As we celebrate Black History month, it’s important to honor those African-American men and women who have served in our armed forces throughout American history. Many black soldiers, free and enslaved, served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. For their service, many were freed from slavery (about 20%) although many were not. American blacks also served during the War of 1812. They served in both all-black and integrated regiments.
In the Civil War, black regiments fought for the Union Army and sustained massive casualties for their valiant fighting. Of the approximately 186,000 African-American soldiers (including 94,000 former slaves from Southern states), 38,000 died in battle. At the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, “out of an initial force of 1,300 men, African Americans suffered 455 casualties.”* Most were inexperienced soldiers but they also felt pressure to prove themselves equal and fight for country and their race against slavery. Their bravery and fighting spirit was second to none as more than 20 were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
African-American soldiers served with distinction in the Spanish-American War. The 10th regiment, many veterans of Indian campaigns, accompanied Roosevelt’s Rough Riders at San Juan Hill in Cuba. ”After the battle, a Rough Rider Soldier said, ‘If it hadn’t been for the black cavalry, the Rough Riders would have been exterminated.’”**
World War I demonstrated the service of American blacks as well. Although the Army had a racial segregation policy with most blacks serving in support roles, eventually the first black combat unit – the 369th Infantry Regiment – served with valor and was nicknamed “Hellfighters” by the Germans for their fierce fighting without ground lost or a single man captured.
World War II saw further exceptional contributions. Against a Nazi regime that touted Aryan superiority, blacks fought valiantly in Europe while second-class citizens back home and serving in segregated units. We saw that “the first group of African-American nurses in the Army Nurse Corps arrived in England in 1944.”*** The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black pilots and quickly earned a reputation for their skill and bravery.
The Korean War saw the end of segregation in the military. The Civil Rights movement coincided with the Vietnam War. The roles of blacks as equals in both the military and society was unquestionable.
American blacks have shown their valor through past wars and continue to exemplify the best of what we are as a nation. Their service in Iraq and Afghanistan should not be overlooked either. Nor should the service of any veteran, but this month we take a moment to pay homage to our African-American brothers and sisters and the history of their struggles.