SF 298

The Cultural Resources Research Center at the U.S. Army Construction Engineering Research Laboratories (USACERL) in Champaign, Illinois, has been involved for over a decade in all facets of cultural resource management and historic preservation issues related to military installations and training lands. Activities include four basic thrust areas: (1) prehistoric and historic archaeological resources, (2) Native American issues, (3) historic military architecture, and (4) historic military landscapes. One of the basic tasks of these diverse thrust areas is to ensure compliance with current historic preservation legislation so that the military mission is not impeded or adversely affected. This usually involves proactive planning and project execution in the context of an Integrated Cultural Resource Management Plan (ICRMP), and can impose a considerable burden, both fiscal and logistical, on the installation cultural resource manager. One of the most useful and cost-effective tools in facilitating this task is the nationwide "theme and context" study. A historic context is defined as an organizational format that groups historic properties that share similarities of time, theme, and/or geography. By grouping related cultural resources under the umbrella of a broader theme or historic context, significance evaluations and nominations for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) can be conducted much faster since basic reference material is already made available. Thus, the high start-up costs of installation-specific research on a given theme or context can often be avoided.

The USACERL Cultural Resources Research Center has carried out a number of such "theme and context" studies. These include thematic overviews on World War II temporary structures, Department of Defense (DoD) aircraft hangars, and DoD Cold War facilities. All of these studies serve as guidelines for the identification and evaluation of resources for purposes of determining eligibility for listing on the NRHP, providing significant cost savings for the Department of Defense. The present study represents another effort along these lines. Unlike the other studies, however, which are devoted to specific kinds of cultural resources, this one focuses on a specific ethnic minority: the African American soldier. Its purpose is to recognize and highlight the contributions of African Americans to the military history of the United States by providing a historic context for the identification and preservation of buildings, objects, and archaeological sites related to that involvement. Using this theme and context study as an aid, specific buildings and sites significant to African American military history on DoD properties can be evaluated and, where warranted, nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Cultural Resources Research Center is pleased to have had the continued support of the Legacy Resource Management Program for this project as well as the collaboration of scholars from the Cultural Resources Consulting Division of the South Carolina Institute for Anthropology and Archaeology (SCIAA) in conducting the historical research. It is our hope that the information contained in this report will be consulted repeatedly in coming years to support National Register nominations and advance our understanding of African American military history.

James A. Zeidler, Ph.D.
Principal Investigator



This study was conducted for the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Environmental Security under Reimbursable order No. N57. The technical monitor was Ms. Jackie Howard.

The work was performed under the direction of the Tri-Services Cultural Resources Research Center and the Planning and Mission Impact Division (LL-P) of the Land Management Laboratory (LL), U.S. Army Construction Engineering Research Laboratories (USACERL). The USACERL principal investigator was James A. Zeidler. The research was conducted under the direction of Steven D. Smith, Cultural Resources Consulting Division of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina. Dr. Harold E. Balbach is Chief, CECER-LL-P; Dr. John T. Bandy is Acting Operations Chief, CECER-LL. The USACERL editor was Gloria J. Wienke, Technical Information Team.

COL James A. Walter is Commander and Dr. Michael J. O’Connor is Director of USACERL.

This document is a Legacy Program work product and does not suggest or reflect the policy, programs, or doctrine of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or United States Government.


1 Introduction

Image of seated soldier

President Truman’s Executive Order of July 1948 marked the end of the segregated African American military unit in the Armed Services.

by Steven D. Smith


It is hereby declared to be the policy of the president that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.

Executive Order 9981, 26 July 1948
(Nalty and MacGregor 1981:239).

President Truman’s Executive Order "Establishing The President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services," marked the end of the segregated black military unit in the United States military. It was an objective sought by African Americans since they first served in the uniform of a nation founded on the principles of democracy. Blacks in the military had achieved a cherished goal — to fight on the line beside their fellow Americans rather than as separate units. It was the "Double V" victory, victory abroad and at home, that the Pittsburgh Courier had championed during World War II (Potter et al. 1992:55).

For African Americans that had endured far more than mere segregation, this announcement obviously brought great elation. But perhaps for those who had served in those all-black divisions, regiments, and companies, there was also some sadness. While they had attained a goal long sought and deserved, the order meant the end of a distinguished history where all-black regiments had endured both the hardships of battle and the hardships of discrimination. Given little training, undesirable jobs, the poorest equipment, in the harshest posts, they had often performed well, and usually better than expected, from the colonial period through the Korean War. Their history and their contributions to this country were significant and influential. Yet until recently, they were also largely unacknowledged.


The purpose of this report is to recognize and highlight the contributions of African Americans to the military history of the United States. This is accomplished by providing a historic context on the African American military experience for use by Department of Defense (DoD) cultural resource managers. Based on this historic context, significant sites, buildings, and objects on DoD property related to African American military history can be recognized by nominating them for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. In this manner, civilian and military personnel currently serving in all major services will be made aware of the contributions of African Americans to our military heritage. While the focus of this work is on all-black military units, significant individuals will be recognized also.

Although this effort focuses on military history, its significance is much larger. As Dudley Taylor Cornish, author of The Sable Arm, has stated "American military history, by the very nature of our society and the organization of our government and of our army, is more nearly social and political history than mere military analysis" (Cornish 1966: xii). Indeed, a reoccurring theme throughout this historic context is the direct parallel between the common attitude toward African Americans in American society and American military racial policy. Therefore, the events, attitudes, and philosophies related here have relevance and significance far beyond the history of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. For this reason it is important that the DoD recognize the contributions of African Americans by formally recognizing the sites, buildings, objects, and places for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. This report provides the first step for cultural resource managers in the process of nominating eligible sites for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

This historic context was prepared by the Cultural Resources Consulting Division of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA) University of South Carolina, Columbia, through an Interagency Personnel Act (IPA) arrangement and several Short Form Research Contracts (SFRC) with the Tri-Services Cultural Resources Research Center of the United States Army Construction Engineering Research Laboratories (CERL), Champaign, Illinois. The project was funded through the DoD Legacy Resource Management Program.

Historic Context Research Design

Research Framework

In 1966, the National Historic Preservation Act (P.L. 89-665, as amended) recognized that " the preservation of this irreplaceable heritage [i.e., historic properties significant to the Nation] is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic, and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans" (NHPA Section 1(b)(4)). This act, its regulations, and subsequent legislation required Federal agencies, like the DoD, to inventory, preserve, and manage these properties or cultural resources. This historic context provides the background or context from which historic and archaeological sites within DoD may be evaluated for their significance to local, state, and national heritage on the basis of their significance to African American military history.

Numerous DoD service regulations set forth policies, procedures, and responsibilities for the management of cultural resources on DoD-owned and -managed land. Army Regulation (AR) 420-40, Historic Preservation (15 May 1984), ensures that Army cultural resource management is consistent with national policies set forth in the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). For instance, Section 110 (a) (2) of the National Historic Preservation Act directs Federal agencies to establish a program to locate, inventory, and nominate all properties under the agencies’ ownership or control that qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. AR 420-40 also states that cultural resources meeting the established criteria for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places must be taken into account in any undertaking, on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), or within the procedures set forth by an Installation Historic Preservation Plan.

Air Force Instruction (AFI) 32-7065 Cultural Resources (13 June 1994) similarly establishes policies, procedures, and responsibilities for managing historic resources on land owned by the Air Force and consistent with national policies. Under the AFI, properties may be nominated individually, or in a systematic approach based on surveys, inventories, and historic preservation plans. Likewise, Navy Instruction SECNAVINST 4000.35 Department of the Navy Cultural Resources Program (17 August 1992) outlines the policies and responsibilities of the Department of the Navy and the Marine Corps. These instructions include not only sites, buildings, and districts, but also specifically mention ships and aircraft of historical significance. In addition, laws and regulations pertaining to cultural resource management include paleontological collecting. The Navy must also apply admiralty law to underwater situations.

