Soldiers of Color

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Soldiers of Color






African–American and Mexican–American soldiers have consistently experienced unequal treatment in the U.S. military. However, the types of experiences that African Americans and Mexican Americans have had differed. A major difference is that, up until the Korean War, African Americans were either excluded from the U.S. armed forces or segregated within them. Mexican Americans, however, have been integrated into all branches of the military since the 1860s. Individual Mexican Americans, however, have experienced racism, based either on dark skin color or poor English-speaking abilities, while in the military. For both African-American and Mexican-American soldiers, group segregation and racism have occurred once they left the military and reentered American society.


African Americans have participated in all U.S.wars since colonial times. In the early American colonies, both able-bodied white and black men (free or slave) were supposed to participate in militia units when warfare broke out with Native Americans. In peacetime, however, African Americans were excluded from service due to fears of armed slave insurrections and doubts about the ability of African Americans to learn military skills. Thus, African Americans served only in times of crisis and emergencies. Their training was in the use of hatchets and pikes but not firearms. On some occasions, however, African Americans were fully armed and fighting side by side with European Americans against Native Americans. African Americans joined militias even if it was temporary, because it could mean an improvement in civilstatus, often receiving the same pay as European Americans, and sometimes offers of freedom by some local governments in exchange for killing or capturing an enemy. In April 1775, General George Washington issued orders not to enlist African Americans, but when the British recruited African Americans in December, Washington amended his orders and allowed African Americans to serve. Thus, the Continental Army was integrated, and, on average, forty-two African-American soldiers served in every brigade. The Continental Navy was also integrated, due to manpower shortages and the considerable experience of African-American seamen. About 5,000 African Americans served in the Continental forces, and about 1,000 served with the British. Some African Americans gained their freedom as a result of their service. Many who enlisted with the British were re-enslaved. As an ally of the American revolutionaries, Spain ordered General Bernardo de Galvez, then the governor of Louisiana, to take troops to participate in the Gulf campaigns of the American Revolution from 1779 to 1781.Two thousand of these soldiers were MexicanIndians.


After the American Revolution, the Mexican Indian soldiers returned to their bases in New Spain (Mexico), while the African Americans were excluded by law from militias (except in Louisiana). At the beginning of the War of 1812, African Americans were told they could not serve in the U.S. Army and Navy. By 1814, however, they were allowed to enlist. Andrew Jackson had about 600 African-American troops fighting with him at the Battle of New Orleans, and it is estimated that 10 percent of the naval crews serving in the war were African Americans. The navy imposed a 5 percent quota on free African-American enlistment after the war during peacetime. Slaves could not serve in the navy. By 1820–1821, orders were added to General Regulations that once again excluded all African Americans. State militias also limited their services. Only “free white male citizens” could be in the artillery, infantry, cavalry, dragoons, riflemen, and grenadiers. Hundreds of African Americans, primarily slaves, did in fact serve in the army and navy, but only as laborers, dock hands, cooks, coopers, carpenters, personal servants of officers, and other similar jobs.

During the Mexican War (1846–1848), African Americans were still excluded from the ranks. But African Americans who could pass the “color line” did serve in the army until their ancestry was questioned, whereupon they were typically cashiered from the army. Slaves took part as servants to officers. Mexican guides were hired by the American army during its campaigns in Mexico, and there were a few native Californios and New Mexicans that served in the U.S. Army, but for the most part Mexicans fought against the Americans.


The Civil War (1861–1865) was the first war in which both African Americans and Mexican Americans served as soldiers. But their service continued to be more dissimilar than similar. About 186,000 African Americans served in the Union Army as part of the U.S. Colored Troops. They did not serve as Regulars but in volunteer cavalry, artillery, and infantry units. They served in segregated units, usually under the command of white officers. At the start of the Civil War, African Americans were not allowed to enlist, but manpower shortages and the Confederate use of slaves as laborers, cooks, teamsters, and farmworkers led to a change in policy about enlisting African Americans. At first, slaves who entered the lines of the Union Army (called the “contrabands of war”) were used as workers. In 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation called for the enlistment of African-American troops, and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was formed. However, the African-American soldiers who enlisted protested the dual-wage system, by which European-American soldiers were paid $13 plus $3.50 for clothing, while African Americans were paid $7 plus a $3.00 allotment for clothing. Their efforts were successful, and in 1864 all soldiers got the same pay and allotment monies.

