Brothers to the Buffalo Soldiers: Perspectives on the African American Militia and Volunteers, 1865-1917

Brothers to the Buffalo Soldiers: Perspectives on the African American Militia and Volunteers, 1865-1917

by Bruce A. Glasrud (Editor)

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During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, African American men were seldom permitted to join the United States armed forces. There had been times in early U.S. history when black and white men fought alongside one another; it was not uncommon for integrated units to take to battle in the Revolutionary War. But by the War of 1812, the United States had come to maintain what one writer called “a whitewashed army.” Yet despite that opposition, during the early 1800s, militia units made up of free black soldiers came together to aid the official military troops in combat.

Many black Americans continued to serve in times of military need. Nearly 180,000 African Americans served in units of the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, and others, from states such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Missouri, and Kansas, participated in state militias organized to protect local populations from threats of Confederate invasion. As such, the Civil War was a turning point in the acceptance of black soldiers for national defense. By 1900, twenty-two states and the District of Columbia had accepted black men into some form of military service, usually as state militiamen—brothers to the “buffalo soldiers” of the regular army regiments, but American military men regardless.

Little has been published about them, but Brothers to the Buffalo Soldiers: Perspectives on the African American Militia and Volunteers, 1865-1919, offers insights into the varied experiences of black militia units in the post-Civil War period. The book includes eleven articles that focus either on “Black Participation in the Militia” or “Black Volunteer Units in the War with Spain.” The articles, collected and introduced by author and scholar Bruce A. Glasrud, provide an overview of the history of early black citizen-soldiers and offer criticism from prominent academics interested in that experience.

Brothers to the Buffalo Soldiers discusses a previously little-known aspect of the black military experience in U.S. history, while deliberating on the discrimination these men faced both within and outside the military. Chosen on the bases of scholarship, balance, and readability, these articles provide a rare composite picture of the black military man’s life during this period. Brothers to the Buffalo Soldiers offers both a valuable introductory text for students of military studies and a solid source of material for African American historians.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826219046
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 03/21/2011
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,212,879
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Bruce A. Glasrud is retired Dean of Arts and Sciences at Sul Ross State University. He has written or edited numerous books about the minority experience throughout American history, including African Americans on the Great Plains: An Anthology. He resides in Seguin, Texas.

Read an Excerpt

Brothers to the BUFFALO SOLDIERS


University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2011 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8262-1904-6

Chapter One

The African American Militia during Radical Reconstruction

* * *

Otis A. Singletary

One of the strangest experiments in American military history occurred in the South during the Reconstruction period. In order to implement their plan for a Republican South, the Radicals realized the necessity of furnishing their newly created state governments with sufficient force to perpetuate their existence amidst the undisguised hostility of a potentially destructive local opposition. In an attempt to provide such protection, state militia forces were organized which, unfortunately for the avowed program, were composed primarily of blacks. This militia was launched upon a career which involved them in guerilla campaigns, naval engagements, international diplomatic complications, and several full-scale pitched battles complete with artillery, cavalry, and deployment of troops. Within a decade the Radicals witnessed not only the failure of this militia movement but with it the hopeless disintegration of their dream of a Republican South. Such failures, however, are frequently as instructive to the historian as those more fortunate movements which are rewarded with success for they, too, are inextricably woven into the historical fabric of the period. Yet even if this were not true, the story of the African American militia movement, intricate in design and colorful in execution, would still be worth telling.

The Radicals realized that in order to create an effective force of their own they must first destroy existing armed counterforces within the Southern states. This meant the destruction of the militia forces which had been organized by the provisional governors to combat the evils which accompanied the paralysis of local government in the immediate postwar period. This provisional militia, actively anti-Republican, was abolished with comparative ease largely due to their own shortsighted actions. Membership had been restricted to whites only and was composed primarily of ex-rebel soldiers who persisted in wearing their Confederate gray. Their activity had been frankly terroristic, aimed directly at African Americans who displayed a tendency to assert their newly granted independence. In spite of repeated warnings to militia detachments not to take the law into their own hands, freedmen continued to be assaulted and frequently killed by state troops. These repeated acts of violence forced officials to disband or otherwise curtail militia activities. Operations of this nature, properly publicized, greatly aided the Radicals in their campaign to popularize the idea that these state militias had been organized for "the distinct purpose of enforcing the authority of the whites over the blacks."

