“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.