Military Service

One of the most basic rights and obligations of citizenship is military service. Service is an obligation in the sense that those who benefit from living in a society have an obligation to defend that society. It is a right in the sense that those who have full and equal citizenship have an equal right to serve their nation. African-Americans in general and African-Americans in South Carolina in particular have long understood this link between military service and full and equal citizenship. They hoped that service would establish their claim to full and equal citizenship. In a 1919 speech before an audience of fellow African-Americans in Union, S.C., Charles Johnson, who had taught school for thirty years and who worked with African-American troops training in the state as a YMCA officer, argued that service would be an important step toward gaining equality in the eyes of his fellow human beings.

"The American Negro is proud that he was given the opportunity to preserve Christian civilization and to show what is in him and give good account of himself. ... (The) history of the (First) World War cannot be justly written and leave out his very conspicuous and heroic part. The world sees the American Negro in an entirely different light and will give him a chance in life as never before ... (This) is the hope and expectation of all" (Johnson).

Although both the hope and expectation fell far short of being fulfilled, African-Americans kept the hope alive over generations of service. Finally, more than half a century after Johnson made his speech, the American society has begun to recognize and appreciate this truth. However, a complete story of military service must start well before 1919. African-Americans were providing military service to the state and nation before they were truly African-Americans--their service dates back to the days when they were enslaved Africans. In this overview, let us begin the story there.

Colonial Times

In colonial South Carolina in 1708 enslaved Africans were armed and served as mounted soldiers to protect Charleston from Indian raids. They served well over an extended period of time. In 1747 the colonial legislature recognized their service in a resolution: "(In) times of war, (they) behaved themselves with great faithfulness and courage, in repelling the attacks of his Majesty's enemies." Whites tried to ensure faithfulness by making sure that two armed whites were with each armed black in the state militia (Katz 36-7).

The Revolutionary War

While almost every school child knows that Crispus Attucks, an African-American, was one of the very first to die in the first fight of the American Revolution at the Boston Massacre, fewer know that African-Americans were involved in helping the patriot cause in most other battles: at Bunker Hill, with John Paul Jones in sea battles, with George Washington crossing the Delaware, and in the battle of Yorktown, serving in integrated units. One of those units, a regiment from Rhode Island, was three-fourths African-American. One officer who reviewed the troops at the time noted that this unit was tops in military skill (Botsch 158).

The connection between equality and service was rather direct in the Revolutionary War, at least for African-Americans in northern states. Many states offered freedom for those who volunteered for and completed their military service. This policy had several impacts. It reduced the number of those enslaved. It also encouraged abolitionists who saw the quality of service rendered. Both of these factors contributed to the ending of enslavement in northern states (Botsch 158).

The Continental Congress encouraged all states to recruit enslaved Africans for military service. It offered to compensate owners with $1,000 for each volunteer and then grant freedom and pay $50 to the soldier at the end of the war. South Carolina and Georgia refused the offer, despite the urging of Colonel Henry Laurens, one of South Carolina's most prominent officers. Nevertheless, African-Americans in the state did serve in other ways, even without promises of freedom. They built defenses around the state, including the famous palmetto log Fort Moultrie. The strength of that fortress in repelling British cannon balls led to the name "The Palmetto State" and to the picture of the palmetto tree on the state flag. Enslaved Africans helped put out fires when the British shelled Charleston and helped man the cannon that fired back. They served as scouts with Francis Marion in the battles with the British in the swamps of eastern South Carolina (Botsch 158; Katz 38).

While the state did not grant freedom to its enslaved Africans who helped in the fight for independence, the British promised freedom to those who defected to their side to fight against the revolution ("Black Revolutionary War Soldiers"). One estimate is that at least 25,000 enslaved people answered the call. Those who did fought hard and well. They served as shock troops, leading the initial charge against revolutionary forces, and as a result took many casualities. They also provided labor and information as spies and guides to the British. When the war was over, some 20,000 left with the British. They had lost the war but had gained their freedom. Interestingly, some stayed and fought on, calling themselves the "King of England's soldiers." They fought a guerrilla war against slave owners from hideouts in the Savannah River swamps. Militias from South Carolina and Georgia required several years to finally defeat this group (Botsch 159).