Even though African-American soldiers were not trained sufficiently, they saw action in every theater of war. About 38,000 of them lost their lives. A major concern was where commanding officers would place the African-American troops in battle. William Carney, an African American soldier of the 54th Massachusetts, won a Medal of Honor for not letting the American flag drop to the ground, though he did not receive his medal until the 1890s. This would not be the first time that African-American soldiers would be denied medals during a war, only to have some soldiers acknowledged for bravery under fire by a later generation of American politicians. About 10,000 Mexican Americans served in the Civil War, on both the Union and Confederate sides. They were placed in integrated units serving in Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, California, and the New Mexico and Arizona territories. Some Mexican Americans made the officer corps, and the highest-ranking Mexican American was a colonel in the Confederate Army.

After the Civil War, African-American soldiers were not allowed to march in victory parades. Under the reorganization of the Army that took place between 1866 and 1869, the U.S. Colored Troops became army Regulars, but they were committed only to the remote parts of the U.S. West. They were formed into the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. It was during this period that African-American soldiers became known as “Buffalo Soldiers.” Although they had very low rates of desertion, they received inferior equipment and horses, and poor barracks housing in forts. Mexican-American soldiers were part of the frontier army as well, primarily serving in the New Mexico and Arizona territories and Texas.

African–American troops again saw service in the Spanish American War and the Philippine War. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt congratulated them in helping to save his troops, but later, while campaigning for office, he said that African-American troops were cowardly. During the Philippine War, some African-American soldiers, after constantly being humiliated by the racist behavior of European-American soldiers and officers, deserted the U.S. Army and found common cause with the Filipino insurgents. Only a handful of Mexican Americans served in integrated units during the Spanish American War, and only one Mexican American was an officer during the conflict.

After 1900, the U.S. military was completely segregated. With the approach of World War I, the United States needed to prepare for wartime manpower needs, which included using African Americans during times of crisis and during emergencies. In 1917, the 24th Infantry was stationed in Houston, Texas, but many residents did not like having armed African-American soldiers in their midst, and a riot ensued. Southerners thought that African-American soldiers would be a determent to racial harmony in the military, and southern politicians protested their inclusion in the Selective Service Act of 1917. Nonetheless, African Americans were soon to be drafted. To appease the southern politicians, draft applicants had to indicate their race on the form. That way, African– American draftees could be segregated when and if they were called up.

The most experienced black units, the 9th and 10th cavalry and the 24th and 25th infantry, were not allowed to fight in World War I. Instead, draftees were formed into the 92nd and 93rd Divisions. By 1918, about 367,000 African Americans had been drafted, and about 200,000 served in Europe. The 93rd Division was sent to France, and under French command they received training and engaged in combat. The 92nd Division also performed well in combat, but its soldiers were chastised as being inferior for not taking an enemy position. The U.S. military did not see a need for African-American soldiers in combat units, mostly based on European-American officers’ negative views about their fighting abilities. Things only got worse for African Americans when they returned to the states after World War I. Some African Americans were lynched for wearing service uniforms in Mississippi and Georgia, even though they had served in the military.

Mexican Americans also fought in World War I. Exact numbers are not known, however, because the U.S.military did not segregate Mexican Americans in separate units. One Mexican American, David Barkeley, was made a first lieutenant and received a Medal of Honor. He had enlisted in Laredo, Texas, using only his Anglo first and last names, because he knew that if he used his mother’s last name, Cantu, he would neither get to be an officer nor be eligible for high military honors.

By the time of World War II, African Americans were no longer considered desirable as fighting troops, primarily because of biased views about their combat performance in World War I. African-American combat units were limited principally to the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions. Two African-American fighter squadrons, known as the “Tuskegee Airmen,” were created, however, and both achieved outstanding combat records. About one million African Americans served during World War II, and about 300,000 to 500,000 Mexican Americans served during this war. Mexican Americans served in all theaters of war, primarily in the lower ranks, and thirteen of them received the Medal of Honor. The 141st Infantry had a high concentration of Mexican Americans, saw 361 days of combat, and sustained more than 6,000 casualties. Upon returning home, some Mexican-American soldiers (including the Medal of Honor winners) and African Americans were not allowed to eat in restaurants that catered to white customers, and they had to return to living in segregated areas. In 1948,

the body of Felix Longoria, an army private, was returned to Three Rivers Texas from the Philippines. However, his family was not allowed to use a chapel in the segregated “white” cemetery. This degrading incident spurred the formation of the G.I. Forum, a prominent Latino advocacy organization.