On March 2, 1867, the same day the first of the Reconstruction Acts was passed, the Radicals provided for the abolition of provisional militia forces. By means of an obscure rider attached to the annual Appropriation Act for the Army, all such forces were ordered to be disbanded and the "further organization, arming, or calling into service of said militia forces" was prohibited until "authorized by Congress." Such authorization was normally granted to local Radical administrations which were created through the processes of the Reconstruction Acts. By early March, 1869, the prohibition had been removed insofar as North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas were concerned. Four other states were specifically exempted from militia privileges due primarily to the insecurity of the Radical position in those states. Neither Virginia nor Texas had as yet completed their constitutions, and Mississippi had pointedly rejected the one proposed. Georgia was in national disfavor for her intemperate action in having arbitrarily unseated many of the black legislators which the costly machinery of the Reconstruction Acts had so laboriously aided in electing. Not until July 15, 1870, when these four recalcitrant states appeared to be safely in the Radical fold, were they authorized to form a militia.

Acting on the legal basis so provided, local Radicals assumed the offensive, employing an organizational technique which followed a fairly definite pattern. The first step was to bring to public notice the need for a protective force. Incumbent Radical governors were voluble spokesmen in support of the plan and they were aided by highly publicized reports of legislative investigating committees stressing the general lawlessness of the period. When the local political barometer indicated the propitious moment, governors then issued official appeals to their respective legislatures. The tone of these requests varied. Governor Powell Clayton demanded that the Arkansas legislature act at once, Governor Holden of North Carolina pleaded for legislative support in his state, and Parson Brownlow characteristically promised to bring peace to Tennessee if he had "to shoot and hang every man concerned."

In answer to these gubernatorial appeals, state legislators drafted and enacted militia laws which, although varying in detail from state to state, were quite similar in their fundamental provisions. In general, they created a military force composed of persons between the ages of 18 and 45, divided into two components. The State Guard was composed of active-duty personnel while the Reserve Militia furnished a reservoir of man-power for necessary mobilization. The governor was ex-officio commander-in-chief, with explicit power to call out the militia whenever in his opinion circumstances might warrant such action. He was further empowered to assess and collect taxes from troublesome counties in order to defray costs of militia operations therein. His personal grip on the militia was virtually assured by placing in his hands complete control over the selection of officers. Exemption clauses, under the terms of which less belligerent members of the community might avoid military service in return for payment of an annual tax to the military fund, were common. Only two states, however, were possessed of the necessary piety to recognize that some few members of their society rendered things other than to Caesar. Any North Carolinian imbued with "religious scruples" was constitutionally excused from militia service, and professed conscientious objectors in Arkansas were excluded from involuntary service by a specific clause written into the law.

Recruiting was begun on the basis of these laws and although enrollment was legally open to both races, it soon became apparent that a majority of volunteers were African Americans. Such a situation was the inevitable result of circumstances. On the one hand, a considerable number of whites were officially discouraged from enlisting because of justifiable Radical suspicions concerning their intent. On the other, it was undeniably true that blacks had ample reason to be devoted to the Republican cause. In the delightful novelty of freedom, the black men did not forget the men who had made that freedom possible. And since the black man was circumstantially a Republican, it was quite natural for him to support party programs. This was particularly true of the militia project where participation could be interpreted as a personal defense of his freedom.

