African Americans in the US Military: From the Revolution to the World Wars

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Despite unfair compensation, segregation, and even legal bars on military service, African Americans have served in every conflict in United States history. 

The American Revolution
More than 5,000 African American troops, made up of both free men and slaves, fought in the Continental Army. Both the Americans and the British promised slaves their freedom for taking up arms against the enemy, although that promise was often broken.

The first casualty of the American Revolution was Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Natick Indian descent. Attucks was shot and killed by British troops at the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770.

Learn more about Paul Revere's print "The Bloody Massacre" here.

Although black militiamen fought at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, state legislatures and the Continental Congress forbade the enlistment of free blacks and slaves. Many white Americans opposed admitting African Americans to the army for fear of armed uprising.

In November of 1775, George Washington issued an order to bar black soldiers from the Continental Army. However, in January 1776 he permitted the re-enlistment of black soldiers. And despite regulations, black soldiers from almost every state were mustered in to the American forces.

Within a couple of years, it became clear that the colonies were unable to fill their enlistment quotas. Northern states began to recruit free and, eventually, enslaved men. In many cases slaves were promised freedom in exchange for service.

Some states allowed slave holders to send slaves to the front in their place, or collect their enlistment bounties. Southern states, still fearful of slave uprisings, only permitted free men to serve in the Continental Army.

Learn more about this 1780 pay warrant here.

This 1781 statement certifies that Cuffee Wells, who had enlisted in 1777, paid his enlistment bounty to his master in exchange for his freedom.

In the army, Wells became a surgeon's assistant in the Northern Division of the Army and tended the sick and wounded at Valley Forge in 1778. After the war he lived the rest of his life as a free man and was a respected member of the community in Lebanon, Connecticut.

Learn more about Cuffee Wells and this document here.

Aside from enlisted men, African Americans served in other ways. Quaco, an enslaved man from Rhode Island, fled behind American lines with classified information after the British invaded Newport.

This act, printed by Rhode Island's General Assembly, granted Quaco manumission after serving as a spy for the Americans.

War of 1812
Between the Revolution and the War of 1812, the army was greatly reduced. However, during the War of 1812, many African Americans served in the United States Navy as seamen. Other African Americans, both enslaved and free, served on the side of the English and their Native American allies.

In the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, General Andrew Jackson asked for "volunteer slaves" to build fortifications and defenses around New Orleans. Many were promised emancipation, though often this freedom never materialized.

In addition, Jackson called for "Free Colored Inhabitants of Louisiana" to join a segregated black regiment and receive the same bounty as white soldiers. As a result, two battalions of African American soldiers fought in the Battle of New Orleans. New York followed suit, recruiting enslaved as well as free men.

The Civil War
When the Civil War began in 1861 and Union troops arrived in Confederate states, thousands of African Americans fled behind Union lines. Men joined as unofficial troops and laborers, and women were employed as nurses, cooks, laundresses, and in other roles.

The Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, officially sanctioned the enlistment of black soldiers into the Union Army.

Learn more about Lincoln and emancipation here.

African American leaders like Frederick Douglass were instrumental in urging African American men to enlist in Union forces.

Black soldiers joined the segregated regiments of the United States Colored Troops, which eventually made up 10% of Union forces.

Learn more about this broadside here.

Douglass also helped establish the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first all-black units.

Learn more about this Currier and Ives print here.

White and black soldiers did not get equal pay. The 54th Massachusetts refused to accept their monthly pay of $7 when white soldiers were getting $10. After the passage of an equal pay bill in 1864, the 54th was paid retroactively for their service.

Many black women, however, were never compensated for their services.

In this 1864 letter, Sergeant Francis Fletcher of the 54th Massachusetts discusses pay inequality:

Just one year ago to day our regt was received in Boston with almost an ovation, and at 5 P. M. it will be one year since we were safely on board transport clear of Battery Wharf and bound to this Department: in that one year no man of our regiment has received a cent of monthly pay all through the glaring perfidy of the U.S. Gov’t.

Learn more about Fletcher's letter here.

William Woodlin, an African American soldier, kept a diary from December of 1863 to October of 1864. In his diary, Woodlin discusses camp life, his role in the regimental band, and the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

Diary of an African American soldier in 8th Regiment United States Colored Troops, Company G

More than 186,000 African Americans—including 94,000 former slaves from Confederate states—ultimately served in the Union Army.

Learn more about the Civil War and Reconstruction here.

American Indian Wars
Following the Civil War, a number of all-black regiments were deployed to subdue American Indians in the West. From 1866 to 1891, more than 5,000 black soldiers guarded the western frontier. These regiments included the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th, 25th, 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry. They were known popularly as Buffalo Soldiers. 

Henry Ossian Flipper was the first non-white officer to lead the 10th Cavalry in the western Indian Wars.

Born into slavery in Georgia, Flipper attended Atlanta University during the Reconstruction Era, and later became the first African American cadet to graduate from West Point.