Central to historic preservation management and planning is the identification and development of historic contexts. Historic contexts are defined as "an organizational format that groups historic properties that share similarities of time, theme, and geography" (Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the National Park Service 1989: 7). These organizational constructs provide the context within which individual archaeological sites, buildings, and objects are evaluated for significance, and thus eligibility for inclusion on the National Register. "Historic contexts are those patterns or trends in history by which a specific occurrence, property, or site is understood and its meaning (and ultimately significance) within prehistory or history is made clear (National Park Service 1991: 11).

Within a historic context of this magnitude, three different resource types can be identified: (1) historic buildings; (2) archaeological sites; and (3) objects. In addition, there may be significant locations, which may be considered traditional locations and are relevant to this context. Each of these resource types requires different evaluation treatments. Historic buildings may be considered to have significance if they have integrity of historic design and played a role in housing, supporting, or facilitating activities related to black regiments or important individuals. They may also illustrate a pattern or subtheme recognized in the historic context. Similar criteria will be evaluated for objects (in this case, primarily ships) and traditional places. Battle sites may be considered examples of significant locations.

For archaeological resources it is crucial that significance be developed in light of basic archaeological research. This is because the value of an archaeological property is measured primarily, and often wholly, by its potential to reveal information about the past. Indeed, the archaeological sites are usually determined significant because " they have yielded, or may be likely to yield information important in prehistory or history" (36 CFR 60.4 d). The potential of archaeological properties to reveal insights into the African American military experience is very large. However, it will also be necessary to demonstrate that the site has archaeological integrity and that the deposits relating to the regiment that created the site can be isolated from earlier or later occupations by other regiments.

Regardless of the resource, it is necessary that it be evaluated within its historic context. This document serves as an overall statement regarding the African American military experience, which can serve DoD personnel nationwide who are charged with the responsibility for managing cultural resources at DoD installations and facilities.

Project Scope

This historic context focuses on those black regiments, groups, divisions, companies, squadrons, etc. that were segregated from white units from the very earliest wars and conflicts in America. As noted previously, individuals important to black military history will be recognized but the context will not focus on these persons.

While the historic context must cover the entire range of activities pertaining to African American military history, identification of relevant historic properties in this report is confined to those found within the boundaries of the DoD. Historic properties on private or state lands will be mentioned within the historic context narrative, but these sites will not be subject to further discussion. Because this project is limited to DoD land, the study is further confined to land within the United States, District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.


The methods (and thus overall goals) used for this project changed radically as the project progressed. The project was originally conceived as a 3-year effort involving historic research, field work, and data recording to substantiate site eligibility for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. As originally conceived, the first year was to concentrate on the development of a context statement for all-black military units from 1862 to 1920; essentially those historic regiments designated during the Civil War and during the expansion of the American West. The second year was planned as a general field effort to visit appropriate installations, gathering data on specific potentially eligible sites, buildings, and objects relevant to the context which could be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. A final year was planned in which follow-up visits would be made and nomination forms would be completed for eventual transfer to cultural resource managers at the visited installations. The managers could then submit the forms to the appropriate State Historic Preservation Offices for the nomination process. Finally, a brochure highlighting the contributions of African Americans was also planned for distribution to military personnel at the installations. Due to discontinuation of funding after the second year, the field effort, including site visits and nomination of significant sites, and preparation of a brochure, was cancelled.

Other factors arose during the course of the work, which changed the scope of the project. Most importantly, it became obvious to the Principal Investigator that to provide a complete and useful historic context, the chronological coverage needed to expand to cover the entire African American military experience from the colonial period to the end of segregation. This expanded the time needed to be devoted to historic research to 2 years. However, to ignore the colonial and antebellum period, and the post World War I period, would have made the context less useful. This was especially true as the vast majority of property currently owned by the DoD (and was thus the main geographical target of this project) was purchased during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Conversely, many of the sites and buildings that might be eligible under the more limited time period (1862 to 1920) are not now owned by the DoD. The context statement, as finally developed, can now be used by both the DoD and non-DoD cultural resource managers.

The primary method for developing the historic context was archival research using available secondary and primary resources. Researchers were assigned chronological periods to be researched and written about. Recent scholarship in African American military history has expanded exponentially since the 1980s and new and detailed published sources were continually being introduced as this context was being researched. These resources were a great source of information in developing this context. Thus, the major source of historical documentation was through research at the University of South Carolina, especially the interlibrary loan system. However, several research visits were made to the following locations:

National Archives, Washington DC and Suitland, Maryland

Library of Congress, Washington DC

Air Force Historical Center, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama

U.S. Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania

Moorland Springarn Research Center, Howard University

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York

Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia

Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia

South Carolina State Library, Columbia

Beyond archival research, two activities proceeded under the assumption of a 3-year program. The initial identification of sites, buildings, and objects was to be completed primarily as a result of the historic context development. That is, as the document was generated, researchers were directed to earmark specific installations and facilities for a field visit for site evaluation. Likewise, other installations would be eliminated from consideration. However, to ensure full coverage, a survey instrument was designed to be faxed to DoD installations, essentially asking resource managers at these installations if they knew of sites, buildings, and objects that should be considered. The context and the survey together then, would be used to identify the installations to be visited during the third year. A one-page fax was designed and sent to Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps installations. Though the installations were not visited as a result of the cancellation of funding, the results of this survey are presented in Chapter 9.

The second field activity also concerned the planned field portion of the project. This involved short field test visits to work out logistic and other problems that might develop when the field visits began in full. This involved two field visits to Walterboro Airport, South Carolina, formally known as Walterboro Army Air Field during World War II. African American airmen had been stationed at this site. Here researchers conducted a preliminary evaluation of the property and extant World War II vintage buildings. Another field visit was made to Camp Sevier in Greenville, South Carolina, to examine an area where African American soldiers were trained. This area is currently in various private ownership.

The initial goals of the project were reduced to the production of a historic context. This context statement can be used as a first step in the nomination process for specific sites, buildings, and possibly objects relevant to the African American military experience.

Report Organization

Historic contexts may have a regional, chronological, or thematic focus. This project primarily takes a chronological and thematic approach, focusing on the black military experience within the United States from early colonization until U.S. military policy dictated the integration of black and white soldiers (i.e., the Korean War). Special emphasis is made toward recognition of the contributions of segregated all-black regiments and other all-black military units. This historic outline is presented in Chapters 2 through 8.

Once the history has been detailed, Chapter 9 summarizes the context with the purpose of highlighting themes (or perhaps subthemes) that run throughout this history, or have a regional aspect. Also, significant regiments will be identified that may have a chronological and regional focus, but deserve special recognition. The Buffalo Soldiers are an obvious example of regiments deserving this special recognition. In this chapter, specific sites relating to each subtheme will be identified along with available information regarding their current status. For archaeological properties, suggested research topics will be provided also. Other subthemes will come to light in the development of the historic narrative providing a series of subthemes. Thus, while the over-arching approach is thematic, subthemes may have a chronological or regional aspect.

The final section of the report focuses on the preservation and management of the resources identified. These suggestions will necessarily be general as the specific recommendations for each resource will depend on local political, social, and environmental considerations. Differences in specific service or installation needs will also need to be considered in any final decisions regarding the identified resources. A list of important installations and facilities is presented along with data on sites currently on the National Register that may fall under this context. Finally, the results of the installation survey are presented.


This document provides a narrative history of the African American military experience. It is intended to be used as a historic context for the nomination of historic sites, buildings, and objects to the National Register of Historic Places. The document focuses on African American military units and DoD property as part of the Legacy Resource Management Program. However, it has application to relevant sites throughout the continental United States. The final chapter discusses the management and preservation activities for such sites on DoD properties.


