African American Military Records
African-Americans, slaves and free blacks, served on both sides during the war. 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. Tens of thousands of 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.
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-black unit came from Haiti with French forces. At least 5,000 black soldiers fought as Revolutionaries.Peter Salem and Salem Poor are the most noted of the American Patriots during this era.
The history of African Americans in the U.S. Civil War is marked by 180,000 African Americans comprising 163 units 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. Substantially smaller numbers of blacks are recorded to have served on the Confederate side including two units formed in Richmond, Virginia in 1865, however records are scarce and an exact number is not known.
On July 17, 1862, Congress passed two acts allowing the enlistment of African Americans, but official enrollment occurred only after the September 1862 issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. However, state and local militia units had already begun enlisting blacks, including the Black Brigade of Cincinnati, raised in September to help provide manpower to thwart a feared Confederate raid on Cincinnati.
In general, white soldiers and officers believed that black men lacked the ability to fight and fight well. In October 1862, African American soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers silenced their critics by repulsing attacking Confederates at the Battle of Island Mound, Missouri. By August, 1863, 14 Negro Regiments were in the field and ready for service. At the Battle of Port Hudson, Louisiana, May 27, 1863, the African American soldiers bravely advanced over open ground in the face of deadly artillery fire. Although the attack failed, the black soldiers proved their capability to withstand the heat of battle.
On July 17, 1863, at Honey Springs, Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, the 1st Kansas Colored fought with courage again. Union troops under General James G. Blunt ran into a strong Confederate force under General Douglas H. Cooper. After a two-hour bloody engagement, Cooper's soldiers retreated. The 1st Kansas, which had held the center of the Union line, advanced to within fifty paces of the Confederate line and exchanged fire for some twenty minutes until the Confederates broke and ran. General Blunt wrote after the battle, "I never saw such fighting as was done by the Negro regiment....The question that negroes will fight is settled; besides they make better solders in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command."
The most widely known battle fought by African Americans was the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry on July 18, 1863. The 54th volunteered to lead the assault on the strongly-fortified Confederate positions. The soldiers of the 54th scaled the fort's parapet, and were only driven back after brutal hand-to-hand combat. Despite the defeat, the unit was hailed for its valor which spurred further African-American recruitment, giving the Union a numerical military advantage from a population the Confederacy did not dare exploit in that fashion until the closing days of the war.
Although black soldiers proved themselves as reputable soldiers, discrimination in pay and other areas remained widespread. According to the Militia Act of 1862, soldiers of African descent were to receive $10.00 a month, plus a clothing allowance of $3.50. Many regiments struggled for equal pay, some refusing any money until June 15, 1864, when Congress granted equal pay for all black soldiers.
African American soldiers participated in every major campaign of 1864–65 except Sherman's Atlanta Campaign in Georgia. The year 1864 was especially eventful for African American troops. On April 12, 1864, at Battle of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest led his 2,500 men against the Union-held fortification, occupied by 292 black and 285 white soldiers. After driving in the Union pickets and giving the garrison an opportunity to surrender, Forrest's men swarmed into the fort with little difficulty and drove the Federals down the river's bluff into a deadly crossfire. Casualties were high and only sixty-two of the U.S. Colored Troops survived the fight. Many accused the Confederates of perpetrating a massacre of black troops, and the controversy continues today. The battle cry for the Negro soldier east of the Mississippi River became "Remember Fort Pillow!"
The propaganda which sprang from the allegations of a "massacre" at Fort Pillow was useful in convincing United States Colored Troops to become suicide forces which entered battle shouting "No quarter! No quarter!," never surrendered and who themselves perpetrated murders of surrendered Confederate forces in Florida and at Fort Blakley, Alabama, on April 9, 1865, at which battle they also shot two white Union officers who tried to stop them, killing one.
An 1864 investigation of Fort Pillow engaged in wholesale fabrication of "evidence" and included assertions that Black women and children had been murdered by Forrest's forces when there were no women or children present at Fort Pillow. A later 1871 Congressional investigation conducted during Reconstruction by Radical Republicans concluded that there was no evidence of a "massacre" and stated that there were "isolated incidents along the riverbank" which Forrest stopped immediately upon his arrival.
The barracks Forrest's men were accused of burning were actually burned under orders by a Union officer. Lieutenant Daniel Van Horn, Sixth U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, whose report is contained in the Federal Official Records, documented that Lieutenant John D. Hill, U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, set fire to the barracks under orders of the Union commanding officer.
