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Ultimate Sacrifice

At age 33 in 1917, the Harvard-trained lawyer and Major League baseball player Eddie Grant volunteered to serve in World War I. He fought as he'd played: selflessly

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A chill rain, half sleet at times, had fallen through the night in the craggy ravines of France’s ArgonneForest. Now, at dawn, fog hung low over the ground. Pale light seeped in from a sun rising somewhere out of sight. Capt. Eddie Grant and the men of his weary infantry company roused themselves from their damp sleep beside a muddy stream. Surrounded by a dense wall of trees whose leaves had just begun to yellow, they could see no farther than a grenade’s throw ahead.

Somewhere out there Germans waited in an elaborate network of trenches they had occupied for four years. Behind Grant and the men of Company H stretched a trail of dead and dying soldiers. The Americans had covered three miles in six days, lightning speed in a war that often measured victories in yards, but they still had many more miles to go, through the most unyielding and unforgiving territory along the Western Front. Their orders, from the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, Gen. John J. Pershing himself, were to move forward, only forward, at all cost.

Eddie Grant had been in France the length of a baseball season, and now was the time of year—the first week of October 1918—when his attention would normally have turned toward the World Series. Five Octobers ago he had played in one himself, with John McGraw’s New York Giants. “Attorney Eddie Grant, came through from second base like the Twentieth Century Limited traveling past a flag station,” the New York Times described his appearance as a pinch runner in the tenth inning of the second game. He scored, winning the game for the Giants, but it was the only one the team would win in the Series; the Philadelphia Athletics would sweep the next three.

Sportswriters called him names like “Attorney Grant” or “Harvard Eddie.” In an era when many ballplayers were rough-edged illiterates with plow-calloused hands, Grant’s unusual academic pedigree became his defining characteristic, like pitcher Mordecai Brown’s three fingers, pitcher Chief Bender’s Chippewa heritage, or outfielder Wee Willie Keeler’s height. Grant had started his professional career in 1905, before graduating from Harvard, to which he returned in the off-seasons to finish law school. While his teammates crowded saloons after games, Grant went to the opera or the theater. On long train rides to Chicago and St. Louis, he passed up the card games for hours alone with his pipe and a book. Other players often asked him—the only member of the Massachusetts bar able to hit a big-league curveball—for advice on their contracts. He was better in the field—third base mostly—than he was at bat, although in 1909 he did get seven hits in a row in a double-header against two future Hall of Famers, Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard.

Grant was tall and rangy, with a hangdog look about him—jug ears, receding chin, freckles—and a New Englander’s native reserve. His eyes were a piercing blue; his sense of humor was dry, not broad. “My grandfather, General Grant, was a little rough on you down here when they got him riled,” he once taunted a crowd giving him a hard time at an exhibition game in Texas (though he was no relation to the Union Army hero). Toward the end of his career, and during his time in the Army, Eddie Grant’s taciturnity deepened into something more like melancholy. In a dugout in France one day, he pulled out a small picture from the diary he carried with him, and showed it to his commander, another Harvard man, Maj. DeLancey Jay. It was a portrait of a pretty young woman in a prim, high-necked suit with a platter-size hat and a wistful, vaguely aristocratic gaze.

“This is a picture of my wife,” he told Jay, quietly and unexpectedly announcing the existence of a woman no one in his regiment had ever heard him speak of before.

Like many of his comrades in the polyglot 77th Division—from fresh-off-the-boat Italian masons to college men like himself—Grant was in France because he had asked to come, not because he had been told to go. When America entered the Great War in April 1917, he had every reason to watch from the bleachers: at 33 and more than a year out of baseball, he was beyond the draft’s reach, working as a lawyer in New York City. But he believed in the cause his country had been called to by his fellow Ivy League idealist President Woodrow Wilson—a crusade to make the world “safe for democracy.” By May, along with law school classmate Charles Whittlesey, he was wrapping puttees around his shins at officer training camp.

Now it was that same former classmate Grant was determined to rescue on this wet October day in the Argonne. Major Whittlesey commanded what was already being called the Lost Battalion—550 soldiers who, in the confused headlong rush toward the enemy three days before, had pushed more than half a mile farther than the troops on either flank, so far ahead, in fact, that they found themselves stranded in a small valley, encircled by Germans. German marksmen were picking them off almost at will, a hellish microcosm of a brutal war that was claiming casualties at a horrific rate. The men of the Lost Battalion were so low on food and ammunition that they risked sniper fire to scavenge rations and cartridges from the fallen bodies of their dead. Using their own blood for ink, they wrote farewell messages on scraps of bandages and on shirttails. The only way for them to communicate with other Americans was by carrier pigeon.

“Men are suffering from hunger and exposure; and the wounded are in very bad condition,” Whittlesey had reported the previous morning in a message carried by one of his last pigeons. “Cannot support be sent at once?”

So far, every attempt to reach Whittlesey and his men had been turned back, and three of the planes that had tried to spot them from above had been shot down.

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