Selected Essays in Black Historyby Oswald Garrison Villard

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

The Negro in the Regular Army

by Oswald Garrison Villard

When the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment stormed Fort Wagner July 18, 1863, only to be driven back with the loss of its colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, and many of its rank and file, it established for all time the fact that the colored soldier would fight and fight well. This had already been demonstrated in Louisiana by colored regiments under the command of General Godfrey Weitzel in the attack upon Port Hudson on May 27 of the same year. On that occasion regiments composed for the greater part of raw recruits, plantation hands with centuries of servitude under the lash behind them, stormed trenches and dashed upon cold steel in the hands of their former masters and oppressors. After that there was no more talk in the portion of the country of the "natural cowardice" of the negro. But the heroic qualities of Colonel Shaw, his social prominence and that of his officers, and the comparative nearness of their battlefield to the North, attracted greater and more lasting attention to the daring and bravery of their exploit, until it finally became fixed in many minds as the first real baptism of fire of colored American soldiers.

After Wagner the recruiting of colored regiments, originally opposed by both North and South, went on apace, particularly under the Federal government, which organized no less than one hundred and fifty-four, designated as "United States Colored Troops." Colonel Shaw's raising of a colored regiment aroused quite as much comment in the North because of the race prejudice it defied, as because of the novelty of the new organization. General Weitzel tendered his resignation the instant General B. F. Butler assigned black soldiers to his brigade, and was with difficulty induced to serve on. His change of mind was a wise one, and not only because these colored soldiers covered him with glory at Port Hudson. It was his good fortune to be the central figure in one of the dramatic incidents of a war that must ever rank among the most thrilling and tragic the world has seen. The black cavalrymen who rode into Richmond, the first of the Northern troops to enter the Southern capital, went in waving their sabres and crying to the negroes on the sidewalks, "We have come to set you free!" They were from the division of Godfrey Weitzel, and American history has no more stirring moment.

In the South, notwithstanding the raising in 1861 of a colored Confederate regiment by Governor Moore of Louisiana (a magnificent body of educated colored men which afterwards became the First Louisiana National Guards of General Weitzel's brigade and the first colored regiment in the Federal Army), the feeling against negro troops was insurmountable until the last days of the struggle. Then no straw could be overlooked. When, in December, 1863, Major-General Patrick R. Cleburne, who commanded a division of Hardee's Corps of the Confederate Army of the Tennessee, sent in a paper in which the employment of the slaves as soldiers of the South was vigorously advocated, Jefferson Davis indorsed it with the statement, "I deem it inexpedient at this time to give publicity to this paper, and request that it be suppressed." General Cleburne urged that "freedom within a reasonable time" be granted to every slave remaining true to the Confederacy, and was moved to this action by the valor of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, saying, "If they [the negroes] can be made to face and fight bravely against their former masters, how much more probable is it that with the allurement of a higher reward, and led by those masters, they would submit to discipline and face dangers?"

With the ending of the civil war the regular army of the United States was reorganized upon a peace footing by an act of Congress dated July 28, 1866. In just recognition of the bravery of the colored volunteers six regiments, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and the Thirty-eighth, Thirty-ninth, Fortieth, and Forth-first Infantry, were designated as colored regiments. When the army was again reduced in 1869, the Thirty-eighth and Forty-first became the Twenty-fourth Infantry, and the Thirty-ninth and Fortieth became the Twenty-fifth. This left four colored regiments in the regular army as it was constituted from 1870 until 1901. There has never been a colored artillery organization in the regular service.