Forrest took 39 United States Colored Troops (USCT) as POWs and sent them up the chain of command. Forrest even transferred the 14 most seriously wounded USCT to the U.S. Steamer Silver Cloud where they could get better care than that which he could provide.
Allegations of a "massacre" continue to be controversial because historians remain either willfully or blissfully unaware of the Federal Official Records and the 1871 Congressional investigation conclusion.
Christian Fleetwood at The Battle of Chaffin's Farm, Virginia became one of the most heroic engagements involving African Americans. On September 29, 1864, the African American division of the Eighteenth Corps, after being pinned down by Confederate artillery fire for about 30 minutes, charged the earthworks and rushed up the slopes of the heights. During the hour-long engagement the division suffered tremendous casualties. Of the twenty-five African Americans who were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, fourteen received the honor as a result of their actions at Chaffin's Farm.
Soldiers who fought in the Army of the James were eligible for the Butler Medal, commissioned by that army's commander, Benjamin Butler.
In actual numbers, African American soldiers comprised 10 percent of the entire Union Army. Losses among African Americans were high, and from all reported casualties, approximately one-third of all African Americans enrolled in the military lost their lives during the Civil War.
Blacks, both slave and free, were also heavily involved in assisting the Union in matters of intelligence, and their contributions were labelled Black Dispatches.
Confederate States Army
Because of the controversial nature of the subject the debate over how many African Americans served in Confederate uniform, and how many of them served willingly and without coercion is contentious. One estimate by Ed Smith of American University suggests that between 60,000 and 93,000 blacks, both slave and free, served in the Confederate military in some capacity; however, the vast majority of these were likely teamsters, cooks, musicians, and hospital attendants.
"Almost fifty years before the (Civil) War, the South was already enlisting and utilizing Black manpower, including Black commissioned officers, for the defense of their respective states. Therefore, the fact that Free and slave Black Southerners served and fought for their states in the Confederacy cannot be considered an unusual instance, rather continuation of an established practice with verifiable historical precedence." - The African-American Soldier: From Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell, by Lt. Col (retired) Michael Lee Lanning, Birch Lane Press (June 1997).
There were many recorded instances of combat service of Black Confederates which can be found in the Federal Official Records, Northern and Southern newspapers and the letters and diaries of soldiers from both sides. In addition there are recorded instances of Black Southerners serving as regularly-enlisted combat soldiers before the Union allowed enlistment of Blacks.
Elgin (Illinois) Daily Courier-News, Monday, April 12, 1948 - "Robert (Uncle Bob) Wilson, Negro veteran of the Confederate army who observed his 112th birthday last January 13, died early yesterday morning in the veterans' hospital at the Elgin State hospital....He enlisted as a private in Company H of the 16th regiment of Virginia Infantry on Oct. 9, 1862 and discharged May 31, 1863."
For most of the war the Confederate Government prohibited the enlistment of African Americans as armed soldiers in the national army, but the states and individual units often varied from or ignored outright such prohibitions since there were actually very few "national army" regiments at any time during the war with most military units still under state command on loan to the Confederate government.
The keywords in discussing "official Confederate policy" regarding Black soldiers are "national army." States still controlled their military policies within the Confederate command structure but, unlike the Union, did not surrender total control of their forces as part of a "national army."
The Confederate Congress authorized salaries for black musicians in 1862, stating "whenever colored persons are employed as musicians in any regiment or company, they shall be entitled to the same pay now allowed by law to musicians regularly enlisted."
Some individual states in the Confederacy permitted free blacks to enlist as soldiers in their state militias continuing a longstanding tradition. The first to do so was Tennessee, which passed a law on June 21, 1861 authorizing the recruitment of state militia units composed of "free persons of color" between the ages of 15 and 50. Louisiana, which had a sizable free black population, followed suit and assembled the all-black 1st Louisiana Native Guard. This regiment was later forced to disband in February, 1862 when the state legislature passed a law in January, 1862, that reorganized the militia by conscripting "all the free white males capable of bearing arms… irrespective of nationality".
Captured Union African-American soldiers, however, were not treated with equality by Confederate troops as white troops. It is a popularly held folk legend unsupported by documentation that those who were captured were summarily put to death along with any white Union officers who were captured having led them into battle - this was a policy stated, but not put into practice, by the Confederacy. In reality, Black Union soldiers who were captured were treated as runaway slaves and, if their owners could be located, returned to them. If the owners could not be located they were put to work to support the Confederate war effort.
