William Butler: Deserving the Medal of Honor for WWI

William Butler of Salisbury was a celebrated hero of World War I.

The headline of the Baltimore Afro-American took note, “Trenton Has Nothing on Salisbury.”

And the newspaper boasted, “Trenton, New Jersey, may have her Needham Roberts, but it takes Salisbury, Maryland, to produce a William Butler. Roberts had his comrade, Henry Johnson, to help him in repulsing a raiding party of Germans, but Butler took care of a German lieutenant and a squad of Boches all by himself.”

As a final salute, the newspaper pronounced, “The rest of the State of Maryland and the whole United States now has its hat off to Butler of Salisbury.”

Sergeant William Butler belonged to the highly praised 369th Infantry and earned medals for heroism in France in 1918 during World War I.

Upon the unit’s return he was honored at the City College stadium in New York as one of 23 on a list of medal conferees but as described in the New York Tribune, “But by common consent his name comes first on the list — a list that was made up only after a careful comparison of the deeds of gallantry that finally resulted in the breaking of the Hun lines.”

Butler, a slightly built young man who insisted he be called “Bill,” was wildly cheered by a crowd of over 5,000 as he was honored.

Serving alongside the French, Butler encountered a German raiding party which had conducted a murderous assault on American trenches and captured several soldiers including a lieutenant. Butler held a lone position and watched as the German soldiers made their way back to their trenches with their captured Americans.

As the German party got closer, Butler fired his automatic rifle, killing ten, then captured the wounded German lieutenant and released the American prisoners.

For his heroism, Butler received the Croix de Guerre from the French government and the Distinguished Service Cross from the U.S. government. He was honored along with the 369th which was given a ticker tape parade through Harlem.

Back home in Salisbury Butler was honored in February of 1919 at a tribute held at the John Wesley M. E. Church (now the Charles H. Chipman Cultural Center). The event was presided by the Rev. Charles W. Pullett of Whites Chapel, and the visitors were welcomed by Rev. James M. Dickerson, pastor of the John Wesley Church.

According to the Wicomico News, Sergeant Butler described his exploits and explained his honors which included the Croix de Guerre, the overseas and service badges and the French citation cord showing his engagement in four different battles. The newspaper noted, “If he had not been wounded and had been permitted to enter another battle he would have been decorated with the badge of the French Legion of Honor.”

Little is known about the details of his life nor of the timing and the circumstances of his leaving Salisbury. The 1920 census shows Butler living in Salisbury with his wife Jennie and his mother-in-law Lucy Robinson, and that he was a merchant selling groceries. They resided and ran a business on Water Street, now the site of a municipal parking lot.

Dr. Stephen Gehnrich of Salisbury University located Butler’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery, and Washington Post articles indicating that Butler died by suicide in 1947 while living in Washington, D.C.

African Americans were not given the U.S. Medal of Honor following their service during World War I.  But there is an ongoing effort to confer medals posthumously for deserving heroes. And Sgt. Butler is considered among the most deserving.

So I am calling on all my genealogy sleuths to research more of the details of William Butler’s life — his early life and that of his descendants. Should you learn more, please let me know so that I can pass along the information.

Linda Duyer lives in Salisbury and is writing a book about the community’s history. Contact her at lindaduyer1@yahoo.com.

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