Black Americans In The US Military From The American Revolution To The Korean War: The Spanish American War And The Philippine Insurgency

The U.S. Army employed four Black regiments to serve in the Spanish-American War. Prior to the war, the 9th and 10th Cavalry along with the 24th and 25th Infantry had moved southward, upon the demand of the War Department. These groups had formerly fought against the Native Americans as Buffalo Soldiers. The use of Black soldiers came under the assumption that Blacks were naturally adapted survive the tropical climate and diseases. The 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th U.S. Volunteer Infantry later came into existence in response to Congress’ need for more soldiers, preferably “immune” to tropical diseases.

Black regulars left their hometowns where they felt welcomed and found themselves suddenly on a lower level upon entering their camps in the south. In Lakeland, Florida, the druggist of the Forbes drugstore refused to serve troops of the 10th Cavalry, after they asked to buy soda. He told them to go where they sold Blacks drinks. One soldier tried to enter the barbershop for a shave and was ordered to leave. White bystanders began to heckle the Black soldiers with obscenities. Then allegedly, one of the Whites, Joab Collins, went into the barbershop and brought out pistols, and was immediately shot and killed by some of the Black soldiers who had already begun shooting up the barbershop. It is still debated whether or not Collins was intentionally shot. Nevertheless, the situation in the south began to heat up.

In Tampa the worst incident occurred before the 24th and 25th Infantry embarked for Cuba. Some drunken Whites from the Ohio volunteer regiment shot at a Black child, luckily not hurting him, and instigating a massive retaliation. Black infantrymen ran in frenzy, attacking White soldiers and smashing up local White businesses. Nearly 30 Black soldiers ended up in the hospital.

In Cuba, the 9th and10th Cavalry joined with the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, otherwise known as Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders,” under the command of General Joseph Wheeler. Due to limited space on the invasion transports, the horses were left behind. Thus these forces fought on foot. The 10th Cavalry helped the Rough Riders storm a blockhouse that overlooked the ridge near Las Guásimas, suffering almost equal casualties as the Rough Riders. The Rough Riders had been trapped, and the 10th Cavalry used its “Indian-fighting” (Buckley, p. 144) techniques to save the squadron. John “Black Jack” Pershing credited his 10th Cavalry with saving the Rough Riders from much higher casualties. A reporter from the Washington Post stated, “If it had not been for the Negro cavalry, the Rough Riders would have been exterminated.” (Buckley, p. 144) He added that he was born in the south and had never been very fond of Black people before witnessing this battle.

The remaining objectives formed the main defenses of the city Santiago: El Caney, San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill. The 25th Infantry received orders to capture El Caney, and initially found themselves under intense Spanish fire. The 25th took cover in dry streambeds, from which they were able to snipe the enemy, forcing the Spanish to put up the White flag before the final charge even began.

The capture of Kettle Hill would prove itself more difficult. The Spanish had manned points along the hill that provided an excellent view of the approaching enemy. The 9th and 10th Cavalry approached the hill alongside the Rough Riders, and soon all three regiments spread into smaller groups upon receiving enemy fire. The 10th Cavalry fought valiantly, and even impressed a Rough Rider, Frank Knox, who had been separated from his regiment amidst the chaos. He believed these soldiers to be “the bravest men he had ever seen.” Knox would later become the U.S. Secretary of the Navy during World War II. The 10th suffered 20% killed and wounded in action. It should be noted that so far the 10th remained crucial to the overall efforts it share with the Rough Riders, although they never received equal recognition.

The raid of San Juan Hill almost destroyed the Rough Riders, who ended up trapped by enemy fire from all sides. Once again the 10th Cavalry bailed them out, with the help of the 9th Cavalry as well. The 10th Cavalry charged ahead, leaving their dead and wounded behind. According to a New York reporter at the battle scene, the 10th Cavalry advanced under heavy fire “firing as they marched, their aim was splendid. Their coolness was superb and their courage aroused admiration of their comrades.” (Powell) The Battle of San Juan Hill was the most integrated battle of all. The First Brigade consisted of the 9th Cavalry and the White 3rd and 6th. The Second Brigade consisted of the 10th Cavalry, the Rough Riders, the 1st Regular Cavalry, and 5,000 Cuban rebels led by the Cuban General Calixto García Iñiguez. For their gallantry in the Battle of San Juan Hill, five Black soldiers of the 10th Cavalry received the Medal of Honor and 25 other Black soldiers were awarded the Certificate of Merit. (Powell)

The battle for Puerto Rico was not very long lived, as the 6th Massachusetts Regimental National Guard and its Black Company L engaged only in a few skirmishes. Veteran Walter J. Stephens (Buckley p. 152) attributes the victory to the poor fighting tactics of Spanish soldiers, who fought in packs, while the Americans spread their forces apart. Contrary to the beliefs of the War Department, the soldiers of Company L suffered from the tropical diseases, such as Yellow Fever, Typhoid and Malaria.

