The Civil Radical Battles of the Black American Soldier

True Sons Of Freedom

More than 350,000 African Americans served in segregated units during World War I, mostly as support troops. Several units saw action alongside French soldiers fighting against the Germans, and 171 African Americans were awarded the French Legion of Honor.

Major Charles Young in 1916 – 3rd African-American to graduate from West Point, 1st Black U.S. National Park superintendent, 1st Black man to become Colonel.


Caucasian and African-American soldiers aboard a United States Navy vessel during World War 1, 1918. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images).  

A military poster promoting the work of stevedores at the St. Nazaire port of debarkation for American Expeditionary Forces during World War I in France in 1918. The African-American 369th Infantry Regiment arrived at St. Nazaire in December 1917 and performed labor duties before their onward integration and training for combat under French command in March 1918. Photo courtesy of the National World War I Museum and Memorial

Photo By: National World War I Museum and Memorial

Not that it mattered much to the soldiers; they still carried their nickname from New York, the Black Rattlers, and carried their regimental flag of the 15th New York Infantry everywhere they went in France.

World War 1 US Signal Corps members performing regular inspection and testing of gas masks; African American soldiers standing around higher ranked officers wearing gas masks, 1917. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images).

African American soldiers in World War I, four men, two seated, two standing, all wearing uniforms, facing the camera and using cooking equipment, neutral facial expressions, 1917. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images).


African American soldier standing in front of a board of signs in Cheppy, France after the Battle of Verdun that took place during World War I, two military men are standing to the side, there is a crumbling building in the background, France, 1918. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images).

Negro troops in France. Part of the 15th Regiment Infantry, New York National Guard organized by Colonel Haywood, which has been under fire, ca. 1918. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

1st Army Post Band (Colored) — Souilly, France, 1918. | Location: Souilly, France. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

African American band members on the U.S.S. Philippine, during the voyage to the United States from Brest, France, 1919. (Photo by: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

Acclaimed Fighters

Their value was not lost on the French, and the regiment continued to fight alongside French forces, participating in the Aisne-Marne counteroffensive in the summer of 1918 alongside the French 162nd Infantry Division.

The Hell Fighters from Harlem had come into their own, in spite of their difficult start.

The regiment would go on to prove itself in combat operations throughout the rest of the war, receiving France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre, for its unit actions alongside some 171 individual decorations for heroism.

During the World War I centennial observance, the New York National Guard and New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs will issue press releases noting key dates that affected New Yorkers, based on information and artifacts provided by the New York State Military Museum here.

More than 400,000 New Yorkers served in the military during World War I, more than any other state.

During the Civil War, Black troops were often assigned tough, dirty jobs like digging trenches. Black regiments were commonly issued inferior equipment and were sometimes given inadequate medical treatment in racially segregated hospitals. African-American troops were paid less than White soldiers.


Black soldiers faced systemic racial discrimination in the army and endured virulent hostility upon returning to their homes at the end of the war.

Members of the famous 369th Colored Infantry, formerly 15th N.Y. regulars, arrive in New York City. ‘Back to little old New York.’ 1919. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Between 370,000 and 400,000 African Americans served during World War I, Reft said. Most served as “stevedores, camp laborers, [and in] logistical support.” About 40,000 to 50,000 saw combat and about 770 were killed, he said.




The American Civil War is arguably the most gruesome and brutal war in United States history. Brothers fought against brothers, fathers fought against sons, and through this terrible conflict, people were finally granted freedom. Though the war started with the goal of restoring the “Union,” what history remembers is that Slavery was finally put to an end.

Everyone knows of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, and even the 14th and 15th Amendments, but few recognize another important part of the civil war, the brave African American men who gave their lives in the pursuit of freedom for their people.

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment gave citizenship to all people born in the US.

The 15th Amendment gave Black Americans the right to vote.

Former slave became famed abolitionist. Called on blacks to serve in the Union Army as it would be the best path to citizenship

The former slave became a famed abolitionist. Called on Blacks to serve in the Union Army as it would be the best path to citizenship

Men of Color, To Arms!