Political affinity was, however, only one of the factors which made blacks willing recruits. The pay, normally the same as that received by equivalent grade or rank in the United States Army, was enticing. Certainly it must have appeared magnificent in the eyes of the average field hand. Then, too, the perennial appeal of the uniform must have exercised some influence, especially since regulations were lax enough to allow the sporting of an occasional plume or feather. The promised relief from the routine drudgery of plantation work accounted for many more volunteers. The drills, parades, barbecues and speeches offered a pleasant break in the monotony, and "play-in sogers" was considered a delightful game. Perhaps the most important single factor, however, in explaining African American enlistment was social pressure. Black women, emulating the role played by their white sisters of the South during the Civil War, were the most effective recruiters for the militia. Failure to show interest in the movement automatically caused the black male to become politically suspect and gave rise to a most rigorous program of discrimination at the hands of the women. Black men charged with political infidelity were socially isolated; they encountered increasing difficulty in persuading a woman even to accept their laundry. Expulsion from the local church was not considered too extreme a punishment and on several occasions groups of irate females publicly assaulted and tore the clothing off suspected shirkers. In cases involving reluctant husbands, wives were known to have imposed restraints which most certainly must have taxed the domestic relationship. Such efforts were not without results, and under the additional pressure of circulated handbills bearing the appeal "To Arms! To Arms!! To Arms!!! Colored Men to the Front," the muster lists were rapidly filled.

Having successfully enrolled their troops, Radical governors were next faced with the difficult problem of arming and equipping them. The first endeavor was an attempt to borrow guns and ammunition from the armories of sympathetic Northern states. Although these appeals generally fell on deaf ears, Vermont did send a thousand Springfield rifles to aid in the Republicanization of North Carolina. Failing in this effort, the governors next turned to the Federal government in hopes of securing arms for their troops. Although their earliest overtures met with official rebuff, the continuance of violence in the Southern states caused the administration to look with more favor on the possibility of providing arms. By early 1873, Congress passed a law authorizing the distribution of Federal arms to Southern states on a quota basis. In practice, this system proved quite flexible. Governor Scott, for example, persuaded the authorities to issue South Carolina its quota for the next twenty years in advance.

In spite of so auspicious a beginning, the militia movement ended in dismal failure. By 1877, it was apparent that the last of the Radical state governments were doomed and that the African American militia forces had either been destroyed, disbanded, or rendered militarily ineffective. In order to explain this failure, one must take into account the subtle and complex factors which made failure inevitable.

Certainly the lack of adequate Federal support of the militia movement contributed to its failure. In a very real sense, the Southern Radicals were abandoned by their colleagues in the national Republican administration. After their initial surge of enthusiasm for the militia project, these national Radicals, reacting to the pressure of a changing Northern public opinion, cooled noticeably in their support. This condition was not without effect in the South, for in almost direct proportion, as fear of Federal intervention waned, the Southern whites grew bolder in their use of force and violence.

Another serious weakness in the militia movement stemmed from a combination of internal conditions which undermined the potential effectiveness of the troops. In the first place, it is glaringly obvious that they were unwisely handled. Radical governors, themselves, displayed an alarming lack of confidence in their militia, and were reluctant to employ them. Governors Brownlow of Tennessee, Lewis of Alabama, Ames of Mississippi, and Reed of Florida were all, at one time or another, haunted by the specter of race war. Their unwillingness to mount an all-out offensive proved them to be either ignorant of or unwilling to subscribe to the realistic theorem which asserts that "social revolutions are not accomplished by force, unless that force is overwhelming, merciless, and continued over a long period."

Military leadership was equally feckless due to the inferior quality of the officer corps. Although some commanders were both competent and conscientious, the over-all level was very low indeed. Lack of interest was reflected in their failure to properly uniform and arm themselves and in irregular attendance at drills and musters. Unauthorized absences from their command gave cause for concern, and violations of even the most elementary code of military conduct were responsible for innumerable courts-martial where "drunkenness and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman" were popular charges. One inspecting officer reported to his superiors: "The officers in this brigade are inefficient and incompetent to a degree that constrains me to request that they be ordered before a Board of Examinations to pass upon the question of their fitness for the positions which they now hold."

Still another cause for the ineffectiveness of the militia resulted from the fact that they were improperly cared for. The paymaster was continually in arrears. Like soldiers of any army in any age, these men looked forward to pay day and its attendant pleasures and when this occasion was overlooked, anger and dissatisfaction were immediately voiced. This situation was further aggravated by the poor conditions under which militiamen were forced to live. Although every army complains of its food, such protests were not entirely without justification in this instance. Troopers complained about the "irregular manner" in which they received their rations and were particularly vociferous whenever denied "an allowance of coffee, sugar and other necessaries pertaining to a soldier's allowance." One private wrote the following dismal description: "We have never had a change of diet, which you know is contrary to the laws of nature, hygiene, and army regulations. We draw meal, bacon, sugar and coffee and occasionally a small quantity of beans, salt and soup, all of which is deficient in quantity and inferior in quality."

