[1776 to 1941]
I once had a conversation with historian Stephen Ambrose, who was
gracious enough to listen quietly as I made a complaint about the movie
Saving Private Ryan. Ambrose had served as consultant on the movie, and
so I asked him why black soldiers had been left out of the D-Day
invasion. He told me he had provided the filmmakers with information
about several hundred blacks at Utah and Omaha Beach on D-Day, but that the story was taken in a “different direction.” Among the ablest historians of World War II, Ambrose believed that racism was at the heart of Nazi philosophy, and that its arteries extended to many nations, including our own. He assured me that military historians were taking a fresh look at the subject and that Americans would come to learn and appreciate more about the contributions of African-American soldiers throughout American history.
Black Soldiers and American Freedom
On the night of March 5, 1770, Crispus Attucks, a free black
dockworker, marched together with fifty laborers and sailors into a
dangerous confrontation with British soldiers, whose presence in Boston
was sharply resented. The soldiers fired into the crowd and Attucks
fell instantly, becoming the first of five men to die that night.
American patriots hailed Attucks’s heroism and declared the Boston
Massacre the event that sparked the American Revolution.
In January 1776, Gen. George Washington finally lifted a prohibition
against black enlistment in the Continental Army, thus opening the
ranks to free black men. Some colonies also allowed slaves to win their
freedom by serving the American forces. Between 5,000 and 8,000 blacks
fought for the patriot cause. At the climactic Battle of Yorktown,
about a quarter of Washington’s Continental Army was made up of black
soldiers. More than 10,000 enslaved men, women, and children also
provided labor for the Americans, transporting munitions, provisions,
and constructing fortifications and barricades in the Thirteen
Colonies. Interestingly, many enslaved Americans took advantage of a
British offer of freedom in return for military service, and more than
20,000 slaves fought and labored for the British side during the war.
By the time of the War of 1812, federal law restricted militia service
to “free and able-bodied white citizens,” and the U.S. Army and Marine
Corps did not permit blacks to enlist. Although free blacks and slaves
did fill support roles as laborers and teamsters in army camps, the
navy was the only service that officially admitted blacks in a fighting
capacity. Black troops served at the Battle of Lake Erie and at the
Battle of New Orleans, under the command of Gen. Andrew Jackson,
although they were excluded from later parades commemorating the New
From the opening salvo of the Civil War, thousands of free blacks and
fugitive slaves volunteered for the Union Army, only to be denied
service by President Lincoln, who maintained that the war was being
fought to restore the Union, not to end slavery. Believing the war
would be short-lived and the Union successfully restored, Lincoln
prohibited black soldiers from the Union ranks in order to avoid
angering his own border states, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and
Missouri, where slavery was still protected by the Constitution.
However, as the war dragged on, President Lincoln’s slavery policy (or
strategy) changed profoundly. On September 22, 1862, he issued a
preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which effectively warned that if
the South did not end its rebellion within 100 days (by January 1,
1863) all slaves in the South were to be freed. The edict also
permitted former slaves and northern blacks to enter the armed
On July 18, 1863, the Massachusetts 54th, the first all-black regiment
organized in the North, fought courageously during an attack on Fort
Wagner in South Carolina. Though underpaid and often assigned hard
labor, black men signed up by the thousands. Volunteers from South
Carolina, Tennessee, and Massachusetts filled the first authorized
black regiments. By the end of the Civil War, about 179,000 black men
served as soldiers in the Union army (comprising 10 percent of that
force), and another 19,000 served in the navy.
On April 9, 1865, at the Appomattox Court House, twelve “colored”
regiments, or about 3,500 black soldiers, stood guard outside along
with white Union soldiers as Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen.
Ulysses S. Grant. About 38,000 black soldiers died during the war. With
nearly eighty black commissioned officers, black soldiers served in
artillery and infantry and performed support functions that sustained
the army. Black carpenters, blacksmiths, cooks, laborers, teamsters,
nurses, scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, and surgeons also contributed
to the war cause. Black women, who were not formally allowed to join
the army, served as nurses, spies, and scouts–among them, Harriet
Tubman, the Union’s most famous scout.