Frederick Douglass

 March 21, 1863 
Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, becoming famous for his oratory and incisive antislavery writings. Wikipedia
BornFebruary 1818, Talbot County, MD
DiedFebruary 20, 1895, Washington, D.C.    

“African American soldiers mustered out at Little Rock, Arkansas,” Waud, Alfred R., Artist. 1866. Photograph (LOC)

Erica Deeman for The New York Times. An object from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Enlisting in a Moral Fight

Carte de visite silver gelatin portrait of Sgt. Jacob Johns.

It is unclear whether Jacob Johns was enslaved, recently freed or a free man when he enlisted in the Union Army as a sergeant in the 19th United States Colored Troops Infantry, Company B. His unit fought in 11 battles, and 293 of its men were killed or died of disease, including Johns. When the war began in 1861, enslaved African-Americans seized their opportunity for freedom by crossing the Union Army lines in droves. The Confederate states tried to reclaim their human “property” but were denied by the Union, which cleverly declared the formerly enslaved community as contraband of war — captured enemy property. President Abraham Lincoln initially would not let Black men join the military, anxious about how the public would receive integrated efforts. But as casualties increased and manpower thinned, Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Act in 1862, allowing Lincoln to “employ as many persons of African descent” as he needed, and thousands enlisted in the United States Colored Troops. Jacobs was one of nearly 180,000 Black soldiers who served in the U.S.C.T. during the Civil War, a group that made up nearly one-tenth of all soldiers, fighting for the cause of freedom.



  1. In 2011, the US lifted the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which restricted gay, lesbian, and bisexuals from openly serving in the military. For the first time in American history, people of every sexual orientation could serve openly and proudly.[1]
  2. Under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” between 1993 and 2011, over 14,000 military men and women were discharged due to their sexual preference. Each discharge cost the US roughly $50,000.[2]
  3. There have been 150,000 people who are transgender who has served in the US armed forces.[3]
  4. People who are transgender are not issued the same freedom as Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual servicemembers because of discriminatory medical regulations that label them as mentally unstable.[4]
  5. In 2010, roughly 19,000 sexual assaults occurred in the military, and a little less than 14% of these were reported by survivors.[5]
  6. MST (Military Sexual Trauma) is the leading cause of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) in women, while combat trauma is the leading cause for men.[6]
  7. Mental health issues like depression and stress that occur after sexual harassment make veterans highly subject to substance abuse and unemployment.[7]
  8. Only 3% of white officers report racial discrimination in the military, compared to 27% of both black and Hispanic officers.[8]
  9. 22% of white soldiers, 19% of Hispanic soldiers, and 24% of Black soldiers report experiencing racial discrimination within their current unit.[9]
  10. Black people could serve in the military as early as the 18th century, but it wasn’t until 1948 that the troops were racially integrated.[10]
  11. Genetic discrimination is banned in most American workplaces, but the military is allowed to discriminate based on congenital or hereditary conditions.[11]



Lt. Henry O. Flipper
Born into slavery in Thomasville, Georgia, on March 21, 1856, Henry Ossian Flipper was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1873. Over the next four years, he overcame harassment, isolation, and insults to become West Point’s first African American graduate and the first African American commissioned officer in the regular U.S. Army. Flipper was stationed first at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and later served at Forts Elliott, Quitman, and Davis, Texas. He served as a signal officer and quartermaster fought Apaches, installed telegraph lines, and supervised the building of roads. At Fort Sill, the young lieutenant directed the construction of a drainage system that helped prevent the spread of malaria. Still known as “Flipper’s Ditch,” the ditch is commemorated by a bronze marker at Fort Sill, and the fort is listed as a National Historic Landmark.
In 1881, while serving at Fort Davis, Flipper’s commanding officer accused him of embezzling $3,791.77 from commissary funds. A court-martial found him not guilty of embezzlement but convicted him of conduct unbecoming an officer and ordered him dismissed from the Army.
After his dishonorable discharge, Flipper fought to clear his name as he pursued a career as an engineer and an expert on Spanish and Mexican land law. In 1898, a bill reinstating him into the Army and restoring his rank was introduced in Congress on his behalf. To bolster his case, he sent Congressman John A. T. Hull, chairman of the House Committee on Military Affairs, the letter displayed below along with a brief supporting the bill’s passage. Flipper’s letter to Hull is an eloquent statement asking Congress for “that justice which every American citizen has the right to ask.” The bill and several later ones were tabled, and Flipper died in 1940 without vindication, but in 1976, the Army granted him an honorable discharge, and in 1999, President Bill Clinton issued him a full pardon.


