Butler was part of Company L in the famed 369th United States Infantry division known as the “Old Fifteenth,” the name of the first African American National Guard regiment organized in New York City which converted to the United States Infantry. Much of what is written about Butler and the 369th appears in the Scotts Official History of the American Negro in The World War, written by Emmett J. Scott.
According to this account by Scott, the men of the 369th came to be known by the French and the Germans as “Hell Fighters.” Known for none of their men captured by the Germans, the 369th was successful in capturing over 400 Germans by the men of their Third Battalion alone. The men of the 369th received additional training from the French Army and fought in a French division. About two months after Butler’s heroism in France, the division would make history for being the first unit of all the Allied armies to reach the Rhine River.
Butler’s exploits for single-handedly killing and capturing Germans involved in an ambush resulted in Butler receiving a place of honor among the men of his division. The book reported on the account from the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, “The rest of the State of Maryland and the whole United States now has its hat off to Butler of Salisbury.” For his heroism Butler was awarded the American Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de Guerre in April of 1919, and was given a special place of honor in the ticker-tape parade given to the returning division.
The New York Tribune wrote, “Bill Butler, a slight, good-natured colored youth, who until two years ago was a jack-of-all-trades in a little Maryland town, yesterday came into his own as a hero among heroes. More than 5,000 men and women arose to their feet in City College stadium and cheered themselves hoarse while representatives of two governments pinned their highest medals upon the breast of the nervous youth. Sergeant Butler was one of twenty-three members of the famous 15th Regiment upon whom both France and the United States conferred medals of honor because of extraordinary heroism on European battlefields.”
Reportedly Butler had been a native of Indian Head, Calvert County, Maryland but married a resident of Salisbury. It is believed that while in Salisbury, he had lived and operated a store on Water Street, at a location which is now approximately where the Route 50 southbound off ramp intersects with Route 13.
Butler returned to Salisbury in February of 1919 and was honored on February 10th at a special reception at the John Wesley M.E. Church (now the Chipman Cultural Center), as reported by The Wicomico News. Rev. Charles W. Pullett of Whites Chapel M.E. Church presided. The welcoming address was made by Rev. James M. Dickerson, pastor of the John Wesley church. The newspaper article reported that Butler had been presented “with a South Bend solid gold watch as a token of respect and appreciation of his gallantry by the people of this, his adopted home.”
Not much is known about Butler after his return. He somehow ended up living in Washington, D.C. where he died in 1947, found hanging at his home, dead at the age of 56. An account in The Washington Post reported that it was believed he had been depressed “since he had given up a coal and ice business three weeks ago on doctor’s orders.”
His heroism occurred on August 11, 1918, when he counter-attacked a group of 25 Germans who were leading away his wounded officer and four men whom he rescued while killing four of the enemy and capturing others. Much of this information, particularly of the ending of Butler’s life and the photograph of his grave was obtained by Stephen Gehnrich of Salisbury University.