Captured, but not Conquered

Author: 
Jessica A. Bandel

In 1909, Taylorsville native Edgar Halyburton left home at age eighteen in search of “a real start in life.” Edgar travelled first to the home of “big city relatives” with hopes of finding that “real start” but was turned away. “I understood perfectly,” Halyburton later wrote. “I had had only a sixth-grade education and knew rather less than nothing of the outside world. In fact, I had never seen an automobile or electric light.”

The gangly, street-smart teenager was working as a common laborer in a gravel pit when he happened by an army recruiting station one day. A sharply-uniformed recruiting officer noticed Edgar staring and asked him if he was thinking of joining. “Hardly knowing what I was about,” Edgar recalled, “I followed him into the office [and] signed enlistment papers. . . .”

Assignments in Virginia, Texas, and California followed. While fellow North Carolinians in the National Guard languished in El Paso in 1916, Edgar, then a sergeant in the 16th Infantry, crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico on a scouting mission to gather intelligence on the whereabouts of Pancho Villa. Though his search proved fruitless, Edgar was one of a few Tar Heels to actually serve in Mexico during the Border Crisis.

That brief crisis almost immediately followed by President Wilson’s declaration of war, resulted in the deployment of the 16th Infantry—and Edgar—to France as part of the First Division of the American Expeditionary Force in the summer of 1917. The men soon experienced life in the trenches, where they battled mud, disease, and German snipers.

On November 3, 1917, Sergeant Halyburton was put in charge of a small detachment and sent to the front line outside of Bethelmont. Shortly after their arrival on the firing line, an unrelenting barrage of German artillery shells completely cut the American detachment off from support. One shell exploded so near Edgar that his firearms were lost in the concussion.

Having rattled the green Americans, a force of German shock troops overwhelming in number descended upon Edgar’s position. He searched frantically for a weapon to defend himself. As he reached down to take up an abandoned axe, he was struck with a “violent blow in the back of the neck,” knocking him unconscious.

When he came to, he found himself in the hands of the enemy. He and eleven others who were captured in the raid were the first Americans taken as prisoners following the country’s formal declaration of war on Germany.

German propagandists rounded up the Americans and forced them to pose for a picture, which they then sent to American newspapers for publication. Back home, the image caught the attention of sculptor Cyrus Dallin, who was captivated by the defiant posture of one of the men pictured: Edgar. Without knowing Edgar’s name or history, Dallin replicated the scene in sculpture form and name the statuette “Captured but not Conquered.”

While Edgar languished in German prisoner of war camps, his likeness popped up in Liberty Loan offices and advertisements throughout the nation. Newspaper columns tried to pin down the identity of the soldier, creating even more publicity. In July 1918, four months before the Armistice, Edgar’s family came forward to correctly identify their son. Edgar was well on his way to becoming a public sensation. He, however, had no idea.

Meanwhile, in Germany. . .for seven months, the captured Tar Heel and seventeen other Americans languished in a prisoner of war camp in Tuchola (present-day Poland), an environment Edgar later described as “a hell-hole in every sense of the word.” Upon arrival, prisoners were stripped of their footgear and handed wooden shoes. They used paper or fabric scraps for socks, struggled with sub-zero temperatures, became infested with lice, and were constantly exposed to disease.

The food situation added to their struggles. Due to Germany’s food shortages, a direct consequence of Britain’s naval dominance of the North Sea, most prisoners of war were fed “nothing more than slop,” remembered Edgar. “We would have fed it to the hogs at home.” Meals often consisted of simple broth-based soups, burnt bread, and something that passed for coffee.

Despite their weakened state, prison officials put the captured soldiers to work. Edgar’s group passed most of their days “hitched to a wagon like horses,” carting wood back to camp from a supply point seven miles out. The work was ceaseless even in the harshest weather, the men being forced to pull the wagon through knee-deep snow.

Seeing the desperate conditions and the growing demoralization of his fellow American POWs, the young sergeant took charge of the situation as the senior ranking soldier in the group. For the remainder of his captivity, Edgar engaged in negotiations with camp commanders to improve food rations and living conditions and took it upon himself to reinstitute strict military discipline among the American ranks. Under his supervision, every imprisoned doughboy was required to deliver a proper salute, maintain good personal hygiene, and clean the barracks.