To these new regiments came a motley mixture of veterans of volunteer organizations, newly released slaves, and some freedmen of several years' standing but without military experience. They were eager to learn, and soon showed the same traits which distinguish the black regiments to-day,-loyalty to their officers and to their colors, sobriety and courage, and a notable pride in the efficiency of their corps. But if ever officers had to "father and mother" their soldiers they were the company officers of these regiments. The captains in particular had to be bankers, secretaries, advisers, and judges for their men. As Lieutenant Grote Hutcheson has stated it, "The men knew nothing, and the non- commissioned officers but little more. From the very circumstances of their preceding life it could not be otherwise. They had no independence, no self-reliance, not a thought except for the present, and were filled with superstition." Yet the officers were determined to prove the wisdom of the experiment. To do this they were forced to give their own attention to the minutest details of military administration, and to act as non- commissioned officers. The total lack of education among the men necessitated an enormous amount of writing by the officers. In the Ninth Cavalry only one man was found able to write well enough to be sergeant-major, and not for several years was it possible to obtain troop clerks. When the Tenth Cavalry was being recruited an officer was sent to Philadelphia with the express purpose of picking up educated colored men for the non-commissioned positions. Difficult as the tasks of the officers thus were, most of them felt well repaid for their unusual labors by the affectionate regard in which they were held by their soldiers, and by the never-failing good humor with which the latter went about their duties.

As the years passed the character of the colored soldiers naturally changed. In place of the war veterans, and of the men whose chains of servitude had just been struck off, came young men from the North and East with more education and more self- reliance. They depended less upon their officers, both in the barracks and in the field, yet they reverenced and cared for them as much as did their predecessors. Their greatest faults then as now were gambling and quarreling. On the other hand, the negro regiments speedily became favorably known because of greater sobriety and of fewer desertions than among the white soldiers. It was the Ninth Cavalry which a few years ago astonished the army by reporting not a single desertion in twelve months, an unheard- of and perhaps undreamed-of record. In all that goes to make a good soldier, in drill, fidelity, and smartness, the negro regular from the first took front rank.

Nor was there ever any lack of the fighting quality which had gratified the nation at Fort Wagner, or at Fort Blakely, Ala., where the Seventy-third Colored Infantry, under Colonel Henry C. Merriam, stormed the enemy's works, in advance of orders, in one of the last actions of the war. It soon fell to the lot of the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry to prove that the negroes could do as well under fire in the Indian wars as they had when fighting for the freedom of their race. While the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry had merely garrison work to do, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry scouted for years against hostile Indians in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas, always acquitting themselves honorably. In September, 1868, a little over two years after their organization, three troops of the Ninth Cavalry did well in an action against Indians at Horsehead Hills, Texas. When General George A. Forsyth and his detachment of fifty scouts were surrounded and "corralled" by seven hundred Indians on an island in the Republican River, it was the troop of Captain Louis H. Carpenter, of the Tenth Cavalry, which first came to their rescue. Similarly when Major T. T. Thornburg's command was nearly wiped out by Utes in 1879, it was Captain F. S. Dodge's Troop D of the Ninth which succeeded in reaching it in time, losing all its horses in so doing. This regiment alone took part in sixty Indian fights between 1868 and 1890, during which time it lost three officers and twenty-seven men killed, and had three officers and thirty-four men wounded. The Tenth Cavalry's casualties were also heavy during this same period, and it fought for many years over a most difficult country in New Mexico and Arizona, taking a conspicuous part in running to earth Geronimo's and Victoria's bands of Apaches.

On one of these campaigns Lieutenant Powhatan H. Clarke gave effective proof of the affection which the officers of colored regiments have for their men. In the fight in the Pineto Mountains with a portion of Geronimo's forces this young Southerner risked his life to save a colored sergeant who had fallen wounded in an open space where both he and his rescuer were easy marks for the Apaches. For this gallant act Lieutenant Clarke rightly received a medal of honor. The Twenty-fourth Infantry, on the other hand, has contributed a striking instance of the devotion of colored soldiers to their officers. When Major Joseph W. Wham, paymaster, was attacked by robbers on May 11, 1889, his colored escort fought with such gallantry that every one of the soldiers was awarded a medal of honor or a certificate of merit. Some of them stood their ground although badly wounded, notably Sergeant Benjamin Brown, who continued to fight and to encourage his men until shot through both arms. In a fight against Apaches in the Cuchilo Negro Mountains of New Mexico on August 16, 1881, Moses Williams, First Sergeant of Troop I, Ninth Cavalry, displayed such gallantry that he was given a medal of honor by common consent. When the only officer with the detachment, Lieutenant Gustavus Valois, had his horse shot under him, and was cut off from his men, Sergeant Williams promptly rallied the detachment, and conducted the right flank in a running fight for several hours with such coolness, bravery, and unflinching devotion to duty that he undoubtedly saved the lives of at least three comrades. His action in standing by and rescuing Lieutenant Valois was the more noteworthy because he and his men were subjected, in an exposed position, to a heavy fire from a large number of Indians. For splendid gallantry against Indians, while serving as sergeant of Troop K, Ninth Cavalry, on May 14, 1880, and August 12, 1881, George Jordan was also given a medal of honor. Five of the medal of honor men now in the service are colored soldiers, while fifteen others have "certificates of merit" also awarded for conspicuous deeds of bravery.

