Blacks in the Military 1861-1914

Blacks in the Military

The Civil War (1861-1865) and the Black Participation in the Conflict

When the war began in 1861, most people were in agreement that slavery was not the primary issue; restoration of the Union was the principal concern. Within days of its beginning, blacks volunteered to serve, but Lincoln, worried about driving the border states into the Confederacy, and Secretary of War Cameron, informed the volunteers that “This Department, has no intention at present to call into the service of the Government any colored soldiers.”

As occurred in the American Revolution, policies affecting black participation in the war effort were different in the Army and Navy, hence the policies of these services will be treated separately.

Army – It was generally thought that the war would be a short one, so volunteers were sought for only ninety days. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass foresaw a much longer war and argued eloquently for the admission of blacks into the military. If the Government did not want blacks as a policy, some individual military leaders did. General John C. Fremont issued a proclamation of emancipation in Missouri in 1861; General David Hunter raised a regiment of black troops on the sea islands off the coast of Georgia; Senator James H. Lane accepted blacks in two Kansas volunteer units; and in Cincinnati, a black brigade was raised to build fortifications around the city in 1862. Each of these initiatives was countermanded or otherwise negated by the Lincoln administration.

Abolition was not a popular cause in the North, but Northern commanders knew the price being paid for not addressing the issue. They saw black laborers building fortifications for the Confederacy, working as cooks and teamsters, and taking over work on the farms. By May 1861, General Benjamin Butler attempted to circumvent Union policy by declaring slaves who entered his lines to be “contraband” and then put them to work as laborers building fortifications. By the end of 1861, blacks had moved into many semimilitary or military support positions.

Many leaders were convinced that blacks could not, or would not, fight. The educational efforts of Whittier and Nell had been for nought. It took a broadside by William Lloyd Garrison and a pamphlet by George Moore, a librarian and archivist, to prove to Lincoln and others that blacks had fought in the American Revolution!

By mid 1862, new calls for volunteers were meeting with limited success. Congress revoked the militia laws banning blacks and authorized Lincoln to use blacks as laborers, like Cincinnati’s Black Brigade. Pressures persisted, and recently appointed Secretary of War Stanton finally approved the recruitment of black soldiers in August. An all-black regiment, with white officers, was raised in South Carolina and mustered into Federal service in January, 1863 as was a Volunteer Regiment in Kansas.

Soon after issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Governor of Massachusetts was allowed to raise a regiment of black volunteers. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Colored) was born and Frederick Douglass appealed “men of Color, to Arms!” A new war objective had also been established – abolition.

In May 1863, the War Department created the Bureau of Colored Troops to handle the recruitment and organization of black regiments. All officers, however, were to be white. Units were to be mustered directly into Federal service and to be known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT).

In 1861 and 1862, black soldiers had yet to participate in a major engagement, and many observers were still skeptical about their fighting ability. However, in May, June and July of 1863 black units fought at Port Hudson, Milliken’s Bend, and Fort Wagner. The blood of black soldiers mixed with that of white compatriots on the battlefield and no one who saw the actions doubted black determination to fight. Yet, doubts persisted, and month after month, black soldiers felt the need to prove their worth, while few asked about the fighting ability of white units.

Bravery aside, most people did not expect black units to serve other than garrison duty – to free white units for combat. Black privates were paid only $10.00 per month in comparison to $13.00 for white privates. In addition, whites received an extra $3.50 per month for clothing while $3.00 was deducted from the black soldiers pay for clothing. Men of the 54th Massachusetts went without pay for a year in protest against this indignity. Equal pay was finally achieved in January 1864.

From 1864 through the end of the war, black participation in the war effort grew rapidly. Over 180,000 blacks served in USCT units, constituting 10% of the total Union strength. In addition, another 200,000 blacks served in service units as teamsters, laborers, dock workers, and pioneers. Blacks served in all military branches; over 120 infantry regiments were raised in addition to 7 cavalry regiments; 12 heavy artillery regiments; 5 engineer regiments; and 10 batteries of light artillery. Not all were in existence at the same time, however.

Despite the large number of black troops and units, fewer than 100 blacks served as officers. White officers were carefully selected, screened, and trained. Their quality generally being considered higher than for officers serving with white units. But it was assumed that this was necessary to motivate and control black troops. Further, it was assumed that blacks lacked the leadership qualities necessary to be officers, although thirteen black non-commissioned officers received Medals of Honor for their actions at Chapins Farm in 1864. All were cited for assuming command of their units and leading them in the assault after their white officers had been killed or wounded.

