History of African-Americans in the U.S. military
People of color have been integral to American military might from the time of America's inception. Even as settlers of the New World fought for freedom from British rule while enslaving others, many of those slaves—African-Americans who were at that time legally if amorally kept as property by colonists—assisted with war efforts to ensure a more stable future for the forming United States.
Some black soldiers during the Revolutionary War joined up with the British, who sought more manpower against the colonies and offered the promise of freedom to slaves who joined their ranks. Others enlisted on behalf of the colonies, albeit only when Gen. George Washington realized he didn't have enough white soldiers to fight and acquiesced to allow African-American men to join up. Over time, slavery fell out of favor with many property owners, particularly throughout the northern states. During the Civil War, around 200,000 people of color served in the U.S. military, either in the Army, Navy, or non-combat positions (including manual tasks like cooking, cleaning, and otherwise supporting the white soldiers).
Other slaves fought alongside their Confederate masters, though it's hard to know how many did so willingly. In every military action in U.S. history, then, our military has benefited greatly by the assistance and leadership of black Americans. Yet even with the integral benefit of black members of the military, American defense remained segregated through World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. African-Americans, in spite of this backward philosophy, became pilots, nurses, Marines, and West Point graduates. It wasn't until President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order in 1948 that the armed services were forced to integrate; even then, some units refused to do so for several more years.
Even though retired Gen. Colin Powell became a four-star general and the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff back in the ‘90s, black officers remain underrepresented and black members of the armed services continue to face racial discrimination. One 2017 report showed that black troops faced disciplinary action more often than their white counterparts. A year later, the Coast Guard faced accusations of a racially hostile environment.
Using data from the Pew Research Center, news reports, historical archives, and information from government sites, Stacker compiled a list of 50 key moments in the history of African-Americans in the U.S. Armed Forces. Click through to learn about various hardships, breakthroughs, and significant accomplishments of black soldiers in the military.
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1775: Slaves fight for the British
In 1775, the British governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, said he would give black slaves their freedom if they could escape from their masters to fight for “His Majesty's Troops”—although that didn't mean slaves could fight alongside white soldiers. Most of the male and female former slaves performed tasks during the Revolutionary War like cooking, cleaning, and procuring supplies for the British troops. Nevertheless, the decree still had a pronounced psychological impact on black troop members who could see their value as freedom fighters.
1777: Washington's Continental Army accepts slaves
Gen. George Washington in 1775 said no black person could fight in the Continental Army. Many whites didn't want to fight next to black soldiers, but Washington—a slaveowner himself—also wanted to assuage the concerns of slave owners who worried that slaves with weapons might rebel. A year later, after Washington couldn't fill the ranks with white men, he said free blacks who had military experience could enlist. Some slaves fought in place of their masters. By 1777, all black men were allowed to fight.
1778: 1st Rhode Island Regiment allows slaves to enlist
The harsh winter of 1778 followed the September capture of Philadelphia by the British. By January, the colonists' military encampment at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania had a recruiting problem. The Rhode Island Assembly, therefore, passed a law in 1778 allowing “every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave in this state to enlist.” After a few months, 100 black soldiers signed up in exchange for their freedom. The law was eventually repealed, but 140 black men who had been promised freedom fought in segregated companies within the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.
1779: Southern states refuse to give up their slaves
As the Revolutionary War continued, Congress pressed the colonies for more men to aid the war effort. Maryland gave up some of their slaves, but even though South Carolina and Georgia were offered $1,000 for each slave, they wanted to keep their unpaid labor so badly that they took the side of King George III.
1804: Slavery abolished in the North, but remains in the South
About 5,000 black combat soldiers fought in the Revolutionary War, and many others served the war effort. Six years before the war's conclusion, in 1777, slavery was abolished in Vermont's Constitution. The rest of the northern colonies followed suit by 1804, but things were distinctly different in the South. Most black soldiers—even those who were promised freedom in exchange for fighting—remained enslaves for many years or until their death.
Militia Act of 1792
The Militia Act of 1792, passed by Congress, gave federal marshals the authority to use state militias. Even though black soldiers fought in the Revolutionary War, only “free able-bodied white male” citizens were now allowed to enlist.
Black soldiers fight in the War of 1812
Black soldiers fought for and against the new U.S. colonies during the War of 1812. Those who joined the British were once again promised freedom. During the Battle of New Orleans, there were two regiments of Free Men of Color that fought with Andrew Jackson. Black soldiers also comprised about 15% of the U.S. Navy at the time.
1813: Black sailors find freedom on the seas
About 4,000 refugee slaves who fought on behalf of Britain as Colonial Marines were freed following the War of 1812. The British offered some members of the Colonial Marines land in Trinidad; some of their descendants are still there today.
1862: Congress authorizes recruitment of black soldiers
In 1862, the Second Confiscation and Militia Act made it legal for black men to enlist in the Union army, stating that a “person of African descent [of any rank] . . . shall receive $10 per month . . . $3 of which monthly pay may be in clothing.” Meanwhile, white soldiers earned $13 a month with no clothing allowance deducted. Two years later, Congress made it so black soldiers received equal pay.
Black soldiers fight for Union Army during the Civil War
About 179,000 black men fought in the Union army, making up 10% of the manpower. Another 19,000 served in the Union navy. About 40,000 black soldiers didn't live to see the conclusion of the war in 1865, mostly dying from infection or disease.2018 All rights reserved.