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13 Minority Military Units Who Shaped American History

March 4, 2021 4.2k views13 items

The United States military has been a superpower for many years. Heroism is attributed to all of the service members in the armed forces. Many American citizens have shaped the history of this country and do not receive the credit they deserve.

Unfortunately, many US citizens don't fully realize the diversity of American military veterans. There are numerous minority groups that proudly served in the United States military even before its integration in the mid-20th century. Like all members of the military, they wanted to show their patriotism and pride for their home.

Minority military units served in all major wars before WWII. The United States military was desegregated in 1948 when President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which required the “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”

  • Photo: U.S. Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The 'Tuskegee Airmen' Flew Combat Missions With Distinction In WWII

    The Tuskegee Airmen were African American military members who served the United States. The regiment was created in 1939 and was active through 1945. Historically Black colleges and universities implemented Civilian Pilot Training Programs in 1939 because Congress was afraid that war would break out. The Tuskegee Institute had been founded by Booker T. Washington. It is estimated that 1,000 pilots were trained at Tuskegee from 1941-1946. 

    The 332nd Fighter Group consisted of four fighter squadrons: the 99th, the 100th, the 301st, and the 302nd. The US Army Air Corps (AAC) sanctioned the training of Black airmen at Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) in Alabama. They flew over 15,000 missions during WWII.

    In addition to training pilots, the Tuskegee Institute trained over 14,000 other military support personnel. The airmen of the 99th served in North Africa and Italy. The airmen of the 100th, the 301st, and the 302nd served in Italy. African American airmen also served in the 477th Bombardment Group formed in 1944. All told, the Tuskegee Airmen were responsible for destroying over 260 enemy aircraft. There was a myth during the war that they never lost a bomber, but this was later debunked. Still, they had one of the lowest loss rates during WWII. 

    The Tuskegee Airmen faced racial segregation when they returned home. Their response to the problem - including nonviolent civil disobedience - anticipated Truman's integration of the military in 1948, and provided inspiration for the civil rights movement of the following decades. 

    Pilots of the 332nd won the first United States Air Force fighter gunnery competition in 1949. The official record listed the winner that year as unknown until 1995, when Harry T. Stewart Jr. - who participated in the competition - began doing some research. The trophy from the competition was finally found at the United States Air Force Museum.

  • Photo: National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Buffalo Soldiers Served In The American West And Battled Native Americans

    The Buffalo Soldiers were African American soldiers in the late 19th century. They made up the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments - all-Black regiments led by white officers. Three Black officers did graduate from West Point and hold leadership positions: Henry O. Flipper, John Hanks Alexander, and Charles Young

    Predominantly stationed in the American West, the Buffalo Soldiers built roads, worked in the national parks, and promoted Westward expansion. They fought in the Indian Wars, Red River War, and the Battle of San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. Eighteen Buffalo Soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their role in conflicts against Indigenous peoples from 1870-1890. 

    There are two theories as to how the Buffalo Soldiers got their name. First, it was suggested they were named after their dark, curly hair, which people in the 19th century thought looked like buffalo hair. The second theory is that they were so named because of their fighting ability - they were tough, like the Great Plains buffalo. Additionally, the soldiers often wore coats made out of buffalo hides to keep warm in the winter.

    The Buffalo Soldiers had opportunities to buy property, access to higher education, and better jobs than many Black Americans of the era. Still, despite their military service, many faced racism. Some were even victims of lynching, which made it painfully clear to many African American servicemen that their service had not made them equal citizens.

  • Photo: National Park Service / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Within Weeks Of Emancipation, Black Soldiers Were Enlisting In The Union Army

    The Second Confiscation and Militia Act of July 17, 1862, allowed President Lincoln to employ African Americans in his army. President Lincoln did not allow African Americans to fight in combat until after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation stated:

    And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

    Ms. Budge Weidman, a National Archives volunteer, compiled a comprehensive list of all the African American units that fought in the Civil War. She found that African American units from Louisiana served in the war as early as 1862.

    The most famous USCT (United States Colored Troops) regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, was mustered in early 1863 and commanded by a white officer, Col. Robert Gould Shaw. The regiment's actions - including an ill-fated attack at Battery Wagner, dramatized in the film Glory - demonstrated the combat effectiveness and esprit de corps of Black soldiers.

    In May 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established to organize soldiers from all across the country. After the establishment of this bureau, the African American units were referred to as USCT. The state regiments and Corps d'Afrique in the Department of the Gulf were slowly integrated into the USCT.

    A number of USCT units were attached to General William T. Sherman’s army. Sherman disliked African American soldiers and purposely left them behind on his 1864 campaign through Georgia.  Sherman placed General George Thomas in charge of a racially diverse group of 55,000 soldiers. Thomas, tasked with guarding Tennessee, thought the Black soldiers were not fit for combat, but he was proven wrong when USCT soldiers performed valiantly at the Battle of Nashville, where the Confederate Army of Tennessee was routed and driven off the field in confusion. In the Eastern theater, USCT troops were heavily engaged at the disastrous Battle of the Crater during the Siege of Petersburg.

    More than 180,000 Black soldiers served in the Union military. By the end of the Civil War, there were 87 African American officers in the Union Army.

  • Confederate Black Units Were Mustered In 1865 As A Last-Ditch Effort To Stave Off The Union

    The Confederate Army mustered African American units in March 1865. They did this reluctantly as a last-ditch effort to beat the growing Union armies, but it was too little, too late.

    The previous year, one of the Confederate field commanders, Patrick R. Cleburne, had suggested to Joseph E. Johnston that they arm the enslaved men of the South to fight in the Confederate Army, and emancipate them as a reward for their service. Cleburne wrote in a letter to Joseph E. Johnston dated January 2, 1864:

    The immediate effect of the emancipation and enrollment of negroes on the military strength of the South would be: To enable us to have armies numerically superior to those of the North, and a reserve of any size we might think necessary; to enable us to take the offensive, move forward, and forage on the enemy. It would open to us in prospective another and almost untouched source of supply, and furnish us with the means of preventing temporary disaster, and carrying on a protracted struggle. It would instantly remove all the vulnerability, embarrassment, and inherent weakness which result from slavery.

    Since secession had occurred largely as a measure to protect the institution of slavery, it's not surprising that there was pushback against Cleburne's idea. Resistance to the measure was most cogently expressed by General Howell Cobb, who wrote in January 1865, "If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong." Cobb was precisely correct, but not in the way he intended.

    By early 1865, the Confederacy was in desperate straits, and did not have manpower to spare. Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress finally took steps to raise Black troops. Notably, the enslaved men who fought for the Confederacy were not guaranteed their freedom for their service. It was a moot point anyway, as Robert E. Lee would be forced to surrender within a month.