Navy – Suffering from its long standing shortage of manpower, the Navy began enlisting blacks as early as September, 1861. Blacks who early sought service, flocked to the Navy as entry into the Army was barred to them. Blacks, however, were confined to the positions of servant, cook, or Powder boy. By 1862, the regular seaman ranks were opened to blacks, and by war’s end, some 30,000 blacks had served of a total Naval enlisted strength of 118,000; a much higher proportion than the Army.

Though blacks never achieved officer or petty officer rank, discrimination in the Navy was less apparent than in the Army. Ships crews were integrated and there were no separate all-black units. Prejudice existed, particularly among southern officers. Admiral Porter, for example, ordered segregation on ships in his command and prohibited blacks from jobs such as “lookout” for which he believed they lacked the requisite intelligence.

Perhaps the most famous incident involving seafaring blacks occurred early in the war. In May 1862, Robert Smalls, a black pilot, and seven slave crewmen seized the Confederate ship Planter. Making their way through the defenses of Charleston harbor, they turned the ship over to Union blockade forces. as a reward, Smalls was appointed to a position in the Union Navy and after the war was appointed as a general officer in the South Carolina militia.

Conclusion – By 1865, over 37,000 black soldiers had died – almost 35% of all blacks who had served in combat. This heavy toll reflected the fact that black units had served in every theatre of operations and in most major engagements, often as assault troops. Some of these casualties were due to poor equipment, bad medical care, and the “no quarter” policy followed by Confederate forces facing them. To the black troops themselves, these casualties reflected their great desire to prove to an uncaring nation their right to full citizenship and participation after the war. They were fighting to be free, not to return as slaves.


Reconstruction (1867-1877)
By the end of the war, black military units constituted almost 13% of the Union Army. They had fought well, and like their white counterparts, wanted to be discharged to pursue civilian careers.

Most blacks had enlisted for a term of three years or for the duration of the war. Since the bulk of the black units had not been organized until 1863 or 1864, most enlistees had one year left to serve when the war ended. The Army was inclined to keep these units as the rapid demobilization process was stripping it of troops necessary to garrison the recently surrendured southern states.

In June, 1865 there were approximately 122,000 black troops on active duty; by January 1866, this figure had dwindled to half and by June 1866, only 15,000 remained – most in the south.

The Federal Government believed that stationing troops in the South was necessary to maintain a tenuous hold on political stability. Many white southerners wanted to return to their life style extant before the war. The presence of armed black soldiers in the South seemed to preclude achievement of either goal.

Tensions between white citizens and black soldiers increased, often because blacks would not revert to prewar servility. In addition, black militia units were created to enable newly established state governments to reassert their authority. A large portion of these forces were comprised of blacks. Ten blacks were even appointed to general officer positions in these militia units, predominately in South Carolina.

The violent reactions of white southerners eventually caused the government to move the black USCT troops to western posts and to disband the militia units created to restore order. The Civil War was over, but negative attitudes about the role and status of black Americans remained.


The Indian Campaigns (1866-1890)and Western History
The Indian Campaigns

In March 1866, the U.S. Senate passed a bill establishing the Regular Army at 67 regiments. Six were to be composed of black troops with white officers. A further reorganization in 1869 reduced the six black regiments to four, the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry.

The four regiments were scattered across the West to garrison posts in company or battalion size units. Their mission was to protect settlers moving west, suppress the hostile Indian tribes, guard the mail, and protect the railroad under construction. In addition, they often had to build their own quarters and forts.

To do this, they were issued “broken down” horses rejected by white cavalry units, deteriorating equipment, and grossly inadequate rations. Despite the adversities, the morale in these units was high and they enjoyed the lowest desertion rate of all the Army units.

Life on the western frontier was harsh and monotonous. Boredom was a continual problem for all soldiers, but particularly black ones. On paydays, there were few places to spend their money. Even if a town were near a black garrison, the townspeople generally refused service to blacks and heaped abuse upon them, even though the soliders constituted the town’s only defense.

In 1881, for example, after several years of conflict with the citizens of San Angelo, Texas, soldiers posted the following handbill in town. “We, the soldiers of the United States Army, do hereby warn cowboys, etc., of San Angelo and vicinity, to recognize our rights of way as just and peacable men. If we do not receive just and fair play, which we must have, someone will suffer; if not the guilty, the innocent. It has gone too far; justice or death. U.S. Soldiers, one and all”

In addition to hostile climate and a hostile citizenry, black soldiers faced numerous Indian tribes who resented the encroachment of the “civilizing influence from the East.” In over one hundred battles, black soldiers clashed with Indian warriors. Their bravery earned them the sobriquet “Buffalo Soldiers” from the Indians and 18 of 370 Medals of Honor awarded by the U.S. Government.

