Reflection on Black Veterans’ Service
In colonial times, blacks’ military service was generally resisted unless necessary to offset the threat from Native Americans, or later, the British recruitment of blacks. Both George Washington and the Continental Congress initially forbade the recruitment of African Americans. When too few whites enlisted and British forces welcomed threatening numbers of blacks into their ranks, they changed their minds.
Despite the contributions African Americans made toward our independence and in the Battle of New Orleans, Congress soon passed legislation forbidding enrollment of blacks in the army or navy. After two years of bloody combat during the Civil War, Lincoln authorized recruitment of African Americans when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Black response was overwhelming — some 209,000 troops organized into 175 regiments. This was a larger force than the South had in the field on all fronts in 1865, and their presence forced the Confederate Congress to begrudgingly authorize enlistment of African Americans three weeks before Appomattox. The Confederacy took this desperate action although slavery was the “cornerstone” of their republic.
The accomplishments of US Colored Troops were so noteworthy that Congress authorized black regular army regiments. The 9th and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments served at remote outposts, playing major roles in “winning the west.” They also distinguished themselves in Cuba and during the Philippine Insurrection. Despite wide recognition, their exploits were rapidly forgotten — they were cropped from the picture of the victors atop San Juan Hill.
Two African American Division served in both World Wars, and the last surviving regiment authorized by Congress in 1866 was disbanded mid-way through the Korean war under a thick cloud of racism. From the Civil War onward, black units were commanded almost exclusively by white officers. President Harry Truman published an Executive Order directing integration in 1948 after a decorated black sergeant returning from two years’ service in the Pacific was blinded by Georgia police after demobilization. It took the Army six years to integrate its last unit.
By Vietnam, the services made tremendous strides, which heavily impacted the civil rights movement. Amazing things began to happen. A 1958 graduate of The City College of New York in Brooklyn, Colin Powell, rose rapidly through the ranks. President George Herbert Walker Bush selected him as National Security Advisor in 1987 and he was promoted to Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff two years later. General Powell directed Operation Desert Storm (August 1990 – February 1991), while Calvin Walker, another African American was deputy chief of theater forces.
Later serving as the first African American Secretary of State, Powell developed the Powell Doctrine: commit US forces only with 1) overwhelming force and 2) an exit plan. Last month, America mourned the passing of a great American.
Today, Charles Q. Brown serves as Air Force Chief of staff and Lloyd Austin III, a retired four-star Army general, is the first African American Secretary of Defense. African American NCOs, warrant officers, and officers have become the backbone of the armed forces.