By J.G. Noll
You’ve heard of the Tuskeegee Airmen and the Buffalo Soldiers. . . but have you heard of these valiant patriots?
1. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment
During the Revolutionary War, black and white soldiers were not separated as they were in later American wars. There is one exception. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment has the dubious distinction of being the only regiment with segregated companies in the entire Continental Army for the duration of the War for Independence. Because Rhode Island could not recruit enough free, white men to meet the Continental Congress’ troop quotas, General Varnum suggested that they meet quotas by allowing the enlistment of “every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave” in exchange for their freedom. Remember that these folks were slaves, so they couldn’t actually make that choice. The choice to serve was made for them, probably because the owners of the newly enlisted slaves were to be compensated by the Rhode Island government at market value. (Eventually the law was repealed after fierce opposition from slave-holding whites who feared teaching slaves how to use guns.)
88 slaves enlisted (more likely forcibly enlisted) in four months. The regiment also had free African Americans join the ranks. They fought in the Battle of Rhode Island and spent the rest of the war fairly quietly. Notably, in 1781, the white commander, Colonel Green, was killed along with several black soldiers in a skirmish against British Loyalists. His body was mutilated by Loyalists for leading black soldiers against them. After the war, black veterans did not receive compensation for their wartime heroics as their white counterparts did.
2. The sailors of 1812
During the War of 1812, enslaved men had a glimmer of hope when the British announced freedom to anyone (and their accompanying families) who would fight on their side. More than 4,000 people fled to the British to participate in what is considered the largest emancipation of slaves in the US before the Civil War. While not guaranteed their freedom, some slaves– joined by free black men– did join the US ranks. Many enlisted in the fledgling Navy or with American privateers, where there was not the time, space, or manpower to discriminate as there was on land. Black sailors made their mark in battles and skirmishes, and some wrote memoirs of their experiences after the war. Leaders like Commodore Perry and Isaac Chauncey lauded their black sailors, Chauncey saying, “I have nearly fifty blacks on this boat and many of them are among the best of my men.”
3. The servants of the Mexican-American War
Despite their previous sacrifices and contributions to the military, in 1820, the Army barred all black men– free and enslaved– from enlisting. State militias had barred non-whites from participating since 1792. This left only one way to serve in the military: To literally become a servant. While this sometimes meant payment (for free men), it also meant being in harm’s way. . . without a weapon or chance of protecting oneself. There are reports of servants holding the reins of their master’s horses while bullets flew around them, others where servants dodged cannonballs meant for the officers they served, and others where white soldiers abused or even murdered servants. Some black servants were able to use their war experiences to become more economically independent, but most became invisible veterans of a forgotten war.
4. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment
While the stakes–if captured–had always been higher for black soldiers than white, the Civil War upped the ante. Confederate President Jefferson Davis proclaimed that any black Union troops taken as prisoners of war would be enslaved or executed and their white commanding officers would be punished or executed for “inciting servile insurrection.” As a result, the Union tried to keep black troops away from the front lines and also promised retribution to Confederate POWs if Southern threats became reality.
Despite racist rhetoric, African American troops served in high volumes, including in the Union’s 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Known as the “Swamp Angels,” it was one of the first official African American units in the Civil War and saw a staggering amount of action. They became national martyrs in 1863 when they stormed Fort Wagner in South Carolina. They fought gallantly and suffered a 50% mortality rate; the 600 soldiers were no match for the 1,700 Confederates inside the fort. This action was the first time during the Civil War that an African American regiment led an attack. It also produced the first black Medal of Honor recipient: Sergeant William Harvey who saved the Stars and Stripes as the flag bearer fell during the siege on Fort Wagner, yelling out, “Boys, the Old Flag never touched the ground!” His heroism inspired a song which was performed in a Broadway musical, Shoo Fly Regiment.
5. The Harlem Hellfighters
Officially known as the 369th and before that, the 15th New York (Colored) Regiment of the New York Army National Guard, the Harlem Hellfighters gained their nickname and reputation from the home of 70% of their soldiers and the name the Germans gave them during WWI. Spending six months in combat–longer than any other unit in WWI– and losing more than 1,500 soldiers, the unit was plagued with difficulties in receiving replacements. Despite the loss of manpower and their exhaustion, unit history says that they were the first Americans to cross the Rhine into Germany. More than 100 members of the group received American and/or French medals for their participation, including the first two Americans to ever be awarded the Croix de Guerre. The unit served again in overseas combat during WWII and survives to this day as the 369th Support Battalion of the New York Army National Guard.