African Americans in the Military
During the colonial period, the largest numbers of free blacks were in the northern colonies. These colonies were much more willing to include Americans of African descent in their militia than were the southern colonies, which held the majority of slaves, although some colonies used blacks in labor units for militia expeditions. But in cases of dire need, even colonies like South Carolina, where slaves greatly outnumbered whites, would arm slaves to fight in exchange for their freedom, as in the victorious campaign against the Yamasee Indians in 1715.
Following the 1739 slave revolt in Stono, South Carolina, however, most of the colonies excluded all blacks from military service. Laws for black exclusion were repealed in the North for freed blacks and often overlooked in the South, where despite the official policy of exclusion, free Americans of African descent were still armed during conflicts with the Indians and the French, and even slaves served as scouts, wagoners, laborers, and servants.
In the American Revolution, African Americans served with the New England “Minute Men” at Lexington and Concord and helped fire the “shot heard ’round the world.” Although blacks had served in the colonial wars before the revolution and still served in northern militias, when the Revolutionary War began in 1775, they were not at first welcomed into the Continental army because of the influence of the slave states in the new national government. It was not until after November 1775, when the British started to recruit blacks into their forces, that African Americans were officially allowed to join the Continental army. By 1776, faced with increasing shortages of volunteers, Gen. George Washington disagreed with the Continental Congress and declared that he could depart from the resolution that barred participation by blacks. Because Congress did not challenge Washington's action, more than 5,000 Americans of African descent served in integrated units in the Continental forces. Most of the southern states officially refused to use blacks in the military except as laborers, but in practice, some Southern black slaves were sent as substitutes. African Americans participated in many battles, including those of Bunker Hill, New York, Trenton and Princeton, Savannah, Monmouth, and Yorktown.
Following the Revolutionary War, the new United States virtually eliminated its army and navy. The U.S. Army was soon established and accepted blacks; the U.S. Navy was created in 1798, accepting black sailors as it had during the revolution and continuing to do so throughout the nineteenth century. The smaller U.S. Marine Corps excluded blacks from its inception in 1798 until 1942. Black soldiers served in the War of 1812, but in 1820, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, responding to Southern slaveowners, banned any further enlistment by African Americans. As black veterans left, the U.S. Army became exclusively white until the Civil War.
The Civil War, a conflict over slavery as well as the nature of the Union, also raised the issue of black military service. The Confederacy, which used the black slaves as the basic agricultural labor force and which feared slave rebellion, refused to recruit blacks until 1865, when it was too late. In the North, the U.S. War Department in 1861 continued its policy of rejecting black enlistment, but in 1862 as slaves flocked to the Northern armies invading the South, some abolitionist Union generals began training them to fight. Official policy did not change until after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, 1 January 1863; then, when volunteering had slackened in the North and it had become a war to free the slaves, the Northern states and the federal government began recruiting the eager freedmen into black regiments with black noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and mostly white commissioned officers.
Eventually, 186,000 Americans of African descent fought for their freedom in the Union army (and another 30,000 in the Union navy), winning fourteen Congressional Medals of Honor in the process. Units of the U.S. Colored Troops fought in a number of major battles, including the 54th Massachusetts Regiment's assault during the siege of Fort Wagner at Charleston and the attack of the black Fourth Division of the Ninth Corps at the Battle of the Crater in the siege of Petersburg, Virginia. Confederates often refused to take black prisoners, and they killed a number of them at the Fort Pillow massacre in Tennessee. Although the black soldiers were paid less than the whites, their wartime service and heroism were cited as one reason for giving black men the vote in Reconstruction.
After the Civil War, there were black militia units in the southern states until the end of Reconstruction, and in some northern cities well into the twentieth century. Congress added four black regiments to the regular army (the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry). These “Buffalo” Soldiers, as they were called by the Indians, served mainly in the West, but they also saw combat in the Spanish‐American War and Philippine insurrection, as well as in the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916. Most of their officers were white, like John J. Pershing. Only three African Americans graduated from West Point, 1865–98; one of them, Charles Young (Class of 1884), remained the army's sole black officer until he was joined by Benjamin O. Davis, Sr.
With the increased segregation, disfranchisement, and lynching of black Americans at the turn of the century, race became an issue in the U.S. mobilization for World War I. NAACP leader W. E. B. Du Bois urged black men to join the military in order to regain the rights of citizenship and he obtained commissions for a few black junior officers (Col. Charles Young was forced into retirement). The southern‐dominated Wilson administration supported the army's insistence on continuation of racially segregated units, and, after a race riot in Houston in August 1917, limited these to eight black combat regiments. Conscription and voluntarism brought 380,000 Americans of African descent into the wartime army, but 89 percent were assigned to labor units and only 11 percent to the two combat divisions. Although the 93rd Division, which included the black National Guard units like the 369th New York (the “Harlem Hell Fighters”), distinguished itself fighting alongside French troops, after the armistice, the War Department concluded that in future wars, black soldiers should mainly serve as laborers. It cut back the one black regular regiment (the 25th Infantry) and excluded blacks from new specialties like aviation. By 1940, there were only 5,000 black soldiers (2 percent of the force) and five black officers in the army. The navy had been accepting fewer blacks since its changeover from sail to steampower in the later nineteenth century (there were only 441 black sailors in 1934); the Marines continued their all‐white policy.