So impressed were American military commanders by the bravery and valor of the Union’s black soldiers that in July of 1866, the first black post—Civil War regiments came into existence by an act of Congress, approved by President Andrew Johnson. By April 1867, six regiments of African-American soldiers were recruited into the regular peacetime army. Many were veteran United States Colored Troops from the Civil War, but among them were also newly freed slaves who wanted to serve
their country. Organized as the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 38th through 41st Infantries, each regiment consisted of approximately a thousand men. In 1869 the infantry regiments were consolidated into two, the 24th and 25th. All four regiments–two of cavalry and two of infantry–were sent to the western frontier to fight in the Indian wars.
In the winter of 1867—68, the newly formed 9th and 10th Cavalries were
engaged in Gen. Philip Sheridan’s campaign against the native Comanche,
Kiowa, and Cheyenne in Texas and the western Oklahoma Territory. In the cold, harsh winters, the black soldiers wore coats made of buffalo hides. On account of the appearance of those coats and their own tightly curled hair, the Indians called them the “Buffalo Soldiers.” According to legend, it was the fighting spirit of the black soldiers that reminded the Native Americans of the bison, and the soldiers accepted the name as a term of honor and respect. About twenty years later, when designs for regimental coats of arms were being prepared, the 9th Cavalry adopted a galloping Indian-on-a-pony as its emblem, and “We Can, We Will” as its motto. The 10th Cavalry took the buffalo as its crest, and “Ready and Forward” became its motto.
Their duties were not limited to fighting. Known as “guardian angels,”
the Buffalo Soldiers protected frontier towns and farms, wagon trains,
stagecoaches, and Pony Express riders. Guarding railroad work crews and
cattle herds, the black troops also built and repaired frontier forts
and outposts. Stringing hundreds of miles of telegraph lines, they
explored and mapped vast areas of the Southwest, and helped develop the
early national parks. In garrison, the Buffalo Soldiers drilled, stood
guard, and maintained horses, weapons, and equipment. Serving
fifty-nine forts of the Old West, the black regiments developed into
four of the most distinguished fighting units in the army during the
remainder of the nineteenth century. Though completely overlooked in
Hollywood’s glamorization of the cavalry-to-the-rescue myth, black
soldiers made up over 20 percent of the cavalry engaged in the Indian
wars, fighting in 85 percent of the Indian battles.
In 1877, Henry O. Flipper became the first African American to graduate
from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Promoted to lead
a 10th Cavalry unit, he saw his promising career ended in 1881 with a
dishonorable discharge. His commanding officer had charged him with
embezzling $3,791.77 from commissary funds. Flipper denied the charge,
claiming he was framed by white officers who disliked him because of
his color. A court-martial cleared Flipper of the embezzlement charge
but convicted him of conduct unbecoming of an officer and ordered him
dismissed from the army. He died in 1940 without vindication. In 1976
the U.S. Army changed his discharge to honorable and a pardon issued by
President Bill Clinton in 1999 completely cleared Flipper’s name.
On the seas, Capt. Michael A. Healy, the highest-ranking black officer
in the Revenue Cutter Service (precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard)
commanded the cutter Bear from 1887 to 1895. In charge of patrolling
Pacific waters from San Francisco to the Aleutian Islands, Captain
Healy was considered by many the best sailor of the North Pacific.
Commended by the U.S. Congress for his seafaring skills, an article in
the January 28, 1884, New York Sun termed the black captain among the
world’s best seamen: “Captain Mike Healy is a good deal more
distinguished person in the waters of the far Northwest than any
president of the United States or any potentate in Europe has yet
By the 1890s, Native Americans had been defeated and confined to
reservations. On February 15, 1898, the battleship Maine exploded in
Havana harbor and twenty-two Buffalo Soldiers were among the 266
fatalities. Again, the U.S. Army’s four black regiments were sent to
war, distinguishing themselves in the ten-month-long Cuban campaign. In
the famous charge up San Juan Hill, the black cavalrymen saved Col.
Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders from being massacred. Attacking through barbed wire and cannon fire, the 10th Cavalry charged up the steep hill to draw enemy fire away from the Rough Riders, capture the lethal blockhouse, and plant the flag of the 10th Cavalry on San Juan Hill.
Gen. John J. Pershing witnessed and later wrote about the heroism of
the regiment’s charge: “The losses of the day were heavy–the Tenth
Cavalry losing half of its officers and twenty percent of its men. We
officers of the Tenth Cavalry could have taken our black heroes in our
arms. They had again fought their way into our affections, as they here
had fought their way into the hearts of the American people.”