On the other hand, a lieutenant in the Louisiana militia was found guilty of the impressive charges of "mutiny, insubordination, disobedience of orders, neglect of duty, contempt and disrespect to superior officers, conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline [and] conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman," yet his sentence was merely to be reprimanded in General Orders. Officered by men who were indifferent, inefficient, and more often than not, incompetent; neglected by the very politicians in whose interests they were called upon to fight; and living at times under frightful hardships, it is small wonder that the troops were militarily ineffective.

As a result of these circumstances, morale was extremely low. The accoutrements of war which had been issued militiamen were inadequately or improperly cared for. Uniforms were arbitrarily altered to suit the sartorial taste of the wearer, with cavalier indifference to existing regulations. Military discipline almost completely disappeared. Threats against officers' lives were not uncommon, and cases of actual mutiny were reported. Disaffection and dissatisfaction found a ready outlet in desertion. Ranks were continually decimated as militiamen simply melted away from encampments.

Any attempt to analyze the failure of the militia movement must take into consideration the debilitation of militia forces which resulted from the slackening of presidential support, the lack of confidence on the part of local Radical leaders, and the subsequent disintegration of morale which was accompanied by the usual disastrous results. However, these were more in the nature of contributing causes, for it is inescapably true that the fundamental factor explaining the failure of the militia experiment was the opposition put forth by Southern whites, who, in general, remained implacable in their hostility to the black troops.

The opposition of the whites was undoubtedly rooted in several causes. In the first place, the cost of the program generated considerable resentment. For not only were appropriated funds used to pay troops and procure the wherewithal to make war; this money also invariably became involved in the too prevalent corruption of the period. Through militia claims commissions vast sums of money passed into the pockets of persons whose only qualifications for such collections were the good fortune to be recognized as avid supporters of incumbent administrations and the ability to swear to a falsehood. In Arkansas, the commissioner, himself, collected on at least two claims. Governor Scott used $50,000 of militia money to bribe three members of the South Carolina legislature in order to avoid an impeachment trial. His adjutant general, Franklin J. Moses, Jr., purportedly made the greatest single financial killing of his entire career from militia funds, no mean accomplishment in view of the career concerned. The office of adjutant general, through which the forces were commanded, became little more than a sinecure in which one could use the salary to reward the politically faithful. Nepotism was not uncommon in connection with appointments; Parson Brownlow, for example, found his son to be admirably qualified for the job, and he later elevated a nephew, Sam Hunt, to the office. Similarly, Governor Davis filled the Texas post with a near relation, F. L. Britton.


Excerpted from Brothers to the BUFFALO SOLDIERS Copyright © 2011 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction:Black Citizen-Soldiers, 1865-1919 by Bruce A. Glasrud
I. Black Participation in the Militia
The African American Militia during Radical Reconstruction by Otis A. Singletary
“They Are as Proud of Their Uniform as Any Who Serve Virginia”: African American Participation in the Virginia Volunteers, 1872-1899 by Roger D. Cunningham
The Black Militia of the New South: Texas as a Case Study by Alwyn Barr
A Place in the Parade: Citizenship, Manhood and African American Men in the Illinois National Guard, 1870-1916 by Eleanor L. Hannah
The Last March: The Demise of the Black Militia in Alabama by Beth Taylor Muskat
II. Black Volunteer Units in the War with Spain
The Black Volunteers in the Spanish-American War by Marvin E. Fletcher
 North Carolina’s African American Regiment and the Spanish-American War by Willard B. Gatewood, Jr.

"No Officers, No Fight!” The Sixth Virginia Volunteers in the Spanish-American War by Ann Field Alexander
Black Kansans and the Spanish-American War by Willard B. Gatewood, Jr.
“A Lot of Fine, Sturdy Black Warriors”: Texas’s African American “Immunes” in the Spanish-American War by Roger D. Cunningham
A Flag for the 10th Immunes by Russell K. Brown

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