1775-1900: the History of the Black Soldier
Throughout American history, Afro-Americans have had to decide whether they belonged in
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 Independence. 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 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 slaves. 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 37) 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 military. 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.