Race Relations and War

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Race Relations and War. Race relations have helped shape, and in turn have been shaped by, the conduct of American wars; and the dominant pattern of American military race relations was traditionally castelike. Racial status defined how individuals of color were commanded, mobilized, and treated; discrimination has thereby jeopardized military efficiency and claims of “equal” sacrifice. The more inclusive military service was, however, the more it destabilized racial hierarchy and exacerbated racial tensions.

People of color fought for equality and inclusion but usually experienced their opposites. The persistence of castelike approaches, and the conflicts generated, reflected both the power of racism and the important function that military service (or exclusion) played in the development of American society.

Many non‐Caucasians demanded inclusion and resisted inequality (or opportunistically asserted their self‐interest), while many Caucasians demanded exclusion, white control, and symbolic supremacy. Political and military exigencies resolved this contest. Laws frequently limited participation of non‐Caucasians, or mandated segregation; and people of color entered or exited the military differently from Caucasians.

Minorities often were segregated or performed lower‐status roles within the military; sometimes they received less pay. They experienced harassment by soldiers and civilians; poor living conditions; prejudicial evaluations of their skill, bravery, and contribution; marginalization at ceremonies; and lack of access to command. Most often serving under white officers, individuals of color, even when commissioned, were frequently prevented from commanding white troops. The assertiveness of soldiers of color challenged the self‐image and position of whites, fueling harassment and violence.

Prejudice also affected how many Americans perceived Native American, Latino, and Asian enemies, as well as the military tactics employed and the treatment of American citizens who looked like the “enemy.” Compared to European enemies, non‐Caucasians were dehumanized and often subjected to harsher tactics. The racial context of warfare sometimes affected the treatment of individuals of color at home (e.g., Japanese Americans in World War II), as well as the willingness of political leaders to employ individuals of color, and the willingness of those individuals to serve in the military or carry out actions viewed as having racial overtones.

The key periods and their defining characteristics in terms of race relations in the military were 1608–1763: semi‐exclusion; 1763–87: revolutionary inclusion; 1787–1862: increasing exclusion; 1862–65: segregated inclusion; 1865–1945: segregation; and 1945–present: increasing integration.

1608–1763: Semi‐Exclusion.

Blacks and Indians aligned themselves with colonial governments (or enemies) based on self‐interest. Governments feared this self‐interest, but, needing men, employed troops of color, sometimes unarmed and almost always under white officers. When the need ceased or where fear of servile insurrection became too great, colonies disarmed blacks and Indians or excluded them from the militia. For example, South Carolina enlisted slaves beginning in 1707, but ended this policy after the Stono Rebellion of 1739, in which slaves seized arms, burned plantations, and killed whites. Many colonies, however, modified exclusionary policies to allow non‐Caucasians to serve in expeditionary forces as substitutes for white militiamen or as volunteers.

1763–87: Revolutionary Inclusion.

Republican ideology, manpower shortages, and British appeals to Indian and black self‐interest set the stage for inclusion. Nonetheless, racist and pro‐slavery concerns limited the use of black troops everywhere before 1776, and in southern states thereafter.

African Americans, appropriating revolutionary republicanism, enlisted with a self‐consciousness reflected in the surnames some of them took: “Liberty,” “Freedom,” and “Freeman.” Although blacks contributed to the early stages of the Revolutionary War, many revolutionaries opposed their participation, curtailing recruitment until 1775. However, manpower needs and British recruitment of slaves soon caused a policy reversal.

Black and Indian soldiers fought in integrated and segregated units, some serving as volunteers, others as substitutes or draftees. Some states enrolled slaves as well as free blacks; others refused to recruit slaves. Overall, however, the Revolution destabilized slavery. Some slaves achieved freedom by fighting for the Americans, others were freed by the British and emigrated as loyalists. Still others, both free and unfree, applied republican ideology to their social and political struggles.

1787–1862: Increasing Exclusion.

Increasing exclusion of individuals of color from the militia and army, and thus from the political and social benefits of military service, marked the early national period. Though the availability of white manpower made it possible to exclude men of color here, the situation was different in the navy, which employed and integrated black sailors from 1812 through 1862, whenever skilled seamen could not be recruited in sufficient numbers.

Congress excluded men of color from the national militia in the Militia Act of 1792, which defined the militia of the United States as being made up of “white‐male citizens.” Although federal action did not preclude states from including men of color in state militias, all states did so by 1835. Because some states legislatively, and all states symbolically, linked militia service to voting and citizenship, exclusion barred men of color from legal privileges, as well as from the major public source of military training, civic ritual, male bonding, and social control.

Men of color were excluded from the navy and Marines in 1798. The navy soon admitted black sailors and Congress legitimated this practice in 1813, but the Marines remained “white” until 1942. Army statutes of 1790, 1811, 1812, and 1814 did not contain racial restrictions, but biased practices prevented many blacks from serving. Louisiana, which maintained a black militia until after the war, was an exception. Blacks owning $300 in property served in the militia under white and black officers, and 600 free blacks served under black line officers in two black battalions during the Battle of New Orleans (1815).

Postwar policy consolidated exclusion. The government banned slaves from navy ships and shipyards in 1816, and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun excluded blacks from the army in 1820. In 1839, the navy instituted a 5 percent quota on black recruits.

1862–65: Segregated Inclusion.

