The cover story of the February 19 issue of U.S. 1 told the story of Needham (alternately spelled “Neadom”) Roberts, a young man from Trenton who joined the famous Harlem Rattlers regiment and won the Croix de Guerre from the French military for valor in a battle against the Germans in World War I.
The story was based on written sources as well as an interview with Algernon Ward Jr., a re-enactor at the Old Barracks museum who portrays Roberts as well as other African-American soldiers from history. The article told the story of how Roberts joined the Army, deployed to France and fought bravely, then returned home to a nation that did not recognize him and other black soldiers as equals.
Roberts was able to earn money by making public appearances telling tales of his exploits together with fellow medal-winner Henry Johnson, an Albany native who fought in the battle alongside him. Following Roberts’ return home, his life fell apart, and he committed suicide after being accused of assaulting a young girl.
The story inadvertently illustrated the difficulties of reporting the details of a hectic battle more than 100 years after it happened and provided a window into how the facts of history are constantly being revised as new information comes to light.
Firstly, there was an error on the part of U.S. 1. We reprinted a photo that is widely published and misidentified as being of Roberts and fellow soldier Henry Johnson. In fact the photo is a portrait of two soldiers whose identities are not known.
After the story was published, a relative of Ward’s, Gilbert Wayne Hedgepeth, wrote to dispute several other details in the story. Roberts was Hedgepeth’s great uncle by marriage. Hedgepeth, a Trenton native who now lives in Los Angeles, says he spent years researching the life of his war hero great uncle to write a book, “African-American Heroes 1776-1919: The Story of Sergeant Neadom Roberts,” published in October, 2019. (U.S. 1 was aware the book existed but was not able to obtain a copy of the book before the article’s deadline.)
One line in the article was a mistake on my own part: The article incorrectly stated that Roberts joined the Army in Albany when in fact the recruiting station was located in Brooklyn.
The date that Roberts joined the Army is disputed. Hedgepeth says he obtained official records that state he joined the 15th NY Provisional Infantry Regiment on June 16, 1916, months before the United States joined the war, and when Roberts was only 15 years old, having apparently misrepresented his age to get into the Army.
Ward found a discharge document for Roberts in which is enlistment date is given as March 30, 1917, just before the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917. Either way, it was before war was declared, which means that the popular telling, that Roberts joined the Army at the start of the war, is not quite correct: He either joined well before or just days before the U.S. declared war on Germany.
The exact date is relevant to the question of why Roberts picked the 15th NY Provisional Infantry regiment out of all the possible units he could have enlisted with.
Ward, in his retelling of the story, speculated that Roberts chose to join the “Black Rattlers,” so-named because of one of their insignia, because the unit had a famous military band led by James Reese Europe, a celebrity ragtime musician who would later be credited with helping introduce jazz to European society. Europe joined the Rattlers on September 19, 1916, and subsequently formed a band, which boosted the Rattlers’ recruiting efforts.
If Hedgepeth’s documents are accurate, this theory cannot be true because Roberts would have joined before the band ever formed.
In explaining how Roberts came to join the Rattlers, Ward relied on Roberts’ own account, which he published in a pamphlet after the war, “Brief Adventures of The First American Soldiers Decorated In The World War As Told By Neadom Roberts.” Roberts explained how he funded his travel to New York to join the Army: “Soon afterward my father sent me to city hall to pay his poll tax; instead of paying the poll tax I kept on for New York City.”
There is one problem with Roberts’ account: New Jersey was not among the states that ever required citizens to pay a “poll tax” in order to secure voting rights. Ward says he did not check the validity of this account, taking it at face value since it came from Roberts.
Hedgepeth takes harsh exception to the poll tax story, even though it originated with Roberts himself: “The theory that Neadom or Needham Roberts stole money from his father, which is a serious allegation by itself, is also a negative assault on the character of Neadom Roberts, it implies that he was thief and a liar to his own father. In accord with family norms and traditions Neadom Roberts was raised to respect his parents at all times. The negative information listed in your article about a national war hero is shameful and it is an injustice and cannot be tolerated,” he wrote.