John Hanks Alexander – (1864–1894)

John Hanks Alexander was the second African-American graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, following Henry O. Flipper.

John Alexander was born on January 6, 1864, the son of James Milo Alexander and Fannie Miller Alexander, both of whom were born slaves. Supported and protected by prominent white families in Helena (Phillips County), Alexander’s father prospered as a barber and dealer in toiletries, acquired property, and purchased his own freedom, as well as that of most of his family. Alexander’s parents were determined that their seven children would be educated. All seven graduated from high school, and three attended Oberlin College in Ohio.

In 1879, Alexander graduated from high school in Helena at the head of his class and, shortly thereafter, taught for a term in Carrollton, Mississippi, in the spring of 1880. In the fall of 1880, he traveled to Ohio to visit an uncle, Nicholas Alexander, a well-known citizen of Cincinnati. While working at an assortment of odd jobs, he enrolled in Oberlin College in 1881, and at the end of his second year in college, he successfully passed the examination for admission to West Point. He received an appointment to the academy by Democratic Congressman George W. Geddes of Ohio in 1883.

During his four years at West Point, Alexander was popular with the corps and escaped some of the mistreatment experienced by previous black cadets. A strikingly handsome young man and a skilled boxer, he was an apt student who excelled in languages and mathematics. By the time of his graduation in 1887, he ranked thirty-second in a class that had decreased in size from 122 to sixty-four members. An academy official described Alexander as a “splendid scholar” who had achieved an enviable record.

On September 30, 1887, Second Lieutenant Alexander reported to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, for duty with the Ninth Cavalry, the famous Buffalo Soldiers. The Ninth Cavalry was an all-black regiment commanded by white officers. Alexander was the sole black officer in a command position. Transferred to Fort Washakie, Wyoming, in 1888, he had duties including garrison duties, fighting fires, escorting prisoners from place to place, making a seventeen-day march across mountainous terrain to Fort Du Chesne in Utah, supervising the building of a post sawmill and telegraph line, and serving in court martial proceedings. On February 12, 1894, Alexander was detailed to Wilberforce University, an African-American school in Ohio, as professor of military science and tactics. On March 26, 1894, he was stricken suddenly and died immediately from what was diagnosed as the “rupture of a large artery near the heart.” He was buried in Xenia, Ohio, near Wilberforce University with military honors.

The Department of War, citing Alexander as a “a man of ability, attainments, and energy,” honored him by giving a military installation at Newport News, Virginia, the name of Camp Alexander in 1918.



Col. Young was the third African-American to graduate and receive a commission as a second lieutenant from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1889. He was the last to do so until Benjamin O. Davis Jr. in 1936, and the first to advance to the rank of colonel in the regular Army. In addition to assignments with the 9th and 10th Cavalry as a platoon leader and troop commander, Young commanded an all-black squadron of volunteer cavalry during the Spanish-American War, and 2nd Squadron of the 10th U.S. Cavalry during the Mexican Expedition of 1916-17. After his promotion to colonel, he commanded Camp Grant, where he supervised the training of African-American recruits during World War I.


In the course of his distinguished career, he also served as a park superintendent when the Army administered national parks, a professor of military science at Wilberforce University in Ohio, and a military attaché at different times to Haiti, and twice to Liberia. He passed away of natural causes at Legos, Nigeria, in 1923. After his remains were repatriated to the United States, he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.