Great American Women


The greatest hero of World War I began life in a two-room log cabin in Pall Mall, Tennessee, the third of eleven children.  He attended school for 9 months and spent the rest of his childhood helping his family scratch out a living in the backwoods and waters of his homeland.

His name was Alvin Cullum York.  Folks around Pall Mall knew him as one of the best marksmen ever to come out of the woods of Tennessee…and also one of Fentress County’s biggest hell-raisers.  Whether this was because his father died in 1911, leaving Alvin with the burden of seven younger siblings and a widowed ma to provide for, or just a plain hereditary devilish streak, folks couldn’t determine.  One thing was certain: Alvin never darkened a church door, but his drinkin’, gamblin’ presence was regular at sleazy border saloons.  And most everyone in Pall Mall agreed that that young Alvin C. York would never amount to anything.

But Alvin’s life turned around one drunken night in 1914 when a saloon disagreement turned violent, and his best friend, Everett Delk, was killed.  It was a cruel wake-up call.  That same year, prompted by the death of his friend, Alvin attended a revival hosted by H.H. Russell of the Church of Christ in Christian Union.  Finally, he realized that it was time to change his ways.  Committing his heart and life to God, Alvin was a changed man.  He became a song leader and Sunday School teacher at the local Church of Christ in Christian Union, and there met a young woman named Gracie Williams.

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and every state, city and town in America was effected by the draft.  York received his notice six months before his 30th birthday.

The struggle that raged inside him was between his faith and that draft notice.  The Bible he had learned to love forbade fighting, did it not?  “My Kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said, “If it were of this world, my servants would fight.”  It was wrong to kill, to murder, and that was exactly what war was.  It was murder, on a massive scale.  Alvin York knew that the ability he had with a gun was a rare thing, but he had given up fighting.  He applied for exemption from the draft as a conscientious objector.  His request was not approved, either at the local or state level, and York was forced to go to war. 

Having never traversed more than fifty miles from his home or shot with any gun besides an old-fashioned muzzleloading rifle, York was in for a huge learning curve.

At training camp, Alvin’s commanding officers were amazed at his ability with a gun, watching York shoot with perfect accuracy at targets 200, 300 and 500 yards away.  But when asked to practice shooting at human-shaped targets, he said, “Sir, I am doing wrong. Practicing to kill people is against my religion.”

Weeks passed, and as Alvin listened to the counsel of two of his commanders, Major G. Edward Buxton and Captain Edward Danforth, he finally began to understand that God asks us not only to serve Him spiritually but to submit to our government authorities, and to protect the innocent.  A member of the United States Army, Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Infantry Division, Corporal Alvin C. York was shipped overseas.  It was on October 8, 1918, at the battle of the Argonne Forest, that York earned himself fame as America’s greatest hero during the First World War.

On that day York and sixteen other men, under command of Sergeant Bernard Early, were commissioned to secure Germany’s Decauville rail-line.  York recalled,

“The Germans got us, and they got us right smart. They just stopped us dead in our tracks. Their machine guns were up there on the heights overlooking us and well hidden, and we couldn’t tell for certain where the terrible heavy fire was coming from… And I’m telling you they were shooting straight. Our boys just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home. Our attack just faded out… And there we were, lying down, about halfway across [the valley] and those German machine guns and big shells getting us hard.”

The group of eighteen men went behind enemy lines with the mission of taking out this German machine gun nest.  As Sergeant Early captured a large group of German soldiers, enemy fire opened on the Americans from a hill overlooking them.  York was commanded to silence the machine guns.

“[T]hose machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush… As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting… All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.”

When the smoke had cleared, 9 Americans had captured 132 German soldiers.  25 Germans were dead.  35 machine guns were silenced.  York was awarded the French Medaille Militaire and Coix de Guerre, the Itailian Groce de Guerra, and the American Medal of Honor.  His homeland was abuzz with the excitement of York’s exploits, and when the newly-appointed Sergeant arrived in New York City in 1919 he was greeted with a hero’s welcome. 

His faith had seen him through, his commitment to God’s Word and his search for truth had not been in vain.  He knew that he owed everything to God.  “A higher power than man power guided and watched over me and told me what to do,” he told his commander General Duncan in 1919.

Marshall Ferdinand Foch told York that, “What you did was the greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all the armies of Europe.”

