The following is a brief summary of African-American military service, in recognition of this year’s Black History Month theme: “African-Americans in Times of War.”
African-American Crispus Attucks is believed to be the first casualty of the American Revolution. He was the first to die during The Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770.
It was a pivotal event that propelled the commencement of the revolutionary war. Historians have pieced together educated theories about other aspects of his life. He is believed to have been born into slavery as the son of an African American father and Natick Indian mother. He is believed to have escaped bondage and gone to sea for a time. He found work as a rope-maker in Boston and was killed in a skirmish with British soldiers while tensions between the colonists and the Brits were building toward the Revolutionary War. Boston’s segregation laws were waived so that he could be buried with the others who died in the skirmish.
A Boston Massacre memorial was erected in Boston in 1888. It includes an image of Attucks dead in battle. In 1998, the U.S. Mint issued a Black Revolutionary Silver Dollar on the 275 th anniversary of his death, the coin bearing his image on front.
1 st Rhode Island Regiment of the Revolutionary War: Although this regiment was not exclusively made of African-American soldiers, it was primarily initially so and is so generally considered the first black military regiment in the U.S.
Those slaves who enlisted in service, thought to number around 90, were promised their freedom at war’s end, but many remained enslaved. Some free blacks fought for the Brits and some would go to England at war's end. Their fates were mixed.
In October 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Act authorizing a memorial at the National Mall.
The First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers: This is the first black regiment to serve the Union forces during the Civil War, formed in roughly 1861.
In 1862, the Militia Act authorized African-Americans to participate as soldiers as well as laborers for the first time since the Militia act of 1792.
Some few thousand blacks did serve the Confederacy, many of them slaves who were first pressed into service as laborers and some eventually armed and ordered to fight.
The Louisiana Native Guards, a Confederate unit made up of free blacks based in New Orleans, switched sides when Union forces captured New Orleans in 1862.
There are few reliable accounts of black Confederate soldiers after 1863.
Buffalo Soldiers: In 1866, Congress authorized the creation of six regiments of black troops, two calvary and four infantry units.
The infantry troops primarily constructed roads, bridges and telegraph lines, and created other infrastructure on the frontiers of the southwest and the Great Plains. The calvary soldiers would play major roles in battle and all would come to be known as Buffalo Soldiers.
This informal term was thought to have first been used by Native Americans, who fought in the Indian Wars, and is said by some to have been first used by them in describing the texture of the soldiers’ hair.
Over time, the term came to be used in reference to all the units of color during segregation days. The earliest soldiers were commanded by white officers until around 1880, when black officers began to be added. One of those commanders, Henry O. Flipper, was the first African-American to graduate from West Point.
Six officers and 13 enlistees in these regiments were awarded Medals of Honor for their actions in the Indian Wars. The U.S. 10 th Calvary made the buffalo a prominent symbol on its service patch. These soldiers also served in the Spanish-American War.
There is a Buffalo Soldiers monument in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
World War I
In the beginning of America’s involvement in World War I, black U.S. soldiers were confined to service positions in the Army, prevented from joining the Marines and assigned to limited roles in the Navy and Coast Guard.
But by the end of the war, African-Americans were serving in the calvary, infantry and in various roles, including as intelligence officers, chaplains, surveyors, and in engineering, medical and artillery units. Black officers were introduced into the equation that year, as well, although training was often inadequate and undertaken with resentment.
Decisions over whether to integrate officer training stations were left to the individual camps and discrimination was common. The first black soldiers sent overseas in this war were assigned to service outfits responsible for unloading supplies, transportation of men and supplies, digging trenches, removing unexploded shells from battlefields, and burying soldiers killed in battle.
Eventually, the 92 nd and 93 rd Infantry divisions were formed the 93 rd was assigned to help France and was under French command.
From the first teams of African-American combat soldiers in WWI came Henry Johnson. The Army man was the first U.S. solider that France awarded the Croix de Guerre for heroism. In 1918, h e single-handedly fought off raiding German soldiers, killing several and suffering many wounds. He would not be recognized at home for his feats until years later.
In 1996, he was posthumously awarded the Purple Hearth, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor.
World War II and beyond
Nearly one mission African-American soldiers fought World War II a few decades later.
Initially not assigned to combat roles, mounting pressure led the government to establish all-black combat units as a test of whether soldiers of color were up to the task. From this initiative, the famed Tuskegee Airmen arose. The first black pilots to be trained in the U.S. Air Force, their fame and their record of success lives on today in vivid answer to that question.
Around 1950, President Harry S. Truman integrated the military on paper, but soliders were still kept segregated during the Korean War, which ended in 1952.
Vietnam was the first war in which soldiers were truly integrated. Since that time, soldiers of all colors have served in integrated units in every conflict, as united soldiers for the United States of America.
Today, there are local Buffalo Soldier chapters around the country devoted to community causes and the remembrance of the earliest African-American soldiers. There are two chapters in Jackson County.