Flipper published his autobiography, The Colored Cadet at West Point, in 1878. Flipper wrote of his arrival at West Point:

MAY 20th, 1873! Auspicious day! From the deck of the little ferry-boat that steamed its way across from Garrison's on that eventful afternoon I viewed the hills about West Point, her stone structures perched thereon, thus rising still higher, as if providing access to the very pinnacle of fame, and shuddered. With my mind full of the horrors of the treatment of all former cadets of color, and the dread of inevitable ostracism, I approached tremblingly yet confidently. (p. 29)

This 1872 final statement and pay voucher for Private Abraham Hill recounts Hill's service in the 10th Cavalry Regiment.

While Hill served in the 10th Cavalry, the regiment participated in General Sherman's winter campaigns against the Cheyennes, Arapahos, and Comanches as well as the Battle of Beecher Island.

This 1869 diary of Samuel K. Thompson is one of three diaries written during his service in one of four Buffalo Soldier regiments. Thompson describes daily life as a Buffalo Soldier:

Waked up at reveille, did not get up until the mail came to the door half an hour later. I was much disappointed as there was no letter from Alice. I wonder what can be the matter. After Guard mount I went over to Ft. Jackson and drew rations for the Co. Came back 11 a.m. rained just till after dinner I slept until 3 p.m. then went to inspection. after tattoo wrote a couple letters weather warm and sultry.

Spanish American War
When the United States invaded Cuba and the Philippines to liberate locals from the Spanish, many African Americans saw the invasion as hypocritical—in most places in the United States, African Americans were citizens in name only. Despite the inequality, Buffalo Soldiers from the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry served in Cuba. As many as 80 black women served as trained army nurses in Cuba, caring for the many troops who came down with yellow fever and typhoid.

Published in 1899—the same year as Roosevelt's bestseller The Rough Riders—Miles V. Lynk's The Black Troopers, or the Daring Heroism of the Negro Soldiers in the Spanish-American War details the bravery of black troops.

In contrast with Roosevelt's text, which implies that black troops needed white leadership to succeed, Lynk asserts the importance of having black troops at the front who were experienced in guerrilla warfare from their time in the West.

In relation to the Battle of San Juan Hill, Lynk wrote:

These new rec[r]uits [The Rough Riders], not being used to geurrilla war-fare, were ambuscaded by a handful of Spanish sharp shooters, and would have been exterminated had it not been for the timely arrival and quick work of the 9th. and 10th. cavalries.

World War I
When the United States entered the Great War in 1917, African Americans once again fought for democracy overseas despite the rights that were sorely lacking at home. 

Many black troops saw enlisting as a way to prove their patriotism and equality with white troops. More than one million African Americans responded to the draft and served in the armed forces.

Learn more about recruiting during World War I here.

Despite racial discrimination in the military, more than 200,000 African Americans served in France. Most troops served in service units rather than in combat.

Several divisions did see combat, including the 92nd and 93rd Divisions, who were "borrowed" by the French.

The 93rd Division's 369th Infantry Regiment became famously known as the Harlem Rattlers. Loaned to France as reinforcements, the 369th were celebrated for their performance on the front.

On the home front, African American men threw themselves into the war effort. The war accelerated the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North and allowed many black workers to find jobs that would not have been open to them prior to the draft.

World War II
Although still segregated, more than 1.2 million African American men and women served in every theater of World War II and on the home front. 

President Roosevelt, aware of how important support from the African American community was for the war effort, reached out to Arthur B. Spingarn, president of the NAACP, before American involvement in the war. Roosevelt wrote:

Your government has supreme confidence in the unflinching loyalty that the Negro race has shown from Boston Common to Flanders Field. Inspired by such traditions I know our Negro citizens will not hesitate to pledge their allegiance anew, in these ominous days, to the cause of human liberty.

Learn more about this letter here.

Most African American troops were passed over by white draft boards or, once enlisted, assigned to non-combat or service units.

By 1945, more black troops were being assigned combat roles. All-black combat units were established, including the 758th Tank Battalion, the 332nd Fighter Group (popularly known as the Tuskegee Airmen), and the 477th Bombardment Group, known popularly as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Learn more African American patriotism in World War II here.

The armed forces offered no respite from racism for black troops. Most units were led by white captains, and black troops were subject to Jim Crow laws—men were refused service in white food units and forced to the back of military buses. African American troops often found German prisoners of war to be treated better than they were.

Learn more about discrimination in the war here.

Major Della H. Raney was the first African American woman commissioned in the Army Nurse Corps, in 1942. During previous conflicts, African Americans were barred from the Army Nurse Corps, and instead worked for the American Red Cross.

Post War Period
The war against fascism brought the inequities at home into sharp focus for many Americans, and in 1948 President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Act 9981, abolishing racial discrimination and segregation in the armed forces. Many historians look to African American participation in World War II as a major factor leading to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. 
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