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Send the Alabamians

There is a story that too many Alabamians don’t know – one about young men from every county, corner, corncrib and country road who answered a call that changed the state of Alabama forever. 


A bronze statue of a WWI soldier stands in front of Union Station in Montgomery. Wearing a doughboy helmet and carrying his dead comrade, the somber giant stands honoring the men of Alabama’s 167th Infantry who entered the lines during the first war to end all wars. Their story is remarkable. 


Mustered in 1836, the men of Alabama’s militia were designated the “4th Alabama.” When the American Civil War began, they were fully constituted as the 4th Alabama Infantry, fighting at Seven Pines, Chickamauga, Manassas and losing 87 men at Gettysburg’s Little Round Top. 


During Reconstruction, the unit was reformed as a state militia. But in 1916, Mexican Bandit Pancho Villa crossed the border and raided American towns. Rebranded as the 167th Infantry, they spent the better part of a year guarding and patrolling the border region.   


When the U.S. joined the war in Europe, a young Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur was tasked with forming a new Infantry Division from various Guard units. MacArthur handpicked the men of Alabama, cobbling them together with units representing a huge swath of America. The unit’s multi-state flavor earned the new 42nd Division the nickname, the Rainbow Division


The Alabamians were right in the middle of it. Young men who had never been outside their home counties sailed to Europe as key members of the Allied Expeditionary Force. The Alabama boys became legends. Not because they said so, but because everybody else said so – because history says so. 


The men had a rowdy reputation. Just what was needed. “In time of war send me all the Alabamians you can get,” American General Edward Plummer said of them, “but in time of peace for Lord’s sake send them to somebody else!”


The unit was bloodied early on. But in July 1918, they made themselves known in the Champagne. After lying in wait for 10 days, F Company (Gadsden) and E Company (Decatur) positioned on the left flank. G Company (Ozark) and H Company (Alexander City) dug in on the right. The 167th fought a bloody fight against a German onslaught during which Private Brock Hill of Attalla became the first ground soldier to shoot down an enemy plane.


They fought. They held. They gave back far more than they got.


The battle was regarded by some as the turning point of the war with the 167th suffering 83 dead and 212 wounded.


Despite the Division consisting of men from many states, the battle at Champagne became identified with Alabama’s 167th Infantry, The Gadsden Times reports. France’s “Marshall Foch himself dubbed the men ‘The Tigers’ and it was said that the French learned to love ‘the Alabama.’” Company F (Gadsden) was even awarded the French Croix de Guerre with one Palm for distinguishing itself.


But their legacy came just days later at Croix Rouge Farm. With little rest, the Division moved to the Chateau-Thiery to conduct a relief in place. The story goesthat the 167th Commander, Colonel William Screws of Montgomery, was seen marching with his men and chomping a cigar.


“Where are you going?” he was asked.


“Damn if I know but I’m on my way,” he replied.


The fighting was fierce with the 167th in the middle with fixed bayonets. The outcome was something taught at the Infantry School for years after.


“The capture of the Croix Rouge Farm and clearing belongs to that list of military exploits which cannot fail to excite the admiration of those who hear the tale, because of the determination and gallantry displayed,” Rainbow Division History says. 


“There was no more gallant and sustained attack during the entire war than the taking of Croix Rouge Farm,” Father Francis P. Duffy of the 165th (New York) Regiment said. 


In continued fighting during that battle, former Auburn football player Edward “Shorty” Wrenn of Talladega, Ala., earned the Distinguished Service Cross and Corporal Sidney Manning of Flomaton, Ala., earned the Medal of Honor. Today, a twin of the statue in Montgomery stands on the battlefield at Croix Rouge in France, testifying to the Alabama men who turned the tide of battle. 


By war’s end, 616 soldiers from Alabama’s 167th Infantry had died in Europe. The Rainbow Division patch was officially and forever cut in half in honor of those they left behind.


The men returned home to parades and celebrations. An arch was built across Dexter Avenue in Montgomery and women lined the street with flowers. Rainbow City, Ala., is named for the Rainbow Division. Birmingham’s Rainbow Division Viaduct spans the tracks at 21st Street.


The boys from Alabama changed the state. Many had no prior experience beyond their hometowns and no more than a modicum of education. They came from every walk of life and volunteered to go to places of which they had never seen or heard. They saw the world. And the world saw them.


Many of them returned to Alabama with a new outlook on life, becoming captains of industry, leaders of communities, ranchers and farmers. They brought a bigger picture of the world to their small communities and they put their experiences to work. The men of the 167th were part of the driving force that took Alabama into the modern era.


The 1-167th Infantry Regiment continues today as a part of Alabama’s National Guard, descendants of the 4th Alabama. They earned a place in history, and as we spend time remembering those who gave their all for this country, it is fitting to remember that there is a unit that not only gave their all, but who represented us as an entire state.


167th Infantry ... 4th Alabama ... Signa Inferemus! Drive Forward!

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