2 African American Soldiers Before the Civil War

Image of battle

During the American Revolution, most militia units had black soldiers among the ranks. The Continental Army initially refused to enlist African Americans.

African American Soldiers Before the Civil War
by Elizabeth Arnett Fields

African Americans have served in the military from the very beginning of American history. Their experience in the military before the Civil War varied widely. Since the armed forces at this time consisted of militia units, each colony or state enacted their own laws governing the units — including whether or not to allow African Americans to serve. Generally, however, colonial legislatures excluded blacks from armed service except during military conflict. During the earliest phases of settlement, all able-bodied men, white and black, free men and slaves, were expected to defend against American Indian attacks. Once a colony was relatively secure, blacks then were excluded from serving in the peacetime militia.

The main reason for the exclusion of blacks from military service stemmed from fear by the white population of slave insurrections. This fear was especially valid in the several Southern colonies where blacks outnumbered whites. These colonies also excluded free blacks from the militia out of concern that they would lead slave rebellions (Bowman 1970:62). Another explanation for the exclusion policy was the belief among whites that blacks were not intelligent enough to learn military skills.

There were also economic considerations for excluding blacks. Since slaves were private property, complications arose over how owners should be compensated, especially if their bondsmen were maimed or killed in combat. Historians have also suggested that because the peacetime militia also fulfilled an important social function, blacks were excluded for the same reasons they were denied access to many other white-dominated social organizations (Donaldson 1991:2).

At one time or another, all colonies enacted legislation excluding blacks from serving in the militia. Virginia became the first to pass such a law in 1639 (Johnson 1969:10). However, when conflict with Native Americans arose, the desperate need for additional manpower required the services of blacks. In those situations, government officials either ignored the statutes or simply changed them. For example, in Massachusetts, a 1652 law requiring blacks to attend military training was alternately repealed and reinstated four times throughout the remainder of the century (Wilkes 1970:9).

The capacity in which blacks served in the military also varied from colony to colony. In the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam in 1641, for example, slaves were allowed to help defend against Indian attacks with hatchets and pikes, but not with firearms. Blacks served as laborers to assist in constructing fortifications around the town. In contrast, blacks in North and South Carolina were fully armed and fought side by side with whites during the Tuscarora and Yemassee Indian Wars. Virginia, with possibly the lowest tolerance for arming African Americans, allowed only free blacks to serve in the militia as fifers, drummers, or in other noncombatant roles (Wilkes 1970:16). The military experience of blacks in other colonies varied similarly.

When blacks were allowed to enlist in the militia, they eagerly joined the ranks. Many different reasons motivated them to enlist, even though it was obvious that the government would terminate their services once the conflict ended. Free blacks viewed even temporary military service as a way to improve their civil status (Greene 1951:123). Moreover, the militia was not segregated and blacks received the same pay as whites. Of course, slave owners required their arm-bearing chattel to turn over all or part of their pay (Foner 1974:5). An especially strong incentive for slave enlistment in the militia was an offer of freedom granted by some local governments in exchange for killing or capturing an enemy (Binkin, et. al. 1982:12). Many southern states, however, reduced the award for capturing or killing an enemy from freedom to a monetary award. Finally, slaves joined the military to escape their more strenuous daily duties.

Separate units of African American soldiers were first formed in the French and Spanish colonies. In 1736, the French formed a separate company of slaves during their campaign against the Chickasaw and Natchez Indians in Louisiana (McConnell 1968:11). While their performance in battle was not exemplary, many of these black militiamen gained freedom for such service. Moreover, they set an important precedent in the history of African American military service.

In 1740, the Spanish colonial government in Florida created at least four companies of blacks who served as a part of the garrison at Saint Augustine (Wilkes 1970:16). These companies consisted largely of runaway slaves from Georgia and the Carolinas, lured to Florida by the promise of freedom. Runaway slaves, either living with the Spanish or the Seminole Indians, later played a major role in the Seminole Indian wars during the early 19th century (Porter 1951:250).

During the American Revolution, while most militia units had one or more blacks among the ranks, the Continental Army refused to enlist African Americans until forced to do so by lack of manpower (Quarles 1961:vii). Thereafter, the Continental Congress allowed only free blacks to enlist — at least officially. It is likely, however, that enlistment officers, desperate to reach their quotas, ignored this policy. Once enlisted, black soldiers were integrated into the Continental Army.

As the American cause grew increasingly desperate, the army finally began actively seeking the enlistment of slaves. Several segregated units were formed during the Revolution, the most famous being the Rhode Island regiment (Greene 1951:126). Most of the men in this regiment were slaves who volunteered for military service in exchange for freedom. The British also offered freedom to slaves for service against the colonists. Thousands responded to the British call. Three hundred of these fugitives formed Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, an all-black unit that fought for the British (Donaldson 1991:15).

Another means by which blacks came to serve in the army was the practice of slave owners who sent one of their bondsmen to local recruiters in place of himself. It is uncertain when this custom started, but may have evolved from colonial statutes, which allowed a draftee to pay someone else, usually an impoverished man or even a free black, to replace him in the ranks. This practice brought in so many blacks, in fact, that a Hessian officer fighting for the British was compelled to write in his journal that "you never see a regiment in which there are not negroes" (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989:34).

Blacks also served in the Continental Navy and in the state navies during the Revolution. In fact, virtually every ship’s crew had at least one black sailor. The reasons for the higher percentage of black sailors than soldiers can be traced to two major factors. First, prior to 1775, the United States did not have a navy. The Continental Navy and state navies were formed largely by outfitting merchant ships, whose crews already contained black sailors. Secondly, life on board ship during this time was so unappealing — with bad food and cramped living conditions amidst extremely hazardous conditions — that maritime employers took any man willing to serve; black or white (Donaldson 1991:18). There were no all-black ship crews during the Revolution; blacks were integrated into the naval forces.

Following the Revolution, the Continental Army was disbanded except for a small contingent. The Continental Navy was completely dispersed. Without wartime manpower needs, the armed forces could afford to exclude blacks from their ranks, and did so. However, each state continued to maintain its own militia. Of these, only North Carolina allowed free blacks to serve in an armed capacity. Two other states allowed free blacks to enlist in the militia, but only in noncombatant roles. Of course, slaves were completely excluded from the state militias.

African Americans were allowed to serve in the armed forces again in 1798 when hostilities erupted between the United States and France. Offended by the United States’ recent treaty (Jay’s Treaty 1796) with Great Britain, France began capturing hundreds of American ships and manhandling their crews. In response, the United States government established the United States Navy Department in 1798 to fight an undeclared, "Quasi War" against France (Langley 1967:275). Fought entirely at sea, only the Navy and Marine Corps participated. Maintaining the open enlistment policy of its predecessors, the nascent United States Navy allowed blacks the opportunity to serve aboard its ships. However, the Marine Corps excluded all blacks from its inception in 1775 (Logan 1951:128).

African Americans played a significant, although often unrecognized, role in the early years of the American military. The most obvious facet regarding their service during this formative period was the establishment of a pattern of black participation: exclusion during peacetime, initial exclusion during wartime, and eventual acceptance in the face of critical manpower shortages. This pattern was to be repeated throughout U.S. history until World War II.

Early Colonial Conflicts

Military conflict occurred frequently during the colonial period. The most common clashes were between Native Americans and frontier settlers who encroached on Indian territory. Competition between Britain, France, Spain, and Holland for control of North America touched off many other conflicts. In all these struggles, African Americans played a conspicuous role.