The first black American to receive the Medal of Honor during the Indian Campaigns was Sergeant Emanual Stance, Company F, 9th Cavalry. Stationed at Fort McKavett, Texas in 1870, Sergeant Stance and nine troopers commanded by Captain Henry Carroll left the fort on routine patrol. They were searching for Indians who had stolen two children during a raid. Approximately 14 miles from the fort, they observed a party of Indians escorting nine horses. They attacked and engaged in a running fight for eight miles when the Indians broke contact, abandoning the animals. Camping overnight, the soldiers headed back for the fort the next morning with the captured horses when they encountered about twenty Indians who were stalking a herd of government horses and a small detachment of guards. Again Stance and the men attacked. The Indians retreated, regrouped and counterattacked. Stance and several men constituted the left flank of the Army column. They outflanked the attacking Indians, who fled. Captain Carroll was full of praise for Sergeant Stance and recommended him for a medal which was awarded in June.

Sixteen years later, Stance, now a First Sergeant, was still in the Army. His unit, F Troop, had been reassigned to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, and found little to do other than chase an occasional outlaw. Garrison duty bore heavily upon the soldiers. Tempers flared and brawls became a frequent occurrence. The non-commissioned officers began to lose control of their men and the guard house filled with bored, harassed soldiers who had responded to pettiness with violence. Stance was one of the more strict disciplinarians in the unit and a center of the conflict.

In December 1887, the body of First Sergeant Stance was found on the road to Crawford, Nebraska with four bullet wounds; the probable victim of his own men.

No black served as an officer in the Regular Army until 1877 when Henry Ossian Flipper became the first black to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Given the segregation policies in effect at the time, Lt. Flipper would have had no place to serve if the black regiments in the West had not existed. Flipper was assigned to the 10th Cavalry, but despite successful service for four years, he found himself under attack by his fellow officers and was discharged in 1881 for conduct unbecoming an officer.

Though rejected by the military, Flipper found his engineering skills in demand by many people. He worked as a civil engineer, translated Spanish land grant documents and helped to build a railroad in Alaska. Throughout his civilian career he built a reputation for professionalism and incorruptibility. During his lifetime he never overcame the stigma of the unproven charge of “embezzling public funds” early in his military career.

In December, 1976, the Army, at the behest of the first black graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Commander Wesley A. Brown, and the historian Ray O. MacColl, reviewed the circumstances surrounding Flipper’s discharge and issued an Honorable discharge in his name. In 1977, through the efforts of Mr. H. Minton Francis, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Equal Opportunity), the U.S. Military Academy dedicated a memorial bust and alcove in the cadet library in honor of Lt. Flipper on the 100th anniversary of his graduation.

Spanish American War (1898)
When the battleship Maine sank in Havana Harbor in February 1898, twenty-two black sailors went to the bottom with the crew. In the patriotic fervor which followed, some black leaders argued that blacks could win respect and improve their status by participating in the conflict. Many black Americans, however, expressed sympathy with the Cuban rebels who were fighting for their independence from Spain.

Among the troops mobilized for proved to be a ten-week war, were the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments. From the first, these units were in the forefront of the fighting.

Since the regular army only had roughly 28,000 troops in 1898, the government soon called for volunteers. Congress authorized the activation of ten regiments of black troops, but only four were actually formed – the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th United States Volunteers. None saw combat due to the short duration of the war.

Although blacks were still barred from state militia units, several states permitted blacks to organize volunteer units and to enter service. Among these were the Third Alabama, Third North Carolina, Sixth Virginia, Ninth Ohio, Eighth Illinois and Twenty-third Kansas regiments. Some of these units had black officers, which perturbed many military leaders as blacks were still considered unfit for leadership positions.

Once in Cuba, of all the black units raised, only the four black Regular regiments saw combat. The 10th Cavalry garnered honors at the Battle of Las Guasimas and at El Caney. The 25th also fought at El Caney and the 24th helped in the assault on San Juan Hill.

The war closed quickly and by the time the 8th Illinois, 3rd North Carolina, and 23rd Kansas arrived, only garrison duty befell them.

White American citizens did not know quite how to react to the returning black veterans. Some were met with speeches and parades. A few were assaulted and lynched.

A popular song of the day seems to summarize the story of the black soldiers in Cuba: “Hats Off to the Boys Who Made Good” “The millionaire clubmen, the “dudes” they would dub them, They said that the coon boys would quit, But the hills of San Juan, they were the first to come on, Did they fight for our flag? Are they it?” (Ref. Department of Defense, 1985)

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