The Military history of African Americans spans from the arrival of the first black slaves during the colonial history of the United States to the present day. There has been no war fought by or within the United States in which African Americans did not participate, including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican–American War, the Civil War, the Spanish–American War, the World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other minor conflicts.
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African-Americans as slaves and free blacks served on both sides during the war. Gary Nash reports that recent research concludes there were about 9000 black Patriot soldiers, counting the Continental Army and Navy, and state militia units, as well as privateers, wagoneers in the Army, servants to officers, and spies. Ray Raphael notes that while thousands did join the Loyalist cause, “A far larger number, free as well as slave, tried to further their interests by siding with the patriots.”
Black soldiers served in northern militias from the outset, but this was forbidden in the South, where slave-owners feared arming slaves. Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, issued an emancipation proclamation in November 1775, promising freedom to runaway slaves who fought for the British; Sir Henry Clinton issued a similar edict in New York in 1779. Over 100,000 slaves escaped to the British lines, although possibly as few as 1,000 served under arms. Many of the rest served as orderlies, mechanics, laborers, servants, scouts and guides, although more than half died in smallpox epidemics that swept the British forces, and many were driven out of the British lines when food ran low. Despite Dunmore’s promises, the majority were not given their freedom. Many Black Loyalists’ descendants now live in Canada and Sierra Leone. Many of the Black Loyalists performed military service in the British Army, particularly as part of the only Black regiment of the war the Black Pioneers, and others served non-military roles.
In response, and because of manpower shortages, Washington lifted the ban on black enlistment in the Continental Army in January 1776. All-black units were formed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts; many were slaves promised freedom for serving in lieu of their masters; another all-African-American unit came from Haiti with French forces. At least 5,000 African-American soldiers fought as Revolutionaries, and at least 20,000 served with the British.
Peter Salem and Salem Poor are the most noted of the African American Patriots during this era, and Colonel Tye was perhaps the most noteworthy Black Loyalist.
Black volunteers also served with various of the South Carolina guerrilla units, including that of the “Swamp Fox”, Francis Marion, half of whose force sometimes consisted of free Blacks. These Black troops made a critical difference in the fighting in the swamps, and kept Marion’s guerrillas effective even when many of his White troops were down with malaria or yellow fever.
The first black American to fight in the Marines was John Martin, also known as Keto, the slave of a Delaware man, recruited in April 1776 without his owner’s permission by Captain of the Marines Miles Pennington of the Continental brig USS Reprisal. Martin served with the Marine platoon on the Reprisal for a year and a half and took part in many ship-to-ship battles including boardings with hand-to-hand combat, but he was lost with the rest of his unit when the brig sank in October 1777. At least 12 other black men served with various American Marine units in 1776–1777; more may have been in service but not identified as blacks in the records. However, in 1798 when the United States Marine Corps (USMC) was officially re-instituted, Secretary of War James McHenry specified in its rules: “No Negro, Mulatto or Indian to be enlisted”. Marine Commandant William Ward Burrows instructed his recruiters regarding USMC racial policy, “You can make use of Blacks and Mulattoes while you recruit, but you cannot enlist them.” This policy was in line with long-standing British naval practice which set a higher standard of unit cohesion for Marines, the unit to be made up of only one race, so that the members would remain loyal, maintain shipboard discipline and help put down mutinies. The USMC maintained this policy until 1942.
During the War of 1812, about one-quarter of the personnel in the American naval squadrons of the Battle of Lake Erie were black, and portrait renderings of the battle on the wall of the Nation’s Capitol and the rotunda of Ohio’s Capitol show that blacks played a significant role in it. Hannibal Collins, a freed slave and Oliver Hazard Perry’s personal servant, is thought to be the oarsman in William Henry Powell’s Battle of Lake Erie. Collins earned his freedom as a veteran of the Revolutionary War, having fought in the Battle of Rhode Island. He accompanied Perry for the rest of Perry’s naval career, and was with him at Perry’s death in Trinidad in 1819.
