Short History of the American Negro - Benjamin Brawley

The Negro as a Soldier

117. General Tribute.—The tributes that have been paid to the courage and valor of the Negro American soldier are many. The best of these is probably the address of Dr. Booker T. Washington at the Chicago Peace Jubilee, October 16, 1898, of which a Chicago newspaper said that it contained one of the most eloquent tributes ever paid to the loyalty and valor of the colored race, and at the same time was one of the most powerful appeals for justice to a race which has always chosen the better part. As generally representative of what has been said, we may accept the words of a correspondent of the Atlanta Journal written near the end of July, 1898, with reference to the conduct of Negroes in the Spanish-American War: "Physically the colored troops are the best men in the army, especially the men in the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry. Every one of them is a giant. The Negroes in the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry, too, are all big fellows. The Negroes seemed to be absolutely without fear, and certainly no troops 179) ?> advanced more promptly when the order was given than they."

118. Heroism in the Revolutionary War.—It is impossible within our limits to take note of all the Negroes who have in one way or another especially distinguished themselves in the wars of the United States. Only the foremost figures can receive attention. On March 5, 1770, occurred the Boston Massacre, occasioned by the conduct of some British soldiers who were arrogantly marching through State Street. An attack of some citizens upon these soldiers was led by Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave, who was a very tall and commanding figure. When the English troops fired, Attucks and three of the citizens were killed, the Negro being the first man to die. The Attucks Monument on Boston Common commemorates the deed. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, when Major Pitcairn of the British army was exulting in his expected triumph, Peter Salem, a Negro, rushed forward, shot him in the breast, and killed him. When Colonel Barton of the American army undertook to capture General Prescott while the royal army was stationed at Newport, R. I., his chief assistant the man who really captured Prescott in bed was a Negro named Prince.

119. The War of 1812.—In the War of 1812 New York authorized the raising of two regiments of 'freedmen of color'—to receive the same pay and allowance as whites—and provided that 'any able-bodied slave' might enlist therein 'with the written consent of his master or mistress,' who was to receive his pay aforesaid, while the Negro received his freedom, being manumitted at the time of his honorable discharge." While General Andrew Jackson was in command at Mobile, some American troops that had charged the British were retreating in disorder when a Negro named Jeffreys saved the day by placing himself at the head of the troops and rallying them to the charge. In preparing for the defense of New Orleans, Jackson called on the Negroes for assistance, and on December 18th he addressed to them words of commendation, in part as follows: "Soldiers: From the shores of Mobile I collected you to arms. I invited you to share in the perils and to divide the glory with your white countrymen. I expected much from you, for I was not uninformed of those qualities which must render you so formidable to an invading foe. I knew that you could endure hunger and thirst and all the hardships of war. I knew that you loved the land of your nativity, and that, like ourselves, you had to defend all that is most dear to man. But you have surpassed all my hopes. I have found in you, united to these qualities, that noble enthusiasm which impels to great deeds." The Negroes were especially distinguished for their conduct at the Battle of New Orleans. About four hundred were in the engagement, and one of them gave Jackson the suggestion for his famous cotton breastworks. The conduct of the Negro in the navy may be seen from the statement by Commodore Chauncey in a letter to Captain Perry to the effect that he had fifty Negroes on his ship and that they were among his best men.

120. Heroism in the Civil War. In the Civil War the Negro troops were especially distinguished for their heroism at Port Hudson, Fort Wagner, Fort Pillow, and around Petersburg. Some important operations culminated on July 8, 1863, in the capture of the Confederate batteries at Port Hudson, a small village on the left bank of the Mississippi River, about 135 miles above New Orleans. A Negro regiment under Colonel Nelson was prominent in the operations of the siege on May 27th. To it was assigned the task of taking an almost impregnable fort. The Negro soldiers could not possibly succeed, because a bayou that they had to cross was too deep; still they made seven desperate charges, for this was one of their very first opportunities in the war and their valor was being tested. Said the New York Times  of the battle: "General Dwight, at least, must have had the idea not only that they (the Negro troops) were men, but something more than men, from the terrific test to which he put their valor. . . Their colors are torn to pieces by shot, and literally bespattered by blood and brains. . . . One black lieutenant actually mounted the enemy's works three or four times, and in one charge the assaulting party came within fifty paces of them." This was the occasion on which Color-Sergeant Anselmas Planciancois said before a shell blew off his head, "Colonel, I will bring back these colors to you on honor, or report to God the reason why."