Immediately after returning home, Hollywood, Broadway and numerous advertisement firms were eager to make a fortune from York’s newfound fame.  But rather than subscribing to the get-rich-quick offers surrounding him, Alvin returned home to Tennessee, his family, and Gracie, as soon as he could.  “This uniform ain’t for sale,” he said simply.

Alvin wanted to use his celebrity for good, and his dream was to provide education for the mountain children of Tennessee.  On June 7, 1919, he married his sweetheart, Gracie Williams.  The couple went on to have 7 children.  York founded the Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute in Jamestown, Tennessee.  The Institute stands today as a nationally recognized high school with the highest graduation percentage in the state.  York also started a Bible School with proceeds from the Hollywood film Sergeant York, made about his life in 1941 and featuring Gary Cooper’s Academy Award-winning performance as Alvin.

Alvin York passed away on September 2, 1964, and was buried with military honors in the Pall Mall cemetary.  He told interviewers that he wanted to be remembered for his work in promoting public education to the underprivileged children in his community.  This man, who had received less than a year of formal schooling as a child, was able to see each of his seven children graduate with high school diplomas from the school he started.  One even went on to graduate college.

The exploits of Sergeant Alvin C. York, humble mountain sharpshooter and committed Christian, will endure as long as America’s stories are told.  His acts of bravery in the Argonne Forest are legendary, but even more impressive are the quieter acts of a courageous heart which York displayed.  He was a man brave enough to listen to his conscience, brave enough to consider the counsel of others, brave enough to trust, first and foremost, in the word of God.  This is true heroism.

Resources:

  1. “The Legends and Traditions of the Great War: Sergeant Alvin York” http://www.worldwar1.com/heritage/sgtayork.htm
  2. Trenches on the Web -“Bio: Sergeant Alvin C. York” http://www.worldwar1.com/biocyrk.htm
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One of the most colorful and charming First Ladies in America’s history, Dolley Madison was born to a Quaker family from Virginia in 1768, as one of eight children.  She married a Quaker lawyer named named John Todd , Jr. in 1790.  Three years later he and their newborn child William Temple died of yellow fever, leaving Dolley with their remaining young son, John Payne.

Only 25 years old, Dolley was alone in Philadelphia.  But her vivacious personality and warm heart soon made her popular.  In 1794, a mutual friend named Aaron Burr introduced the young widow to a 43 year-old bachelor named John Madison.  Although he was 17 years her senior, the two were considered by friends to be an ideal match, especially considering John’s shyness in public arenas and Dolley’s abilities as hostess.  She found him to be delightful and clever.  John Madison was already making waves as a leader of the new Republican Party, a very intelligent leader who believed strongly in religious freedom and had fought to add the first ten amendments to the Constitution (which are now called the Bill of Rights).  Although he stood at only five and a half feet tall, he held great stature in the eyes of his young nation as the “Father of the Constitution” (a title he strongly protested).

Dolley Todd and James Madison had a short courtship of about four months.  They were married on September 14th of 1794, no doubt to the relief of Dolley’s cousin, Catherine Cole, who had written her in June that John “thinks so much of you in the day that he has Lost his Tongue, at Night he Dreams of you & Starts in his Sleep a Calling on you…”.  The newlyweds retired to Monpelier, John’s childhood home in Virginia, where they lived until 1801.  In that year, John was called to Washington, D.C. to be President Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State.

Dolley, discarding the rigid habits of her childhood religion, dressed stylishly and elaborately, and soon become the social hub of Washington.  During their first 8 years in the city, Dolley often acted as Jefferson’s hostess, since the President was a widower.  The city was a raw and untamed town during this time, with a residency of only about three or four thousand.  Traditional social life was impossible, but Dolley seemed determined to help make the capital of American politics into something the nation could be proud of through social events in which the old ways of class and protocol were very often forgotten.

In 1809 John Madison was elected the 4th President of the United States, and Dolley became First Lady.  She was now the toast of Washington, and indeed, the most important woman in social America at that time.  In fact, Madison’s Presidential opponent, Charles Pinckney, said that he was “beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison”.  He added, “I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.” 