No legal restrictions regarding the enlistment of blacks were placed on the Navy because of its chronic shortage of manpower. The law of 1792, which generally prohibited enlistment of blacks in the Army became the United States Army’s official policy until 1862. The only exception to this Army policy was Louisiana, which gained an exemption at the time of its purchase through a treaty provision, which allowed it to opt out of the operation of any law, which ran counter to its traditions and customs. Louisiana permitted the existence of separate black militia units which drew its enlistees from freed blacks.
A militia unit, The Louisiana Battalion of Free Men of Color, and a unit of black soldiers from Santo Domingo offered their services and were accepted by General Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans, a victory that was achieved after the war was officially over.
A number of African Americans in the Army during the Mexican–American War were servants of the officers who received government compensation for the services of their servants or slaves. Also, soldiers from the Louisiana Battalion of Free Men of Color participated in this war. African Americans also served on a number of naval vessels during the Mexican–American War, including the U.S.S. Treasure, and the U.S.S. Columbus.
The history of African Americans in the U.S. Civil War is marked by 186,097 (7,122 officers, 178,975 enlisted) African American men, comprising 163 units, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and many more African Americans served in the Union Navy. Both free African Americans and runaway slaves joined the fight.
On the Confederate side, blacks, both free and slave, were used for labor. In the final months of the war, the Army was so desperate for additional soldiers that the Confederate Congress voted to recruit black troops for combat; they were to be promised their freedom. Units were in training when the war ended, and none served in combat.
From 1863 to the early 20th century, African American units were utilized by the Army to combat the Native Americans during the Indian Wars. The most noted among this group were the Buffalo Soldiers:
At the end of the U.S. Civil War the army reorganized and authorized the formation of two regiments of black cavalry (the 9th and 10th US Cavalry). Four regiments of infantry (the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st US Infantry) were formed at the same time. In 1869, the four infantry regiments were merged into two new ones (the 24th and 25th US Infantry). These units were composed of black enlisted men commanded by white officers such as Benjamin Grierson, and occasionally, an African-American officer such as Henry O. Flipper. The “Buffalo Soldiers” served a variety of roles along the frontier from building roads to guarding the U.S. mail.
These regiments served at a variety of posts in the southwest United States and Great Plains regions. During this period they participated in most of the military campaigns in these areas and earned a distinguished record. Thirteen enlisted men and six officers from these four regiments earned the Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars.
After the Indian Wars ended in the 1890s, the regiments continued to serve and participated in the Spanish–American War (including the Battle of San Juan Hill), where five more Medals of Honor were earned. They took part in the 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico and in the Philippine–American War.
In addition to the African Americans who served in Regular Army units during the Spanish–American War, five African American Volunteer Army units and seven African American National Guard units also served.
Of these units, only the 9th U.S., 8th Illinois, and 23rd Kansas served outside the United States during the war. All three units served in Cuba and suffered no losses to combat.
The U.S. armed forces remained segregated through World War I. Still, many African Americans eagerly volunteered to join the Allied cause following America’s entry into the war. By the time of the armistice with Germany on November 11, 1918, over 350,000 African Americans had served with the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.
Most African American units were largely relegated to support roles and did not see combat. Still, African Americans played a notable role in America’s war effort. One of the most distinguished units was the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”, which was on the front lines for six months, longer than any other American unit in the war. 171 members of the 369th were awarded the Legion of Merit.