It was not until the battle of Santiago, however, that the bulk of the American people realized that the standing army comprised regiments composed wholly of black men. Up to that time only one company of colored soldiers had served at a post east of the Mississippi. Even Major, later Brigadier-General, Guy V. Henry's gallop to the rescue of the Seventh Cavalry on December 30, 1890, with four troops of the Ninth Cavalry, attracted but little attention. This feat was the more remarkable because Major Henry's command had just completed a march of more than one hundred miles in twenty-four hours. But in the battle at Santiago, the four colored regiments won praise from all sides, particularly for their advance upon Kettle Hill, in which the Rough Riders also figured. From the very beginning of the movement of the army after its landing, the negro troops were in the front of the fighting, and contributed largely to the successful result. Although they suffered heavy losses, especially in officers, the men fought with the same gallantry they had displayed on the plains, as is attested by the honors awarded. In every company there were instances of personal gallantry. The first sergeants especially lived up to the responsibilities placed upon them. The color sergeant of the Tenth Cavalry, Adam Houston, bore to the front not only his own flags, but those of the Third Cavalry when the latter's color sergeant was shot down. In several emergencies where troops or companies lost their white officers, the senior sergeants took command and handled their men in a faultless manner, notably in the Tenth Cavalry.

Indeed, the conduct of these men has done much to dispel the old belief that colored soldiers will fight only when they have efficient white officers. This may well have been true at one period of the civil war when the colored race as a whole had never even had the responsibilities attaching to free men. It is growing less and less true as time passes and better educated men enter the ranks. in recognition of their achievements at Santiago a number of these black non-commissioned officers were made commissioned officers in several of the so-called "immune" regiments of United States Volunteers raised in July, 1898. None of these organizations were in service long enough to become really efficient, and a few were never properly disciplined. Nevertheless, a majority of the officers promoted from the colored regulars bore themselves well under exceedingly trying circumstances. Some of them, and a number of regular sergeants and corporals who had succeeded to their former places, were made lieutenants and captains in the Forty-eighth and Forty-ninth Volunteer Infantry, which served in the Philippines for two years, and to which we shall recur later.

At Santiago the characteristic cheerfulness of the negro soldiers was as striking as their bravery. In his little book called The Nth Foot In War, Lieutenant M. B. Stewart says of them:-

"The negro troops were in a high good humor. They had made the charge of the day; they had fought with a dash and vigor which forever established their reputation as fighters, and which would carry them down in the pages of history. To have heard them that night no one would have ever thought that they had lived for twelve mortal hours under a galling fire. They were laughing and joking over the events of the day, in the same manner they would have done had they been returning from a picnic.

"'Golly,' laughed a six-foot sergeant, 'dere was music in de air sho' nuff. Dat lead was flying around in sheets, I tell you. I seen a buzzard flying around in front of our line, and I says to myself, "Buzzard, you is in a mighty dangerous position. You better git out uf dat, 'cause dey ain't room out dar for a muskeeter."' Another remarked, 'Say, did you see dat man Brown; pity dat man been killed. He'd a been a corporal, sho.'

"In the utter exhaustion of the moment all race and social distinctions were forgotten. Officers lay down among their men and slept like logs. The negro troops sought out soft places along the sides of the road and lay down with their white comrades. There was a little commotion among the latter, and an officer was heard to yell: 'Here, you man, take your feet off my stomach. Well, I'll be damned if it ain't a nigger. Get out, you black rascal.' As the commotion subsided, the negro was heard to remark, 'Well, if dat ain't de mos' particler man I ever see.'"