The Civil War

African-Americans played a large role in the Civil War. Roughly one in ten Union soldiers were African-American. They numbered about 200,000 in all (Botsch 63). Indeed one could make a case that the North could not have won the war without their help. This was particularly true in South Carolina. Even those who were enslaved throughout the war played a role by slowing down in their work and in some cases refusing to work (Botsch 60-61). Of course this undermined the southern war effort. Whenever possible they provided information about Conferderate troop movements and about stored supplies as well as directions over a terrain with which Union troops were not familiar (Botsch 62). Those who fled enslavement played an even greater role.

Thousands fled to the coastal islands near Beaufort when Union troops landed there. Even though they were not formally free, they came under the protection of Union forces as "contraband of war," that is, the property of an enemy. In late 1862 volunteers began to form the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, commanded by a white northerner, Colonel Thomas Higginson. After the war he wrote a book praising his men for their exploits. One of the heroes in the ranks of the First Regiment was Sergeant Prince Rivers, who later played an important political role in Reconstruction (Botsch 62-3). Another hero in the unit was female, Susie King Taylor. She served as a nurse, laundress, and volunteer reading teacher throughout the war and later wrote an autobiography that included her war experiences (Botsch 65-6). Although the First Regiment of South Carolina fought well, the most famous unit was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, whose story was told in the Hollywood movie Glory. Today African-Americans from South Carolina and other states are part of a group of re-enactors who commemorate this famous unit (Brownfield).

Fighting for the Union was particularly dangerous in that the Confederates did not treat African-Americans as enemy soldiers. Rather, they were considered as traiters and subject to summary execution if captured. This did not deter the African-American volunteers. Perhaps they fought even harder. By the end of the war twenty-one were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor (Botsch 64).

Robert Smalls was perhaps the most famous African-American from South Carolina in the Civil War. Smalls gained quick fame in stealing a Confederate steamboat, the Planter, and delivering it to the Union Navy. He volunteered his piloting skills to guide Union ships off the South Carolina coast (Botsch 64-5; Uza). Following the war he played an important political role in the state.

While white Confederates and their defenders like to boast about the loyalty of those who were enslaved, the fact is that those under enslavement were of far more help to the Union than to the Confederates. Many were pressed into construction and support activities for the Confederacy, cooking, running supply trains, performing all kinds of other manual labor. However, few played any traditional military roles. Late in the war the Confederacy did debate arming those who were enslaved and a few experimental companies were even formed. But they never fought (Botsch 66-7).

Black Seminole Scouts

In recent times the role that African-Americans played in winning the wars with Native Americans has received a good deal of media coverage. Most people have heard about the "buffalo soldiers," especially those in the Tenth Cavalry, among whom eleven were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their heroic deeds (Katz 204). Less well known are the Black Seminole Scouts, a group that almost certainly could be traced to Africans who escaped enslavement in South Carolina, though most probably came from Georgia. Originally they escaped to Florida, where they settled with the Seminoles, who were fighting the U.S. military. When those wars ended they moved with the Seminoles to the West. They escaped to Mexico when whites in the West tried to reenslave them. There they fought for the Mexican army and became famous for their military prowess. In the 1870s they were persuaded to join the U.S. military in a war against Native Americans of the plains. Their exploits became legend. Without losing one man they won a dozen large battles. A commander and three scouts, who were later awarded Congressional Medals of Honor, defeated a war party of thirty Indians. After the government broke its promises of food and land for their families and after a Texas sheriff shot one of the Medal of Honor winners in the back, they moved back to Mexico (Katz 232-7).

West Point Cadets

Although African-Americans fought hard and well for the nation, the prejudice of negative racial stereotypes prevented them from becoming officers. They always fought under the command of white officers. Finally in the late 1800s political leaders were persuaded to allow a few African-Americans to enter West Point to receive officer training. There they had to endure terrible prejudice and hardships. The first to enter was James Webster Smith of Columbia, South Carolina. He was expelled after failing a very questionable oral exam (Pope). In late 1997 the army awarded him an officer's commission to at least symbolically right a long standing injustice. Camden's Johnson Whittaker was among the twenty African-Americans to be admitted. He survived two years before being expelled on trumped up charges. He too was awarded his commission posthumously (Moniz, "Cadet Honored"). The first to survive the full four years was Henry Flipper of Georgia. Only two others managed to graduate by 1900.