On June 6th the Negroes again distinguished themselves and won friends by their bravery at Milliken's Bend. The 54th Massachusetts, commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, was conspicuous in the attempt to take Fort Wagner, on Morris Island near Charleston, July 18, 1863. The regiment had marched two days and two nights through swamps and drenching rains in order to be in time for the assault. In the engagement nearly all the officers of the regiment were killed, among them Colonel Shaw. The picturesque deed was that of Sergeant William H. Carney, who seized the regiment's colors from the hand of a falling comrade and planted the flag on the works, and who, when borne bleeding and mangled off the field, said, "Boys, the old flag never touched the ground." Fort Pillow, a position on the Mississippi, about fifty miles above Memphis, was when attacked April 13, 1864, garrisoned by 557 men, 262 of whom were Negroes. The fort was taken by the Confederates, but the feature of the engagement was the stubborn resistance offered by the Union troops in the face of great odds.

In the Mississippi Valley, and in the Department of the South, the Negro had now done excellent work as a soldier. In the spring of 1864 he made his appearance in the Army of the Potomac. Around Richmond and Petersburg in July, 1864, there was considerable skirmishing between the Federal and the Confederate forces. Burnside, commanding a corps composed partly of Negroes, dug under a Confederate fort a trench a hundred and fifty yards long. This was filled with explosives, and on July 30th the match was applied and the famous crater formed. Just before the explosion the Negroes had figured in a gallant charge on the Confederates. The plan was to follow the eruption by an even more formidable charge, in which Burnside wanted to give his Negro troops the lead. A dispute about this and a settlement by lot resulted in the awarding of precedence to a New Hampshire regiment. Said General Grant later of the whole unfortunate episode: "General Burnside wanted to put his colored division in front; I believe if he had done so it would have been a success." With reference to the Negro and his conduct at home during the Civil War, no words better sum up his position than those of Dr. Washington: "When the long and memorable struggle came between union and separation, when he knew that victory on one hand meant freedom, and defeat on the other his continued enslavement, with a full knowledge of the portentous meaning of it all, when the suggestion and temptation came to burn the home and massacre wife and children during the absence of the master in battle, and thus insure his liberty, we find him choosing the better part, and for four long years protecting and supporting the helpless, defenseless ones entrusted to his care."

121. The Spanish-American War.—There are four regiments of colored regulars in the army of the United States, the Twenty-fourth Infantry, the Twenty-fifth Infantry, the Ninth Cavalry, and the Tenth Cavalry. These fought during the last years of the Civil War, and entered the regular service in 1866. These regiments formed part of the force of the Americans in the Santiago campaign. Various volunteer companies were raised in Alabama, Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, and Ohio. The eighth Illinois was officered throughout by Negroes, J. R. Marshall commanding; and Brevet-Major Charles E. Young, a West Point graduate, was in charge of the Ohio battalion. The very first regiment ordered to the front when the war broke out in 1898 was the Twenty-fourth Infantry; and Negro troops were conspicuous in the fighting around Santiago. They figured in a brilliant charge at Las Quasimas on June 24th, and in an attack on July 1st upon a garrison at El Caney (a position of importance for securing possession of a line of hills along the San Juan River, a mile and a half from Santiago) the First Volunteer Cavalry (Colonel Roosevelt's "Rough Riders") was practically saved from annihilation by the gallant work of the men of the Tenth Cavalry. Fully as patriotic, though in another way, was the deed of the Twenty-fourth Infantry. A yellow fever hospital was to be cleansed and some victims of the disease nursed. Learning that General Miles desired a regiment for this work, the Twenty-fourth volunteered its services. By one day's work the men had succeeded in clearing away the rubbish and in so cleaning the camp that the number of cases was greatly reduced.