Corporal Freddie Stowers of the 371st Infantry Regiment that was seconded to the 157th French Army division called the Red Hand Division in need of reinforcement under the command of the General Mariano Goybet was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor—the only African American to be so honored for actions in World War I. During action in France, Stowers had led an assault on German trenches, continuing to lead and encourage his men even after being twice wounded. Stowers died from his wounds, but his men continued the fight and eventually defeated the German troops. Stowers was recommended for the Medal of Honor shortly after his death, but the nomination was, according to the Army, misplaced. Many believed that the recommendation was intentionally ignored due to institutional racism in the Armed Forces. In 1990, under pressure from Congress, the Department of the Army launched an investigation. Based on findings from this investigation, the Army Decorations Board approved the award of the Medal of Honor to Stowers. On April 24, 1991–73 years after he was killed in action—Stowers’ two surviving sisters received the Medal of Honor from President George H.W. Bush at the White House. The success of the investigation leading to Stowers’ Medal of Honor later sparked a similar review that resulted in six African Americans being posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in World War II. Vernon Baker was the only recipient who was still alive to receive his award.
Some of the most notable African American units which served in World War I were:
Support units included:
A complete list of African-American units that served in the war is published in the book Willing Patriots: Men of Color in World War One. The book is cited in the “Further Reading” section of this article.
Even though the U.S. government was nominally neutral in the wars waged by Fascists against Ethiopia and Fascists and Nazis against the Spanish Republic in the mid-1930s, African Americans found it hard to be neutral and many became Antifascist.
On October 4, 1935, Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia. Being the only non-colonized African country besides Liberia, the invasion of Ethiopia caused a profound response amongst African Americans. African Americans organized to raise money for medical supplies, and many volunteered to fight for the African kingdom. Within eight months, however, Ethiopia was overpowered by the advanced weaponry and mustard gas of the Italian forces.
Many years later Haile Selassie I would comment on the efforts: “We can never forget the help Ethiopia received from Negro Americans during the crisis. … It moved me to know that Americans of African descent did not abandon their embattled brothers, but stood by us.”
When General Franco rebelled against the newly established secular Spanish Republic, a number of African Americans volunteered to fight for Republican Spain. Many African Americans who were in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade had Communist ideals. Among these, there was Vaughn Love who went to fight for the Spanish loyalist cause because he considered Fascism to be the “enemy of all black aspirations.”
African-American activist and World War I veteran Oliver Law, fighting in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, is believed to have been the first African-American officer to command an integrated unit of soldiers.
James Peck was an African American man from Pennsylvania who was turned down when he applied to become a military pilot in the US. He then went on to serve in the Spanish Republican Air Force until 1938. Peck was credited with shooting down 5 Aviación Nacional planes, 2 Heinkel He-51s from the Legion Condor and 3 Fiat CR.32 Fascist Italian fighters.
Salaria Kee was a young African American nurse from Harlem Hospital who served as a military nurse with the American Medical Bureau in the Spanish Civil War. She was one of the two only African American female volunteers in the midst of the war-torn Spanish Republican areas. When Salaria came back from Spain she wrote the pamphlet ‘A Negro Nurse in Spain’ and tried to raise funds for the beleaguered Spanish Republic.
We call upon the president and congress to declare war on Japan and racial prejudice in our country. Certainly we should be strong enough to whip them both.
Despite a high enlistment rate in the U.S. Army, African Americans were not treated equally. Racial tensions existed. At parades, church services, in transportation and canteens the races were kept separate.
Many soldiers of color served their country with distinction during World War II. There were 125,000 African Americans who were overseas in World War II. Famous segregated units, such as the Tuskegee Airmen and 761st Tank Battalion and the lesser-known but equally distinguished 452nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion proved their value in combat, leading to desegregation of all U.S. Armed Forces by order of President Harry S. Truman in July 1948 via Executive Order 9981.
Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. served as commander of the famed Tuskegee Airmen during the War. He later went on to become the first African American general in the United States Air Force. His father, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., had been the first African American Brigadier General in the Army (1940).
Doris Miller, a Navy mess attendant
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, was the first African American recipient of the Navy Cross, awarded for his actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Miller had voluntarily manned an anti-aircraft gun and fired at the Japanese aircraft, despite having no prior training in the weapon’s use.
In 1944, the Golden Thirteen became the Navy’s first African American commissioned officers. Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. became a commissioned officer the same year; he would later be the first African American to command a US warship, and the first to be an admiral.
