About this Research|
On June 6, 1917 in Amherst, Massachusetts, thirty-one men enlisted in the U.S. Army to drive ambulances in support of the French army. Most of them were Amherst College students but there were some recent graduates (including two young professors). Four others came from the towns of Amherst, Pelham, or elsewhere around New England. One of the Amherst College students was my grandfather, Hugh Hamilton, who kept a diary and saved letters and other items. I am transcribing his diary, cataloguing his materials, and exploring related archives in preparation for writing a book on the topic.
The official name of the ambulance unit was the Section Sanitaire États-Unis 539 or simply SSU 539. Over time they became known as the Black Cats.
One great source of information about the Black Cats is this article from the Amherst College alumni magazine
Follow the @AmherstBlackCats twitter account and keep coming back to this page for ongoing updates.
Black Cat Updates
The Research Has Started
October 2017: I have been to the Amherst College archive on four occasions and have made one visit to the archive at UMass. I have lots to write about but in short here are a few of the interesting things I have come across so far:
- The Black Cat colors: In April of 1919 a group of Black Cats marched from the Amherst train station to the college campus to present their unit colors to the Amherst College president, Alexander Meiklejohn. A large crowd that included Civil War veterans celebrated their return. Today the colors sit in a large flat box in the Amherst College archive. Made of silk with embroidered images, the colors are in very delicate condition and in need of restoration. In the picture below you can see the Black Cat symbol plus references to the operations they were involved in.
- The Lansing letter: The May 21, 1917 issue of the Amherst College newspaper, the Amherst Student, contained a front-page letter from Secretary of State Robert Lansing (an Amherst graduate, class of 1886). Written in response to a letter from Amherst College freshman (and soon to be Black Cat) Hugh Hamilton, Lansing urged students to heed their country’s call. He wrote, “The country has but one great national purpose at the present time and that is to prosecute the war with Germany with all the strength and vigor which it possesses. Nothing else matters.”
- Fred Waugh uniform: The uniform of one of the Black Cats is in the University of Massachusetts Special Collections & University Archives. As you look at the picture below you can see his awards and unit insignia. Above the upper left pocket is his Croix de Guerre. The other decoration is a fourragère, which is awarded to units that distinguished themselves more than once. Waugh was a private, and you can see a single private’s stripe on the left sleeve. Out of the picture but below his private’s stripe on the sleeve are three inverted chevrons. The meaning of these chevrons is not clear to me. The unit was involved in three major operations, so perhaps it is related to that. Harder to see in this photograph are the unit insignia on the left arm near the shoulder. The white A in a red circle inside a blue field refers to the U.S. Third Army. A white rooster on a crimson background is the insignia of the ambulance units.
- German helmet souvenir: Apparently if you wanted to mail a war souvenir home from France all you had to do was put an address and stamps on it. The German helmet pictured below was sent by Lloyd Walsh to Miss Eva Risdon. Walsh was not a member of the Black Cats but he was from Amherst and he served in SSU 68, a different ambulance group that was made up of men from Amherst (many from the college, but some, like Walsh, from Amherst or nearby cities and towns). This item is in the Lloyd Walsh collection at the University of Massachusetts Special Collections & University Archives.