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Tatum: A hero everyone should know

Posted: February 10, 2015 5:04 p.m.
Updated: February 11, 2015 1:00 a.m.

OK, so here’s my geek admission of the day: I love history.

Admittedly, my expertise is limited. In fact, there’s an old saying about knowing just enough karate to get one’s backside booted in a bar fight that pretty much sums up my collective acumen with regard to the subject.

Like most things worth one’s time, the more one learns, the more one discovers that there’s much, much more to learn.

I got a terrific refresher in this a couple of years ago while peeling an onion, as it were -- I was working on a story about Camp Marion, a U.S. Army training camp located in Summerville during the Spanish-American War. The camp was only there for about four months, but it turned out to be quite the historical microcosm on many levels.

In fact, one of the most outstanding individuals in the history of the U.S. military -- indeed, U.S. history -- was stationed there. His name was Charles Young, then a major in the U.S. Army, and he commanded a battalion of black troops stationed at the camp.

Charles Young was many things -- teacher, soldier, statesman, conservationist, intellectual -- but always, he was himself. Because of the times in which he lived -- pretty much the egregious heyday of Jim Crow -- Young faced enormous hurdles endemic in an era of intense racism.

Worse, his story has become obscured over time.

Serendipitously, a gentleman by the name of Jordan M. Simmons III, who is quite an outstanding individual himself, was doing some historical research of his own while I was poking around for this story and he gave me a heads up about Col. Young.

Charles Young was born March 12, 1864, in Mayslick, Ky. The son of former slaves, Young’s family relocated to Ripley, Ohio, where he attended the white high school, graduating at age 16 with honors. After graduation, he taught school in Ripley’s black high school and it was during that time he took a competitive examination for and received an appointment to West Point. Young graduated in 1889, the third African-American to do so. Upon graduation, he was assigned to the 10th and the 7th cavalries -- one of the celebrated Buffalo Soldiers -- during which time he was promoted to first lieutenant. His army career would span some 28 years, all with black troops, and would see him become the first African-American to achieve the rank of full colonel.

Ever seen the giant Sequoia trees of California? There’s a darn good chance many of them wouldn’t be here today if not for Young’s vision and depth of soul.

In 1903, then a captain of an all-black cavalry company stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco, Young was appointed acting superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks. That might sound like a nice assignment today, but at the time, it was likely a billet no officer would want -- essentially banishment from the career plum that was the Presidio to some minor desk job out in the middle of nowhere.

Nonetheless, Young was deeply moved by the majestic beauty of the area and was enough of a visionary to see the value of the pristine environment and the need to allow safe and lower impact access to the park. He accomplished a number of important goals during his tenure there, including completing roads to the Giant Forest and to Moro Rock, the better to keep sightseers from trampling all over the wilderness, and building protective fences around some of the most abused and endangered trees.

One of my favorite quotes comes from comments he made to the Department of the Interior, urging preservation of these lands: “Indeed, a journey though this park and the Sierra Forest Reserve to Mount Whitney Country will convince even the least thoughtful man of the needfulness of preserving these mountains just as they are.”

Young served with great distinction in many roles and assignments, as an intelligence/counter-intelligence officer in the Philippines and in Haiti, as a diplomat, as a field commander. Indeed, because of his exceptional leadership of the 10th Cavalry during Gen. John Pershing’s 1916 campaign against Pancho Villa, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and was briefly Fort Huachuca’s commander in Texas.

Shamefully, when the U.S. entered WW I in 1917, Young was ordered for a medical evaluation rather than given a troop command in Europe. Instead, he was diagnosed with high blood pressure and forced to retire. However -- in true Charles Young fashion -- shortly after his retirement, Young rode his horse from Ohio to Washington, D.C., to prove he was fit for duty, petitioned the Secretary of War for reinstatement, and returned to full duty as a full colonel.

Instead of France, however, he was sent to Liberia as military attaché, where he died in 1922.
His funeral was held in Arlington National Cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater and he was buried in Arlington Cemetery with full military honors.

Col. Young is a man we should all know. He was a person of exceptional acumen, character, discipline, intelligence, and resourcefulness.

He is a man to be celebrated, honored, and emulated.


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