Alvin Cullum York (1887-1964) was one of the most decorated soldiers of the First World War. A recipient of the Medal of Honor and the French Legion of Honour, York is considered one of the greatest of Tennessee’s native sons.
This collection includes selected items from the holdings of the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) relative to the life of Alvin C. York. The most important of these are photographs from Fentress County documenting a 1940 visit with York and Jesse L. Laskey, Harry Warner and Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc., executives from California. These photographs were taken by Albert F. Ganier, Sr., of Nashville, Tennessee, who was hired by Laskey and his associates to accompany them on their tour of Fentress County.
There are other items selected from the Department of Conservation Photograph Collection (RG 82); the Library Photograph Collection; the Myrtle Crowley Goss Papers (MSS 1993-035); the “Looking Back at Tennessee Collection;” the Sgt. Alvin C. York Scrapbook; and several other small collections at TSLA. These selections document the life of Alvin York in his later years, both in his business and civic life.
Alvin Cullum York was born in the hills of the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee on December 13, 1887. He was the third of eleven children of William Uriah York (1863-1911) and Mary Elizabeth (Brooks) York (1866-1943). The family was poor but hardy. They lived in a cramped two-room “dogtrot” cabin. William York worked as a blacksmith to supplement the family income. The father and sons harvested what they could from their small family farm. Mary Elizabeth cared for her family and house, and hand-knitted all the family clothing. The York sons received minimal education; most only attended for perhaps at total of nine months because they were needed to work the family farm. Alvin himself earned perhaps a third grade education. Alvin had obtained the reputation of being quite a sharpshooter, and added to the family’s dinner table many a free turkey won during shooting competitions.
After the death of their father in 1911, Alvin York became the head of the family household by virtue of being the oldest sibling still living in Fentress County. York accepted a position in railroad construction and logging—a busy industry in the plateau known for its lush natural resources. He earned a reputation for being a skilled worker and took comfort in the welfare of his family. He was also known for frequenting saloons, hard drinking, and rowdy behavior. As a result, York had a number of arrests for unruly conduct. After pleadings from his mother and his mentor, Parson Rosier Pile, York cleaned up his life in January 1915. “I have never backslided…I am a great deal like Paul, the things I once loved I now hate” (Skeyhill 144).
York decided to convert to Christianity during church revivals of Rev. M. H. Russell—“the evangelist of the mountains.” He became a faithful Christian, joining the church and becoming one of its elders. He led the church singing and became known as the “Singing Elder.”
York was employed on the local highway in the county when the First World War broke out. Later, after the United States became involved in the war in 1917, Alvin York received his induction orders from the U. S. Government. He was twenty-nine years old and had never been more than a few miles away from home. He visited the general store of Parson Pile in order to send his military draft registration. York had reservations about serving in the war based on his religious convictions, but upon later reflection he determined it was his duty to fight in a war against the evils of the world.
After basic training, Private Alvin York served at Camp Gordon, Georgia, in Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd U.S. Army Infantry Division. Deeply troubled by the conflict of his personal Christian beliefs and his infantry training, York sought advice from his company commander, Captain Edward C. Danforth and battalion commander, Major Gonzalo E. Buxton. Both advised York through Biblical references “He that hath no sword, let him sell his cloak and buy one.” He was granted a 10-day leave of absence to return home and consider his course in life. York went into the hills of his beloved land to meditate and pray; he returned convinced that God meant for him to fight and serve his country.
Cpl. York and his company were sent to the battle lines in Western Europe. During an attack on his battalion along the Decauville rail line north of Chatel-Chéhéry, in the Argonne Forest of France on October 8, 1918, Sergeant Bernard Early, four non-commissioned officers and thirteen privates, including York, were ordered to penetrate behind the German lines and take out the nest of machine guns. The group was largely successful in their endeavor, capturing many Germans who were preparing a counter-attack against Americans. However, machine gun fire broke out on a ridge. Many in the unit were killed or injured. The losses put Cpl. York in charge, and he and seven infantrymen worked their way into position to take out the German guns. York encountered several Germans and attacked their position, killing many and capturing others. He “got hold” of a German Major who said that he would make the others give up.
In Alvin York’s words: “I told him he had better. I covered him with my automatic and told him if he didn’t make them stop firing I would take his head next. And he knowed I meaned it. So he blowed his whistle and they came down out of the trench and throwed down their guns and equipment and held up their hands and begun to gather around. I guess, though, one of them thought he could get me. He had his hands up all right. But he done had a little hand grenade concealed, and as he come up to me he throwed it right at my head. But it missed me and wounded one of the prisoners. I hed to tech him off. The rest surrendered without any trouble. There must have been about fifty of them” (Skeyhill 229-230). According to York’s Congressional Medal of Honor Citation, York and his men, captured a total of 4 officers and 128 men.
