Fighting for Freedom: African Americans in the United States Military (Part 1)

In recognition of Black History Month, today starts a series of posts highlighting African Americans’ contributions to the United States Military.




From Crispus Attucks to the current Global War on Terrorism, the Army has had its fair share of notable African American units and individuals.  One of the first units formed was the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.  Assembled in 1778, they fought at Aquidneck Island later that same year, successfully holding their line against British-Hessian Forces for 4 hours!  The Regiment also participated in the Siege of Yorktown.  A monument to the regiment’s service is located in Portsmouth, RI.

Civil War

If you’ve ever watched the movie “Glory”, then you know about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry.  Activated in 1863 and composed of 1,000 men from varying states and countries (and 25% being former slaves), their bravery was displayed during the attack on Fort Wagner on Morris Island, SC.  They led several white regiments through marshes as deep as 4 feet, and if you’ve been in South Carolina in July, like they were, you’d know that’s no easy feat.   After Colonel Shaw was killed, Sgt. William Carney climbed the fort’s parapet (a wall extending past the roof) and retrieved the Union flag from Shaw’s body.  Although he was badly wounded, he made it to the top of the fort and planted the flag, inspiring his fellow soldiers.  The victory went to the Confederates that day, but nonetheless, Sgt. Carney was later awarded the Medal of Honor in 1900.

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial depicting the Colonel and his soldiers

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial depicting the Colonel and his soldiers

Buffalo Soldiers

Named in 1867 after a fierce battle against the Cheyenne Indians, the Buffalo Soldiers were originally just the 10th Cavalry Regiment.  The name soon came to refer to any African-American regiments that served during the Indian Wars.  Out of the entire Army, the Buffalo Soldier regiments had the lowest desertion rates.  They went on to serve in the Spanish-American War.  The 10th Cavalry went on to rescue Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Rider Soldiers while they were surrounded by Spanish forces.  According to one Rough Rider Soldier, if it weren’t for the 10th Cavalry “…the Rough Riders would have been exterminated. “  Their bravery forever changed the course of United States History.

Buffalo Soldiers Spanish American War

Buffalo Soldiers line up in formation during Spanish American War

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