Alabama authorized the enlistment of "mixed blood" creoles in 1862 for a state militia unit in Mobile.
Black Southerners served as combat soldiers often with some of the most celebrated and feared Confederate commands and commanders:
Federal Official Records, Series I, Vol XVI Part I, pg. 805, Lt. Col. Parkhurst's Report (Ninth Michigan Infantry) on General Forrest's attack at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, July 13, 1862: "The forces attacking my camp were the First Regiment Texas Rangers [8th Texas Cavalry, Terry's Texas Rangers, ed.], Colonel Wharton, and a battalion of the First Georgia Rangers, Colonel Morrison, and a large number of citizens of Rutherford County, many of whom had recently taken the oath of allegiance to the United States Government. There were also many negroes attached to the Texas and Georgia troops, who were armed and equipped, and took part in the several engagements with my forces during the day."
In January 1864, General Patrick Cleburne and several other Confederate officers in the Army of the Tennessee proposed using slaves as soldiers in the national army since the Union was using black troops. Cleburne recommended offering slaves their freedom if they fought and survived. Confederate President Jefferson Davis refused to consider Cleburne's proposal and forbade further discussion of the idea.
The concept, however, did not die. By the fall of 1864, the South was losing more and more ground, and some believed that only by arming the slaves could defeat be averted. On January 11, 1865 General Robert E. Lee wrote the Confederate Congress urging them to arm and enlist black slaves in exchange for their freedom. On March 13, the Confederate Congress passed General Order 14, and President Davis signed the order into law. The order was issued March 23, 1865, but only a few African American companies were raised. Two companies were armed and drilled in the streets of Richmond, Virginia shortly before the besieged southern capital fell.
Despite popular legend, there is documentary evidence that they did see limited combat service:
Richmond Sentinel, March 21, 1865 - "THE BATTALION from Camps Winder and Jackson, under the command of Dr. Chambliss, including the company of colored troops under Captain Grimes, will parade on the square on Wednesday evening, at 4 o’clock. This is the first company of negro troops raised in Virginia. It was organized about a month since, by Dr. Chambliss, from the employees of the hospitals, and served on the lines during the recent Sheridan raid. "
One of the units accompanied General Lee's retreat toward Appomattox and fought at the battle of Amelia, Virginia two days before Lee's surrender.
On July 28, 1866, Congress passed and act that authorized the army to raise six regiments of African-American soldiers. These six regiments became known as the Buffalo Soldiers, men who served with distinction on the Western frontier.
The six regiments became:
- 9th and 10 Calvaries
- 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st Infantry Regiments
* In 1869 the Infantry Regiments were reorganized:
- 38th and 41st became the 24th Infantry Regiment
- 39th and 40th became the 25th Infantry Regiment
Pension Records: records authorizing distrbution of benfits of service, generally contain personal and genealogical information.
|Record Group||NARA #||
|Number of films|
|General Index to Pensions Files, 1861-1934. Arranged alphabetically by last name of the soldier.||15||T 288||540757||544 films|
Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861-1900.
Arranged by unit (regimet) and there under alphabetically by the soldier's surname.
Both the General and the Organization Index to Pensions should be searched.
Veteran's Administration Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1933. Arranged alphbetically by surname, The Payment cards, document amounts and dates of pension payments
The unit returns are monthly reports of the U.S. Army regiments.
Content: list the post and regiment assigned, company commanders, strength of company, list of absent, sick, arrested, and those confined to quarters or detailed to another assigment.
|Record Group||NARA #||FHL 1st film||Number of films|
Returns from Regular Army Cavalry Regiments, 1833-1916.
Returns from Regular Army Infantry Regiments, June 1821-December 1916.
For years 1866-1869:
* For years 1869-1916:
Rolls 245-253 for 24th Infantry Regiment FHL: 1579476-84
Rolls 254-261 for 25th Infantry Regiment FHL: 1579485-92
|Register of Enlistments: these records document a soldier's enlistment||Record Group||NARA #||FHL 1st film||Number of films|
Register of Enlistments in the United States Army, 1798-1914. Content:description of each term of service, date of enlistment, age, occupation and personal description.
Arranged chronologically into several dates spans, then alphabetically by the first leter of the soldier's surname. Soldiers that enlisted more than onece will have an enlistment paper for each enlistment.
