1775-1900: the History of the Black Soldier


Throughout American history, Afro-Americans have had to
decide whether they belonged in the United States or if
they should go elsewhere. Slavery no doubtfully had a great
impact upon their decisions. However, despite their
troubles African Americans have made a grand contribution
and a great impact on our armed forces since the
Revolutionary War. The Afro-American has fought against its
country's wars, and they have also fought the war within
their country to gain the right to fight and freedom.
America's first war, its war for independence from Great
Britain was a great accomplishment. This achievement could
not have been performed if not for the black soldiers in
the armies. "The first American to shed blood in the
revolution that freed America from British rule was Crispus
Attucks, a Black seaman." (Mullen 9) Attucks along with
four white men were killed in the Boston Massacre of March
5, 1770. Even though Attucks was a fugitive slave running
from his master, he was still willing to fight against
England along with other whites and give the ultimate
sacrifice, his life, for freedom. This wasn't the only
incident of Blacks giving it all during the War for
From the first battles of Concord and Lexington in 1775,
Black soldiers "took up arms against the mother country."
(Mullen 11) Of the many Black men who fought in those
battles, the most famous are Peter Salem, Cato Stedman,
Cuff Whittemore, Cato Wood, Prince Estabrook, Caesar
Ferritt, Samuel Craft, Lemuel Haynes, and Pomp Blackman.
One of the most distinguished heroes o the Battle of Bunker
Hill was Peter Salem who, according to some sources, fired
the shot that killed Major John Pitcairn of the Royal
Marines. But Peter Salem wasn't the only Black hero during
the Revolutionary War.
Another Black man, Salem Poor, also made a hero of himself
at Bunker Hill. Because of his bravery at the battle, he
was commended by several officers to the Continental
Congress. "Equally gallant at Bunker Hill were Pomp Fisk,
Grant Coope, Charleston Eads, Seymour Burr, Titus Coburn,
Cuff Hayes, and Caesar Dickenson." (Wilson 32) Of these
men, Caesar Brown and Cuff Hayes were killed during the
battle. Even though the Afro-American soldiers clearly
distinguished themselves as soldiers, they were by no means
wanted in the army. "Shortly after General Washington took
command of the Army, the white colonists decided that not
only should no Black slaves or freemen be enlisted, but
that those already serving in the Army should be
dismissed." (Mullen 12)
The colonists would probably have kept Blacks out of the
military during the war if not for the proclamation by the
Lord of Dunmore. He stated "I do hereby... declare all...
Negroes... free, that are able and willing to bear arms,
they joining his Majesty's troops, as soon as may be, for
the more speedily reducing this colony to a proper
dignity." This meant that any black soldiers willing to
fight for the British would be declared legally free.
Therefore, the Americans couldn't afford to deny Black
Americans, free or not, from joining the army. Less than a
month following Lord Dunmore's proclamation, General George
Washington officially reversed his policy about letting
"free Negroes to enlist." (Fowler 21)
"Of the 300,000 soldiers who served in the Continental Army
during the War of Independence, approximately five thousand
were Black. Some volunteered. Others were drafted. In
addition to several all-Black companies, an all-Black
regiment was recruited from Rhode Island. This regiment
distinguished itself in the Battle of Rhode Island on
August 29, 1778." (Wilson 22)
Between 1775 to 1781 there weren't any battles without
Black participants. Black soldiers fought for the colonies
at Lexington, Concord, Ticonderoga, White Plains,
Benington, Brandywine, Saratoga, Savannah, and Yorktown.
There were two Blacks, Prince Whipple and Oliver Cromwell,
with Washington when he crossed the Delaware River on
Christmas Day in 1776. "Some won recognition and a place in
the history of the War of Independence by their outstanding
service, although most have remained anonymous." (Craine
43) Unfortunately despite Afro-Americans' contributions to
the war effort and the large amount of dead Blacks, few had
gained their freedom. The War for Independence was just the
first of a list of wars Afro-Americans would have a chance
to participate in.
