This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Ohio.
Private Sylvester Williams was one of about 165 African-Americans—one of seven from Ohio—who served with No.2 Construction Company (Coloured) in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. More information about this unit may be found in the story of Private James Doval Stewart.
Sylvester Williams was born on 19 April 1873, at Waynesville, Warren County, Ohio, to Augustus and Mary Jane Williams. His father, a farmer, was born in South Carolina and his mother was from Kentucky. Their children were all born in Ohio and only seven of their twelve offspring survived beyond childhood.
At the time of his enlistment, he was working in Detroit as a brick paver, his occupation for the previous 18 years. Being over-age, when he enlisted at Windsor, Ontario on 8 February 1917 he falsified his age and gave his year of birth as 1881. He enlisted to join No.2 Construction Battalion—it raised a company in Windsor largely made up of African-Americans—and was allocated the regimental number 931798.
Private Sylvester Williams sailed with men of No.2 Construction Battalion from Halifax on 28 March on HMT Southland arriving at Liverpool on 7 April. Re-designated as No.2 Construction Company (Coloured), the unit arrived in Boulogne on 17 May. The majority of the unit served in the Jura region, in south-east France, in No.5 District, Canadian Forestry Corps. Their tasks involved the full range of forestry work undertaken by the Canadian Forestry Corps and other labouring tasks in support of that work.
Throughout his life and his military service in France, which was spent entirely in the Jura region, Williams had been a fit and active man but in early-December 1918 he developed a bad cold and a low fever. He felt ‘all in’ during a 2½ mile march and reported sick. After two weeks of treatment locally, he was admitted to No.7 Canadian General Hospital at Etaples where he was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis. On 2 January 1919 he was evacuated from France to Reading War Hospital in Berkshire before being transferred to the Canadian Special War Hospital at Lenham in Kent, which specialized in tubercular cases. There it was recommended that he be transferred to hospital in Canada. He sailed for Canada on 11 March on the hospital ship SS Araguaya and was admitted to Ste. Anne de Bellevue Military Hospital, Quebec on 23 March 1919. A medical board recommended his discharge from the CEF and he was formally demobilised on 7 May 1919. He then fell under the control of the Invalided Soldiers Commission.
Upon discharge all officers and soldiers passed to the control of the Commission if they required ‘medical treatment on account of their suffering from tuberculosis, epilepsy, paralysis or other diseases likely to be of long duration or incurable, or on account of their being mentally deficient or insane’.
Although Sylvester Williams’ home address after demobilisation was given as Michigan Avenue, Columbus, Ohio, there is no indication that he ever returned to the United States. After his discharge he was admitted to Lake Edward Sanatorium, Quebec, which specialised in the treatment of tuberculosis. His tuberculosis proved incurable and he died there on 4 August 1919, aged 46. His remains were returned to Ohio where he was buried in Miami Cemetery, Corwin on 8 August 1919.
His CWGC headstone records that he served with the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps. This is an error, which is consistent across many of the casualties of No. 2 Construction Battalion. His family paid for the epitaph on his CWGC headstone: ‘Thou art gone dear son but not forgotten.’ The grave is also marked with a smaller, family stone.
Private Sylvester Williams is commemorated on Page 545 of the of the Canadian First World War Book of Remembrance; that page is displayed on 18 November.
His medals group comprises the British War Medal 1914-20, and the Victory Medal, which were dispatched to his mother, who also was also sent the Memorial Cross, the Memorial Scroll, and Memorial Plaque.
Arne Trelvik and the Warren County Genealogical Society for the information about Sylvester William’s family and for the photographs of his grave.
Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-Establishment. (May 1918). Report of the Work of the Invalided Soldiers’ Commission. Ottawa: J De L Taché.
Ruck, C W. (1986). Canada’s Black Battalion: No.2 Construction, 1916-1920. Halifax: Society for the Protection and Preservation of Black Culture in Nova Scotia.
1. (Back) The tribute to the unit written by Calvin Ruck records 163 African-Americans, which is a slight understatement. Sylvester Williams is not recorded on the roll compiled by Ruck. Private Samuel Austin Williams is recorded as being from Harveysburg, Ohio, the address given by Sylvester Williams for his mother. In fact, Private Samuel Williams was from Port La Tour, Nova Scotia. It appears that Ruck has combined two soldiers in the roll. At least six other soldiers from Ohio are on that roll, most of whom were working in Detroit and enlisted in Windsor, Ontario:
931825 Private Thomas Cobby, Cincinatti
931404 Sergeant Edward White Hall, Cleveland
931762 Private Fred Davis, Columbus
931630 Private Fred Alvin Davis, Columbus
931577 Private Narvaez Smith, Columbus
931628 Private Edward Madison, Delaware
2. (Back) Augustus Williams (March 1833-24 July 1914) married Mary Jane (née Wornall) (March 1844-28 July 1924) on 5 September 1861. In addition to Sylvester and the children listed here, four children had been born and died by 1880. Harry (21 July 1871- 30 May 1931); Rosa V. (7 May 1875- 22 Jun 1928); Charles A. (8 June 1876-15 April 1919); Sarah Ann (4 December 1877-NK); Mary Elizabeth (later Simpson) (23 July 1879-15 May 1958); John H. (12 July 1883-15 December 1939); and Samuel (18 May 1885-21 January 1953).
3. (Back) Local records indicate that he served in the United States Army during the Spanish American War but this has not been verified.
4. (Back) Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-Establishment. (May 1918). Report of the Work of the Invalided Soldiers’ Commission. p 7. Ottawa: J De L Taché.
5. (Back) This will be the subject of a separate essay.