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Woodrow Wilson’s African Army

[1]3,442 words

Arthur E. Barbeau & Florette Henri [2]
The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in World War I
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974

The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in World War I takes a look at the impact of blacks during the mass military mobilization in the United States during the First World War. On the surface, this book is 1970s-style racial oppression porn. However, its stick-to-the-facts style means that it can also be seen as a clinical examination of how the products of white civilization break down when large numbers of blacks are inserted into an otherwise white system.

Afros in the US Army: marginal benefits since the Civil War

While there were some token black units in Rhode Island’s militia and other places during the Revolutionary War, on the whole, the US Army was a white institution until the Civil War, when political circumstances and manpower requirements caused the Lincoln administration to enlist blacks on a large scale. During the Civil War, black troops were hyped in the press for political reasons so much that an accurate summation of their contribution is hard to come by. Unknown Soldiers does provide one, although without historical interpretation. The authors write:

By the end of [the Civil War] about 150 regiments of segregated black troops, more than 180,000 men, had been mustered into the Union army. There are no accurate reports on black officers, although some served in the Massachusetts regiments and with the Louisiana Guards, and at least eight surgeons and seven chaplains held commissions from the United States Army. Black troops fought in forty-six or more engagements and suffered 2,894 battle deaths.[1] [3]

In a war with more than ten thousand engagements and thousands upon thousands dead [4], this is a remarkably low number of active combat engagements as well as battle deaths. Black service in the US Civil War was like employing Third World people in any endeavor: One gets the burdens of a large number of non-whites for only marginal benefits.

The burdens in this case were that once President Lincoln enlisted blacks, it was easier for the Radical Republicans to insist they were full citizens at the conclusion of the war, saddling future Americans with unending race troubles. It would have been better for the Union Army and Navy to forcibly resettle blacks in Africa or elsewhere as the Union Army conquered the South. Black troops caused the prisoner exchange to break down, meaning that more white prisoners of war on both sides died who otherwise wouldn’t have. Black troops also caused the South to fight harder, causing yet more deaths; and the deployment of black troops during the occupation made Reconstruction more difficult following the war. The occupation governments in the Southern states were filled with corruption and incompetence caused by blacks.

Organizing for the Great War under a cloud of troubles

In the five decades between the Civil War and the First World War, changes in relation to the racial situation took place in American society. First, white communities in the South, and to a lesser degree in the North, enacted a series of Jim Crow laws that segregated blacks from wider society. The Jim Crow laws weren’t enacted immediately at the end of the occupation, but rather a generation after Reconstructed ended.[2] [5] It is very likely that Jim Crow laws were a rational response to Afro crime rather than as a punitive measure thought up by bitter Confederate veterans.

As the twentieth century opened, there was a series of race riots, especially in the North, where blacks had begun to migrate as agricultural jobs in the South were being eliminated by mechanization and the North’s industrial economy boomed. One was in Springfield, Illinois in 1906, following a string of murders, rapes, and other serious crimes perpetrated by young black men. The white residents in turn burned down a black area of town called The Badlands. In 1917, a particularly ugly race riot happened in East Saint Louis, Illinois, becoming a headline story in every American newspaper. These Northern race riots were perpetrated by whites. They should be seen as an ugly, but rational, response by Yankees to the problems of having large, marginally employable black populations thrust into a region which had no cultural and social controls regarding blacks. At that time, the North had no suburbs, no large police forces, no large prisons, and no laws specifically targeting blacks for small crimes to get them “in the system” and thus containing them prior to them moving on to bigger crimes. For Northerners in these areas, black problems were up close and personal.