In 1948, President Harry S.Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the military. There was resistance from the armed forces, however, and it would take until the mid-1960s to address lingering restrictions on assignments and deployments. The Vietnam War was the first U.S. war in which African Americans were integrated at all levels of the military. Yet while they made up more than 10 percent of the army, their casualty rate was 13 percent. African Americans made up 60 percent of the complement of some infantry platoons and airborne units. Conflicts flared in all the services between African Americans and European Americans, especially in the rear areas. Twenty percent of Hispanics that fought in the Vietnam War were killed, while 33 percent were wounded. Mexican Americans, meanwhile, were disproportionately drafted in relation to their population in the U.S.

After the Vietnam War, African Americans were over–represented in the all-volunteer armed forces. Yet for African–American officers, and even more so for Mexican Americans, promotion rates lagged behind the military;s overall officer promotion rates. A 1997 Defense Manpower Data Center survey, to which more than 40,000 service members responded, found wide gaps between how European Americans and minorities perceived treatment of racial incidents. Seventeen percent of European-American soldiers, 38 percent of Hispanic soldiers and 62 percent of African-American soldiers thought that the military did not pay enough attention to the problem of race discrimination. In the first Gulf War (1990–1991), out of 30,000 women in the U.S. military about 44 to 48 percent were African American. At the beginning of the second Gulf War, in 2003, African Americans made up 12 percent of the U.S. population but 20 percent of the U.S. military. At that time, African Americans were underrepresented as combat soldiers, as pilots for the U.S. Air Force and Navy, and in the Green Berets. Mexican Americans and Latinos constituted 13 percent of the U.S. population and about 10 percent of total U.S. troops. They were underrepresented in all branches of the military and in the officer corps. More than 36,000 of these soldiers were noncitizens, and about 32 percent from Mexico and South America. Noncitizens cannot become officers or obtain security clearances. Data from 2006 indicated that Mexican Americans made up more than 37 percent of all active duty Marines and experienced high casualty rates as combat soldiers in Iraq. High numbers of Latinos were in the forces deployed in Iraq and reflect higher numbers of Latinos in the Marines, with lower numbers in the other branches.

A lingering tradition of racism in some quarters of the military is given as one reason for the racial divide. The history of African Americans andMexican Americans have some dissimilarities, but by the time of the Vietnam War both groups were incorporated into all branches of the U.S. military, though often at lower ranks, with few making it into the officer corps. Until the Vietnam War, both African-American and Mexican-American soldiers believed that suspending civil rights struggle in civilian society and fighting as Americans would help them gain more rights. However, during the Vietnam War and thereafter, both groups refused to delay or postpone civil rights activism during wartime. Increasingly, leaders from these communities emerged who did not serve in the U.S. military, and they often protested the services of African Americans and Mexican Americans as needless “cannon fodder.”

SEE ALSO Buffalo Soldiers; Occupational Segregation.


Carroll, Patrick James. 2003. Felix Longoria;s Wake: Bereavement, Racism, and the Rise of Mexican American Activism. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Mershon, Sherie and Steven Schlossman. 1998. Foxholes and Color Lines: Desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Moore, Brenda L. 1996. To Serve My Country, to Serve My Race: The Story of the Only African American WACS Stationed Overseas during World War II. New York: New York University Press.

Morin, Raul. 1963. Among the Valiant: Mexican–Americans in WW II and Korea. Alhambra, CA: Borden Publishing.

Moskos, Charles, and John Sibley Butler. 1996. All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way. New York: Basic Books.

Natty, Bernard C. 1986. Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military. New York: Free Press.

Sandler, Stanley.1992. Segregated Skies: All-Black Combat Squadrons of WW II. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Thompson, Jerry D.1986. Mexican Texans in the Union Army. El Paso: Texas Western Press.

Ybarra, Lea. 2004. Vietnam Veteranos: Chicanos Recall the War. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Elizabeth Salas