Characteristic also is a story of the negro cavalryman who, returning to the rear, said to some troops anxious to get to the front: "Dat's all right, gemmen; don't git in a sweat; dere's lots of it lef' for you. You wants to look out for dese yere sharpshooters, for dey is mighty careless with dere weapons, and dey is specially careless when dey is officers aroun'."

As soon as the army settled down in the trenches before Santiago, smuggled musical instruments-guitars, banjos, mouth organs, and what not-appeared among the negro troops as if by magic, and they were ever in use. It was at once a scene of cheerfulness and gayety, and the officers had their usual trouble in making the men go to sleep instead of spending the night in talking, singing, and gaming. In the peaceful camp of the Third Alabama, in that state, the scenes were similar. There was always "a steady hum of laughter and talk, dance, song, shout, and the twang of musical instruments." It was "a scene full of life and fun, of jostling, scuffling, and racing, of clown performances and cake-walks, of impromptu minstrelsy, speech-making, and preaching, of deviling, guying, and fighting, both real and mimic." The colonel found great difficulty in getting men to work alone. Two would volunteer for any service. "Colonel," said a visitor to the camp, "your sentinels are sociable fellows. I saw No. 5 over at the end of his beat entertaining No. 6 with some fancy manual of arms. Afterwards, with equal amiability, No. 6 executed a most artistic cake-walk for his friend." It must be remembered here that this colonel's men were typical Southern negroes, literate and illiterate, and all new to military life.

In addition to the Forty-eighth and Forty-ninth Volunteers, the four regular colored regiments have served in the Philippines. Here the work was particularly trying and the temptations to misconduct many. The Filipino women were especially attractive to the men because of their color, and it is on record that several soldiers were tempted from their allegiance to the United States. Two of these, whose sympathy and liking for the Filipinos overcame their judgment, paid the full penalty of desertion, being hanged by their former comrades. Both belonged to the Ninth Cavalry. On the other hand, in a remarkable order issued by General A. S. Burt in relinquishing command of the Twenty-fifth Infantry, on April 17, 1902, on his promotion to brigadier-general, he was able to quote the Inspector-General of the army as saying: "The Twenty- fifth Infantry is the best regiment I have seen in the Philippines." General Burt praised highly the excellent conduct of the enlisted men while in the Archipelago, which proved to his mind that the American negroes are "as law-abiding as any race in the world."

Three of General Burt's sergeants, Russell, McBryar, and Hoffman, were promoted to the Forty-eighth and Forty-ninth Volunteers, and served, as lieutenants, for several months with their old regiment, the Twenty-fifth, until the arrival of their new regiments in Manila. During this time they were frequently under fire. General Burt bore high testimony to their soldierly bearing, their capacity and ability, and expressed great regret when he was forced to let them go. McBryar had won a medal of honor for gallantry against Indians in Arizona in 1890. In the Forty-ninth Volunteers, Company L, composed wholly of colored men, and commanded by Captain Edward L. Baker, a colored veteran of Santiago, who had served for seventeen years in the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and in the Tenth "Immunes," made a wonderful record. According to a statement which was widely published at the time and never denied, this company had on its rolls during a period of twelve months one hundred and six men who were fit for duty at all times and never lost a day on account of sickness. No white company remotely approached this record. More extraordinary still is the fact that during this same period not one of these men ever went before a court-martial. This is surely a striking illustration of what can be done by colored officers. It is noticeable, too, that neither the officers nor the men of any colored regiment have figured in the charges and counter-charges arising out of the use of the water-torture, except one man who at the time of his offense was not with his regiment. The Forty- ninth Volunteers was a very unhappy regiment during its brief life, but its troubles were largely due to its white officers. One of these, a major, was dismissed for misconduct, and his place was filled by the senior captain, a colored man. Several other white officers and one colored captain got into serious trouble, the last being dismissed. The Forty-eighth was, on the contrary, a contented organization in which the colored officers were treated in a kindly and courteous manner by their white associates and superiors. The two regiments afford a striking illustration of Napoleon's saying, "There are no such things as poor regiments,-only poor colonels."