After the Civil War, the US Army reorganized and downsized. Black troops were mostly employed in four regiments: the 9th and 10th US Cavalry regiments and the 24th and 25th US Infantry regiments. These served on the frontier during the Indian Wars, and in 1898 they were deployed in support of the Spanish-American War. This latter conflict was a turning point for race relations in the US military. During and after, black pathologies manifested in the US Army in a way not unlike the problems that occurred during the Vietnam War. While in Tampa, these US Infantry regiments went on a rampage after rumors went around that a black child had been mistreated by white soldiers. A few years later, in 1906, soldiers from the 25th shot up parts of Brownsville, Texas, killing one and wounding another. And in 1916, black troops, including the 10th US Cavalry, were deemed substandard during the punitive expedition against Poncho Villa in Mexico, in response to his raid on US soil. At one point, troops from this regiment even broke and ran during an otherwise light engagement.[3] [6]

Then, on the night of August 23, 1917, an incident occurred that became a central concern for senior Army officials in the Woodrow Wilson administration regarding the mobilization of Negroes in the First World War. More than one hundred soldiers from the 24th US Infantry, led by Sergeant Vida Henry, rampaged through the streets of Houston, Texas shooting whites. This occurred after one of the regiment’s corporals had been arrested by local police when he interfered with an arrest. They were also likely enraged by (possibly exaggerated) stories of the East Saint Louis riot.

Strangely, the Wilson administration never thought of simply not drafting Negroes into the Army after all of these problems – but they did think hard about what to do with them. Black troops fell into three different categories. The first were the regulars, such as those in the 24th US Infantry. The War Department moved the black regulars as far from mainland America as possible: The 10th US Cavalry was deployed to the Philippines for the duration of the war, and the 24th US Infantry was stationed along the Mexican border. Selected black troops in the Regular Army were sent to Fort Dodge, Iowa to train black officers. Others served in the National Guard. Of these, there were two notable regiments: the 15th New York Infantry, which consisted of Harlem blacks led by white officers from the upper classes of New York City, and the 8th Illinois Infantry, which consisted of black enlisted men led by black officers. These units would be assigned new regimental designations; for example, the 15th New York became the 369th US Infantry, while the 8th Illinois became the 370th US Infantry – and would be placed within the 93rd Infantry Division (Provisional). This last group was drawn from those majority of blacks who were either drafted or volunteered (the inductees) for service as a result of the war.

Regarding the large number of black inductees, Army Chief of Staff Tasker Bliss had six ideas on how to deal with them:

  1. They could be stationed with whites from the same area, but in a segregated section of the camp.
  2. One regiment of Negro combat troops could be organized at each of the sixteen National Army cantonments, with the remaining ones to be used as military laborers; this plan would have put forty-eight thousand black men in combat units.
  3. Black troops could be stationed at separate facilities, placed at least a mile from the regular camps to prevent racial mixing.
  4. Two Southern camps could be created for all the black troops.
  5. Black troops could be given a minimum of training at the eight Northern camps, after which they were to be shipped to France to receive final training with weapons.
  6. The calling of the black draft could be delayed, and at last, after minimal training at the camps nearest their homes, the men could be sent to France and used exclusively as service troops.[4] [7]

General Bliss endorsed the sixth option, and this is mostly what happened. Most blacks who served in the US Army during the First World War served in labor battalions of some sort. Of these, those in the Pioneer Infantry battalions experienced combat: called to fix roads, dig trenches, and so on, they often came under artillery fire.

The logistical effort involved in mobilizing blacks in light of the social situation, as well as the very real fear of blacks assaulting white locals, became a big challenge in other areas. Segregated troop trains had to be organized, which required all sorts of complex troop maneuvers prior to reaching the stations. Also, enough whites had to be trained and armed at the various camps prior to any blacks arriving. Employing black officers led to a great deal of drama, which will be explored below.

The opportunity cost of black soldiers

In considering US involvement in the First World War, it must be understood that the US military was a small force at the time: upon the outbreak of war, the US had only slightly more than 150,000 active regulars, and roughly the same number in the National Guard. By that time, all the powers fighting on the French battlefields each had millions of experienced troops at their disposal. Thus, the stakes for America were very high, and it was important to get as many men trained and deployed as quickly as possible. If the mobilization had not been carried out effectively, the resulting lost time and missed opportunities would not only have meant more casualties on the battlefield, but could also have jeopardized the Allied victory altogether. For the US, the consequences would have possibly included losing territory to Mexico, or being forced to surrender the Panama Canal to Germany. Thus, there was enormous pressure on those millions who were inducted into the US Army at the time to learn a great deal, very fast.