The battle for the Philippines marked a change in some Black soldiers’ mindset. After seeing their own country simply replace Spain as the empire that dominated Cuba and Puerto Rico, their country now extended its hand into the Far East. Admiral George Dewey gained control over Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, and made a request for ground forces. The War Department quickly approved a plan to send 11,300 troops to Manila under the command of Major General Wesley Merritt by July 25. Dewey also encouraged General Emilio Aguinaldo, whom he had invited from exile in Hong Kong, to rally the Filipinos against the Spanish colonists. Aguinaldo hoped for Philippine independence.

Realizing that the American forces were superior to the Spanish defenses around the city, Governor-General Fermín Jáudenes y Álvarez had to make a choice. He decided he would rather lose the city to Americans than the “undisciplined native insurgents.” (Pike) The Spanish troops would put up only a display of resistance and would surrender on a prearranged signal. The Spanish also did not want to face any insurgents, fearing that they would be massacred. Merrit and Dewey persuaded the Filipino insurgents to watch the assault from the sidelines, yet some still joined in the assault and some unpredicted fighting took place, killing five Americans and wounding 35. When Admiral George Dewey gained control over Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, the insurgents refused to surrender to U.S. control, and set up a base on the island of Luzon, under their leader General Aguinaldo. At the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1899, Spain agreed to recognize the independence of Cuba, and the ceding of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the U.S. The U.S. also paid $20 million to Spain in exchange for the Philippines. It is no wonder that the Filipinos felt betrayed, seeing the U.S. as just another oppressor replacing the Spain as the imperialistic power.

U.S. Battles Filipino Insurgents: What is freedom?

Hostilities between the U.S. and Filipino insurgents broke out on February 2, 1899. The Americans had only 12,000 troops to face the 40,000 Filipino insurgents. The U.S. authorized the formation of two new Black regiments: the 48th and 49th Infantry. Many American troops would soon learn that they would rather have left the Spanish to fight off the insurgents. Facing the will of a people who desired independence, they inevitably faced a new kind of warfare. In September of 1901, on the island of Samar, guerrillas disguised as women killed fifty-nine Americans and wounded another twenty-three. Brigadier General Jacob H. Smith then ordered Marine major Littleton W.T. Waller to get revenge, stating, “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn—the more you kill and burn the better you will please me.” (Buckley, p. 154) When Waller asked General Smith what he meant by “no prisoners,” Smith recommended the execution of anyone over the age of 10. Even Filipinos employed by the U.S. were executed, suspected of stealing food and medicine. General Smith and Major Waller were both acquitted of any wrongdoing. Seeking a way to wear down the Filipino determination for independence, American soldiers inevitably committed war crimes. Some forty-four military trials would follow between August 1898 and March 1901, for crimes of burning villages, rape, murder, and others such as torture. This would foreshadow the type of fighting seen by the imperial powers seeking control over the territory of Vietnam.

The Black volunteer regiments sought recognition, although the general Black population strongly opposed America’s imperialistic policies in its newly acquired territories. Blacks saw the Cubans as their brothers and fellow victims in oppression, thus supporting the liberation of Cuba. The occupation of the Philippines caused second thoughts amongst leading Black intellectuals. E.E. Cooper, the Washington, D.C., newspaper editor became wary of U.S. President McKinley’s policy in the Philippines. Cooper warned that it was “impossible to Christianize and civilize people at gunpoint.” (Nalty, p. 73) Booker T. Washington, founder of the school for Blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama, also sounded his opposition, stating “Until our nation has settled the Indian and Negro problems, I do not think we have a right to assume more social problems.” (Nalty, p. 73) Bishop Henry McNeal Turner proved to be the most influential, when he grouped American Blacks and Filipinos as both oppressed by Whites. Other Blacks supported his ideas and formed the Black Man’s Burden Association. Nevertheless, Black opposition did not significantly materialize before the battles of the Philippine insurgency.

