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Say thanks this November 11th to a black veteran of the U.S. military

Black soldiers served in the U.S. Army and Navy during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. In 1820, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, acting in his position as United States Secretary of War, banned blacks from serving in the military in accordance with the wishes of Southern slave owners. Yale University’s Yale & Slavery Research Project says Calhoun argued that slavery was a positive good that benefitted both slaves and owners. Clemson University says like so many southern landowners, Calhoun firmly believed in the institution of slavery and all the benefits that derived from it.

In 1860, America was a slave-owning society

Ten of the first 12 presidents owned slaves while in office. The only exceptions were John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, the second and sixth U.S. presidents. Thomas Jefferson, the American president record holder, owned more than 600 slaves. 

In the South, four million blacks were enslaved

Abolitionists believed all men are created equal. They saw slavery as an abomination and in 1830, they gathered together as black and white, slave and free, male and female to begin the Abolitionist Movement, an organized effort to end slavery in the United States. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Acts that provided for the seizure and return of escaped slaves. Seven years later, the United States Supreme Court ruled that slaves were not entitled to the legal rights of citizenship even if they had been freed. Both of these actions infuriated the abolitionists and people took sides.

In 1861, the South seceded, starting a civil war

Free black men rushed to join the Union Army but were unable to do so because of a 1792 law barring Negroes from bearing arms. Following Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, blacks were allowed to join the army – but only in segregated units led by white officers. 

The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts was the first all-black fighting unit

Robert Gould Shaw, son of a Massachusetts abolitionist family and a graduate of Harvard University, joined the Union as a private and was commissioned as a lieutenant after fighting at Antietam. Shaw was chosen to take command of the first all-black regiment because he fit the job description: “Young man with military experience, firm antislavery principles and faith in the capacity of colored men for military service.”

Shaw was shot and killed while leading his all-black troops on an attack on rebel fortifications at Charleston, South Carolina

Following the battle, the Confederate General did not return Shaw’s body as was the custom of the time, but consigned him to a mass burial in a trench along with his black troops as his way of demonstrating his hatred of Negro-lovers (not his actual words).

After the war

In 1866 the United States Congress passed the Army Organization Act, deeming it to be okay for blacks to serve in all-black cavalry units on the Western Frontier if the black enlisted men were led by white officers. The United States Congress authorized the creation of six regiments of all-black cavalry and infantry troops. Their mission was to build forts, roads and telegraph lines, protect settlers and keep the Native Americans under control.

Colonel Edward Hatch was put in charge of the all-black 9th Cavalry Regiment

Hatch, who was white, was described by officers and enlisted men alike as racially unprejudiced. But many white officers didn’t cotton to the idea of blacks in the Army. Few white officers wanted to be a part of “the Black Experiment” and the Army had to resort to enticements to put together a full staff of white officers.

One officer who refused to serve with black soldiers was George Armstrong Custer

He said black soldiers couldn’t be commanded because they would run at the first sign of trouble. You already know about the debacle at Little Big Horn, but did you know Custer:

  • Graduated last in his class at West Point?
  • Was court-martialed for using his troops on private business?
  • Refused to bury “heathen Indians?”
  • Perfumed his hair with cinnamon oil?

Native Americans had never seen black men before

They called them buffalo soldiers because their strange curly hair looked like the shaggy manes on buffaloes. Others say Native Americans were impressed by how fiercely the dark soldiers fought, just like their revered buffalo. Either way, the name stuck. Ten years after the formation of these all-black units, Henry Flipper became the first African-American to graduate from West Point and was appointed as the first black officer to lead the Buffalo Soldiers.

Henry Flipper was born into slavery in Georgia in 1856

At West Point, Flipper was subject to racist harassment and insults but persevered and graduated in 1877. Lieutenant Flipper was assigned to a western post with the Buffalo Soldiers where he served as signal officer and quartermaster. Flipper’s regiments installed telegraph lines, mapped the territory, escorted wagon trains and captured rustlers and outlaws.