What ended up happening has been described by historian David Reynolds:

. . . 4.7 million Americans were mobilized and half of them traveled to Europe, the US Army saw combat for less than six months. During that short time, however, its losses in proportion to the number of soldiers engaged were actually comparable to Verdun or the Somme. The US commander John J. Pershing was sure that American-style “open warfare” – bravura infantry attacks with rifle and bayonet – could break through where the plodding French and British had failed. The results were predictable. During the Meuse-Argonne offensive in October 1918, one American division was totally routed by a German counterattack; another lost 5,000 men from enemy artillery before even reaching the front; while a third attacked with 12,000 men and came back with only 2,000. By the time Pershing grasped the lessons his allies had painfully learned about close cooperation between infantry, artillery, tanks, and airpower, he had lost 26,000 dead in little more than a month – carnage far worse than the Civil War battles of Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor combined. Fortunately for Pershing the death toll never really registered at home, unlike in Britain after the Somme, thanks to a combination of tight military censorship, embedded reporters who maintained an “enthusiastic silence” about the body count, and a crescendo of front-page speculation about the impending armistice. So America’s Great War was as bloody as Britain’s but far shorter.[5] [8]

Dealing with the racial situation within the US Army at the time took up enough of the US War Department’s time that nobody thought to get advice from the British or the French about how to inculcate the hard-won lessons they had already learned into their own men before arriving in France. Instead, the Army had to spend a great deal of time and effort thinking about how to avoid black mutinies in the various camps while they mustered for duty. If they had not had to deal with these issues, it’s possible they might have been able to prepare more effectively and thus avoid the high casualties they ended up sustaining.

Black officers

The key thing about the black officers is that the company-grade officers had to prepare quickly to command troops in a theater where the officers on the opposing side had much more operational experience. Additionally, the tools of war were – for the first time in history – new, complex, high-tech, and constantly evolving. As many officers as possible were needed to meet the challenge, including black ones. Training them turned out to be an unsatisfying, high-drama problem.

Black officers were trained at Fort Dodge, Iowa [9]. This location was picked because all-white Iowa was believed to be “free” of preexisting racial problems. Only one class of officers was trained there, however; a second class failed to materialize for various reasons. These officers were trained primarily in the use of infantry or cavalry, and they were usually assigned to the 92nd or 93rd infantry divisions.

Black field artillery officers were also trained, but this group had a very difficult time. A knowledge of mathematics, and trigonometry in particular, is essential for even basic gunnery. In addition to this, they are required to learn everything that the infantry and cavalry officers learn. “After seven months,” the authors note, “white commanding officers declared all their black artillery officers inefficient.”[6] [10]

Contemporary accounts describe several problems that were experienced with black officers upon deployment. For example, they tended to be unable to read or understand maps; as a result, they tended to end up in the wrong places – usually in a rear area – rather than up front with their men. There was probably a lot of criminality as well, although this book doesn’t go into the details of that. The reports at the time record that black officers were “worthless even as platoon commanders.”[7] [11] Another said, “they did not care for the interests of the nation, but only for the advancement of their own race.”[8] [12] By the same token, some white officers recounted positive experiences with black troops and officers. Both were probably correct; black troops are simply uneven.

As American involvement on the Western Front deepened, efficiency boards[9] [13] were set up to evaluate officer performance, and many black officers were removed. All the black units had smaller percentages of black officers at the end of the war than they had in the beginning. At the same time, white officers who commanded black units got plenty of opprobrium from every direction. Some blacks resented white officers – this was a particular problem in the 370th US Infantry (8th Illinois). And some white officers in black units received abuse from other white officers, especially if their unit didn’t perform well in the field. White officers serving at levels above the battalion level had all sorts of professional problems as a result of having been assigned to black units.

