Alvin York: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn all about Sergeant Alvin York, the man who single-handedly captured over a hundred German soldiers during World War I. When you've finished the lesson, you can use the follow-up quiz to test your own knowledge of Sergeant York.

Early Life

Alvin York aboard the U.S.S. Ohioan for his press conference
Sgt. York at his press conference

A drunken brawler who found God and a hero of World War I who spent the rest of his life using his fame to help people: that just about sums up the life of Alvin York. One of 11 children, he was born on a farm in Tennessee in 1887. The family was poor, and his father worked as a blacksmith to supplement income.

In 1911, Alvin's father died. By then, his two older brothers were married and living out of the county, so Alvin was responsible for bringing in enough income to help his mother and siblings. He worked in a nearby city at railroad construction and then as a logger, becoming skilled in both jobs. But, Alvin also liked to spend time in bars; he was often arrested for fighting, too.

Alvin's mother was very religious and often convinced him to come to sermons. His life changed dramatically in 1914, when his best friend was killed in a bar fight and he attended a revival, during which he had a conversion experience. After that, all Alvin wanted to be was a good Christian.

World War I

Alvin York registered for enlistment in 1917, but he also applied for conscientious objector status, requesting to be kept out of combat because he didn't want to kill anyone. After long conversations with both his captain and his major, Alvin was given a 10-day leave. When he came back, he was certain that God wanted him to fight. As Alvin later put it: 'liberty and freedom are so very precious that you do not fight and win them once and stop.' They are 'prizes awarded only to those peoples who fight to win them and then keep fighting eternally to hold them!'

A Battle of Argonne

During the Battle of Argonne, Corporal York, three other noncommissioned officers and 13 soldiers were ordered to take out a group of German machine gun emplacements. When the Americans got lost, they ended up behind German lines; nine of the soldiers were killed or wounded. Sergeant Alvin York was given command of the remaining soldiers. While his men held their position, Alvin made his way toward the machine gunners and charged them.

When Sergeant Alvin York came upon the Germans, several machine gunners trained their weapons on him, but he managed to evade and take them out. Using his pistol. Alvin killed six soldiers charging at him with bayonets. After that, the entire German battalion surrendered to Sergeant York. He captured 132 German soldiers in all.

In reflecting upon the incident, Alvin wrote: 'So you can see here in this case of mine where God helped me out. I had been living for God and working in the church some time before I come to the army. So I am a witness to the fact that God did help me out of that hard battle; for the bushes were shot up all around me and I never got a scratch.'

Awards and Fame

Sergeant York returns home in 1919
Sgt. York at home

For his actions at the Battle of Argonne, Sergeant Alvin York was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, as well as the highest honor the French, Italians and Montenegrins had to offer. As Marshall Foch of the French Army once put it: 'What you did was the greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all of the armies of Europe.'

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