122. Brownsville. In 1906 occurred an incident affecting the Negro in the army that received an extraordinary amount of attention in the public press. In August, 1906, Companies B, C, and D of the Twenty-fifth Regiment United States Infantry were stationed at Fort Brown, Brownsville, Texas. On the night of the 13th took place a riot in which one citizen of the town was killed, another wounded, and the chief of police injured. The people of the town accused the soldiers of causing the riot; and on November 9th President Roosevelt dismissed "without honor" the entire battalion, disqualifying its members for service thereafter in either the military or the civil employ of the United States. When Congress met in December Senator Foraker of Ohio placed himself at the head of the critics of the President's action; and on January 22nd the Senate authorized a general investigation of the whole matter, a special message from the President on the 14th having revoked the civil disability of the discharged soldiers. The case was finally disposed of by a congressional act approved March 3, 1909. The full text of this important act reads as follows:—

"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Secretary of War is hereby authorized to appoint a court of inquiry, to consist of five officers of the United States Army, not below the rank of colonel, which court shall be authorized to hear and report upon all charges and testimony relating to the shooting affray which took place at Brownsville, Texas, on the night of August thirteenth—fourteenth, nineteen hundred and six. Said court shall, within one year from the date of its appointment, make a final report, and from time to time shall make partial reports, to the Secretary of War of the results of such inquiry, and such soldiers and non-commissioned officers of Companies B, C, and D, of the Twenty-fifth Regiment United States Infantry, who were discharged from the military service as members of said regiment, under the provisions of Special Orders, Numbered Two hundred and sixty-six, dated at the War Department the ninth day of November, nineteen hundred and six, as said court shall find and report as qualified for re-enlistment in the Army of the United States shall thereby become eligible for re-enlistment.

"Sec. 2. That any noncommissioned officer or private who shall be made eligible for re-enlistment under the provisions of the preceding section shall, if re-enlisted, be considered to have re-enlisted immediately after this discharge under the provisions of the special order hereinbefore cited, and be entitled, from the date of his discharge under said special order, to the pay, allowances, and other rights and benefits that he would have been entitled to receive according to his rank from said date of discharge as if he had been honorably discharged under the provisions of said special order and have re-enlisted immediately."

123. Carrizal.—It was seven years after the Brownsville incident that once more, at an unexpected moment, the loyalty and heroism of the Negro soldier impressed the American people. Once more the tradition of Fort Wagner was preserved and passed on. The expedition of American forces into Mexico in 1916, with the political events attending this, is a long story. The outstanding incident, however, was that in which two troops of the Tenth Cavalry engaged. Said the Review of Reviews  in reporting the occurrence: "The unfortunate occurrence at Carrizal on June 21 involves questions of fact upon which we are not prepared to express an opinion. About eighty colored troopers from the Tenth Cavalry had been sent a long distance away from the main line of the American army, on some such ostensible errand as the pursuit of a deserter. The situation being as it was, it might well seem that this venture was highly imprudent. At or near the town of Carrizal, our men seem to have chosen to go through the town rather than around it, and the result was a clash which resulted in the death of Captain Boyd, who commanded the detachment, and some twenty of his men, twenty-two others being taken prisoners by the Mexicans. According to Mexican accounts, our troops made the attack; according to reports of our own men, the Mexicans set a trap and opened fire. Meanwhile all other phases of the Mexican problem seemed for the moment to have been forgotten at Washington in the demand for the release of the twenty-two men who had been captured. There was of course no reason for holding them, and they were brought up to El Paso within a few days and sent across the line." Thus, though "some one had blundered," these men still did their duty. "Theirs not to make reply; theirs but to do and die." So in the face of odds they fought like heroes and lay dead beneath the Mexican stars.