The negro regiment unquestionably calls for different treatment from that which would be accorded to white troops, just as the Indian troops of King Edward's army require different handling from that called for in the case of the King's Royal Rifles. Yet as fighting machines, the Indian soldiers may be the equals if not the superiors of the Englishmen. Major Robert L. Bullard, Twenty- eighth United States Infantry who commanded the colored Third Alabama Volunteers, already referred to, during the war with Spain, discusses in a remarkable paper published in the United Service Magazine for July, 1901, the differences between negro and white soldiers. They are so great, he says, as to require the military commander to treat the negro as a different species. He must fit his methods of instruction and discipline to the characteristics of the race. Major Bullard adds that "mistakes, injustices, and failures would result from his making the same rules and methods apply to the two races without regard to how far apart set by nature or separated by evolution." But Major Bullard would unquestionably concede that these differences in no way require a treatment of the negro soldier which implies that he is an inferior being and which ever impresses upon him his inferiority. Yet this seems to have been the case in the Forty- ninth United States Volunteers.

In the regular army, as well as in the volunteers, officers have frequently appealed with success to the negroes' pride of race, and have urged them on to greater efficiency and better behavior by reminding them that they have the honor of their people in their hands. To such appeals there is ever a prompt response. One of the most effective ways of disciplining an offender is by holding him up to the ridicule of his fellows. The desire of the colored soldiers to amuse and to be amused gives the officers an easy way of obtaining a hold upon them and their affections. The regimental rifle team, the baseball nine, the minstrel troupe, and the regimental band offer positions of importance for which the competition is much keener than in the white regiments. There is also a friendly rivalry between companies, which is much missed elsewhere in the service. The negroes are natural horsemen and riders. It is a pleasure to them to take care of their mounts, and a matter of pride to keep their animals in good condition. Personally they are clean and neat, and they take the greatest possible pride in their uniforms. In no white regiment is there a similar feeling. With the negroes the canteen question is of comparatively slight importance, not only because the men can be more easily amused within their barracks, but because their appetite for drink is by no means as strong as that of the white men. Their sociability is astonishing. They would rather sit up and tell stories and crack jokes than go to bed, no matter how hard the day has been.

The dark sides are, that the negro soldiers easily turn merited punishment into martyrdom, that their gambling propensities are almost beyond control, that their habit of carrying concealed weapons is incurable, and that there is danger of serious fighting when they fall out with one another. Frequent failure to act honorably toward a comrade in some trifling matter is apt to cause scuffling and fighting until the men are well disciplined. Women are another cause of quarrels, and are at all times a potent temptation to misconduct and neglect of duty. It is very difficult to impress upon the men the value of government property, and duty which requires memorizing of orders is always the most difficult to teach. For the study of guard duty manuals or of tactics they have no natural aptitude. The non-commissioned officers are of very great importance, and in the regulars they are looked up to and obeyed implicitly, much more so than is the case with white troops. It is necessary, however, for the officers to back up the sergeants and corporals very vigorously, even when they are slightly in the wrong. Then colored men are more easily "rattled" by poor officers than are their white comrades. There was a striking instance of this two or three years ago when a newly appointed and wholly untrained white officer lost his head at a post in Texas. His black subordinates, largely recruits, followed suit, and in carrying out his hysterical orders imperiled many lives in the neighboring town. Selections for service with colored troops should therefore be most carefully made. Major Bullard declares that the officer of negro troops "must not only be an officer and a gentleman, but he must be considerate, patient, laborious, self-sacrificing, a man of affairs, and he must have knowledge and wisdom in a great lot of things not really military."