Negro in Military Service
From the 1870s to the early 20th Century, African American units were utilized by the United States Government to combat the Native Americans during the Indian Wars. Perhaps 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 with the designations 9th and 10th U. S. Cavalry. Two regiments of infantry were formed at the same time. 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.
From 1866 to the early-1890s 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. In addition to the military campaigns, the "Buffalo Soldiers" served a variety of roles along the frontier from building roads to escorting the U.S. mail.
Spanish American War
Segregated company during the Spanish-American WarAfter 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 Amy units during the Spanish American War, five African American Volunteer Army units and seven African American National Guard units also served.
- 7th United States Volunteer Infantry (Colored Troops)
- 8th United States Volunteer Infantry (Colored Troops)
- 9th United States Volunteer Infantry (Colored Troops)
- 10th United States Volunteer Infantry (Colored Troops)
- 11th United States Volunteer Infantry (Colored Troops)
- 3rd Alabama Volunteer Infantry (Colored Troops)
- 8th Illinois Volunteer Infantry (Colored Troops)
- Companies A and B, 1st Indiana Volunteer Infantry (Colored Troops)
- 23rd Kansas Volunteer Infantry (Colored Troops)
- 3rd North Carolina Volunteer Infantry (Colored Troops)
- 9th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Colored Troops)
- 6th Virginia Volunteer Infantry (Colored Troops)
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.
World War I
Officers of the 366th Infantry Regiment returning home from WWI service.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 1918, over 350,000 African Americans had served with the American Expeditionary Force in on the Western Front.
Most African American units were largely relegated to support roles and saw little combat. Still, African Americans played a major role in America's war effort. One of the most distinguished units was the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the "Harlem Helfighters," which was on the front lines for six months, longer then any other African American regiment in the war. One hundred seventy-one members of the 396th were awarded the Legion of Merit.
Corporal Freddie Stowers of the 371st Infantry Regiment 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, believing that the recommendation was intentionally ignored due to institutional racism in the Armed Forces. In 1990, under 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 seven African Americans being awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in World War II.
Some of the most notable African American units which served in World War I were:
- 92nd Infantry Division
- 366th Infantry Regiment
- 93d Infantry Division
- 369th Infantry Regiment (Harlem Hellfighters)
- 371st Infantry Regiment
Second Italo-Abyssinian War
On October 4, 1935, Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia. African-Americans organized to raise money for medical supplies, and many volunteered to fight for the African kingdom. Within eight months however, it would be 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."
Spanish Civil War
African-American activist and World War I veteran Oliver Law, fighting in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, is believed to have been the first African-American officer to command white American troops.
World War II
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. Famous segregated units, such as the Tuskegee Airmen and U.S. 761st Tank Battalion proved their value in combat, leading to desegregation of all U.S. Armed Forces by order of President Harry S. Truman in July of 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, 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.
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:
- 92nd Infantry Division
- U.S. 366th Infantry Regiment
- 93d Infantry Division
- 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion
- 761st Tank Battalion
- 332d Fighter Group (Tuskegee Airmen)
- 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion
Two segregated units were organized by the United States Marine Corps:
- 51st Defense Battalion. (Composite)
- 52nd Defense Battalion. (Composite)
Medal of Honor recipients
On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton, in a White House ceremony, awarded the nation's highest military honor — the Medal of Honor — to 7 African-American servicemen who had served in World War II.
The only living recipient was:
- First Lieutenant Vernon Baker.
The posthumous recipients were:
- Major Charles L. Thomas
- First Lieutenant John R. Fox
- Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers
- Staff Sergeant Edward A. Carter, Jr.
- Private First Class Willy F. James, Jr.
- Private George Watson
'Integration of the Armed F'orces
In 1948, President 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, all-black Army units persisted well into the Korean War.
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 world-wide 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."
Although 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.
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 eject 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 crash-landed his F4U Corsair near Brown and attempted to extricate Brown but could not and Brown died of his injuries. The U.S. Navy honored Jesse Brown by naming an escort ship after him — the U.S.S. Jesse L. Brown.
The Vietnam War saw many great accomplishments by many African Americans, including twenty who received the Medal of Honor for their actions.
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.
Post-Vietnam to Present Day
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. He is currently Deputy Commander, United States European Command and the active military's only black four-star general. According to the Pentagon, Africa Command will help "promote peace and security and respond to crises on the continent." It will also coordinate military support for other diplomatic and development programs.