Forbidden, Forgotten, Formidable Presentation
I recently presented a PowerPoint lecture, part of The Village’s Life-Long Learning series covereing African Americans’ arms-bearing history from early colonial times to the present.
During our War for Independence, slave owners were reluctant to arm their enslaved chattel, but two factors permitted about 7,000 blacks to serve during the Revolutionary War: insufficient numbers of whites came forward, and the English actively recruited slaves as armed auxiliaries and labor forces.
Blacks were categorically rejected during the first two years of the Civil War, but lack of manpower to replace the colossal slaughter on both sides changed northern leaders’ attitudes. Thus, the last sentence of the Emancipation Proclamation authorized the enlistment of freemen and slaves. In one year, 175 regiments, 209,000 men, were armed and trained, more soldiers than the South had in all theatres in the last half-year of the war.
US Colored Troops were so effective that on March 13, 1865, the Confederate Congress authorized the recruitment of blacks for the Confederate army by a close vote. The measure was vehemently opposed by most Southerners: it diametrically contradicted the reason the Confederacy existed — defense of chattel slavery system.
Due to the effectiveness of US Colored Troops, Congress authorized six black regular army regiments in 1866, cut back to four in 1869 in across-the-board budget cuts. The 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments were twenty percent of the forces that “tamed” the West, fighting Indigenous tribes, as did the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments. All four distinguished themselves during the war with Spain and the ten-year suppression of the Philippine Insurrection. They were widely acclaimed for an instant, then forgotten. They were cropped from the photo of the victors atop San Juan Hill.
Three of the four participated in the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa in 1916, but because both infantry regiments were involved in racial incidents reacting to extreme Jim Crow racial harassment in Texas in 1917, the four regiments did not deploy to Europe during World War I.
World War I
During World War I, the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions provided a demonstration of the corrosive effect of racism. The 93rd was assigned to the French army and assimilated into French divisions. All four were awarded the French Croix de Guerre and many soldiers received French and American awards for valor. The 92nd was rejected by the British and held in reserve, and deployed only in the last offensive of the war. They fought creditably, the only one of Second Army’s four divisions to attain its objective, but were still maligned by the high command, and like the 200,000 blacks deployed to Europe, were continuously accused of rape.
World War II
Only about fifteen percent of over one million blacks who served during World War II served in combat units. At least twenty-four separate black combat units fought in Europe, including a field artillery group, nine field artillery battalions, an anti-aircraft battalion, three tank battalions, two tank destroyer battalions, and eight combat engineer battalions.
The most successful black combat unit was the 761st Tank Battalion, the spearhead of General Patton’s Third Army. Once again, most blacks served in labor and service organizations, but they were critical to the war effort. A third of the soldiers who built the Alaskan Highway, two-thirds of the troops who built the Ledo Road and transported supplies from Burma (Myanmar) to China, and three-quarters of the GIs operating the “Red Ball Express” transporting supplies from French and Belgian ports to the dynamic American spearhead moving into the heart of Hitler’s empire were African Americans. Twenty percent of the engineer units who cleared roads and rebuilt bridges in Europe were African Americans.
In March 2022, Congress unanimously approved a Congressional Gold Medal for the 6888th Postal Directory Battalion, 855 women strong, the sole black female unit deployed to Europe. They worked seven days a week in three shifts to clear over 17 million pieces of backlogged mail, building the morale of nearly seven million American servicemen. Belated recognition is characteristic for African American service members. Two World War I and six World War II soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor in the 1990s.
The 92nd and 93rd Divisions were reactivated. The 93rd went to the Pacific, used for labor and mop-up operations due to McArthur’s reluctance to trust blacks in combat. The 92nd trained twice the normal period and finally deployed to Northern Italy in the fall of 1944. Its commander was a VMI grad who committed his troops in a series of costly frontal assaults. He finally transferred the “best” soldiers from three black regiments to “pack” a fourth, acquired the 442nd (Nisei) Regimental Combat Team, the army’s most decorated unit, and a white regiment of retrained anti-aircraft soldiers.
The last Buffalo Soldier regiment, the 24th Infantry, fought as a segregated unit in Korea as part of the 25th Infantry Division until it was disbanded mid-war in 1951, three years after Truman’s integration order. The Army, Navy, and Marines resisted the directive; the last army unit was integrated in 1954, six years after President Truman’s order.
Vietnam to the Present
It took a while to eliminate racist officers and noncommissioned officers, but the army was truly integrated by the Vietnam War. As the advantages of integration became clear, talented and dedicated black noncommissioned and commissioned officers rose in rank.
Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Desert Storm (August 1990 – February 1991), while LTG Calvin Waller was Deputy Commander of all theater forces. Even the service academies have become well integrated, although faculties need greater integration. Today, the Air Force Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense are African Americans, and the services model the advantages of diversity. Soldiers, sailors airmen, and Marines contributed to the Civil Rights movement and are helping to advance the country toward its goal of making all citizens truly equal.