Motivated to gain recognition, Black soldiers fought bravely in the Philippines. Blacks were renowned for their ability to play to the insurgents’ style of warfare, in which there really were no limits. In one such case, a supposed defector from the insurgent side offered to lead a patrol from the 49th Volunteer Infantry under David Gilmer. Suspicious of this informant, Gilmer had the guide switch clothes with one of the soldiers. The Filipino informant came under fire at the riverbank, but Gilmer’s patrol waded the stream and flanked the insurgent position, capturing the entire ambush party. Gilmer and 5 other Black soldiers had been recruited from the 3rd North Carolina regiment. While stationed in Georgia, this regiment suffered severe maltreatment from local Whites. Whites killed four Black soldiers, and justice was never served. The accused Whites pleaded justifiable homicide, and the racist speech given by the defense lawyer successfully swayed the local jury.

Upon arriving at the Philippines, Black regular and volunteer units encountered propaganda encouraging them to desert the army. General Aguinaldo sent out pamphlets that raised the same questions that Blacks encountered back home in the U.S.: How could one believe that his government could be promoting a good cause when that same government allows his brothers to be terrorized and lynched? Veteran soldier John Galloway, a senior noncommissioned officer of the 24th Infantry, admitted that this propaganda affected many Black soldiers. He felt constantly haunted by how morally wrong Americans were to be serving as an army under the oppressor. Galloway later was jailed and dishonorably discharged after a letter from him was discovered in a raid in the house of a suspected Manila insurgent. The letter was harmless, and encouraged the Filipinos to use education to obtain their freedom.

Only 5 soldiers defected to the side of the insurgents, the most famous being David Fagen. Fagen had gained the rank of corporal in Company I in the 24th Infantry, and on November 17, 1899, defected. It is believed that his defection came in light of conflicts with his White or Black superiors. For a year and a half, Fagen led troops under General José Alejandrino. He eventually gained the rank of captain, and his followers called him “General Fagen.” The New York Times printed a front-page story on “General Fagen” after he captured a military steam launch near Araya and escaped into the jungle with his men. American propaganda attempted to picture Fagen as a murderer, stating that he routinely captured and killed American soldiers. Two former prisoners from the 24th Infantry discounted these rumors. Trooper George Jackson and White Lieutenant Frederick Alstaetter both stated that they were treated humanely, although Fagen stole Alstaetter’s West Point ring. Shockingly, 20 American soldiers defected to his side, Black and White.

The capture of the leader of the Filipino insurrection, General Aguinaldo, led to the breakdown of the resistance in the spring of 1901. General Frederick Funston placed a bounty of $600 on Fagan’s head, and shortly thereafter a bounty hunter brought back a slightly decomposed head, a West Point ring and a rebel commission in the name of Fagen. Filipinos claimed that Fagen remained alive, hoping that others would continue this guerilla fight for freedom. General Aguinaldo’s acknowledgement of the sovereignty of the United States throughout the Philippines was enough to discourage any further resistance for the time being.

In the summer of 1902, troops began to return home from the Philippines. Muslim Guerilla resistance among the southern islands sprang up and prompted the remaining soldiers of the 24th Infantry and the new Philippine constabulary, or police force, to kill more than 50 insurgents.

Black soldiers felt no better off fighting for their country in a foreign land. White officers had a tendency to group very freely Filipinos and Black Americans under the racist terminology “n-gger.” (Nalty, p. 77) Events following the Spanish-American war indicated nothing of improvement for the Black American population. The Navy segregated in response to Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905. The goal behind creating a “Great White Fleet” was to demonstrate Caucasian supremacy to the Japanese Navy and discourage any attacks on the America’s newly acquired territory in the Far East. Blacks in the Navy were only allowed to be stewards and messmen, replacing Japanese Americans, now seen as a security threat.

Written by David Omahen

See also:

The American Revolution to 1808
The War of 1812
The Civil War
The Indian Wars
The Spanish American War and the Philippine Insurgency
The Brownsville Incident and Teddy Roosevelt
World War One
The Spanish Civil War
World War Two
The Korean War
Conclusion and Bibliography