African Americans sought to have their military service understood by the nation as a demand for liberty and citizenship. Men and women joined not only for the good of their country, but to benefit both their personal lives and their community.Less
From the Revolution through the Civil War, African Americans fought in every major war. The struggle for recognition stretches from 1770, when Crispus Attucks was among the first Americans to die in the Boston Massacre, and continued to 1865, when the 13th Amendment was ratified. From the Indian Wars of 1866 to the end of WWII in 1945, hundreds of thousands of African Americans served in a still segregated military. In 1948, Executive Order 9981 was signed, integrating the military; on paper.
African American skilled seamen abounded during the early 1800s. As conditions were so harsh aboard ship, the US Navy depended on all who wanted to serve. Commanders such as Capt. Oliver Perry welcomed aboard men of all races, as long as they were able-bodied. During the War of 1812, 18% of Navy personnel were African American. George R. Roberts served as a gunner aboard the Chasseur, known as the “Pride of Baltimore,” during the war.
Small numbers of African American soldiers served in the War of 1812. Militia laws of the 1790s barred the enlistment of African Americans in the Army and Marine Corps. Louisiana was one of a few states that enlisted African Americans. Some served as riflemen and others as laborers stacking cotton bales as defense barriers in Gen. Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Jan. 1815 Battle of New Orleans. Many were told they would be freed after their service, but were instead returned to their enslavers.
In Jan. 1863 on the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation, Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew received authorization to raise the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Massachusetts had a small African American population, so recruits were sought from throughout the North. The organization of the 54th went so well that the 55th Massachusetts Regiment was created. After their heroic showing in battle, Gen. Grant declared that enlisting African Americans was the 00“heavyest blow yet given the Confederacy.”
The Confederates captured the Union-held Fort Pillow on April 12th, 1864. The battle caused great controversy because of the killing of over 200 black Union soldiers by the Southerners. The event became known in the North as the Fort Pillow Massacre and became a powerful rallying call on the Union side for the rest of the war.
African American soldiers load mules on boats bound for the conflict in Cuba in 1898. Many of these soldiers served in Cuba and the Philippines. Desertion rates among African American soldiers exceeded the norm at this time, in part because some were troubled by their role in suppressing the independence of another minority. In the 1910s African American servicemen also fought along the Mexican border. The Henry B. Plant Museum occupies the building that housed officers awaiting embarkation.
The 1898 Battle of San Juan Hill brought fame to Col. Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. But if not for the charge of the 10th and 24th regiments, Roosevelt’s troops might have been defeated. After the war, Roosevelt said no “Rough Rider will ever forget the tie that binds us to the 9th and 10th Cavalries.” But as his political fortunes rose, he became hostile toward Buffalo Soldiers and dishonorably discharged an entire unit after racial violence erupted in Brownsville, TX, in 1906.
In July 1906 a regiment of Buffalo Soldiers was stationed at Fort Brown, TX. Racial tensions flared with white residents of nearby Brownsville. On Aug. 13 a white resident was killed and another wounded. The townspeople accused black soldiers. Though no trial was held and no soldier convicted, President Teddy Roosevelt discharged without honor 167 members of the 25th Infantry. African American communities throughout the country—universally proud of their soldiers—were horrified by his actions.
In 1917, 24th Infantry soldiers stationed in Houston began rioting after a white policeman beat a black woman. The riot ended with roughly 15 whites and 4 blacks dead. After two courts-martial, 19 African Americans were hanged, reflecting the uneven justice that was the lot of the African American military.