The second American war fought with Afro-American help was
the War of 1812. As Martin Delany put it, the Afro-American
were "as ready and as willing to volunteer in your service
as any other... and Blacks were not compelled to go; they
were not draughted. They were volunteers." (Wilson 47)
Black Americans fought the British on land and sea, and
they "were particularly conspicuous in the various naval
battles fought on the Great Lakes under the command of
Oliver H. Perry." (Mullen 16) At least one-tenth of the
crews of the fleet on the lake region were African
American. Captain Perry, like Washington, objected to the
appointment of Blacks to his naval ships. But after the
Battle of Lake Erie, Captain Perry was "unstinting" in
Afro-American praise as men who "seemed insensible to
danger." (Fowler 46)
After the Battle of Lake Erie the New York legislature
authorized the forming of two Black regiments. These
regiments included slaves with their masters' permission,
and two battalions of Black soldiers were enlisted for New
Orleans and its surrounding area.
The mobilization for New Orleans was particularly
significant because it was there on September 21,1814,
three months before the Battle of New Orleans, that General
Andrew Jackson issued his proclamation "To the Free Colored
Inhabitants of Louisiana." In that proclamation, Jackson,
who needed to augment and strengthen his forces, called
upon the free Blacks of Louisiana, which of course was a
slave state, to answer the appeal of their country. In the
appeal he confessed that "the policy of the United States
in barring Negroes from the service had been a mistaken
one." (Mullen 16)
The United States won the War of 1812. The slaves who had
been enlisted by their masters in the American army found
themselves re-enslaved after the war was over and the
United States had no further needs of their military
services. The Afro-American thus found himself as a servant
to the White masters until the Civil War.
The third and most important war Black Americans fought in
was the American Civil War. Deven though this war
eventually resulted in the ending of slavery it was began
between "Northern industrialists and Southern Slave owners
to determine who would have hegemony over the federal government and who would be able to expand into the new
territories of the West" (Mullen 18). The question of
slavery would come later. "When the Civil War began, blacks
weren't allowed to fight in the Union army." (Utley 18)
Unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln was more concerned with
political relations than the treatment of Afro-American
The federal government and the Union army only began to
"adopt a policy of allowing and even encouraging the
recruitment of Blacks when it became clear that the war
would be a long and drawn out conflict in which it was
essential to mobilize all the resources possible and to
weaken the enemy as much as possible. (Mullen 19 Utley 47)
Even then Black troops weren't really used. In Muly 1862,
Congress authorized the use of black soldiers in the Civil
War, but there "was no follow-up until January 1, 1863"
when Abraham Lincoln put the "Emancipation Proclamation
into effect." (Mullen 23)
After the Emancipation Proclamation, the War Department
moved rapidly to begin the enlistment of Black Americans.
During January 1863, the War Department authorized
Massachusetts to raise two Black regiments. Because of this
nearly 200,000 Afro-American soldiers were serving the army
and an additional 300,000 were serving as laborers, spies,
servants or general helpers. Before the end of the war,
there had been 154 Black regiments formed in the army, of
these 140 were infantry units. These regiments fought in
"battles and skirmishes and suffered 68,178 fatalities on
the battlefield in the course of the war." (Mullen 22)
By the war's end there had been barely a battle where Black
soldiers had not fought. The Afro-American soldiers' most
outstanding achievement was the "charge of the Third
Brigade of the Eighteenth Division on the Confederate
fortifications on New Market Height near Richmond,
Virginia." (Utley 48) Due to their heroic courage in that
battle, thirteen Black soldiers received Congressional
Medals of Honor in one day. "In all, twenty Negroes
received the medal in recognition of gallantry and
intrepidity in combat during the Civil War." (Mullen 23)
"John Hope Franklin estimates that the Black mortality rate
in the Army was nearly 40 percent higher than among white
soldiers. This was partially due to unfavorable conditions,
poor equipment, bad medical care, and the rapidity with
which the Blacks were sent into battle." (Fowler 73)
However as W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out that the Black troops
were "repeatedly and deliberately used as shock troops,
when there was little or no hope of success."(Mullen 23)
The African-American soldier not only had success on land
but as seamen.