York’s heroism had met with great success. Curiously, the accomplishments of Cpl. York and his regiment were reported only in routine field reports from the Meuse-Argonne action of October 8, 1918; no soldier names were given. The history of Company C, 328th Infantry, A.E.F. was reported by journalist George Patullo of the Saturday Evening Post, who singled out York as a hero. This brought attention to the heroic actions of Cpl. Alvin C. York. Prior to discharge, York was promoted to the rank of sergeant.
Upon returning to America, Sgt. Alvin York was welcomed as the great American hero of the First World War. Ticker tape parades, medal ceremonies, news conferences and interviews awaited the Tennessean. The Tennessee Society of New York and Congressman Cordell Hull of Tennessee sponsored York while in the Empire State. However, York had deep reservations on the fame he received and the circumstances that had brought it.
Upon his return to Tennessee, Alvin York was received as its greatest citizen since Andrew Jackson. York married his sweetheart, Grace, with the wedding ceremony performed by Gov. Albert H. Roberts. He purchased farmland in Fentress County with loan guarantees provided by the Nashville Rotary and citizens of Tennessee. He and Gracie started their family, and York tried to put the war behind him.
For years, filmmakers had tried to convince Alvin C. York to produce film adaptations of the hero’s action in the Argonne. York refused, remarking he didn’t think it proper to exploit the incident because it was against his Christian beliefs. As early as 1919, Jesse Laskey from Hollywood had attempted to convince York to sell his story for the silver screen.
In the 1920s, York started the Alvin C. York Foundation with the mission of increasing education opportunities for those in his region of the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee. From this, the Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute was created. York also began work to open an interdenominational Bible school, but the onset of the Great Depression would inhibit this mission. The Depression also endangered the Institute that York had started in December 1929.
With times worsening, York relented and agreed with Jesse Laskey and Harry Warner, president of Warner Brothers, to sell his story for a motion picture. Laskey and his company visited Fentress County in 1940 and “sealed the deal with York.” Initially, York’s idea was to raise needed funding for his educational initiatives in the Plateau region, but Laskey and Warner convinced him the motion picture was needed to boost patriotism and awareness of the American people. One stipulation by York was that Gary Cooper portray him, as Cooper was one of few motion picture actors that Alvin York was familiar with.
Early in 1941, Laskey was displeased with the results of film stills made by the studio of the Fentress County-Cumberland Plateau area that York and his family inhabited. Laskey and his executives ventured to Jamestown, along the way hiring Albert Ganier of Nashville as photographer at the recommendation of an acquaintance of Laskey who was familiar with Ganier’s work. The resulting photographs are included in this project. These photographs assisted production designers in their design work on the upcoming film project.
“Sergeant York” premiered in the summer of 1941 and was a success for Warner Brothers. It garnered two Academy Awards, one for Gary Cooper’s portrayal of Alvin York, and a second for its use of sound.
Alvin C. York toured the United States during the Second World War for the War Department, delivering patriotic speeches and promoting the war effort. He served on the Selective Service Board in Fentress County. He offered his service to the U.S. Army for action in Europe; however, his age and illnesses prevented any participation.
York lived his final years in Fentress County as a loyal American with several business interests and as a beloved father and husband. He and Grace were parents to eight children—six sons and two daughters, most named after American historical figures. One of his sons, Thomas Jefferson York, was killed in the line of duty serving as constable in Tennessee in 1972.
Alvin C. York suffered declining health after his war days and suffered a stroke in 1948. Further strokes and health problems followed, and he was confined to bed by 1954. York died of a cerebral hemorrhage on September 2, 1964, at Veterans Hospital in Nashville. He was buried in Pall Mall near his farm, and was followed by his wife Gracie in 1984.
On December 13, 1968, a grand memorial to Sgt. Alvin C. York was unveiled on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol—a tribute to one of the state’s greatest heroes.
Skeyhill, Thomas J., ed. Sergeant York: His own life story and war diary. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran, and Company, Inc., 1928. Print.
Birdwell, Michael E. and W. Calvin Dickinson, eds. Rural life and culture in the Upper Cumberland. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004. Print.
Cowan, Sam K. Sergeant York and his People. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1922. Print.
Lee, David D. Sergeant York: An American Hero. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985. Print.
Perry, John. Sgt. York: His Life, Legend & Legacy: The Remarkable Untold Story of Sergeant Alvin C. York. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997. Print.
Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation. Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation, n.d. Web. 24 May 2012. <http://www.sgtyork.org>
Sergeant Alvin C. York Project Website. The Sergeant York Project. n.d. Web. 24 May 2012. <http://www.sergeantyorkproject.com/>