AfriGeneas Military Research Forum Archive
1st Separate Battalion, DCNG
88 years ago today, March 25,1917, the 1st Separate Battalion, District of Columbia National Guard, commanded by Major James Walker, formed up in front of their armory at 1200 U St., NW, and proceeded to march to the White House. In so doing they became the very first National Guardsmen called into Federal service for the coming war with Germany and the Central Powers. The battalion would spend the next several months standing guard over Federal Government buildings and other vital facilities in and around Washington, DC.
To be the first called and to guard the Nation’s Capital would have been a great honor for any unit, but for these men it was doubly so. You see, every single one of the 1,005 officers and men of the 1st Separate Battalion was black, and it was precisely this fact that led Secretary of War Newton Baker to deem them the only troops in the region whose loyalty to the Nation was beyond question.
The 1st Separate Battalion had a long and glorious history as one of the oldest black units in existence, tracing its roots back to the first colored troops mustered from the District in 1863. They were directly descended from the Washington Cadet Corps, which had been formed in 1867 by Civil War Medal of Honor recipient Christian A. Fleetwood. They were consistently among the most professional and efficient troops of the DCNG.
The previous year, 1916, Major Walker’s Battalion had been the first unit in the DCNG to be brought up to full ‘war strength’, and were subsequently among the first Guardsmen to be sent to the Mexican border. Immediately upon their arrival on the border they were assigned to replace troops of the Regular army in guarding the waterworks at Naco, AZ. They had only returned from their duty on the border 6 weeks prior to being called to guard the Nation’s Capital.
A year later, things would be much different than any of these men could have ever imagined. On March 30, 1918, as the First Battalion of the 372nd Infantry Regiment, they would disembark from Newport News, VA en route to join the war in France. Major Walker, having been assigned to other duties, was no longer in command of the battalion, and lay dying of tuberculosis in the post hospital at Fort Bayard, NM. The men of the battalion would learn of his death on April 4 while in transit. On April 21 the 372nd Infantry was removed from American command and assigned to the French Army, where they fought with great distinction as an organic part of the 157th Division of Infantry, the famed Red Hand Division.
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