Hedgepeth also says his research revealed that Roberts went to New York with his parents’ permission to live with his brother, Norman Roberts.
Hedgepeth also disputes one part of U.S. 1’s description of the battle during which Roberts earned the French military honors. He and fellow soldier Henry Johnson had been assigned to French command and had been stationed at an isolated listening post on French lines, when German raiders attacked. Roberts was wounded, but he and Johnson continued to fight against around 20 attackers, killing at least four and wounding several others before the attackers retreated.
In retelling this battle, I took a detail from an article on the attack published in Smithsonian Magazine and several other sources, stating that the battle commenced after Johnson heard the Germans using wire cutters. Other sources say that the two soldiers both heard the approaching enemies.
Hedgepeth quoted an after-action report by Roberts’ commanding officer, Major Arthur Little, that credits Roberts, not Johnson, with hearing the clippers: “As the enemy patrol made its way cautiously through the field of wire that protected the rear of Number 29 from rushing tactics, some slight sound (probably that of the functioning of a wire clipper) arrested the attention of Private Needham Roberts, on guard at the east side of the enclosure. Roberts slipped over to the other side, and, cautioning his partner of the relief, Private Henry Johnson, for silence, led him back to the spot where the noise had been heard. Together the boys listened and peered. Presently that sound was repeated.”
The Germans threw a grenade at the Americans. The blast stunned Roberts, and Johnson fought the Germans bitterly in hand-to-hand combat, with Roberts contributing by throwing grenades. At one point the Germans attempted to carry off the unconscious Roberts, but Johnson saved him.
The telling of the details of the battles changed even during the lifetimes of Roberts and Johnson. Ward said that as the story was told and retold, the number of Germans kept increasing. He said that Roberts and Johnson quarreled over who did what in the battle, with Roberts going so far as to claim that he saved Johnson instead of the other way around.
“I find the above statement to be completely erroneous,” Hedgpeth wrote. “In all my investigative research, reviews, and documentation as well as any accounts that my aunt shared with me, not once did Neadom Roberts (Needham Roberts) ever claim that he was the one who saved private Henry Johnson during their historic battle. In fact, it can be found in my book … where it describes in great detail Neadom Roberts’ personal account of his role during the historic battle. The document is titled: ‘Brief Adventures of the First American Soldiers Decorated in the World War as told by Neadom Roberts.’ In this document not one time does Neadom Roberts ever claim that he was the one who saved private Henry Johnson.”
Ward responded that his retelling was based on documented sources:
“Without diminishing the heroic actions of both men on May 15, 1918, the public exposure in the aftermath of their battle inevitably led to a rivalry between the two,” Ward wrote. “Not only did the number of German soldiers they vanquished grow with each re-telling of the story, so did the role each played in the encounter. This rivalry was exacerbated by accolades and press accounts that inflated almost every aspect of the incident. It was not helped by the contest between supporters in Albany and Trenton which sought to elevate ‘their guy’ above the other.
“In the account Neadom Roberts gave in his narrative ‘Brief Adventures of The First American Soldiers Decorated In The World War As Told By Neadom Roberts,’ pages 6-7, he killed 10 Germans and Johnson only two. Nor did he mention that he had been rendered unconscious and rescued by Henry Johnson from the grasp of the Germans as cited in the dispatches by both the French and American descriptions the battle.
“Henry Johnson, ever willing to give a ‘good story,’ sought to go one up on Roberts on several occasions. This competition is recalled in greater detail in ‘Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War’ by Jeffrey T. Sammons and John H. Murrow Jr., pages 466-473. I can’t point to any direct quote from Roberts stating that ‘he had saved Henry Johnson’, but by inflating his role in the fight, the insinuation was certainly made. It is never my intention to misstate the facts, so if I attributed such a statement to Roberts it is a mistake that I will not repeat. The true story is good enough on its own account without embellishment.”
The story of Needham Roberts is worth remembering, even if our understanding of the details may change based on the work of researchers. I am confident that Hedgepeth and Ward are both trying to tell this story as truthfully as possible based on the most reliable sources they can find, although arriving at a definite conclusion may not always be possible.
Diccon Hyatt is the business editor of U.S. 1. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.