Wars Against the Indians

During the many Indian wars, government and military leaders were forced to employ blacks (mostly slaves) to successfully wage battle. This was especially true in the southern colonies where whites were outnumbered by blacks and Indians. There, white inhabitants were caught in a dilemma: to defeat the Indians, they must arm their slaves; yet, by doing so, they gave their bondsmen a much greater ability to successfully revolt. There was also the possibility that the Indians and blacks would join forces to subdue the white population. These concerns led whites to play the two races against one another. They employed Native Americans to track down and return runaway slaves; in turn, they enlisted blacks in the militia to fight against Indians. The enmity between Indians and blacks thus created substantially reduced the white’s fear of a union between the two.

In the northern colonies, where blacks comprised the smallest percentage of the population, their manpower in defending against Indian attacks was not so desperately needed as in the South. Therefore, blacks were usually confined to noncombatant positions. If slaves were armed, it was frequently only with "a tomahawk and half pike," as represented in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Southern colonies, however, were not allowed the luxury of an option in the matter. In fact, prospective colonists in North Carolina were awarded an extra 50 acres of land for every slave they brought who was capable of bearing arms (Wilkes 1970:10).

Two Indian wars in the Carolinas — Tuscarora in North Carolina and the Yemassee in South Carolina — deserve special attention. In both conflicts, several Indian tribes joined together in a common goal to expel frontier settlers. Whites were forced to enlist help from neighboring colonies to defend themselves against the Indians. With such a desperate need for men, colonial officials also enlisted all available slaves and free blacks.

Tuscarora. In the autumn of 1711, the Tuscarora Indians joined forces with five other tribes in a 2-year struggle to prevent whites from settling on their lands and to halt the practice of kidnapping and selling Indian youths into slavery. On the morning of 22 September, 500 warriors swept down on defenseless settlers in the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers in North Carolina. Two hours later 130 colonists lay dead. "Some were tortured horribly; others were desecrated after death. Many were left wounded. The less fortunate were taken captive. The rest of the people fled for their lives, leaving the bodies of their loved ones to be eaten by wolves and vultures" (Lee 1963:23-24). The Indians continued slaughtering settlers without regard for age or sex. When all the whites concealed themselves behind garrisons, the Indians ravaged the countryside, plundering and burning homes and fields (Lee 1963:24).

The North Carolina legislature, divided by political factionalism, failed to take any steps to defend the colony. Few men offered their services, although a 1706 law required all able-bodied men to perform military service in the event of an Indian attack (Johnson 1969:17-20). This law also applied to free blacks and slaves. Nevertheless, the legislature was forced to plea for help from its southern neighbor. In late January Colonel John Barnwell of South Carolina arrived in North Carolina with 500 Indians loyal to the whites and 30 whites, free blacks, and slaves. With North Carolinians still refusing to defend themselves, Barnwell marched alone into Tuscarora country, destroying Indian towns along the way. By 17 April he had forced the Indians into a conditional surrender (Lee 1963:26-31).

Soon after Barnwell and his forces left North Carolina, the remaining Tuscaroras returned to slaughtering white settlers. Again, the irresolute North Carolinians were forced to seek assistance from South Carolina. This time Colonel James Moore arrived with 33 whites and blacks, and over 850 Indians to break the power of the Tuscaroras once and for all. On 20 March 1713, Moore and his force attacked the Indians’ main defensive post of Nooherooka, either killing or capturing almost 950 Tuscarora warriors. Moore’s loss was 57 killed and 82 wounded. With this one crushing blow, the power of the Tuscarora nation was broken. The remaining survivors soon fled northward to Pennsylvania and New York (Lee 1963:36; Covington 1968:12).

Yemassee. Just 2 years after South Carolinians had subdued the Tuscaroras in North Carolina, they were forced to defend themselves against the very powerful Yemassee tribe, who, with the assistance of the Muskogees, Appalachians, Catawbas, Congarees, and Cherokees, began a 3-year struggle against encroaching settlers and unscrupulous traders. The Indians gained a few initial victories in their earliest attacks. South Carolina troops quickly responded, supplemented by militia units from North Carolina and Georgia and by Cherokee Indians. Recently enacted legislation allowing the arming of slaves against Indian attacks further increased the colonists’ military might. With this large force, the tide quickly turned and the Yemassee were forced to seek safe haven in Spanish Florida (Covington 1968: 12).

Because Indians were often employed to track down and return runaway slaves, blacks were eager to fight Indians. They proved themselves capable and courageous soldiers during these two Indian wars. In the struggle against the Yemassee, for instance, a garrison of 70 whites and 40 blacks at Goose Creek fought to the last man against an overwhelming force of 400 warriors (Wilkes 1970:14). A Negro company led by an "Indian fighter" named John Pight also participated in the conflict (Porter 1948:57). This company of Indian fighters was not a militia unit, but a band of men recruited personally by Pight.

As a result of their military service during the Yemassee War, many slaves received their freedom. However, South Carolina soon changed this practice by providing monetary award rather than freedom (Nalty 1986:6).

French and Indian Wars

African Americans also participated in a series of four wars between 1689 and 1763 collectively known as the Wars for American Empire. Individually they were known as King William’s War (1689-1697), Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), King George’s War (1739-1748), and the French and Indian War (1754-1763). These conflicts were the manifestations of a heated contest between England and France over the role and purpose of the New World in the European scheme of things. The French only wanted to exploit North America’s resources to enrich aristocrats, the Church, and the Crown. The British had a different view. To them, the New World offered an escape, a haven for those oppressed by aristocrats, the Church, and the Crown (Hofstadter, et. al. 1967:97). Most friction occurred in New England and in the Ohio River valley, regions that formed the border between the English colonies and New France.

Several factors contributed to the increased use of African Americans during these wars. First, the nature of the conflict, with continuous attacks against English settlements by the French and their Indian allies, created a constant manpower drain on the English colonists. Second, many white landowners feared for the safety of their families if they left to join the militia. Therefore, many whites refused to enlist, preferring to stay and protect their family and property. Third, many whites who did enlist, later deserted. Consequently, many colonies had no choice but to enlist African Americans to augment troop levels.

As in previous colonial conflicts, northern colonies enlisted and armed blacks much earlier than the southern colonies. For example, Rhode Island’s manpower need was so great during Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713) that the provincial assembly compelled all able-bodied men to enlist in the militia — regardless of race (Wilkes 1970:15). During King George’s War (1739-1748), moreover, African Americans served in virtually every New England militia company (Greene 1951:124).

The southern colonies, in contrast, allowed African Americans to serve only as menial laborers. Southerners feared that arming slaves would encourage them to revolt. As a result, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a statute in 1754 exempting all servants, enslaved and indentured, from rendering military service. However, free blacks could enlist as laborers and servants. General Edward Braddock used them as personal servants to his officers during his assault on Fort Duquesne in 1755. He viewed the use of blacks as menials as a means to free white soldiers for combat. Of course, these black servants often had to fight in the thick of battle. As the campaign worsened, Braddock disobeyed the Virginia law and ordered all servants armed and placed in the front lines (Bowman 1970:59).

African American participation in these wars proved significant for several reasons. First, they served in integrated units and received the same pay as whites. Second, no African American was charged with either cowardice or treason (Greene 1951:124). Finally, these African American veterans set an important precedent that later influenced military policy concerning use of black troops during the American Revolution.

Service in Non-English Colonies

Although England came to dominate the North American continent, the Spanish and French colonies left an important legacy to the United States regarding the employment of African Americans in the military. It was in these non-English colonies where blacks first served in segregated, all-black units, led by black non-commissioned officers. Milder slave codes, greater equality and opportunity for free blacks, and widespread miscegenation accounted for this increased tolerance to arm blacks (Donaldson 1991:6).

