Events happen for a reason. Some believe in coincidence, others in twists of fate that transcend time and distance. Recently, a mystery came to light that has energized and at times confounded me.
Last year, my brother, a uniforms and heraldry curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps hosted an international intern hailing from Dijon, France.
Following a successful internship with the museum Jean-Bernard Passemard practically became a member of my family sharing holiday dinners and other family functions. After he returned home to France Passemard began a personal exploration of American soldiers who served in World War I in the Dijon region.
“So here is the story. I was doing research in the Dijon archives about the 368 US soldiers who died here during WWI. During the war the US Army had a university, bakery, camps and hospitals in Dijon. There was also a Base Hospital #17 (BH-17) to be specific. While looking at the list I found a soldier, Private Edward Jackson, of Culpeper, who died in Dijon,” said Passemard. “Jackson’s remains were later transferred to United States control and he was moved to the American cemetery in St Mihiel. This is where he is buried now.”
On the soldier’s burial record it was noted that he was a “colored” soldier, a term used to describe African-American soldiers in the early to mid- 1900s.
Passemard recalled that I worked in Culpeper County and had a number of connections in the community. There seemed to be a reason for this discovery in our minds. I mean what are the odds?
My initial thought was to easily find a local relative and perhaps reconnect a family with a fallen soldier. A quote from the late General John J. Pershing served as an inspiration for me: “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds,” he once said.
My first attempts included contacting every person I could find with the last name of Jackson. I tried colleagues, churches, friends and others on social media. So far, I have not found a direct connection to this soldier.
“Edward Jackson (Army Service Number 3178446) served in the 341st Quartermaster Labor battalion. He died on 18 Oct. 1918 at BH #17, Dijon of disease. He was buried in Dijon two years before he was transferred to St Mihiel American cemetery,” according to burial records acquired by Passemard.
To this day Jackson rests in Plot A Row 16 Grave 6, in the St. Mihiel American Cemetery, Thiaucourt, France and I am left to try and find the rest of his story.
I’m trying to solve this mystery but I need some help from Culpeper’s historians and African-American community. I can reward you with a certificate, a photo of his final resting place and perhaps a final thank you from the citizens of France. I’ll even toss in a jar of amazing mustard if that helps.
The African American experience in World War I is a study in contrasts—there’s bravery, racism and the unwavering will to contribute to a nation that often times treated them horribly. It is notable that World War I was less than a generation away from the American Civil War. This is a time in history where black men and women were considered second class citizens and as soldiers they were often relegated to labor units or even assigned to other allied countries’ forces. Despite all the hurdles there were battles where black units performed at a very high level showing incredible bravery.
Chad Williams, the chair of the African & Afro-American Studies Department at Brandeis University and author of “Torchbearers of Democracy: African-American Soldiers in the World War I Era,” wrote:
“In many ways, World War I marked the beginning of the modern civil rights movement for African-Americans. Their service in the military had dramatic implications for African-Americans. Black soldiers faced systemic racial discrimination in the army and endured virulent hostility on returning to their homes at the end of the war. At the same time, service in the army empowered soldiers to demand their individual rights as American citizens and laid the groundwork for the future movement for racial justice.”
This year marks the Centennial of World War I and a renewed interest in reflecting on one of mankind’s most devastating and transformative wars. Five million Americans served in the war and 116,516 lost their lives in it.
Last year, my teenage son read “The Harlem Hellfighters,” a graphic novel written by author Max Brooks with illustrations done by Caanan White after playing a World War I-based Xbox game. I was thankful for the game (a rare occurrence) for awakening his curiosity about this chapter of military history.
As a former soldier I felt that I should not leave Pvt. Jackson behind—even if it’s just remembering his service and sacrifice. Any and all leads will be greatly appreciated.
This column also marks my return to the pages of the Culpeper Times after a break. I have a number of projects in the works and I look forward to sharing my unconventional insights on the world with all my former readers and hopefully lots of new ones.