124. The Great War in Europe.—The remarkable record made by the Negro in the previous wars of the country was fully equaled by that in the recent Great War. Negro soldiers fought with special distinction in the Argonne Forest, at Chateau Thierry, in Belleau Wood, in the St. Mihiel district, in the Champagne sector, at Metz, Vosges, etc., winning the highest praise from their French and American commanders. Entire regiments of Negro troops were cited for exceptional valor and decorated with the French Croix de Guerre—the 369th, the 371St, and the 372d; while groups of officers and men of the 365th, the 366th, the 368th, the 370th, and the first battalion of the 367th were also decorated. At the close of the war the highest Negro officers in the army were Colonel Charles Young (retired), on special duty at Camp Grant, Ill., Colonel Franklin A. Dennison, of the 370th Infantry, formerly the Eighth Illinois; and Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, of the Ninth Cavalry. Interest attaches to Colonel Davis as the highest Negro officer in active service in the regular army of the United States. Of Colonel Dennison the New York Evening Post  said: "He has the distinction of being Colonel of the only Negro regiment officered entirely by soldiers of that race." This organization was the first American regiment stationed in the St. Mihiel sector; it was one of three that occupied a sector at Verdun when a penetration there would have been disastrous to the Allied cause; and it went direct from the training camp to the firing line.

Especially noteworthy was the record of the 369th Infantry, formerly the Fifteenth Regiment, New York National Guard. This organization of fighters, in addition to having 191 of its members cited for valorous deeds performed in action, was also decorated as a unit, as has been said. At one period it was under shellfire for 191 days, and it held one trench for 91 days without relief. It was the first unit of Allied fighters to reach the Rhine, going down as an advance guard of the French army of occupation. A prominent hero in this regiment was Sergeant Henry Johnson, who returned with the Croix de Guerre with one star and one palm. He is credited with routing a party of Germans at Bois-Hanzey in the Argonne on May 5, 1918, with singularly heavy losses to the enemy.

Of such quality was the Negro soldier in battle. Hardly less heroic was the sturdy service of stevedore regiments, or of the thousands of men in the army who did not go to France but who did their duty as they were commanded at home. The testimony of those who could speak authoritatively more than justified the reputation of the Negro soldier for valor. General Vincenden, the French commanding officer, said of the men of the 370th: "Fired by a noble ardor, they go at times even beyond the objectives given them by the higher command; they have always wished to be in the front line." General Duplossis saluted "the brave American (Negro) regiments that rivaled in intrepidity their French comrades." On the occasion of their leaving France,. General Coybet said to the 37Ist and 372d that had been brigaded with the 157th French Division: "For seven months we have lived as brothers-at-arms, partaking of the same activities, sharing the same hardships and the same dangers. Side by side we took part in the great Champagne Battle, which was to be crowned by a tremendous victory. Never will the 157th Division forget the indomitable dash, the heroic rush of the American (Negro) regiments up the observatory ridge and into the Plain of Monthois. The most powerful defenses, the most strongly organized machine gun nests, the heaviest artillery barrages nothing could stop them. These crack regiments overcame every obstacle with a most complete contempt for danger. Through their steady devotion the Red Hand Division (157th French) for nine whole days of severe struggle was constantly leading the way for the victorious advance of the Fourth Army. Officers, non-commissioned officers and men, I respectfully salute our glorious comrades who have fallen, and I bow to your colors—side by side with this—the flag of the 333d Regiment of Infantry (French). They have shown us the way to victory. Dear Friends from America, when you reach the other side of the ocean, do not forget the Red Hand Division. Our brotherhood has been cemented in the blood of the brave, and such bonds will never be destroyed."