Spanish Florida

The relative freedom offered to African Americans in Spanish Florida attracted many blacks away from the English colonies. During his failed expedition to capture St. Augustine in 1740, Governor James Oglethorpe reported that at least four companies of black soldiers assisted in that city’s defense. These companies were composed largely of runaway slaves from plantations in Georgia and the Carolinas. Spanish armies in the West Indies even included regiments composed entirely of blacks, including officers who were treated similarly to white officers. Historians have suggested that over seven centuries of occupation and control of the Iberian Peninsula by the darker-skinned Arabians (Spanish Moors), Spaniards developed a more tolerant attitude towards blacks than other Europeans.

French Louisiana

While the French colony of Louisiana did not attract blacks from the British colonies in the same numbers that Florida did, blacks still enjoyed greater freedom there. The Code Noir of 1724 provided for the welfare of slaves in an enlightened manner for the time. For example, it forbade separation of husbands and wives, or of children under 14 from their parents; prohibited work on Sundays and feast days; provided that owners adequately clothe and feed their slaves; guaranteed religious instruction; legalized slave marriages; and allowed them to testify against whites (Taylor 1963:22,59,106,195). This enlightened treatment resulted from the benevolent influence of the Roman Catholic Church and increased miscegenation resulting in a higher percentage of nonwhite population (McConnell 1968:4).

The colony of Louisiana did not place much emphasis on military preparedness; instead, they put almost all their energy into the cultivation of tobacco. When war erupted with Natchez and Chickasaw Indians in 1735, the colony was caught unprepared and could muster only about 400 soldiers. Desperate for additional troops, Louisiana was forced to arm slaves for military service, promising them freedom in return. In April 1736, Jean Baptiste le Moyne assembled his forces at Fort Tombecbee (near present-day Epps, Alabama), where he formed the first all-black military unit in Louisiana. A motley crew of slaves and free blacks, the company performed miserably during its first exposure to battle. Only the bravery of one of its officers, a free man named Simon, saved the unit from charges of cowardice. Despite their conduct, the slaves in the unit received their freedom following the war. Thereafter, a regular company of free blacks in Louisiana became customary (McConnell 1968:12).

During the colonial period, African Americans fought either out of a sense of duty to help defend the community or to gain their freedom. They did not view military service as a way for all blacks to acquire autonomy or a better way of life, but it was the way for them. With the advent of the American Revolution, however, African Americans began fighting with an eye toward universal emancipation. The American Revolution provided blacks with a "cause," albeit one they would not fully achieve for nearly two more centuries.

American Revolution

Even before blacks adopted this "cause," they were fighting against British tyranny. The most famous of these early black revolutionaries was Crispus Attucks, a runaway half-breed Indian residing in Boston. On the evening of 5 March 1770, Attucks led an angry mob (who were already upset over the Townshend Duties recently passed by Parliament) seeking revenge against a particular soldier who had pistol whipped an extremely miscreant boy. They managed to corner the sentinel and pelted him with snowballs and rocks. Nine other troops quickly came to his aid. This only encouraged the crowd, who jeered and taunted the soldiers as cowards, closed about them and dared them to fire. The intrepid Attucks even managed to wrest a rifle away from one of the redcoats. Fearing for their lives, the soldiers fired into the hostile assembly, killing Attucks and four others (Wilkes 1970:23-24). Attucks and the others killed in this "massacre" quickly became martyrs, their deaths signifying increasing British oppression against her colonies and the sacrifice Americans were willing to make in defense of their rights as Englishmen.

African Americans also gave their lives 5 years later in the first official engagement of the Revolution. Although few in number, the names of those black soldiers who were present the morning of April 19, 1775 on the Lexington Common have been preserved: Peter Salem, Sam Croft, Prince Estabrook, and Pompey (Greene 1951:124). Two months later at the Battle of Bunker Hill black soldiers again fought side by side with their white compatriots.

Early Military Policies

Despite displays of courage on the fields of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, Revolutionary leaders began excluding blacks from military service. In May 1775, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety prohibited slaves from the provincial army, but failed to mention free blacks (Johnson 1969:32). When General George Washington took command of the Continental Army in July, 1775, one of his first acts was to ban the enlistment of all blacks, both free and slave. Although he had commanded African Americans during the French and Indian War, Washington viewed them (during the early phase of the war) as unnecessary to the patriots’ cause. A special committee assigned to suggest improvements for the military endorsed Washington’s decision later that year (Wilkes 1970:29).

Other military leaders not only wanted to exclude blacks from enlisting but also wanted to discharge those already in the Continental Army. These officers were strongly supported by many southern members of the Continental Congress, notably Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (Nalty 1986:11). However, as the ranks of the Continental Army dwindled, the American military was forced to reconsider their position excluding African Americans.

Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment

When the American Revolution began, African Americans (mostly slaves) comprised about 20 percent of the colonies’ population (Donaldson 1991:11). Excluding such a large percentage of men from military service was a significant oversight. Military leaders soon realized their mistake when Lord Dunmore, former royal governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation from his ship in the Norfolk harbor in November, 1775 "inviting slaves to leave their masters and join the royal forces" (Quarles 1961:19). Thousands of slaves heartily answered this and other British calls-to- arms. In fact, it is estimated that nearly three-fourths of Georgia’s slaves deserted to the British during the Revolution (Hartgrove 1916:117).

A month after announcing his proclamation, over 500 black fugitives had joined Lord Dunmore. Approximately 300 of them were formed into the "Ethiopian Regiment," wearing uniforms with "Liberty to Slaves" inscribed across their chests (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989:76). However, a lack of proper training prevented the unit from performing well on the battlefield. After one decisive defeat 10 miles south of Norfolk in December 1775, Lord Dunmore and his forces quit the continent, never to regain a foothold (Quarles 1961:23).

The defeat did not end Dunmore’s use of black troops. He continued employing them as sailors and foragers instead of as soldiers. Dunmore was even accused of using blacks to conduct "germ warfare" by sending several of them infected with smallpox ashore into Norfolk to spread the disease (Quarles 1961:29). It is ironic that the majority of blacks who served under Dunmore died of disease.

American Reversal of Policy

Lord Dunmore’s proclamation, and subsequent similar declarations by the British, had an inflammatory effect on colonial leaders. To deter slaves from fleeing to British camps, officials ordered an increase in local patrols. Slaveowners also pointed out to their slaves that Dunmore’s offer only referred to able-bodied men who could bear arms for the Crown. Women, children, the old, and the infirm had no like promise of freedom. Finally, the Virginia Convention declared that any slave captured bearing arms for the royal forces "shall be liable to such punishment as shall be directed by the Convention" (Quarles 1961:25). In other words, death. Other southern states soon followed with similar legislation. Despite the threat of execution, which was rarely administered, African Americans continued to make their way to British camps.

In an attempt to forestall a wave of free blacks and slaves from enlisting into the British forces, Washington (goaded by more liberal and pragmatic officers) reversed his decision on black enlistments late in 1775 (Maslowski 1972:5; Wilkes 1970:30). At first, the Continental Congress recommended that free blacks "who had served faithfully in the army might be reenlisted but no others" (Hartgrove 1916:117). However, they left enforcement of this policy to individual states. By February 1776, the ban on slave enlistments continued because some recruiting officers were enlisting every black volunteer without verifying his status.

Some slaves unintentionally circumvented this law by serving as substitutes for their masters. The practice of paying another man to serve as a replacement for military service was completely legal, and many poor free blacks served in such capacities. The law, however, prohibited slaves from serving as substitutes. To legally allow their slaves to serve in their stead, owners promised them freedom in exchange for military service. It is impossible to determine how many slaveowners kept their promise of freedom. Apparently many did not, prompting several states to legislate freedom for all slaves who had fought in the Revolution. However, most other legislatures did nothing and allowed owners to reenslave Revolutionary veterans. The Continental Congress also ignored the problem, leaving the states to resolve the issue (Foner 1975:71-72).