Dolley furnished and decorated the White House as tastefully as she could, striking a balance between understated simplicity and the ornate style popular in that era.  She wanted the White House to be a place for all kinds of people.  She held a Wednesday night “salon” open to the general public, and hosted state events with impeccable etiquette.  Washington social chronicler Margaret Bayard Smith wrote that “she looked a Queen…It would be absolutely impossible for any one to behave with more perfect propriety than she did”.  Gracious, tactful, elegant and kind to everyone, Dolley is still remembered as the original First Lady, setting a precedent for the wives of American presidents to follow.  She always remembered names and had a gift for making people of all types and backgrounds feel welcome.  That she was far more than just a social butterfly was proven during the War of 1812, when Dolley became a national heroine for her bravery and strength, sleeping with a sabre by her bedside during the dangerous wartime.  Even when British troops captured Washington in 1814, Dolley kept levelheaded and managed to save many vital government papers, White House treasures, and an important portrait of George Washington from the White House before invading troops set it on fire.  The President was absent at the time, reviewing the American forces.  Dolley left behind her own possessions to preserve items important to her country, writing, “I am accordingly ready; I have pressed as many Cabinet papers into trunks as to fill one carriage; our private property must be sacrificed, as it is impossible to procure wagons for its transportation.”

Even after Madison’s term ended in 1817, Dolley remained one of the most important and beloved persons in America.  The couple retired to Montpelier.  Throughout the years, Dolley remained first and foremost supportive of her husband.  She was young, beautiful, and outgoing, he was small, sickly, shy, and reserved.  Many thought them an odd match, but Dolley was devoted to him and John adored his wife.  As Dolley once said, “our hearts understand each other.”

Dolley Madison died in 1849 and was buried next to her husband on the Montpelier estate.  A brilliant hostess, intelligent leader and loyal First lady, Dolley was the first President’s wife to entertain in Washington D.C. and remains a beloved name in American history.  She will always be remembered as simply Dolley: wartime heroine, Washington’s favorite lady, and American.  As Henry Clay once said, “everyone loves Mrs. Madison.”

Resources:

  1. “Dolly Madison Quotes” http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/d/dolley_madison.html
  2. “Dolley Madison” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolley_Madison
  3. “The Dolley Madison Project” http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/madison/
  4. “Dolley Payne Todd Madison” http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/firstladies/dm4.html
  5. “Dolley Madison: Biography” http://www.answers.com/topic/dolley-madison

On pages 26 and 27 of the USA passport, there is a quote by a woman named Anna Julia Cooper. It says,

“The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class – it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.” – Anna Julia Cooper

If anyone understood a passion for freedom, it was this woman, an African-American child of slavery. 

Born August 10, 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina, her mother was a slave woman named Hannah Stanley Haywood and her father was her white master, George Washington Haywood. Set free by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Anna enrolled in St. Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute for free blacks at the age of nine. In 1877 she married a fellow St. Augustine graduate and instructor named George Cooper, who died only two short years later, leaving the young bride a widow. Receiving a full scholarship to Oberlin College, Anna worked to receive a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree, and finally began her work as a teacher for Washington DC’s only black high school, M Street School, in 1887.

In 1892, Anna wrote the first of the several books she would write throughout her lifetime. A Voice From the South urged the country to protect the future of the young black girls who lived in the Southern states. She knew that the African-American community would be greatly benefited by the progress and education of its women. She also saw the peculiar and overwhelming challenges facing the young black women in her day, and she understood them as being so very similar to those she had experienced as she struggled to make a future for herself in post-slavery America. Throughout her time at St. Augustine’s, Anna had been frustrated by the discouragement she faced against taking higher-level classes. “The Ladies’ Course” was the scholastic track reserved for women, and female students were hindered from pursuing a four-year university education. She had to fight in order to attend classes typically reserved for men, such as Greek.

“I would beg, however, with the Doctor’s permission, to add my plea for the Colored Girls of the South:–that large, bright, promising fatally beautiful class that stand shivering like a delicate plantlet before the fury of tempestuous elements, so full of promise and possibilities, yet so sure of destruction; often without a father to whom they dare apply the loving term, often without a stronger brother to espouse their cause and defend their honor with his life’s blood; in the midst of pitfalls and snares, waylaid by the lower classes of white men, with no shelter, no protection nearer than the great blue vault above, which half conceals and half reveals the one Care-Taker they know so little of. Oh, save them, help them, shield, train, develop, teach, inspire them! Snatch them, in God’s name, as brands from the burning! There is material in them well worth your while, the hope in germ of a staunch, helpful, regenerating womanhood on which, primarily, rests the foundation stones of our future as a race.”  -“A Voice From the South: By A Woman from the South”, 1892

The year 1915 found Anna working on receiving her doctorate from Cambodia College, when her half-brother passed away and his five orphaned grandchildren were left homeless. Anna ended her studies in order to adopt them. But ten years later, in 1925, Anna at last received her Ph. D in history from the University of Paris-Sorbonne. She was the fourth African-American woman in history to receive a doctorate.

