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Sergeant Alvin C. York in uniform, circa 1919. (Image credit: Library of Congress)

A Hero in War, A Fighter at Home: Why WW1 Hero Sgt. Alvin York's Legacy Still Shines in Tennessee

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He was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War 1 – a humble man whose exploits on the battlefield are still remembered by many Americans 103 years later. 

His name was Alvin C. York, and even though he's best remembered as "Sergeant York" for his wartime heroism, he once said his effort to get a high school built in his hometown was actually his greatest battle. 

Many still remember the 1941 Warner Brothers movie starring Gary Cooper that told the story of the backwoods farmer from Tennessee who gave up drinking and turned to Christ. It also revealed his struggle about going to war and the taking of human life when he was drafted after the U.S. entered World War 1 in 1917. That's when his commanding officer in the 82nd Division, a Christian, helped to convince him to fight for his country. 

In the film, Cooper portrayed York's heroic actions on Oct. 8, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The actor won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the Tennessee sharpshooter. 

An article published in The Tennessean in 2018, told York's story in a nutshell: In October 1918, York charged a hill alone, killed 25 deeply entrenched but fatigued German soldiers, and captured 132 others.

York and his seven remaining men marched their prisoners back to the American lines. 

Upon returning to his unit, York reported to his brigade commander, Brigadier General Julian Robert Lindsey, who remarked: "Well York, I hear you have captured the whole German army." 

York replied: "No sir. I got only 132."

Photo of York standing at the bottom of the hill during the investigation of the battle in February 1919. (Image credit: Library of Congress. 

In the investigation of his actions during the battle, which resulted in York being awarded the Medal of Honor, he told Lindsey, "A higher power than man guided and watched over me and told me what to do." 

The general replied, "York, you are right."

York's Medal of Honor citation reads:

"After his platoon suffered heavy casualties and 3 other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading seven men, he charged with great daring a machine gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat, the machine gun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns."

A Fighter for Education

Thanks to the movie, York will always be remembered for his wartime deeds, but in his home state of Tennessee and to his family, he's remembered as a fighter for education. 

"He said the greatest battle he had was not in France but was in Fentress County building a high school," Retired Army Col. Gerald York, Alvin York's grandson told the Tennessean. "People did not want a high school. They thought, why did their kids need education. They farmed. They needed them to farm."

So York decided to go to work on behalf of rural children in Fentress County to help them get a chance to receive a high school education. He established the Alvin C. York Institute as a private school in Jamestown, TN, in 1926.  The man who only had a third-grade education set up the school himself. He raised funding for the school by doing appearances up and down the East Coast, soliciting money from the state legislature and from Fentress County. 

Photo of York as he appeared later in life. (Image credit: Libary of Congress)

In 1929, classes began at the institute and operated privately until 1937 when the Great Depression forced the war hero to transfer the school to the state of Tennessee. It remains a public high school and the only comprehensive secondary school in the U.S. that is financed and operated by a state government. 

Today, the non-profit Sgt. York Patriotic Foundation works to preserve and promote Sgt. York's Legacy through the York State Park, which contains York's homeplace, museum, playground, and a visitor's center. 

The foundation notes on its website Sgt. York's true legacy is a lesson in life lived with purpose. 

It is:

  • Love as a matter of principle
  • Service as a matter of duty
  • Peace as a matter of the highest calling
  • Acting so as to make the world a better place

Humble Hero

After he returned from the war, York turned down several lucrative offers from Hollywood, Broadway, and numerous companies seeking to cash in on his newfound fame. 

Retired U.S. Army Col. Gerald York talks about his grandfather during an interview with the American Veterans Center. (Screenshot credit: American Veterans Center/YouTube) 

In an interview with the American Veterans Center in 2019, Gerald York recounted the story about how his fifth-grade teacher told him to look up his grandfather in the classroom's encyclopedia. 

"I didn't understand why she wanted me to look up my grandfather," he explained. "I didn't know my grandfather would be in the encyclopedia." 

"So I looked him up and she asked me to come upfront and read, so I came up from and read," Gerald York recalled. "And after I read it, I was like 'Wow.'  And everybody's like, 'That's your grandfather?' And I'm like, 'Yeah.'"

"And we had watched the movie. My grandfather had a copy of the movie, but it had never clicked," he said. "This was something I knew the family knew. We were all proud of him. He never talked about the war. He never talked about what he did."

"I told him, Grandpa, you're in the encyclopedia," Gerald York said. "And he laughed and said, 'Yeah, I guess I am.'" 

Gerald said he told him, "You're famous."  

Whereupon his grandfather replied, "No. No. Not really famous." 

CBN News asked historian Stephen L. Moore, author of 16 books on American history about York's legacy. 

Moore said York's morals should be studied by young Americans even today. 

"Sergeant Alvin York, one of the most decorated U.S. soldiers from World War I, rose from a rural pre-war life to becoming an international celebrity. A man of religion who initially objected to violence, York rose to the occasion in 1918 and led the group that captured a German machine gun position," Moore said in an email to CBN News.  

"His legacy of strong personal conviction and battlefield valor are morals that today's youth should not forget, and the film of York's life helped build morale for young troops mobilizing for World War II."

Former CBN News Washington Correspondent Paul Strand also gave his opinion on York's legacy. 

"A major legacy of Sergeant York is knowing that sometimes your religious dogma can get in the way of following what God wants you to do and who He wants you to be.  A hard-drinking, hard-fighting expert marksman in his early years, when he met the Lord at a strict church, York gave himself 100 percent. His church believed it was wrong to go to war, so three times he tried to get out of fighting in World War 1. But his superior officer — a wise & devout Christian — talked for nearly two hours with York about how God sometimes wants and needs His followers to be warriors," Strand wrote in an email to CBN News. 

"After a day and night of prayer, York was convinced he should go to war, which led to the heroic battle that won him the Medal of Honor, what France's Marshal Foch called 'the greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all the armies of Europe'," he continued.   

"Later, in campaigning for America to fight in World War 2, York said, 'Liberty and freedom and democracy are prizes awarded only to those peoples who fight to win them and then keep fighting eternally to keep them'," Strand concluded. 

**Originally published Nov. 11, 2021. 

Watch the official trailer for Warner Bros. Sergeant York. 

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About The Author

Steve Warren is a senior multimedia producer for CBN News. Warren has worked in the news departments of television stations and cable networks across the country. In addition, he also worked as a producer-director in television production and on-air promotion. A Civil War historian, he authored the book The Second Battle of Cabin Creek: Brilliant Victory. It was the companion book to the television documentary titled Last Raid at Cabin Creek currently streaming on Amazon Prime. He holds an M.A. in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and a B.A. in Communication from the University of