As the military’s need for additional manpower became increasingly urgent, recruiting practices became lax, enabling more blacks to enlist. However, the real turning point came in September 1776 when Congress created 88 new battalions and assigned quotas for the states to fill them. As the war continued, state officials found it increasingly difficult to meet their quotas, especially those in New England. To overcome this problem, most New England states allowed widespread enlistment of slaves (Quarles 1961:56). In fact, New Hampshire had to virtually abolish slavery in order to raise adequate troops (Hartgrove 1916:120). Southern states, on the other hand, had little trouble meeting their enlistment quotas. Only Maryland passed legislation allowing slave enlistments (Nalty and MacGregor 1981:12).

The state legislatures reversed their policy on slave enlistment out of practical necessity, not benevolence. Because most soldiers enlisted for only 3 months, the military was having difficulty maintaining troop strength. By enlisting slaves, the Army could demand a longer term of enlistment as a requirement for granting freedom. Most New England states established terms of enlistment for 3 years or until the end of the war. Furthermore, many white soldiers were reluctant to fight far away from home and when so ordered they often deserted. Since the alternative to military service for bondsman was continued slavery, fewer were likely to desert (Foner 1975:55).

African Americans served in the Continental Army and the state militias under four different circumstances: (1) as free blacks; (2) as fugitives posing as freemen; (3) as slaves enlisting under the promise of freedom; and (4) as slaves serving as substitutes for their master or their owner’s sons (Jackson 1942:253). No matter how they entered the army, commanders relegated blacks to the military’s lowest echelons. Most black soldiers served as privates; only a few were able to overcome prevailing prejudices and rise to the rank of staff sergeant. No African American received an officer’s commission in either the state militias or the Continental Army.

All-Black Units

During the first 2 years of the war when the number of blacks in the military was relatively small, they fought alongside whites in integrated units. With widescale enlistment of slaves, however, the ability to segregate the races became more feasible. Moreover, many military and colonial leaders believed that the discipline and esprit de corps of African American troops might be improved if they were placed in all-black units.

The creation of segregated regiments occurred in New England, which was forced to recruit large numbers of blacks to meet its manpower needs. In January 1778 Rhode Island failed to enlist enough white men to fill its quota of two battalions. The following month the state legislature authorized the enlistment of slaves to solve this predicament. To ensure the success of black recruitment, the legislature offered full compensation to owners for slaves allowed in the military.

Other states attempted to follow suit, but only Connecticut was able to overcome stiff political opposition to the creation of a separate black unit (Foner 1974:58; Foner 1975:10). Unlike Rhode Island, Connecticut did not encourage slave enlistment by offering their owners compensation for lost property (Foner 1975:11; Quarles 1961:54). Lacking such a crucial enticement, the state had to wait until June 1780 before it had enough African Americans to fill a battalion.

One of the most zealous, yet unsuccessful, efforts to raise an all-black regiment came from two prominent South Carolinians: Henry Laurens (a very successful merchant who served as President of the Continental Congress) and his young son John (a diplomat and aide de camp to Washington). Upon learning of the success of the Rhode Island Regiment, they encouraged the Continental Congress to create segregated units for an estimated 3,000 blacks who would volunteer for military service in exchange for freedom. Congress approved the plan and suggested that the South Carolina legislature, if it thought the idea expedient, immediately put it into action. But the Palmetto state, which possessed the highest percentage of blacks in the Confederacy, was the least likely state to pass such a proposal. Fed largely by fear that it might instigate a slave insurrection, the legislature rejected the Laurens’ suggestion (Maslowski 1972:8-17; Wilkes 1970:53-54).

First Rhode Island Regiment. Eventually, five all-black military units fought for the American cause in the Revolution. The most famous was the First Rhode Island Regiment, commanded by a white officer named Colonel Christopher Greene. The approximately 300 blacks who comprised this unit distinguished themselves in several conflicts including the Battle of Rhode Island where they attained their crowning glory on the hills and dales surrounding Providence and Newport. Three times the blacks distinguished themselves by deeds of desperate valor in successfully repelling this furious attack by British troops and their Hessian allies (Wilkes 1970:35). The slaughter was terrible; some contemporaries considered it the hardest fought battle of the war. The British lost 1300 men, while Americans suffered only 200 casualties. This victory allowed the Americans to leave Rhode Island just before the arrival of British reinforcements commanded by Sir Henry Clinton (Wilkes 1970:35).

6th Connecticut Battalion. Much smaller and less recognized than the Rhode Island Regiment is the 6th Connecticut Battalion, also known as the Colonials or 6th Company. In 1777 the Connecticut General Assembly recommended that black and mulatto slaves, whose masters were to be paid the sum of their appraisement and who themselves upon enlisting would be set free, should be formed into a separate company. A 56-man unit was subsequently organized and placed under the command of Colonel Humphrey (Wilkes 1970:37; Foner 1975:58; Greene 1951:126). It fought as a separate unit until November 1782, when the members were integrated into the 6th Connecticut Battalion. Throughout the war, they "conducted themselves with fidelity and efficiency" (Wilkes 1970:37).

Massachusetts "Bucks of America". An even more obscure all-black regiment was the Massachusetts "Bucks of America." Never authorized by the state legislature, there is almost no documentation concerning the creation and activities of this regiment (Foner 1975:58). Some historians speculate that the "Bucks of America" was merely "an association of colored men who guarded the property of Boston merchants" during the war (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989:66). Nevertheless, what little information does exist reveals that a noted African American horsebreaker named Middleton commanded the unit. There is also no data on military action, but they evidently rendered sufficient service to merit a hand-painted banner presented to the survivors at the Governor’s mansion by John Hancock. The "buff colored" banner is currently preserved in the Massachusetts Historical Society (Wilkes 1970:32).

West Indian Volunteer Chasseurs. Two all-black military units from outside the colonies also fought for the United States. When the French allied with the United States in 1778, they sent a 3,600-man force from the West Indies known as the Volunteer Chasseurs to assist in defeating the British (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989:68). Among these troops was a unit of 545 blacks, mostly from Santo Domingo (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989:68; Quarles 1961:82). In the fall of 1779 the Volunteer Chasseurs reached Georgia, where they assisted in the unsuccessful siege against the British garrison at Savannah (Donaldson 1991:18; Nalty 1986:17). After this defeat, the French returned to the West Indies.

Galvez’ Army. Later that same year, Spain entered the war as an ally of France against the British. Since 1762, New Orleans and all of Louisiana west of the Mississippi belonged to Spain and it was from here that they attacked the British. Among the Spanish forces were companies of free black militiamen, heirs to the legacy of the 1736 French war with the Chickasaw and Natchez Indians. Under the command of Bernardo de Galvez, a small army of 750 men (about 100 of whom were black), succeeded in capturing Fort Charlotte at Mobile and Fort George in Pensacola and eventually driving the British from Louisiana and West Florida (McConnell 1968:15-22). By cutting off British access to the west and engaging troops that might have otherwise been employed elsewhere, Galvez’ army, and the black troops in it, made a significant contribution to American victory (Nalty 1986:17).

Blacks in the Revolutionary Navy

During the American Revolution, the United States’ naval force was divided into 3 different groups: (1) the Continental Navy consisting of about 50 vessels; (2) state navies, some of which rivaled the Continental Navy in size; and (3) an untold number of privateers commissioned under letters of marque from the Continental Congress. African Americans served as sailors in each of these three groups. In fact, virtually every ship’s crew in the American naval forces had at least one black sailor. Some vessels like the Royal Lewis commanded by Stephen Decatur, were manned predominantly by African Americans (Wilkes 1970:58).

