Memorial Day: A History of Honor and Service by Black Troops

Storming of Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863 by Kurz and Allison, 1890
Courtesy Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-01949)

Memorial Day is time to remember and honor the troops who have defended the principles underlying the foundations of the United States of America, in conflict after conflict. There were individuals in each of the conflicts who overcame great obstacles to serve and to be recognized for that service and a list of many of those firsts can be found at website here. In this post, the sheer numbers of black citizens who served in each of the conflicts, beginning with the Colonial era and ending with the Vietnam War, will be observed. The sheer numbers of black people, going back to the beginning of “old world” settlement in the “new world”, who have invested their blood in this history, should give pause for thought, reflection, and appreciation.

Colonial Period (1528-1774)
1. Initially, scattered black individuals fought with the Dutch, English, French armies and settlers in various conflicts with each other and the indigenous Native nations.
2. In 1706 in North Carolina, a militia was formed to fight against Native Americans and, in the event of conflict, all males, black, white, enslaved, free, were required to serve.
3. In 1711, blacks fought in the Tuscarora War in North Carolina.
4.The Yamasee War of 1715-1717 in colonial South Carolina had 400 black people and 600 white people fighting fourteen Native American tribes.
5. In 1730, blacks constituted 10% of a (French) force that clashed with Natchez warriors near Pointe Coupee, in what is now Louisiana; freedom was recommended for those who fought.
6. In 1736, blacks accounted for 19% of the Spanish forces that were engaged in another conflict with the Natchez, this time in Mobile, Alabama. Accompanying the Spanish was a separate company of blacks with free blacks serving as officers, a first in a colonial military unit.

American Revolution (1775-1783)
Blacks constituted 20% of the colonial population of 22 million people. Fear of slave revolts meant that there was resistance on the part of whites to arming blacks. However, blacks were needed to fill out the militias. Black minutemen fought at Lexington and Concord, but there was concern about having them in the regular army. By December 1775, 300 blacks signed up to fight with the British, who had promised them freedom for doing so. The response by the Colonists was to request participation by free blacks only; slaves were not encouraged/allowed to enlist. By the end of the war, 5,000 black soldiers had served in the Colonial Army of 300,000 and 20,000 had served with the British. Many who had served in the Colonial Army were given land grants for their service and those who were enslaved were granted freedom. There were a few blacks in the small Continental Navy, but race was not often noted on the ships’ rosters.

War of 1812 (1812-1815)
New York was the first state to recruit blacks to fight and 2000 free and enslaved people signed up. A battalion of blacks was also formed in Philadelphia, but the war ended by the time they were ready to fight. Because the war was largely a naval war, blacks were in great demand for two reasons: 1) their experience in the Revolutionary War and 2) their relatively unlimited access to jobs in shipping businesses. Blacks were 10-20% of most ships’ crews.

Seminole Wars (1816-1842)
The British built a fort on the location of an old Spanish fort in Florida during the War of 1812. They recruited Native Americans and runaway blacks to staff this fort. Raids were conducted into Georgia for recruits, thus encouraging more runaways. This was a major irritant to Georgia slave owners and an assault on the fort by the army was the beginning of the wars. Blacks constituted one-quarter to one-third of warrior strength that resisted the US Army in the removal of blacks and Seminoles from Florida.

Union Army Surgeon William P Powell (1 of 13 black surgeons)

Civil War (1861-1865)
More that 180,000 blacks served in the army during the war, this was 10% of the total Union strength. Plus, 200,000 blacks served in service/support units. In the navy, 30,000 blacks served out of a total of 118,000 enlisted personnel. By 1865, over 37,000 black soldiers died, comprising almost 35% of all blacks who served in combat.

Indian Campaigns 1866-1890
The US Senate passed a bill in 1866 establishing the Regular Army at 67 regiments (at 1,000 to 2,000 soldiers each), six were composed of black troops with white officers. This was the beginning of the era of the Buffalo Soldiers. These six regiments were reduced to four during a reorganization in 1869.

Buffalo Soldiers, Spanish American War

Spanish American War (1898)
When the battleship Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor in 1898, 22 black sailors died. There was a call to action by black leaders, though many black civilians were very sympathetic to the cause of the Cuban rebels. The regular army had only 28,000 troops in 1898; Congress authorized the activation of ten black regiments, but only four were mobilized.

369th (15th NY) recipients of the Croix de Guerre 1919

World War I (1914-1918)
In the regular army, the four black regiments were still active in the West, not for the Indian Campaigns, but for for the Mexican Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa and for border patrols and these four regiments never went to Europe. Two divisions of black soldiers were formed plus stevedores and support services. Over 400,000 blacks served in uniform in WWI, with 10% assigned to combat units; 1300 were commissioned as officers (less than 1% of all officers).

First African American WACs to go overseas 1943

World War II (1941-1945)
Over 2.5 million blacks registered for the draft in WWII. Despite segregation in the navy, 150,000 blacks served. The Air Force had 145,000 black airmen, a remarkable increase from zero in WWI. Almost three-fourths of all enlisted blacks saw service in the army, this ranged from 5.9% of all enlistees at the time of Pearl Harbor to 8.7% in 1944. The same percentages used in WWI were used in WWII: 15.5% of all units were black combat support positions and 2.8% were combat arms.

Korean War (1950-1953)
Black troops were 13.5% of total US strength (5.7 million) and 80% of all black soldiers were assigned to all-black units and almost two-thirds were in support units.

Vietnam War (1960-1973)
Black citizens were 16% of all those drafted (over 9 million served during the Vietnam era and 2.7 million served in Vietnam), although only 11% of the US population. Young black men had fewer deferments than white young men and blacks were underrepresented on draft boards. Blacks had a higher casualty rate because they stayed in longer and volunteered for more elite units and therefore more dangerous missions.