After five more months spent in a prison camp at Rastatt, Germany, the sergeant’s year in captivity finally came to an end with the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, and the young man returned to his homestate with much fanfare.

Upon his return home to Taylorsville, Edgar struggled to gain solid ground, turning to alcohol to numb his feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. “Thank God for corn liquor!” he wrote in his autobiography Shoot and Be Damned! “I got drunk four or five times, beat up a couple of natives, and was fined $11.75.” His “hero” status, magnified by Dallin’s sculpture, made him uneasy, and acting out was a way of shirking the burden of others’ expectations. “Right then I ceased being a hero in the old home town,” he wrote of the arrest, “though most people. . .continued to regard me as something not quite human.”

Edgar’s drunkenness continued even after he reported to his regiment then stationed in Kentucky. “I thought I had gummed the works,” Edgar wrote of his time there, but a sympathetic commander, Gen. Charles P. Summerall, watched over him and tried his best to steer Edgar in the right direction. About this same time, several of Edgar’s commanding officers successfully petitioned the Army to award him with a Distinguished Service Medal—a commendation only given to commissioned officers at that time.

Accompanying the medal was a note from old Black Jack himself, Gen. John J. Pershing, which read in part, “Your loyalty and self-sacrificing spirit of devotion. . . is worthy of the highest tradition of American manhood and patriotism. . . . I am proud to have had you under my command, believe me, Sergeant.” Edgar was so humbled and honored to receive the letter and the medal that he carried both on his person years after the war.

In December 1920, he was discharged from the Army having suffered a nervous breakdown. To escape the public eye, he changed his name for a time but couldn’t seem to find his fit among tradesmen. He determined to give family life a try, marrying Jeanette Dutschke (ironically the daughter of a German immigrant) and moving to Ohio where he operated a barbershop at Camp Perry.

But trouble persisted. During a visit home to Iredell County in 1923, he and a friend were caught transporting forty gallons of illegal whiskey. Halyburton plead guilty to the charge, insisting that he was simply a passenger in the car, and paid a $150 fine (a little over $2,100 today).

By 1927, Edgar had lost all his money in a failed billiards hall venture in Detroit. He turned to bootlegging, running an operation of “some magnitude” until his capture that fall. An Ohio judge found him guilty of the charges and, when Edgar could not pay a $500 fine (over $7,000 today), sentenced him to a workhouse in Stark County. After nearly four months in the workhouse, the veteran was finally released on bond, the money no doubt being raised by donors and the American Legion. His case then bounced all the way up to the state supreme court before the governor finally issued a full pardon in May 1928.

Edgar’s fate took a turn for the even worse in the early 1930s. In 1931, Jeanette filed for, and was subsequently granted, a divorce, citing “extreme cruelty” as the cause for her request. Though married for eleven years, the couple had no children, and Jeanette moved on to remarry a few years later. Edgar was on his own. Making matters worse, the Great Depression hit Detroit hard, causing the banks to fail. A severe downturn in business forced Edgar to close his barbershop.

In 1933, he joined a line at an American Legion office in Detroit hoping to register for one of the five thousand jobs Ford Motor Company was offering war veterans. Officials working the event recognized him, exposing his hardships in local media outlets. Ford Motor caught wind of the story and guaranteed Edgar a job. Though employed, Edgar ran afoul of the law again in 1934 when an outburst in a restaurant garnered him a night in jail and a charge of disturbing the peace. The judge took pity on Halyburton, however, and suspended his sentence.

In 1936, Edgar moved to Long Beach, California, perhaps seeking a fresh start. He remained employed by Ford as an industrial policeman and may have remarried, though it doesn’t seem to have lasted long. For a short time, he ran a café and passed the time visiting friends in nearby towns. Upon his death at the age of 55 in 1945, Edgar received a full military funeral and was interred in the national cemetery in Los Angeles.

It seems he spent a life haunted by the statue, by the expectations it brought, by everything it symbolized. So haunted, in fact, that he ended his memoir with the following: “Laugh, statue, always there at my elbow! Laugh and tell me, ‘You are captured and you are conquered, prisoner of peace! . . . The joke is on you!’”