In addition to their service aboard ship, blacks also worked in the shipyards building and repairing vessels. Unlike the land forces, the Continental Navy and state navies accepted blacks from the beginning of hostilities. (The crews on the privateers already contained black sailors when the war began.) As a result, black sailors represented a much larger percentage of the naval forces than the armies.

The naval forces readily accepted African Americans for two reasons. First, since their earliest arrival in America, free blacks had chosen seafaring as a way of life, serving either on merchant ships or with the Royal Navy. In addition, slaves belonging to ships' captains frequently served on board with their masters. The second reason for the naval forces’ widespread acceptance of blacks was sheer necessity. Life at sea during the eighteenth century was difficult and dangerous. Therefore, the navies were forced to enlist practically anyone who was willing to serve. Captains especially desired slaves because when conditions became intolerable, white sailors frequently abandoned ship; slaves, on the other hand, did not have that alternative. Southerners, too, favored the use of slaves in the navies because the physical separation of ships at sea posed no threat of instigating a slave rebellion (Foner 1975:69).

More African Americans served in the state navies than in the Continental Navy because pay was better, the terms of enlistment were shorter, opportunity for advancement was greater, and the range of operations was often limited to the state’s own coast (Quarles 1961:86). In contrast, blacks in the Continental Navy usually served in the lowest positions of cooks, gunners, and powder boys. However, in the state navies, blacks more frequently served as seamen, marines, and even pilots. Privateers attracted even more blacks into service aboard ship than the state navies. Because privateers were privately owned and manned, the captain was less likely to ask many questions about the status of his crew, as long as they served well. In addition, the financial rewards for work on a privateer were far greater as the crews divided the prize money from seized enemy vessels.

African Americans also served as sailors aboard British naval ships. Surprisingly, many of those captured from the British were pressed into service for the American navies. On the other hand, black American sailors captured by the British were often sold into slavery to work on West Indian sugar plantations.

Excluding the blacks who served under the French and Spanish, approximately 5,000 African Americans fought for American independence from Britain (Foner 1975:67). Black soldiers participated in every major battle of the war from Bunker Hill to Yorktown. A majority of those slaves who served did receive their freedom. Ironically, those who chose to cast their lot with the British fought for the same objective: freedom. Yet that freedom for which so many had fought and died was denied them.

Blacks in the Armed Forces, 1783-1812

The status of African Americans declined following the American Revolution, despite the abolishment of slavery in five Northern states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania) by 1784. The gains made by black patriots were almost entirely lost. The successful slave revolt in Haiti in 1794 frightened many leaders of the new republic; consequently, free northern blacks lost suffrage and southern slave codes became harsher. Government officials in the newly acquired territory of Louisiana even disbanded their free black militia unit first formed in 1736 under the French (McConnell 1968:41). This increasingly discriminatory racial attitude was also reflected in the policies of the nation’s armed forces.

Between 1783 and 1812, the Regular Army numbered only a few hundred men, expanding to 3,000 with the threat of Indian warfare. The Continental Navy was completely disbanded after the Revolution, and the ships sold. Only when the country became involved in an undeclared naval war with France in 1798 (Quasi War), did Congress establish the United States Navy.

As in the colonial period, American leaders were fearful of maintaining large organized armies during peacetime, preferring small, local militias. In 1792 Congress passed the Militia Act requiring states to enroll all white men between the ages of 18 and 45 into service. While the Act did not specifically exclude the enlistment of free blacks, every state except North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia barred them from serving. Only North Carolina allowed free blacks to enlist as soldiers; South Carolina, and Georgia employed them only as noncombatants (Foner 1974:20-21).

In 1798 the War Department followed the states’ lead in their interpretation of the Militia Act and excluded all blacks from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. The Army and Marine Corps had no problem recruiting sufficient numbers of white men to fill the smaller peacetime ranks. Faced with the same horrendous shipboard living conditions that had led to enlistment of African Americans during the Revolution, the Navy was forced to continue enlisting free blacks out of necessity.

War of 1812

When the United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812, the Navy was the only branch of the armed forces allowing blacks to serve, although they also officially barred them from enlisting. As the "Second War of American Independence" was primarily a naval war, the largest manpower needs fell upon the Navy. Naval recruiting officers were forced to accept more blacks; so much so in fact, that in March 1813 the Navy finally reversed its official policy excluding African Americans. Free blacks responded by joining the Navy in even larger numbers.

Navy. During the War of 1812, African Americans comprised between 10 and 20 percent of naval personnel (Foner 1974:22). Official records indicate that they served admirably and played a major role in naval battles. In response to a complaint from Captain Oliver H. Perry about the black sailors assigned to his command, Commodore Isaac Chauncey replied, "I have nearly fifty blacks on this boat, and many of them are among the best of my men" (Wilson 1968:79). At the Battle of Lake Erie, where the American Navy led by Captain Perry defeated the British fleet, blacks constituted one-fourth of the 400 man force aboard the 10-vessel fleet. Their performance in the American victory so impressed Perry, who originally objected to their presence, that he wrote the Secretary of the Navy praising their fearlessness in the face of excessive danger (Wilkes 1970:71,73).

Privateers. The United States Navy was still very small, having only 16 seagoing vessels at its disposal when war erupted in 1812 (Morris 1965:141). As the conflict escalated, the United States began employing privateers, just it had done during the Revolution. The crews of these privateers included blacks. Unfortunately lack of surviving ships’ logs and other pertinent records prevent even a conjectural estimation of their numbers and service.

All-Black Units

A smaller number of African Americans also participated in land battles of the war. Although the Army and most state militias excluded African Americans, some individual company officers allowed free blacks to join their ranks. In addition, the New York legislature passed an act in 1814 to raise two regiments of black soldiers. By the time the statute became effective, however, fighting in the northeast had ceased (Johnson 1969:71; Nalty 1986:23). Nevertheless, New York still raised the two black battalions and sent them to Sacket’s Harbor (Wilson 1968:84). Free blacks also helped to build fortifications around the city of Philadelphia. A group of these builders organized themselves into a company and soon found themselves under command of the United States Army (Wilkes 1970:65-66). Since Philadelphia was never attacked, this unit never engaged the enemy.

British Recruitment of Blacks. When the British fleet sent an expedition into Chesapeake Bay in the spring of 1813, both the British and Americans were amazed at the eagerness of slaves to desert their masters. The mere sight of a British ship was enough to incite slaves to escape. Apparently only the white population had forgotten Lord Dunmore’s proclamation a mere 38 years earlier. With visions of "liberty and happiness" in the West Indies, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 slaves from Maryland and Virginia fled to the British (Cassell 1972:147-154). In April 1814, British Vice Admiral Cochrane issued a proclamation welcoming aboard all slaves who wished to emigrate to Britain. All fugitives had the choice of either serving with the British forces or being sent as free settlers to British possessions in North America and the West Indies (Foner 1974:23).

Cochrane improved upon Dunmore’s Revolutionary proclamation by providing for anyone who wished to leave America, not just able-bodied men willing to fight. To process the thousands of emigrants, the British established a base camp on Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay (Nalty 1986:22). Most of these runaway slaves served the British as spies, laborers, and guides (Foner 1974:23). However, a contingent of 200 were formed into an all-black marine unit.

In May 1814, Admiral George Cockburn began enlisting and training runaway slaves for the marine unit on Tangier Island. They saw their first action in late May during the successful British attack upon an American battery at Pungoteaque, Virginia (Cassell 1972:150-151). The British commander of the expedition was impressed with the performance of the black marines and continued to use them throughout the British Chesapeake campaign, including the American defeat at Bladensburg, the burning of Washington, and the British defeat at Baltimore. The achievement of the black marines encouraged Cochrane and Cockburn to expand their use, but the war ended before they could implement additional plans (Cassell 1972:152).