The Civil War reversed the exclusionary trend. Black manpower was important to both Union and Confederate war efforts, and the Union's liberal nationalist ideology supported formal equality of sacrifice. Although black and Indian volunteers had been excluded from “a white man's war” in 1861 and early 1862, the new Militia Act (1862) and the Enrollment Act (1863) contained no racial exclusions, while the Confiscation Act of 1862 and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation supported military use of former slaves. The Union and Northern state governments aggressively recruited black soldiers, sometimes as volunteers or through conscription, other times through military press gangs that targeted Southern blacks. The Confederacy began to recruit black troops in March 1865.

Black activists demanded the right to fight and played a key role in Northern recruiting efforts, and they also sought equality. Except for the navy, this did not happen. Black soldiers received less pay and fewer bounties than their white counterparts, and were likelier to receive both harsh punishments and assignment to labor duties. Many former slaves also performed work traditionally done by soldiers, but without being accorded the uniforms, status, or perquisites of military service.

Blacks served in segregated units, and contact with white units was controlled. With the exception of Louisiana in 1862–63 and a few units near the end of the war, blacks served under white officers. Most black units were demobilized later than their white counterparts, and none participated in the May 1865 Grand March down Pennsylvania Avenue that symbolized the achievements of the nation's citizen soldiers.

Although unequal conditions limited the willingness of some black activists to serve or recruit, many African Americans self‐consciously fought to end slavery and gain political rights. Black soldiers, veterans, and families faced harassment and prejudice, yet their valor and sacrifice did much to change attitudes and official behavior. In 1864 and 1865, the government equalized pay and started to commission black men as line officers. Black soldiers also played a visible role in the liberation of Charleston, Petersburg, and Richmond, and provided manpower and officers for reconstructed state militias. Black military and militia service contributed to black militancy during Reconstruction.

1865–1945: Segregation.

Between 1865 and 1880, conservative forces disarmed most black militia, contained the number of black troops, and curtailed access to command positions. Black troops were removed from the South and their service was limited to four segregated regiments in 1866. By the 1880s, black sailors were refused promotions and increasingly assigned to service duties (where Asians would later join and sometimes replace them). After the Spanish‐American War, the army employed Filipinos and Puerto Ricans, treating them similarly to black troops.

Non‐Caucasian access to officer positions was rare until 1916. Although the Army Reorganization Act of 1866 lacked racial prohibitions and twelve blacks entered West Point between 1870 and 1886, army examiners rejected all black officer candidates, and black students were segregated and harassed at West Point. Only three graduated. (None of the three blacks who were appointed to Annapolis during the period survived their “hazing.”) While the three West Point graduates gained positions within black regiments, there were no more black nominees during the nineteenth century. Some blacks did serve successfully as volunteer line officers during the Spanish‐American War, but none was nominated by their colonel for examination for appointment in the regular army. When the army reorganized in 1901, not one of the 1,135 regular army officer vacancies was initially filled by an African American. Only after protests were three black men appointed.

The need for troops and mass support as well as racially inclusive Selective Service legislation structured the employment of troops of color during both world wars. Indians were sometimes integrated into units, and civilian color lines were challenged, but military segregation remained the norm. In spite of protests by black soldiers and civilians, the government created separate training camps for black officers, segregated black and Asian troops, denied promotions to black officers, controlled the number of black troops, billeted blacks away from some southern cities, disparaged black officers and men, and assigned non‐Caucasians disproportionately to labor duty. However, black political pressure in the 1940s set the stage for integration: for example, the first black general was appointed one month before the 1940 election, and in 1941, Executive Order 8802 (which prohibited racial discrimination in defense industries, opening up defense plant positions to individuals of color) was issued to prevent a threatened protest march on Washington. While racial segregation remained the policy, the need for infantry replacements led to the inclusion.

1945–Present: Increasing Integration.

Increasing civil rights activism, racial tensions within the armed forces, the inefficiencies of segregation, the continued need for manpower, and the challenge of combatting an ideologically antiracist USSR all propelled integration. The army and navy experimented with integration in 1945; a 1948 executive order mandated equality of treatment; and in 1950, Congress repealed the 1866 law that had mandated four segregated regiments. The armed forces were formally integrated in the 1950s, but prejudice and passive resistance at both the staff and line levels persisted through the Vietnam War. This resistance (along with civilian racial turmoil) generated anger, violence, and support for peace and antiwar movements among some soldiers of color.

Slow as it was, military integration proceeded faster than did civilian or even National Guard integration (ten states excluded blacks as late as 1963). Organizational integration required leadership and command accountability. Responding to civil rights investigations, the secretary of war in 1963 mandated command responsibility in civil rights matters. Following outbreaks of racial violence in 1969, the army instituted a program to increase racial harmony, equality of opportunity, and the ability of the army to perform its mission.

The pace of change accelerated in the post‐Vietnam Volunteer Force, and leadership integration contributed to racial integration. A black man, Clifford Alexander, was appointed secretary of war in 1977, and Colin Powell, another African American, was named chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989. The percentage of black senior noncommissioned officers rose from 14 percent in 1970 to 31 percent in 1990, and the percentage of black commissioned officers rose from 3 percent in 1970 to 11 percent in 1990. Beginning in the 1980s, the armed forces' military academies and command structure began—at last—to reflect the nation's diversity.
[See also African Americans in the Military; Militia Acts; Native Americans in the Military; Puerto Rican Units.]


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David Osher , Soldier Citizens for a Disciplined Nation: Union Conscription and the Construction of the Modern American Army. Ph.D. diss., 1992.
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David Osher

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