The Port Chicago disaster on July 17, 1944, was an explosion of about 2,000 tons of ammunition as it was being loaded onto ships by black Navy sailors under pressure from their white officers to hurry. The explosion in Northern California killed 320 military and civilian workers, most of them black. It led a month later to the Port Chicago Mutiny, the only case of a full military trial for mutiny in the history of the U.S. Navy against 50 African-American sailors who refused to continue loading ammunition under the same dangerous conditions. The trial was observed by the then young lawyer Thurgood Marshall and ended in conviction of all of the defendants. The trial was immediately and later criticized for not abiding by the applicable laws on mutiny, and it became influential in the discussion of desegregation.
During World War II, most African American soldiers still served only as truck drivers and as stevedores (except for some separate tank battalions and Army Air Forces escort fighters). In the midst of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, General Eisenhower was severely short of replacement troops for existing military units which were totally white in composition. Consequently, he made the decision to allow African American soldiers to pick up a weapon and join the white military units to fight in combat for the first time. More than 2,000 black soldiers had volunteered to go to the front. This was an important step toward a desegregated United States military. A total of 708 African Americans were killed in combat during World War II.
In 1945, Frederick C. Branch became the first African-American United States Marine Corps officer.
Some of the most notable African American Army units which served in World War II were:
Two segregated units were organized by the United States Marine Corps:
On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton, in a White House ceremony, awarded the nation’s highest military honor—the Medal of Honor—to seven African-American servicemen who had served in World War II.
The only living recipient was:
The posthumous recipients were:
African American troops faced discrimination in the form of the disproportionate issuance of blue discharges. The blue discharge (also called a “blue ticket”) was a form of administrative discharge created in 1916 to replace two previous discharge classifications, the administrative discharge without honor and the “unclassified” discharge. It was neither honorable nor dishonorable. Of the 48,603 blue discharges issued by the Army between December 1, 1941 and June 30, 1945, 10,806 were issued to African Americans. This accounts for 22.2% of all blue discharges, when African Americans made up just 6.5% of the Army in that time frame
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. Blue discharge recipients frequently faced difficulties obtaining employment and were routinely denied the benefits of the G. I. Bill by the Veterans Administration (VA). In October 1945, Black-interest newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier launched a crusade against the discharge and its abuses. Calling the discharge “a vicious instrument that should not be perpetrated against the American Soldier”, the Courier rebuked the Army for “allowing prejudiced officers to use it as a means of punishing Negro soldiers who do not like specifically unbearable conditions”. The Courier specifically noted the discrimination faced by homosexuals, another group disproportionately discharged with blue tickets, calling them “‘unfortunates’ of the Nation…being preyed upon by the blue discharge” and demanded to know “why the Army chooses to penalize these ‘unfortunates’ who seem most in need of Army benefits and the opportunity to become better citizens under the educational benefits of the GI Bill of Rights”. The Courier printed instructions on how to appeal a blue discharge and warned its readers not to quickly accept a blue ticket out of the service because of the negative effect it would likely have on their lives.
The House Committee on Military Affairs held hearings in response to the press crusade, issuing a report in 1946 that sharply criticized its use and the VA for discriminating against blue discharge holders. Congress discontinued the blue discharge in 1947, but the VA continued its practice of denying G. I. Bill benefits to blue-tickets.
On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 integrating the military and mandating equality of treatment and opportunity. It also made it illegal, per military law, to make a racist remark. Desegregation of the military was not complete for several years, and all-black Army units persisted well into the Korean War. The last all-black unit wasn’t disbanded until 1954.
In 1950, Lieutenant Leon Gilbert of the still-segregated 24th Infantry Regiment was court martialed and sentenced to death for refusing to obey the orders of a white officer while serving in the Korean War. Gilbert maintained that the orders would have meant certain death for himself and the men in his command. The case led to worldwide protests and increased attention to segregation and racism in the U.S. military. Gilbert’s sentence was commuted to twenty and later seventeen years of imprisonment; he served five years and was released.