If the position of a white officer is a difficult one, that of the colored officer is still more so. He has not the self-assumed superiority of the white man, naturally feels that he is on trial, and must worry himself incessantly about his relations to his white comrades of the shoulder straps. While the United States Navy has hitherto been closed to negroes who aspire to be officers, the army has pursued a wiser and more just policy. The contrast between the two services is really remarkable. On almost every war vessel white and black sailors sleep and live together in crowded quarters without protest or friction. But the negro naval officer is kept out of the service by hook or by crook for the avowed reason that the cramped quarters of the wardroom would make association with him intolerable. In the army, on the other hand, the experiment of mixed regiments has never been tried. A good colored soldier can nevertheless obtain a commission by going through West Point, or by rising from the ranks, or by being appointed directly from civil life.

Since the foundation of the Military Academy there have been eighteen colored boys appointed to West Point, of whom fifteen failed in their preliminary examinations, or were discharged after entering because of deficiency in studies. Three were graduated and commissioned as second lieutenants of cavalry, Henry Ossian Flipper, John Hanks Alexander, and Charles Young. Of these, Lieutenant Flipper was dismissed June 30, 1882, for "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." The other two proved themselves excellent officers, notably Young, who is at this writing a captain, and a most efficient one, in the Ninth Cavalry, with which he recently served in the Philippines. Lieutenant Alexander died suddenly in 1894. In announcing his death in a regimental order his colonel spoke of him in terms of high praise, and did not use the customary stereotyped phrases of regret. His fellow white officers all had good words for him. There never was more striking testimony to the discipline and spirit of fairness at West Point than was afforded by the sight of Cadet Charles Young, who is of very dark complexion, commanding white cadets. Nothing else has impressed foreign visitors at West Point half so much.

An equally remarkable happening, and one which speaks even more for the democratic spirit in the army, was the commissioning in 1901 of Sergeant-Major Benjamin O. Davis, Ninth Cavalry, and of Corporal John E. Green, Twenty-fourth Infantry. Both these men were examined by boards of white officers, who might easily have excluded them because of color prejudice, in which case there would have been no appeal from their findings. Lieutenant Davis's former troop commander, a West Pointer, openly rejoiced at his success, and predicted that he would make an excellent officer. These are the first two colored men to rise from the ranks, but there will be many more if the same admirable spirit of fair play continues to rule in the army and is not altered by outside prejudice. It was thought that there would be a severe strain upon discipline when a colored officer rose to the rank of captain and to the command of white officers. But in Captain Young's case his white subordinates seem to have realized that it is the position and rank that they are compelled to salute and obey, and not the individual. This principle is at the bottom of all discipline. Only too frequently do subordinates throughout the army have to remind themselves of this when obeying men for whose social qualities and character they have neither regard nor respect. During the war with Spain Captain Young commanded a negro battalion from Ohio, which was pronounced the best drilled organization in the large army assembled at Camp Alger near Washington. In addition to these officers, Captain John R. Lynch, formerly a Congressman from Mississippi, and four colored chaplains represent their race on the commissioned rolls of the army. All of these men are doing well. One colored chaplain was dismissed for drunkenness in 1894. Beyond this their record is unblemished.

Despite the fairness shown in these appointments, there has been considerable very just criticism of the War Department for its failure to appoint to the regulars any of the colored officers who did well in the Forty-eighth and Forty-ninth Volunteers. Every colonel of volunteers was allowed to designate for examination for appointment to the regular army the best officers in his regiment. Hundreds of white officers were selected in this way, but not a single colored officer was given an examination,-not even Lieutenant McBryar, with his medal of honor, or Captain Baker. Similarly fault has been found with Secretary Root because no new colored regiments were established under the law of February 2, 1901, increasing the army by five regiments of infantry, five of cavalry, and a large number of companies of artillery. The excuse most often heard is that the negroes already have sufficient representation in comparison with the percentage of negroes to white persons within the borders of the United States. But the sterling characteristics of the colored soldiers, their loyalty to the service as shown by the statistics of desertion, and, above all, their splendid service in Cuba, should have entitled them to additional organizations. To say the least, the decision of the War Department smacks considerably of ingratitude. Nevertheless, the negro regiments have come to stay, both in the regulars and in the volunteers. The hostilities of the last five years have dispelled any doubt which may have existed upon this point.

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