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Home | Cold War Turns Hot | The Armed Forces Integrate | What the Experts Say

Early History of the Black Soldier - The American Revolution and the Civil War

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Ellis: What were the facts that he laid out that were generally true?

Hammond: There was a lot of running that occurred. But why? And to deal with that you have to deal with the whole history of the black soldier, going back into the 19th century. We had something like 5,000 black people who fought in the American Revolution and got precious little credit for it. In the Battle of New Orleans, we had a whole regiment of people of color who stood side by side with Andrew Jackson, who despised black people—being a Tennesseean and a very southern southerner. In the Civil War, the Army inducted more than 100,000 black soldiers. It's interesting, black soldiers in those days tended to get the very finest officers. In part this was because the commanders knew they would need leadership because most of them couldn't read. The language they spoke was a kind of a slave language, mixture of African and English. You had to have considerable patience to deal with these people. When they fought, they did as well as anybody else and in some respects they were more highly motivated to do well and they did better. Most of the time, however, because of the communication and training problems, they were left in the rear to do guard duty, to help maintain roads and such. These are soldiers' jobs, we call them engineers, but they didn't get to the primary fighting roles that they would have if they were longer in mainstream society than they were, if you know what I mean.

Soldiers who are moving on a frontline and fighting never stayed in one place too long. Soldiers in the rear who have more housekeeping duties and guard duties tend to stay in places a lot longer. The black soldiers because of that died like flies, because they had all the sanitation problems that the moving soldiers didn't have to deal with. They had latrines perhaps that were built in the wrong places, garbage that built up around camps and all of this breeds pestilence and so on. These people became victims of it.

They came out of the Civil War and there was a real demand that black soldiers be incorporated into the United States Army; they had served. The black Republicans, the abolitionist Republicans insisted on this too. So the government set up a number of regiments to accommodate these men. The 24th was one of them. You also had the 24th and 25th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry. They were all black, which is kind of ironic because segregation didn't even exist in that world and the United States Army was the precursor of segregation just as later it will become the precursor of integration. The Army doesn't want to get ahead of the society and they could see that given the prejudices in the society that there would be all kinds of problems in units where blacks were treated like whites and where blacks lived with whites. In that day and age.

They set them off and moved them to the frontier rather quickly where they didn't get too much attention. They fought Indians. The 9th and 10th cavalry tended to be the ones who fought Indians. And the infantry who had to walk or ride in wagons continued to do the kind of dirty work, but they did fight too. A couple of them got Medals of Honor in the Indian Wars. One guy got a Medal of Honor for facing down a bunch of bank robbers - trying to hold up commissary wagon that had the pay for a camp. Fellow was very brave in holding them off and was given a medal of honor. Medal of Honor was given a little more leniently in those days, but not much. Today you can only get it in times of war. Those days if you did anything remarkable, you could technically get it. Law changed over time. I am not saying this to diminish what the fellow did, but a lot of people will say, "Well, that wasn't wartime." But law changed over time.

Next: Black Soldiers in WWI and WWII