The integration commanded by Truman’s 1948 Executive Order extended to schools and neighborhoods as well as military units. Fifteen years after the Executive Order, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara issued Department of Defense Directive 5120.36. “Every military commander”, the Directive mandates, “has the responsibility to oppose discriminatory practices affecting his men and their dependents and to foster equal opportunity for them, not only in areas under his immediate control, but also in nearby communities where they may gather in off-duty hours.” While the directive was issued in 1963, it was not until 1967 that the first non-military establishment was declared off-limits. In 1970 the requirement that commanding officers first obtain permission from the Secretary of Defense was lifted, and areas were allowed to be declared housing areas off limits to military personnel by their commanding officer.
Since the end of military segregation and the creation of an all-volunteer army, the American military saw the representation of African Americans in its ranks rise precipitously.
Jesse L. Brown became the U.S. Navy’s first black aviator in October 1948. He was killed when his plane was shot down during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. He was unable to parachute from his crippled F4U Corsair and crash-landed successfully. His injuries and damage to his aircraft prevented him from leaving the plane. A white squadron mate, Thomas Hudner, crash-landed his F4U Corsair near Brown and attempted to extricate Brown but could not and Brown died of his injuries. Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts. The U.S. Navy honored Jesse Brown by naming an escort ship after him—the U.S.S. Jesse L. Brown.
Two enlisted men from the 24th Infantry Regiment (still a segregated unit), Cornelius H. Charlton and William Thompson, posthumously received the Medal of Honor for actions during the war.
The Vietnam War saw many great accomplishments by many African Americans, including twenty who received the Medal of Honor for their actions. African Americans during the conflict suffered disproportionately higher casualty rates during the early years, but after reforms were implemented in 1967–68 the casualty rate dropped to slightly higher than their percentage of the total population.
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the Medal of Honor to U.S. Army Specialist Five Lawrence Joel, for a “very special kind of courage—the unarmed heroism of compassion and service to others.” Joel was the first living African American to receive the Medal of Honor since the Mexican–American War. He was a medic who in 1965 saved the lives of U.S. troops under ambush in Vietnam and defied direct orders to stay to the ground, walking through Viet Cong gunfire and tending to the troops despite being shot twice himself. The Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is dedicated to his honor.
On August 21, 1968, with the posthumous award of the Medal of Honor, U.S. Marine James Anderson, Jr. became the first African American U.S. Marine recipient of the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions and sacrifice of life.
On December 10, 1968, U.S. Army Captain Riley Leroy Pitts became the first African American commissioned officer to be awarded the Medal of Honor. His medal was presented posthumously to his wife, Mrs. Eula Pitts, by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Three out of the twenty-one African American Medal of Honor recipients who served in Vietnam were members of the 5th Special Forces Group otherwise known as The Green Berets. These men are as follows: Sergeant First Class Melvin Morris, SFC. Eugene Ashley, Jr., and SFC. William Maud Bryant. Melvin Morris received the Medal of Honor 44 years after the action in which he earned the Distinguished Service Cross. Sergeant Ashley’s medal was posthumously awarded to his family at the White House by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew on December 2, 1969
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In 1989, President George H. W. Bush appointed Army General Colin Powell to the position of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making Powell the highest-ranking officer in the United States military. Powell was the first, and is so far the only, African American to hold that position. The Chairman serves as the chief military adviser to the President and the Secretary of Defense. During his tenure Powell oversaw the 1989 United States invasion of Panama to oust General Manuel Noriega and the 1990 to 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. General Powell’s four-year term as Chairman ended in 1993.
General William E. “Kip” Ward was officially nominated as the first commander of the new United States Africa Command on July 10, 2007 and assumed command on October 1, 2007.
The previous Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Carlton W. Kent
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, is African American; as were the previous two before him.
On January 20, 2009, President Barack Obama became the first African American Commander In Chief of the United States Armed Forces.
The following is a list of notable African American military members or units in popular culture.