Throughout the navy's history Blacks had not ever been
barred or banned from enlisting. Due to an intense shortage
of seaman, the navy went farther than any other American
armed force and adopted a policy of signing up escaped
slaves along with free Blacks. This shortage of men
benefited the Afro-American extremely because the navy
treated Blacks quite well. The navy was especially anxious
to have its Black sailors re-enlist. African-American
sailors made up about one-quarter of the sailors in the
Union fleet. "Of the 118,044 enlistments during the Civil
War, 29,511 were Blacks. Some of the ships in the fleet
were manned by predominantly Black crews, and there was
scarcely a ship without Afro-American crew members." (Utley
The navy not only was the first armed force to accept
fugitive slaves, it was also the first armed force to fully
integrate both Blacks and Whites. "Because of the close
quarters on warships, it was never practical to segregate
the Negroes within the crews, the same way the army did in
all-Black units, and for that reason the navy was not only
integrated as a service, but also was integrated within
each ship." (Mullen 31)
After the Civil War, the army was reorganized in 1886. Six
Black regiments were for formed by law to be a part of the
regular army for their valor during the Civil War. In 1866,
Congress passed an act creating four regiments: the Twenty
fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry and the Ninth and Tenth
Cavalry. These regiments were to be permanent army
regiments. Of these four regiments, the Ninth and Tenth
Cavalry distinguished themselves during the Indian Wars in
the West between 1870 and 1900. The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry
were nicknamed "Buffalo Soldiers" by the Cheyenne and
Comanche, and these soldiers were widely feared by the
Indians. The Buffalo Soldiers constituted about 20 percent
of the armed forces in the West.
The 9th and 10th Cavalries' service in subduing Mexican
revolutionaries, hostile Native Americans, outlaws,
comancheros, and rustlers was as invaluable as it was
unrecognized. It was also accomplished over some of the
most rugged and inhospitable country in North America. A
list of their adversaries - Geronimo, Sitting Bull,
Victorio, Lone Wolf, Billy the Kid, and Pancho Villa -
reads like a quote of 'Who's Who' of the American West.
(Academic Assistance Center)
The Buffalo Soldiers also explored and mapped large areas
of the southwest and strung thousands of miles of telegraph
lines. The Black Soldiers built and fixed frontier outposts
where towns and even cities would begin. "Without the
protection provided by the 9th and 10th Cavalries, crews
building the ever expanding railroads were at the mercy of
outlaws and hostile Indians." (Utley 62) The Buffalo
Soldiers, despite extreme prejudices and the worst
assignments, did their duties to the best of their
abilities. Thus, they continued to receive more citations
for valor than any other group in the United States

The Spanish-American War gave them but another chance to
prove their abilities. African-American soldiers were
involved in the war from the beginning. At least thirty
Blacks were stationed on the battleship Maine when it
exploded in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. Of these
men, twenty-two of them were killed. Thousands of
African-Americans volunteered to join the United States'
deficient army. In the beginning, the newly formed Black
regiments had no Black officers. "But a widespread campaign
around the slogan 'No officers, no fight" succeeded in
winning some concessions. In all about one-hundred officers
were commissioned i the volunteer units in the course of
the war." (Crane 52)
"In fact, Black troops played a conspicuous part in all
three of the major Cuban campaigns. Their performance was
to be a source of pride to Afro-Americans for years
afterward." (Mullen 36) Most of the Buffalo soldiers
fighting in Cuba won the commendation of their "white
officers." The distinguished Black Ninth and Tenth Cavalry
saved Roosevelt and his Rough Riders from being completely
slaughtered. Theodore Roosevelt bestowed great praise of
the Afro-American soldiers at that time. The widespread
heroism displayed by the African-American soldiers ended up
with six Buffalo soldiers receiving the Congressional Medal
of Honor.


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