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In the Meuse-Argonne, this backwoods pacifist did what Marshal Foch saw as “the greatest thing accomplished by any private’ soldier of all the armies of Europe.”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
Pershing called him “the greatest civilian soldier” of World War I. Foch described his exploit in the Argonne as “the greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all the armies of Europe.”
And in many ways, Alvin Cullum York did seem the perfect hero: a tall, lean, red-haired man with blue-gray eyes, a crackerjack marksman whose faith made him totally fearless. Yet in other ways he seemed the least likely of heroes—a barely literate pacifist and a conscientious objector. His home was a log cabin in the tiny Cumberland mountain village of Pall Mall, Tennessee, in the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf River, close by what is now the southwestern tip of Daniel Boone National Forest.
Boone was a well-known figure to the young York. “Mountain people are not great readers,” he told a biographer. “But we’re most all good storytellers.… I guess what outsiders call history is just plain storytelling with us.”
They were not great readers because school was open fewer than three months each year, and there was only one teacher for the hundred children crammed into the one-room school- house. What with helping out on the family farm, York attended only three weeks each summer for five years and later he figured he had the equivalent of no better than a third-grade education. It was not until he was twenty that he read his first book, a biography of Frank and Jesse James.
Alvin was the third of eight sons and three daughters born to William and Mary York. His father was a blacksmith whose shop was in the very cave in which Alvin’s great-great-grandfather, Conrad Pile, had lived when he first settled Pall Mall early in the nineteenth century. Conrad Pile was almost as famous in the mountains as Daniel Boone himself, a Long Hunter who, by the time he died in 1849 at the age of eighty-three, owned slaves and held title to land stretching as far as Jamestown, nine miles away.
During the Civil War, the Tennessee mountains were a no man’s land of bitter guerrilla fighting. Both of Alvin’s grandfathers were killed; one, a Mexican War veteran, died of exposure fleeing Confederates; the other was lynched by Northern sympathizers.
By the time Alvin was born on December 13, 1887, the family’s fortunes had dwindled. The cabin his father had built, its walls papered with newspapers and old catalogue pages, was, said a later visitor, “painted by Poverty.” Surrounding it were seventy-five acres of scrubby soil on which the Yorks raised chickens and hogs, kept a few cows, and grew corn. But there was barely enough to sustain them; this, after all, was the country which Cor- dell Hull—who hailed from the same region—described as offering its inhabitants two incentives: “pure air and starvation.” York’s mother hired out to do chores for other households for twenty-five cents a day. When Alvin did start school, he went off in a homemade linsey dress. He didn’t wear store-bought shoes until he was sixteen, and then only on Sundays. By then he was six feet tall and still growing.
From the time he was six, Alvin worked the fields with his father; later he learned to operate the smithy. William York had one great failing—he often neglected his work to go hunting. Alvin loved to tag along.
William York was “a most wonderful shot,” according to his son. “The best shot in the mountains.” He was so good that when neighbors got together for Saturday shooting matches, they often picked him to be judge rather than compete against him. And the neighbors could shoot, too: calipers were often needed to determine the winning bullet closest to dead center of the target.
There were turkey shoots, as well—some at a range of 150 yards, with the turkey in full view, tied to a stake; others with the turkev 40 yards awav but tied behind a log so that only its bobbing head was visible. The men used “hog rifles”—old muzzle-loaders, some fashioned by their pioneer ancestors. They could reload quickly; a few could even do it on the run. They knew all the ways their aim could be affected by wind, sunlight, and humidity.
As he grew up, Alvin earned the reputation of being an even better shot than his father. Even after the war he would prefer his father’s old cap-and-ball muzzle-loader to any high-powered Army rifle. He said it just didn’t know how to miss.
When William York died of typhoid fever in 1911, Alvin, whose two older brothers had married and moved away, found himself head of the household. In summers he hired out, working a neighbor’s farm “from can’t see to can’t see”; in winters he hauled merchandise over the rutted dirt roads. But his wages and the money won in bets in shooting matches were quickly wasted.