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AfriGeneas Military Research Forum Archive

Re: Voices
In Response To: Re: Voices ()

Mr. Smith:
I am rarely amazed at what I find in the historical record. But I am usually enlightened, often amused, and sometimes even impressed. Yes, I accept fully the accuracy of what you wrote about "the tenacity, bravery, survival skills and loyalty" of black regulars (and here my time frame is the three decade post-Civil War period).

But my own resarch also demonstraters that the ranks of the black reguiments included some less gallant and nobel fellows. Like all of the regular units, the black regiments contained their share of: villains, major and minor, thieves, liars, cowards, drunks, malingerers, murderers, razor aces, sexual deviates, latrine lawyers, rapists, deserters, escaped convicts, wife beaters, and those who fit that wonderful army regulation term of being "utterly worthless".
As an ex-soldier, I'm sure you recognize some of all of these "standard issue" types.

And that's my point in making this point. Just as it was wrong for predecessors to shove the service and accomplishments of the black regulars off the pages of history, in my view it is an equal mistake to only portray these men in glowing and positive terms. Balance, based on a full and impartial examination of the record is the key. The brave and the no so gallant, the efficient as well as the slovenly, the prideful along side of the indifferent: all of these stories need to be told.

And now switching gears to your, " the face of continual prejudice and abuse by their officers." Well, on prejudice--welcome to late l9th Century white America--and especially to the middle/upper classes--a position which most army officers held or aspired to. No big surprise here: slavery was gone but equality was still a long, long way off. Here's most of the final paragraph of the book, The Black Regulars, l866-l898, that I co-authored with William Dobak:

"The black regulars faced racial prejudice from individuals both inside the army and out. In the army, though, the found an organization that needed their services and that could not afford to discriminate against them in matters of food, housing, clothing and equipment. However poor these might be, they were the same as the army issued to white troops. The question of equal pay had been settled during the Civil War, and army courts-martial were ahead of some civilian jurisdictions in admitting the testimony of black witnesses."

I do not mean to imply with this quote that the army created some kind of race-neutral paradise. It didn't--and almost certainly did not want to. Some examples of anti-black prejudice would not go down:the more salient of these being the high command's successful effort to keep blacks out of the artillery (on the theory that blacks did not have the intelligence to be gunners), the harsh treatment and social isolation endured by black cadets at West Point, and the fact that no blacks soldier was commissioned from the ranks under a l878 regulations that saw a small number of white rankers become officers. Note: I have not mentioned the fact of segregated regiments as an enduring example of prejudice. We may have to agree to disagree on this, but considering the times (l866-l898) there was no way in hell that politicians and the brasss would legislate/accept a fully integrated regular establishment. Race separate units, like it or not, simpy have to be accepted as a "given" when studying this period.

But against this backgropund of bias/prejudice/unfairness I am still--and here the word "amazed" fairly applies--at the following: I know of few other areas in late l9th Century American life where blacks and whites were paid exactly the same for doing the same work, were a black man could give orders to a white and expect to be obeyed, and where black soldiers could bring legal charges against and testinfy in open court against both his equals (other soldiers) or his superiors (officers).

Simply amazing.

As for abuse by officers: it happened. Sometimes it was petty in nature and sometimes it was done with sadistic violence. Some officers escaped such action without punishment or censure, but others felt the full weight of the military justice system. But far outnumbering these bastards, bigots and bully-boys, were commanders--many of them long-service veterans--of absolute professional dignity and decorum. These were officers who treated black soldiers fairly and firmly: with a harsh voice and strict obedience to the regulations when necessary--but with compassion and understanding and a willingeness to turn a blind eye to the rules and "customs of theservice" when needed. Just like the men they commanded, the record shows that the officers posted to black units were good, bad and indifferent.

A full, fair/neutral and above accurate telling. That's the ticket

Tom Phillips

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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