The Spanish American War

In October of 1993 at the age of 110, Jones Morgan, born in Newberry County, South Carolina, died. Before his death he was honored by General Colin Powell, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and by President Bush. Jones Morgan was the last surviving member of the Ninth Cavalry ("Spanish-American War Buffalo"). The Ninth and Tenth Cavalries, both of which were African-American units that had earlier won fame as Buffalo Soldiers in the American West, had cleared the way for Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders in their charge up San Juan Hill (Katz 272-3). One white southerner who witnessed the battle said that they saved the day and that his feelings of prejudice had been changed by the bravery of those soldiers.

World War One

While African-Americans from all over the nation served in what was called the World War, one of the most famous units in the conflict, the 371st Infantry Regiment, was composed of many soldiers from the Palmetto State. Men who had only known work in the fields were trained in late 1917 into a sharp fighting unit at Camp Jackson, located just outside Columbia (Barbeau 79). Within a year they were fighting in the fields of France. Attached to the famous French Red Hand Division and wearing the red hand patch on their shoulders, they earned the nicknames of "black devils" and "hell fighters" from their German adversaries. A white colonel described their exploits: "These men of ours, whom I saw on death on Hill 188, these black men who dignified death, who brought honor to their race and glory to our colors...were soldiers who helped elevate our pride" (Heywood 177). After the war the French awarded many medals to the regiment and erected a monument in their honor. On it are names and mottos along with a cotton field and a Palmetto tree (Heywood 235). One member of the unit, Corporal Freddie Stowers, of Anderson County, was later--much later, in 1991--awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for actions that cost him his life on September 28, 1918 (Stuart).

World War Two

African-Americans served in the Second World War in segregated units as they had in previous conflicts. About the same percentage of the military was African-American as was the general population. While no units were distinctively South Carolinian as had been the case in earlier wars, many sons of the Palmetto State served with great distinction. Dorie Miller was assigned to a menial job in a ship's mess, or kitchen, that was docked in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. As the Japanese sprung their surprise attack, Miller ran to a gun and shot down several enemy planes. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his bravery under fire (Stuart). Ernest Henderson of Laurens County trained African-Americans to fly fighter planes at Tuskegee Alabama (Davis, Michelle). His students formed the famed 99th Pursuit Squadron. The fighter escorts flew over 1,500 missions over Europe and never lost a bomber, a record not matched by any other group. Many of the 1,000 Tuskgee airmen completed flight training near Walterboro, S.C., where a monument was dedicated to them in 1997. Those who were still alive to attend the memorial dedication were now welcomed by the governor and local leaders. Fifty years earlier local whites had not allowed them to use recreational facilities (Holland). Columbia native Charity Adams became the highest ranking African-American female during the war, serving as Company Commander, Station Control and Training Officer, and Battalion Commander in the Eurpean Theater of Operations (Early).

Two of the most famous African-American units in the war, the 183rd Combat Engineers and the 761st Tank Battalion, almost certainly had some members with South Carolina roots. These units are credited with rescuing the 101st Airborne when they were trapped in Bastogne France by the Nazis late in the war during the Battle of the Bulge. The Engineers built a bridge over a river under heavy snow and German attack. The 761st crossed over and enabled the 101st to escape. A burned-out tank was left standing in the town square as a monument to the rescue ("Liberators"). The record of the 761st, with fewer than 600 men,was impressive by any standard. They captured or killed over 20,000 German troops. Almost half of the members of the unit won Purple Hearts for their battle wounds, and they also were awarded 11 Silver Stars, 70 Bronze Stars, 3 Certificates of Merit, and 4 Unit Battle Stars (Woolley).