All throughout Anna’s life, she fought for freedom, for equality, for opportunity for all. Her insatiable love of learning proved to a racism-encrusted nation that black women were intelligent and capable of higher education. Her writings gave a voice to those who had no voice. She was a true lady, with a gentle but earnest heart. She listed as her greatest passion: “education for the underprivileged”.

Most of all, Anna Julia Cooper had a passion for freedom. Her words, enshrined in our American passport, came from a woman who knew the true value of liberty. Born at the dusk of slavery in 1858, she lived to see the dawn of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others who carried the torch she and other freed slaves from the late 19th century had lighted. She died in 1964, one hundred and five years old, leaving behind a legacy of freedom for those who suffered most in this “land of the free”. She was born a slave, and died a free woman. More than anyone else, she knew how priceless liberty truly was, and she wanted that liberty and privilege for everyone, not only in America, but all throughout the world. She was a child of independence who desired only for the whole world to become aware of its true birthright…”the birthright of humanity”. 

Resources:  

  1. “Anna Julia Cooper” http://www.gwu.edu/~e73afram/be-nk-gbe.html
  2. “Women’s Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society: Anna Julia Cooper” http://www.webster.edu/~woolflm/cooper.html
  3. “(1893) Anna Julia Cooper, ‘Women’s Cause is One and Universal’” http://www.blackpast.org/?q=1893-anna-julia-cooper-womens-cause-one-and-universal
  4. “Anna J. Cooper” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Julia_Cooper
  5. “Anna Julia Cooper Quotes” http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/a/anna_julia_cooper.html

It was a beautiful day in early February. The sun shone outside onto Abigail’s desk, illuminating the blank sheet of paper in front of her. Twirling the pen gently in her hands, she stared outside at the rolling fields and orchards of her farm. She remembered the many months that she and her five children had tended it alone…her fine, porcelain-white arms turning brown in the sun, her back growing strong. She remembered her mother, teaching her to be a lady and a fine keeper of her future home. Could she have ever foreseen this life for her daughter? The wife of a circuit lawyer, an ambitious, opinionated, outspoken young Harvard graduate. Then he was a delegate to the first Continental Congress, battling for the freedom of the colonies from the grip of England.

All those years, for days and weeks and months at a time, Abigail had been alone. Alone to raise and educate little Nabby, Johnny, Susanna, Charles and Thomas. She had been thankful then, for her father’s library. She remembered sprawling across the floor with a pile of books at her side…English and French literature, books of history, poetry, philosophy, essays. Yes, her youthful hunger to learn had served her well in the education of her five young children.

Most of all, Abigail had been grateful for her study of the Bible. The daughter of a Congregationalist minister, she had been raised in the church. But as she grew older, her faith truly became her own; her understanding that the Father alone was the Supreme God, that Jesus Christ derived His Being and all his powers and honors from the Father, that the three were one, the one three.1 That true religion came from the heart and was between a man and his Creator; not the imposition of man or creeds or texts.2 Her trust in the Lord of Heaven and earth was the rock upon which she depended during those long days and nights without her beloved John.

She wrote to him nearly every day during those lonely months, closing her letters with reminders of her love and her constant prayers for him. “Good night. With thoughts of thee I close my eyes. Angels guard and protect thee.”

The children had missed him too. How well Abigail could remember little Nabby lulling her brother to sleep with the song, “Come, papa, come home to brother Johnny.”3 Her sweet voice had brought tears to her mother’s eyes, echoing as her words did, the cry of Abigail’s own heart.

But she had worked hard to be strong. She believed in her husband’s work, and wanted him to know that she loved him and supported him every step of the journey. How worried he was for them, listening to the bickering members of Congress in Philadelphia, sleeping alone in a boardinghouse, longing for his wife and little ones. No, she would not add to his fears. Despite all the deprivations and terrors of living through a war along, she would be brave.