At the outbreak of World War II, America reverted to its practice of turning to African Americans when it needed more troops. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., to be the army's first black brigadier general, and opened the Army Air Corps to black pilots. These “Black Eagles,” including Davis's son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who trained at Tuskeegee, Alabama, served in all‐black units. In 1941, black labor leader A. Philip Randolph threatened a protest march on Washington for equal opportunity in the defense workforce and the military. Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin and Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad dramatized such concerns by going to prison.
Most of the 900,000 blacks who served in the armed forces in World War II were in segregated units, chiefly in the army (and including black women, who served in segregated units of the WACs and the Army and Navy Nurse Corps). However, wartime demands for increased numbers of service people as well as the ideology of a war against Nazi racism contributed to some integration. The Coast Guard began racial integration on shipboard, and the navy followed on some fleet auxiliary ships. Army units were segregated for most of the war, but beginning with the Battle of the Bulge, when the army suffered shortages of white infantrymen, some 4,500 men from black service units volunteered and formed black platoons in formerly all‐white combat companies. Although the Marine Corps accepted a few black recruits, it largely maintained its racial segregation. Black service people, like other veterans, benefited after the war from the G.I. Bill.
In the postwar era, the armed forces initially sought to avoid integration, delaying even in the face of President Harry S. Truman's 1948 election‐year order (Executive Order 9981) for an end to segregation in the military—the armed forces were directed to provide equal treatment and opportunity regardless of race. The U.S. Air Force, however, had moved toward integration in 1949 after achieving independent status in 1947. Beginning in 1951, the reverses of the Korean War led to the end of all‐black units in the army and Marines, and moved all the services toward racial integration in the enlisted ranks for greater efficiency. Black and white service people now fought side by side, dined in the same mess hall, and slept in the same barracks. Nevertheless, the officer corps remained white, with black officers representing only 3 percent of the army's officers and 1 percent of the air force, navy, and Marine officer corps.
The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of blacks ever to serve in an American war. During the height of the U.S. involvement, 1965–69, blacks, who formed 11 percent of the American population, made up 12.6 percent of the soldiers in Vietnam. The majority of these were in the infantry, and although authorities differ on the figures, the percentage of black combat fatalities in that period was a staggering 14.9 percent, a proportion that subsequently declined. Volunteers and draftees included many frustrated blacks whose impatience with the war and the delays in racial progress in America led to race riots on a number of ships and military bases, beginning in 1968, and the services' response in creating interracial councils and racial sensitivity training.
The Nixon administration ended the Vietnam War and the draft in 1973, and the All‐Volunteer Force (AVF) soon included a disproportionate number of African Americans. By 1983, blacks represented 33 percent of the army, 22 percent of the Marine Corps, 14 percent of the air force, and 12 percent of the navy. Black senior NCOs in the army increased from 14 percent in 1970 to 26 percent in 1980, and 31 percent in 1990. Blacks also increased in the officer corps; by 1983, the army had almost 10 percent, the air force 5 percent, the Marine Corps 4 percent, and the navy 3 percent. Black women were an important component of the influx of women into the AVF, beginning in the 1970s; by 1983, they comprised 17 percent of the army's officers and 20 percent of its enlisted women. For the air force, the figures were 11 and 20; the Marine Corps, 5 and 23; and the navy, 5 and 18 percent.
In 1977, Clifford Alexander was appointed the first black secretary of the army, and in 1989, Army Gen. Colin Powell was appointed the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of the uniformed services. Powell oversaw the Persian Gulf War of 1991, in which 24 percent of the 500,000 U.S. service people deployed to the Middle East (30 percent of the soldiers) were Americans of African descent. Significant percentages of African American troops also participated in peacekeeping operations in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.
The participation of Americans of African descent in the U.S. military has a long and distinguished history. But although African Americans have participated in all American wars, they have sometimes faced almost as bitter a hostility from their fellow Americans as from the enemy. Nevertheless, particularly since the 1970s, the U.S. military has made a serious effort at racial integration, and while much remains to be done, the military has achieved a degree of success in this area that surpasses most civilian institutions.
[See also Ethnicity and Race in the Military.]
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John Sibley Butler