In 1881, Flipper was court-martialed for controversial and questionable charges

The all-white panel of Army officers found him not guilty of embezzling, but they did convict him of conduct unbecoming an officer and drummed him out of the Army. Always maintaining his innocence, Flipper took up a civilian career as an engineer and a legal expert and 17 years later, a bill reinstating him and restoring his rank was introduced in Congress where it died of legal maneuverings. Flipper died in 1940. In 1976, the Army granted him an Honorable Discharge and in 1999, President Clinton issued a full pardon for Flipper, saying “Henry Flipper did all his country asked him to do.”

You may have heard of one of the white officers who served with Buffalo Soldier units

His name was John Joseph Pershing, and he went on to lead the American forces to victory in World War One. Pershing was a mentor to Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur. You may know him by his nickname, “Black Jack,” given because of his having served with black troops. Black Jack was the permissible version of what racists called him.

World War One

The U.S. War Department segregated blacks into all-black units. Most of them were used as laborers, but some fought in the trenches. The 369th Infantry Regiment was assigned to the French army, a more egalitarian group. The French awarded their medal of heroism, the Croix de Guerre, to 170 members of on all-black fighting unit, The Harlem Hellfighters, for their courageous fighting in the Marne and the Argonne Forest. One of them, Freddie Stowers, was honored on a U.S. postage stamp.

One of the statistics that was offered as proof of blacks’ inferiority was the Army’s General Classification Test

The Army used these tests as a way to measure an inductee’s ability to be trained for military duties. The average score for white soldiers was 107 and for blacks, 79. Any testing expert will tell you that sometimes tests measure things other than intended. Any sociologist can tell you that 100 years ago, and generally speaking, blacks came from poorer, less-educated backgrounds than whites. Wouldn’t you know it, the Army also had an illiterate version of the test for those who couldn’t read or write.

World War Two

More than one million African-Americans served in the Army, Navy and Coast Guard during WW2. As in WW1, most blacks were assigned to support roles but some of those who were given the chance performed with great distinction. Most notable were the Tuskegee Airmen. In all, 66 Tuskegee-trained aviators were killed in action while another 32 were captured as POWs after being shot down.


The last black-only military unit was not dissolved until 1953, making Vietnam the first war for the U.S. in which black and white troops were not formally segregated. During the Vietnam War, the armed services drafted 2 out of 3 blacks who were eligible for military service compared to 1 out of 3 whites. Some saw this as a genocidal conspiracy, along with the statistics that showed blacks were more likely to be assigned to combat units and more likely to be assigned the dirtiest duties, denied promotions and unfairly targeted for punishment.


  • After the assassination of Martin Luther King, the USO brought James Brown to Vietnam to perform at Long Binh and started stocking black hair care products at the post exchange.
  • The U.S. National Park Service honors Buffalo Soldiers in eight National Parks, including Fort Davis along the San Antonio-El Paso road and the Chiricahua National Monument in southeastern Arizona. 
  • in 1989, Matthew Broderick played Colonel Shaw in the film Glory.
  • In 2018, a lock of Custer’s hair sold for $12,600 at auction.
  • Acquiescing to the wishes of the Icelandic government, the U.S. did not allow black soldiers to be stationed in Iceland until the 1980s.
  • Click here to watch Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier video. 


The Best Years of Our Lives

This is the movie I watch every year on Veteran’s Day. It is the story of three World War Two veterans from different social strata returning home to small-town America to discover that they and their families have been irreparably changed. Casting Harold Russell in the role of Homer Price was genius. In the Army, he lost both hands to an explosion. Russell is the only actor to win two Academy Awards for the same role. Later in life, he sold his Best Supporting Actor Oscar to pay for his wife’s medical expenses. It’s on TCM this Friday, November 11th at 8pm. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 97.



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