “Dutch” Riggle, WWI soldiers from West Virginia.