Korea and Vietnam

Military units were fully integrated by the time of the nation's two major wars in the last half of the century. African-Americans served in all branches of the military and in all capacities, despite lingering prejudice, with great dignity and valor. Arthur Williams of Bennettsville received the second highest military medal, the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts on New Year's Day, 1968, when he lost an arm and an eye and still returned fire from his armored personnel carrier (DeCair). Two men from South Carolina won Congressional Medals of Honor for their deeds in Vietnam. Private First Class Ralph Johnson gave his life to save the lives of his fellow Marines (Greene 271). Sergeant Webster Anderson of the 101st Airborne sacrificed both legs and part of his harm defending his gun crew (Greene 221-2).

Although African-Americans are now fully integrated into military service, the long history of their service and sacrifice predated anything close to equal treatment. African-Americans from the Palmetto State have played an important part in that history, a history that is finally being recognized by the nation and its leaders.


Barbeau, Arthur E. The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974.

"Black Revolutionary War Soldiers Recognized." The State (March 16, 1997) B5.

"Black Tank Unit Reflects on WWII." The State (December 16, 1994), A6.

Botsch, Carol et. al. African-Americans and the Palmetto State. Columbia, S.C.: South Carolina State Department of Education, 1994.

Brownfield, Paul. "Black Civil War Re-enactors Enjoy Glory of Hobby." The State (September 15, 1996), E1.

Davis, David. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Davis, Michelle. "Pioneering Pilot Honored." The State (January 17, 1996) B1.

DeCair, Rene. "White House Acknowledges 'Bona Fide' Vietnam Hero." The State (September 29, 1994), B2.

Early, Charity Adams. One Woman's Army. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 1989.

Farley, M. Foster. "The South Carolina Negro in the American Revolution," South Carolina Historical Magazine 79 (April 1978), 75-86.

Greene, Robert Ewell. Black Defenders of America, 1775-1973. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., 1974

Heywood, Chester D. Negro Combat Troops in the World War: The Story of the 371st Infantry. New York: AMS Press, 1969, original edition, Worchester, Mass.: Commonwealth Press, 1928.

Holland, Jesse J. "Tuskgee Airmen Return to Memorial Dedication." The State (May 27, 1997), A5.

Johnson, Charles. Speech in Union S.C., 1919.

Kaplan, Sidney. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. Greenwich Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973.

Katz, William Loren. The Black West. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1973.

Leckie, William H. The Buffalo Soldiers. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.

"Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in WWII." A film shown on Public Television in The American Experience series.

Marszalek, John F. Court-Martial: A Black Man in America. N.Y.: Scribner's, 1972. Rereleased as Assault at West Point. N.Y. Collier, 1994.

Maslowski, Pete. "National Policy Toward Use of Black Troops in the Revolution." South Carolina Historical Magazine 73 (1974).

Dave Moniz. "Cadet Honored 123 Years Later." The State (September 21, 1997), B1.

Moniz, Dave. "Tuskegee Pilots' Tutor Earns Honor: Henderson Trained Black WWII Airmen." The State (December 19, 1997), B3.

Pope, Charles. "First Black Cadet Finally Getting His Due." The State (March 13, 1996), B1.

Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the Civil War. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953.

Robinson, Bill. "Slave and Scorned Cadet Promoted: An Officer and a Hero." The State (September 23, 1997), A1.

"Seeking 'Fair Deal' for a Black Cadet." N.Y. Times (January 31, 1994), A10.

"Spanish-American War Buffalo Vet Dies at 110." The State (August 31, 1993), 3B.

Stuart, Bob. "Medal of Honor Presentation Seeks to Rectify Slight of War Hero." The State (April 24, 1991), 1B, 2B.

Uza, Okon E. From Slavery to Public Service: Robert Smalls, 1839-1915. New York: Oxford, 1971.

Voelz, Peter M. Slave and Soldier: The Military Impact of Blacks in the Colonial Americas. PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1978, revised. Hamden, Connecticut: Garland Publishing, 1993.

Woolley, Bryan. "Black Veterans Get Statue and Respect." The State (July 24, 1994), D10.

last updated 1/7/98


The University of South Carolina-Aiken