Battle of New Orleans. Black soldiers also played a predominant role in the last major land engagement of the war: the Battle of New Orleans. Louisiana had achieved statehood only 9 weeks before the United States declared war on Great Britain. With the sudden need for defensive troops, the state legislature authorized the recruitment of free black landholders into the militia. In effect, this action reestablished the "Battalion of Free Men of Color" which had been disbanded in 1804 (Everett 1953:392). The unit’s commander was white, but Louisiana governor William Claiborne commissioned three black second lieutenants as assistants — the first African American commissioned officers in any state militia.

After defeats in the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake campaign in 1814, the British forces shifted their attention from the northeastern United States to the South. By the summer of 1814, it became increasingly obvious to the Americans that Britain would next attack New Orleans. In August, Andrew Jackson, commanding general of the United States 7th Military District (comprising Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi Territory), ordered the region to call up their militias into active service. Even with the New Orleans Battalion of Free Men of Color, Louisiana failed to meet its quota of 1,000 men after the first call-to-arms (McConnell 1968:61-62). To remedy this predicament, Governor Claiborne made an appeal for volunteers among the free black population of New Orleans, promising them the "same pay, rations and bounty as white volunteers" issued by General Jackson, still in Mobile at that time (Nalty 1986:24).

This plea was prompted in part by fear that blacks would join the British, as many had done during the Revolution. Nevertheless, hundreds of free blacks answered the governor’s call, swelling the ranks of the Battalion of Free Men of Color from 4 companies of 64 men each to 6 companies with a total strength of 353 men (McConnell 1968:67). On 16 December 1814, the battalion became part of the United States Army and was placed under the command of Major Pierre Lacoste. The ranking black officer was Major Vincent Populus, the first African American to attain field grade rank in the United States military.

Jackson was so favorably impressed with the African Americans’ eagerness for military service that he endorsed Governor Claiborne’s suggestion to raise a second unit of free black soldiers. Joseph Savary, a black emigre from Santo Domingo and a veteran of the French Army, was instrumental in recruiting volunteers from among the free black immigrants from his homeland to form this battalion (Everett 1953:397). The United States Army activated this second Battalion of Free Men of Color on 19 December 1814, with a total strength of 256 men. Jackson commissioned Savary with the rank of second major. Although initially placed under the command of a white officer, Major Savary was assigned to lead the second Battalion of Free Men of Color into battle.

On 8 January 1815 (weeks after the peace treaty was signed between the United States and Britain) 8,000 veterans of the Napoleonic campaigns under General Sir Edward Pakenham attacked the Crescent City, defended by Jackson’s ragtail collection of 4,500 militiamen, sailors, and pirates. Both Battalions of Free Men of Color fought with distinction, helping the British to suffer its "worst defeat in years" (Foner 1974:25). The British lost more than 2,000 men in this useless encounter. American casualties numbered only 21. After the battle Jackson specifically commended the performance of the two black battalions. In a letter to Secretary of War James Monroe, Jackson specifically noted that he believed Pakenham, who was killed in the skirmish, "fell from the bullet of a freeman of color, a famous rifle shot of the Attakapas District" (Wilkes 1970:83). When they were mustered out, the black volunteers received the same pay and bounty as whites, but federal pensions and land grants of 160 acres also promised were never provided. The black militia units slowly dissolved due to lack of peacetime recruits until officially disbanded in 1834.

Black Soldiers in the Antebellum Period

After the War of 1812, the United States military returned to peacetime levels. Once again, the Army and Marine Corps had no trouble recruiting sufficient numbers of white volunteers. As a result, the official policy to bar blacks from enlisting remained unchanged. Army regulations issued in 1820 and 1821 reinforced the ban on African American recruits, but did not prevent them from employing blacks as laborers.

The Navy continued to enlist free blacks out of necessity. Conditions on board ship had not improved and whites were still reluctant to enlist. However, in 1816 the Navy banned slaves from serving aboard ship or in shipyards (Nalty 1986:26). Nevertheless, black sailors constituted an increasing proportion of Naval personnel, alarming southern leaders. In response to their fears, the Navy in 1839 limited black enlistments to 5 percent of white enlistments, a percentage that remained constant until the Civil War (Foner 1974:26-27).

Opportunities in the peacetime state militias were no better. Even before the War of 1812, all state militias except Louisiana excluded black recruitment, although North Carolina did allow them to serve as musicians (Foner 1974:21). Following the alarm caused by Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, southern states banned all black service in the state militias.

Seminole Wars

African Americans played a large role in the first and second Seminole Wars (1816 and 1842), although fighting against the United States. Throughout the Spanish colonial period, the promise of freedom lured many southern slaves to Florida. Many of these fugitives sought refuge with the Seminole Indians. Treated as equals by the Seminoles, the blacks embraced their lifestyle. However, the slave sanctuary among hostile Seminoles (who occupied Fort Apalachicola, abandoned by British after War of 1812) posed a serious threat to the "peculiar institution" (slavery) in the South and along the Georgia border.

The United States government responded by dispatching an expedition in July 1816 to destroy Fort Apalachicola, capture any runaway slaves, and pursue all hostile elements across the Florida boundary to the limits of the Spanish posts. General Andrew Jackson, appointed commander of the expedition in December 1817, marched into Florida and seized St. Marks the following April and Pensacola in May (Foner 1974:28). His success in Florida convinced Spain to renounce all claims to West Florida and cede East Florida to the United States.

The Second Seminole War, which lasted from 1835 to 1842, was the fiercest of all wars waged by the United States against Indians. It began as a consequence of the refusal of part of the tribe to abide by a treaty made in 1834 to cede its lands and move to the Indian Territory. Despite heroic efforts by the celebrated chief Osceola, the United States Army subdued the last resisting Seminoles and removed them from Florida to beyond the Mississippi.

In both conflicts, the blacks and Seminoles used effective guerilla warfare tactics against the United States military, killing over 1,500 American soldiers during the two Indian wars. However, they could not overcome the overwhelming numerical superiority of the United States Army and were forced to surrender.

War With Mexico

African Americans played only a limited role in the War with Mexico (1846-1848). Three separate factors explain their absence. First, there were no blacks serving in the Army at the time. Second, many correctly viewed the war as merely an expansion of the United States’ slave territory and therefore blacks "wanted no part in it" (Reddick 1949:15). Third, southern leaders responsible for the conduct of the war were unyieldingly against the employment of blacks in the military.

When Congress authorized the enlistment of 50,000 volunteers, black men were among those who answered their country’s call. Most blacks (approximately 1,000) who fought in this brief war served in the navy, which played a minor role in the conflict. A few also served as infantrymen, guides, and musicians in the Army in regular and volunteer units, particularly the First Regiment of Volunteers, New York; the Fourth Artillery Regiment, the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Thirteenth Infantry Regiments. Many more also served in nonmilitary capacity as personal servants to white officers. A few runaway slaves fought for Mexico under the promise of freedom denied them by the United States.


From the time of the earliest permanent settlements in North America to the Civil War, African Americans participated in every major military conflict. Denied military service during peacetime, they were actively recruited at the commencement of hostilities. Blacks responded to these calls-to-arms in large numbers. Many saw military service as a way to improve their own condition. Others enlisted in hope that their participation would prove to whites that African Americans deserved equal rights.

Unfortunately for these men, their honorable and distinctive military service failed to elevate their status or that of other blacks. Instead, their experiences are replete with disappointment and irony. During the Revolution, for example, many African Americans fought for an independence denied to them. Surprisingly, however, the vast majority of black soldiers were not ostracized from whites; instead, they were placed in integrated units, often receiving equal pay. (This integration policy ended with the Civil War, and did not resurface for almost another 100 years.) Without the service of blacks, the American military successes might not have been possible; still, their contributions were quickly forgotten after each war when they were once again excluded from military service — until the next conflict.