Ulysses Grant McAlexander grew up on his mother’s family farm in McPherson County, Kansas. He applied for an appointment to West Point but was put on a waiting list, so in the fall of 1882 he started at the University of Kansas, but he didn’t complete that school year due to an epidemic on the campus, and his appointment came through so he enrolled at West Point in the class of 1887.
When war was raging in Europe, Maj. McAlexander was in the twilight years of an undistinguished military career, on his second stint as commander of military instruction at Oregon Agricultural College, Corvallis (now Oregon State University). American entry in the war changed everything for him. Promotions came quickly and by May 1918 he was in France and the Colonel in command of a regular regiment, the 38th Infantry, which was part of the 3rd Division. On July 15th he found himself and his command right in the thick of what was to become known as the Second Battle of the Marne. It would be here, on the south bank of the Marne River near Chateau Thierry, that they would earn lasting fame. Historian C. Brian Kelly described what McAlexander and his men did on that day and through the night into the next:
“A three-hour artillery pounding of the 3rd Division’s position announced the beginning of the offensive. In the dark of night, boats ferried the first waves of troops from the German Seventh Army. In short order, other French and American defenses closest to the southern flanks of the river crumbled and were overrun. The swarming enemy was so well established on the 3rd Division’s right flank that its position should have been untenable. And exactly here stood McAlexander’s 38th, beset from both sides.”
S.L.A. Marshall (from Marshall’s book World War I): “Without yielding his hold on the Marne embankment, McAlexander refused both flanks so that his regimental front stood like a horseshoe, one battalion forward, one on either side.”
Kelly again: “Try as they would, the Germans could not move this rock in their midst. McAlexander’s 38th held out…and held out.”
Robert McHenry in Webster’s American Military Biographies: “German forces crossed the river early on July 15th, and all along the 50-mile front they advanced up to four miles beyond the Marne except at the Moulins, where the 38th, bearing the brunt of the initial attack and subsequently coming under fire from both flanks as other regiments fell back, held a wooded embankment for 21 hours. That brilliant and courageous action blunted the offensive, which bogged down on the 16th and ended entirely on the 18th.”
Kelly concludes: “Because of their steadfastness, McAlexander and his 38th Infantry Regiment became known from then on as The Rock of the Marne.”
Actually, the term ‘The Rock of the Marne’ has been variously applied to the division, two of its regiments, their commanders and the action itself. Historian Stephen Harris (and McAlexander himself in unofficial correspondence) has said that the TRUE ‘Rock of the Marne’ was Maj. (later Maj. Gen.) Guy Rowe, CO of the 2nd battalion, 38th Infantry, which was the forward battalion that took the brunt of the German attack. As it happens, Maj. Rowe was the grandfather of a good friend of mine, Dr. Robert Ferguson, DVM, of Valparaiso, IN. In 2014 Bob and I, along with several others, set out to find the exact location of Guy Rowe’s fight. We found it, in a farmer’s field, as is so often the case in France. As these sort of searches go, it was fairly easy since the Surmelin River and the Paris-Metz rail line haven’t been moved in the ensuing years. The photograph above was taken from the forward-most position.
There is an impressive memorial to the 3rd Division’s exploits at the Marne, but it sits in the center of Chateau Thierry, on the opposite side of the river and several miles from the actual site of the Rock of the Marne action. This memorial dates from 1961, as the original one was destroyed during WW2, and it was on a different site in Chateau Thierry.
McAlexander Fieldhouse, an athletic facility at Oregon State, is the only monument to this heroic Kansan.