In 1899, the United States sent troops to the Philippines to stop an
insurrection. For the next three years, portions of all four regiments
saw action in the Philippines. In 1903, the Buffalo Soldiers served as
a presidential escort during President Roosevelt’s visit to San
Francisco–the first time black soldiers were assigned to protect an
American president. The Buffalo Soldiers also patrolled and helped
develop the Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks.
In 1906, the black soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment were involved
in a racially charged incident at Fort Brown in Brownsville, Texas.
Several troopers were alleged to have “shot up the town,” killing one
resident. Although officials at Fort Brown confirmed that all black
soldiers were in their barracks at the time of the shooting, local
whites claimed that black soldiers were responsible. Without trial or
hearing, President Roosevelt ordered 167 black infantrymen discharged
without honor because of their alleged conspiracy of silence. In 1972
the U.S. Congress finally rescinded the less-than-honorable discharges
and restored the members of the 25th Infantry Regiment to good
standing. In 1916, when Pancho Villa crossed the border and invaded New Mexico, the 24th and 25th Infantries and the 10th Cavalry were sent to the border to assist General Pershing in his pursuit of the Mexican general. Between 1866 and 1912, twenty-three black soldiers won the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award.
Saving the President:
The McKinley Assassination
On September 11, 1901, President William McKinley lay in a Buffalo
hospital bed, bleeding for a fifth day from two gunshot wounds to his
stomach. A third shot would have killed the president instantly, the
doctors surmised, and for one week, James Benjamin Parker, a black
waiter from Georgia, was a national hero, for he had stopped the
assassin from firing a third time.
On the previous Friday afternoon at 4:07 p.m., the president stood
patiently greeting the first of more than a thousand well-wishers at
the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Among those waiting
to meet the president were Parker, the waiter, and Leon Czolgosz
(pronounced: showl-golz), a son of Polish-German parents who had waited
since morning to get near McKinley. At six feet six inches tall, Parker
was likely more conspicuous than Czolgosz, who stood a few feet ahead
of him in line.
Czolgosz, like many other people in the hot room–it was about
ninety-five degrees–carried a white handkerchief, either to wipe their
brows, or wave at the President. Unnoticed by Secret Service agents,
local police, and military guards, his handkerchief-wrapped hand
concealed a five-shot .32-caliber revolver.
He fired two shots rapidly and the president grimaced and buckled to
the floor. According to eyewitness accounts, Parker was the first to
react–even before the security contingent. He lunged forward, knocked
the gun from the attacker’s hand, and tackled him to the ground.
Newspapers also circulated the story of the “Herculean Negro . . .
Big Ben” who had saved the president’s life. In a speech before 4,000
people in Charleston, Booker T. Washington hailed Parker’s role as one
of the greatest patriotic acts of any American. A black man, he
emphasized, had risked his own life to save the nation’s leader and an
act of deadly violence had been stopped. A song was written honoring
Parker. In the terrible national tragedy, he emerged as an authentic
“I am glad that I was able to be of service to the country,” said
Parker. But McKinley did not survive. Infection had caused the onset of
gangrene in his pancreas, and on the fourteenth of September the
The assassin’s trial was a quick affair. A jury found Czolgosz guilty,
and less than two weeks after McKinley’s death he was executed in the
Parker’s heroic reputation lasted only briefly. He wondered why he was
not asked to testify at the trial. No doubt it was because the Secret
Service issued a statement declaring that he had played no role in the
apprehension of the assassin. Many newspapers that had criticized the
agency for failure to protect the president quickly retracted Parker’s
heroism. Many black newspapers took issue with the Secret Service’s
disavowal of Parker’s “heroic” role.
Parker’s dismissal as a hero angered Booker T. Washington. In an
uncustomary and arguably the most militant statement of his public
life, Washington directly associated the president’s death with his
perception of the growing and pervasive violence in America in
1901–aimed particularly at African Americans:
In all sincerity, I want to ask, is Czolgosz alone guilty? Has not the
entire Nation had a part in this greatest crime of the century? What is
Anarchy but a defiance of law, and has not the Nation reaped what it
has been sowing? According to records, 2,516 persons have been lynched
in the United States during the past sixteen years. There are or have
been engaged in this anarchy of lynching nearly 125,000 persons.
Violence could devastate America, warned Washington, if the nation did
not take a stand against racial hatred.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Fighting for America by Chrisopher Paul Moore. Copyright © 2004 by Christopher Moore. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.