The black infantry divisions

The 93rd Infantry Division was not a division in the strictest sense, which would mean having a division headquarters and supporting elements such as field artillery, cavalry, and intelligence. Rather, it consisted of four infantry regiments that were sent to support the French Army. They were equipped with French weapons and equipment. Of these four, the 369th (15th New York) and 371st US Infantry turned out to be the best, although there were some problems with them as well. While training in 1917, the men of the 369th threatened to carry out a Houston-style mutiny after one of their men was rumored to have been arrested. The 371st consisted of drafted black men who were of the humblest origins in South Carolina; their induction was delayed to get the cotton crop in. Both regiments were almost entirely officered by whites. The other regiments, the 370th (8th Illinois) and the 372nd US Infantry, had a mix of black and white officers – and this led to plenty of drama. One French observer of the efficiency boards and “civil rights”-style discord that took place among the officers in one of the 93rd’s regiments couldn’t understand why the black and white officers in these units were so cruel to each other on the eve of being thrown into battle. Regardless, all these regiments did as well as the French units they fought alongside.

The 92nd was organized and trained at Camp Funston, Kansas. Problems immediately arose when a black Non-Commissioned Officer from the unit attempted to “desegregate” a movie theater in nearby Manhattan, Kansas. Although Kansas law didn’t allow for segregation even in 1917, its commander, MG Charles C. Ballou, encouraged his black troops not to take offense from racial slights and instead focus on winning the war. His message was clumsily given, however, so there was plenty of grumbling and anger in the ranks. There were problems with the officers as well, and many ended up being replaced by whites.

Ballou’s commander, LTG Robert L. Bullard, disliked Ballou personally. As a result, Bullard criticized the division mercilessly in his reports. The probable truth about its performance is that while it was less effective than white divisions, it performed reasonably well – as long as there were white divisions alongside it. If more than two black divisions had served together in a single Corps, the entire system would have broken down.

For the US, the First World War ended as suddenly as it began. The US Army rapidly demobilized. Troops that were on their way to France were turned around at the port and mustered out within days. But race relations the world over had changed. As always, the radicals grasped the situation while the conservatives bumbled. The most critical change was that all of the belligerents in the First World War deployed non-white troops, not just in the colonial hinterlands but in Europe itself. This changed everything. Lothrop Stoddard wrote [14]:

Before Armageddon there thus existed a genuine moral repugnance against settling domestic differences by calling in the alien without the gates. The Great War, however, sent all such scruples promptly into the discard. Not only did the belligerent governments use all the colored troops they could equip, but the belligerent peoples hailed this action with unqualified approval.

Ominously for American whites, one black newspaper, The Messenger, opined that “the transition from shooting a white German is not very far from shooting a white American.”[10] [15]


[1] [16] Arthur E. Barbeau & Florette Henri, The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in World War I (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974), p. 15.

[2] [17] Click here [18] for a very good study of segregation.

[3] [19] Apologists for the unit insist the horses became skittish and ran of their own volition; it’s unclear if this is true.

[4] [20] Ibid., pp. 42 & 43.

[5] [21] David Reynolds, The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014), p. 34.

[6] [22] Ibid., p. 62.

[7] [23] Ibid., p. 161.

[8] [24] Ibid.

[9] [25] Problems with black officers persist today, and match the three types of basic problems described in this article:

1. Lower IQ and less of an ability to master abstractions.
2. Willingness to commit crimes, or to cover for criminals.
3. Focus on their “racial place” rather than common defense.

Despite this, the situation isn’t as bad today as it was during the First World War. Today, the problems are masked in the following ways:

1. Blacks are given more training time by being “recycled” in the various courses. This luxury was unavailable in 1917-18.
2. White attitudes have softened to the point that there is a culture of silence regarding non-white inefficiency.
3. There is greater difficulty in holding efficiency boards to dismiss non-whites.
4. The US military in general is so far ahead of any rival that the situation is less desperate.

5. A volunteer military no longer gets recruits who aren’t looking to be radicals. Drafted armies draft domestic politics into the army, also. For one thing, all non-whites, including Asians, have a surprisingly difficult problem with maps and map reading. Negroes have a particular problem with intersection and resection. Getting non-white officers to lead rather than hang out somewhere is always a problem. I might add that the US military has a very difficult time winning a war. They do win battles, but anything more complex ends disappointingly. Integration is not the only factor as to why this is, but it is a factor.

[10] [26] Ibid., p. 180.