Abigail remembered her husband urging her to fly to the woods in case of real danger. She wrote back quickly. “Courage I know we have in abundance, conduct I hope we shall not want, but gunpowder –where shall we get a sufficient supply?”

Then, early on the morning of June 17, 1775, Abigail awoke to the sound of rumbling cannon fire. She thought of the children…her own brood and also the five young ones of Dr. Joseph Warren, President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, whom she was caring for at the time. Quickly, she dressed by the light of a single candle.

Little Johnny awoke to the sound also. They held hands and went quickly to the top of a nearby hill. They could see the smoke above Breed’s Hill, they could hear the sounds of battle.

Dr. Joseph Warren died that day, along with 440 other killed, captured and wounded brave American soldiers and 1,073 of the British soldiers. The fight became known as the Battle of Bunker Hill. At the time, the war seemed as though it would never end.

But at last, it had. The American colonies had won their independence, and John Adams was an important political figure in the new nation. He served as the Vice President of George Washington from 1789 until 1797. And always, Abigail was his closest friend and confidant, and most trusted advisor. Her political views on the abolition of slavery, the rights of women, and the necessity for education of both boys and girls, influenced John and therefore the nation as a whole. She believed in equality and freedom, and in helping those less fortunate then herself.

Abigail refused to have black slaves, but rather hired free Africans to help with her household. Indeed, she stated in a March 1776 letter that she doubted her fellow Virginians true “passion for Liberty” seeing as they “deprive their fellow Creatures” of freedom. In 1791, she enrolled a young African man in a local school when he expressed a desire to write. When her neighbor protested, she said that he was “a Freeman as much as any of the young Men and merely because his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? … I have not thought it any disgrace to my self to take him into my parlor and teach him both to read and write.”

She also believed in female equality and rights. “Remember the ladies,” she urged John in a March 1776 letter, “and be more generous and favourable to them then your ancestors.”

And now it was 1797, and John was to be the 2nd President of this young country. Abigail sat at her desk, still smiling into the sunlight over the many memories. How proud she was of her dear John! How hard he had worked and how tirelessly he had fought. And now, finally, here he was, about to be inaugurated to the highest office of the land he had helped to conceive.  She smiled, and at last, she wrote.

Abigail could not know that in 1825 her son John Quincy Adams also would become the 6th President of the United States of America. But it was her own strength and patriotism, her own love and kindness and intelligence, that taught her young son.

” ‘ The sun is dressed in brightest beams, To give thy honors to the day.’

 And may it prove an auspicious prelude to each ensuing season. You have this day to declare yourself head of a nation. ” And now, O Lord, my God, thou hast made thy servant ruler over the people. Give unto him an understanding heart, that he may know how to go out and come in before this great people ; that he may discern between good and bad. For who is able to judge this thy so great a people ? ‘were the words of a royal sovereign ; and not less applicable to him who is invested with the chief masistracy of a nation, though he wear not a crown, nor the robes of royalty…

 My thoughts and my meditations are with you, though personally absent ; and my petitions to Heaven are, that ” the things which make for peace may not be hidden from your eyes.” … That you may be enabled to discharge them with honor to yourself, with justice and impartiality to your country, and with satisfaction to this great people, shall be the daily prayer of your

A. A.”

Abigail could not know that in 1825 her son John Quincy Adams also would become the 6th President of the United States of America. But it was her own strength and patriotism, her own love and kindness and intelligence, that taught her young son.

For it was women like Abigail Adams who helped to shape the young United States of America into a land of freedom and equality for all.

 

  1. From a letter to John Quincy Adams, May 5, 1816
  2. From a letter to Louisa Adams, January 3, 1818
  3. From a letter to John Adams, September 14, 1767
  • “The Children’s Book of America” by William J. Bennet, “The Bravery of Abigail Adams, p. 28-33, Simon & Schuster, © 1998 
  • “Abigail Adams” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abigail_Adams
  • “Abigail Adams letters for the years 1761 thru 1816” http://www.familytales.org/results.php?tla=aba
  • “Abigail Adams” http://www.abigailadams.org/
  • “Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March 1776, ‘Remember the Ladies’” http://www.masshist.org/adams/apmanuscripts/apselected_1_text.html
  • “My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams”, Harvard University Press http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/ADAMYD.html