Buffalo Soldiers: The Colored Regulars in the United States Armyby T. G. Steward
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Formed in 1866, the African-American army units known as Buffalo Soldiers acquired near-mythical status for their fortitude and courage. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Buffalo Soldiers were among the first units to depart for Cuba. Dr. T. G. Steward, who served as chaplain of the Twenty-fifth Infantry for 16 years, wrote this fascinating firsthand account of the Cuban campaign.
Dr. Steward's narrative offers a wide-ranging view of black military history that covers the beginning of the Republic as well as the service of black regulars. Captivating episodes from the Spanish-American War include the rescue of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders, the capture of the stone fort at El Caney, and service by black infantrymen as volunteer nurses in the yellow fever camps. Additional gripping firsthand testimony is provided by long excerpts from the diary of Sergeant Major Edward L. Baker of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, who was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Formed in 1866, the African-American army units known as Buffalo Soldiers acquired near-mythical status for their fortitude and courage. This history by a chaplain of the Twenty-fifth Infantry includes firsthand accounts of the Spanish-American War, including the rescue of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders, as well as an overview of African-American participation in prior wars and conflicts.
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The Colored Regulars in the United States Army
By T. G. Steward
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
SKETCH OF SOCIAL HISTORY.
The Importation of the Africans—Character of the Colored Population in 1860—Colored Population in British West Indian Possessions—Free Colored People of the South—Free Colored People of the North—Notes.
Professor DuBois, in his exhaustive work upon the "Suppression of the African Slave- Trade," has brought within comparatively narrow limits the great mass of facts bearing upon his subject, and in synopses and indices has presented all of the more important literature it has induced. In his Monograph, published as Volume II of the Harvard Historical Series, he has traced the rise of this nefarious traffic, especially with reference to the American colonies, exhibited the proportions to which it expanded, and the tenacity with which it held on to its purpose until it met its death in the fate of the ill-starred Southern Confederacy. Every step in his narrative is supported by references to unimpeachable authorities; and the scholarly Monograph bears high testimony to the author's earnest labor, painstaking research and unswerving: fidelity. Should the present work stimulate inquiry beyond the scope herein set before the reader, he is most confidently referred to Professor DuBois' book as containing a complete exposition of the development and overthrow of that awful crime.
It is from this work, however, that we shall obtain a nearer and clearer view of the African planted upon our shores. Negro slavery began at an early day in the North American Colonies; but up until the Revolution of 1688 the demand for slaves was mainly supplied from England, the slaves being white. "It is probable," says Professor DuBois, "that about 25,000 slaves were brought to America each year between 1698 and 1707, and after 1713 it rose to perhaps 30,000 annually. "Before the Revolution the total exportation to America is variously estimated as between 40,000 and 100,000 each year." Something of the horrors of the "Middle Passage" may be shown by the records that out of 60,783 slaves shipped from Africa during the years 1680-88, 14,387, or nearly one-fourth of the entire number, perished at sea. In 1790 there were in the country nearly seven hundred thousand Africans, these having been introduced by installments from various heathen tribes. The importation of slaves continued with more or less success up until 1858, when the "Wanderer" landed her cargo of 500 in Georgia.
During the period from 1790 to the breaking out of the Civil War, shortly after the landing of the last cargo of slaves, the colored population, both slave and free, had arisen to about four million, and had undergone great modifications. The cargo of the "Wanderer" found themselves among strangers, even when trying to associate with those who in color and hair were like themselves. The slaves of 1860 differed greatly from the slaves of a hundred years earlier. They had lost the relics of that stern warlike spirit which prompted the Stono insurrection, the Denmark Vesey insurrection, and the Nat Turner insurrection, and had accepted their lot as slaves, hoping that through God, freedom would come to them some time in the happy future. Large numbers of them had become Christians through the teaching of godly white women, and at length through the evangelistic efforts of men and women of their own race. Independent religious organizations had been formed in the North, and large local churches with Negro pastors were in existence in the South when the "Wanderer" landed her cargo. There had been a steady increase in numbers, indicating that the physical well-being of the slave was not overlooked, and the slaves had greatly improved in character. Sales made in South Carolina between 1850 and 1860 show "boys," from 16 to 25 years of age, bringing from $900 to $1000; and "large sales" are reported showing an "average of $620 each," "Negro men bringing from $800 to $1000," and a "blacksmith" bringing $1425. The averages generally obtained were above $600. A sale of 109 Negroes in families is reported in the "Charleston Courier" in which the writer says: "Two or three families averaged from $1000 to $1100 for each individual." The same item states also that "C. G. Whitney sold two likely female house servants, one for $1000, the other for $1190." These cases are presented to illustrate the financial value of the American slave, and inferentially the progress he had made in acquiring the arts of modern civilization. Slaves had become blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carriage-makers, carpenters, bricklayers, tailors, bootmakers, founders and moulders, not to mention all the common labor performed by them. Slave women had become dressmakers, hairdressers, nurses and the best cooks to be found in the world. The slave-holders regarded themselves as the favored of mankind because of the competence and faithfulness of their slaves. The African spirit and character had disappeared, and in their place were coming into being the elements of a new character, existing in 1860 purely in a negative form. The slave had become an American. He was now a civilized slave, and had received his civilization from his masters. He had separated himself very far from his brother slave in St. Domingo. The Haytian Negro fought and won his freedom before he had been civilized in slavery, and hence has never passed over the same ground that his American fellow-servant has been compelled to traverse.
Beside the slaves in the South, there were also several thousand "free persons of color," as they were called, dwelling in such cities as Richmond, Va., Charleston, S. C., and New Orleans, La. Some of these had become quite wealthy and well-educated, forming a distinct class of the population. They were called creoles in Louisiana, and were accorded certain privileges, although laws were carefully enacted to keep alive the distinction between them and the whites. In Charleston the so-called colored people set themselves up as a class, prided themselves much upon their color and hair and in their sympathies joined almost wholly with the master class. Representatives of their class became slave- holders and were in full accord with the social policy of the country. Nevertheless their presence was an encouragement to the slave, and consequently was objected to by the slave-holder. The free colored man became more and more disliked in the South as the slave became more civilized. He was supposed by his example to contribute to the discontent of the slave, and laws were passed restricting his priveleges so as to induce him to leave. Between 1850 and 1860 this question reached a crisis and free colored people from the South were to be seen taking up their homes in the Northern States and in Canada. (Many of the people, especially from Charleston, carried with them all their belittling prejudices, and after years of sojourn under the sway of enlightened and liberal ideas, proved themselves still incapable of learning the new way or forgetting the old.)
There were, then, three very distinct classes of colored people in the country, to wit: The slave in the South, the free colored people of the South, and the free colored people of the North. These were also sub-divided into several smaller classes. Slaves were divided into field hands, house servants and city slaves. The free colored people of the South had their classes based usually on color; the free colored people of the North had their divisions caused by differences in religion, differences as to place of birth, and numerous family conceits. So that surveyed as a whole, it is extremely difficult to get anything like a complete social map of these four millions as they existed at the outbreak of the Civil War.
For a quarter of a century there had been a steady concentration of the slave population within the cotton and cane-growing region, the grain-growing States of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia having become to a considerable extent breeding farms. Particularly was this the case with the more intelligent and higher developed individual slaves who appeared near the border line. The master felt that such persons would soon make their escape by way of the "Underground Railroad" or otherwise, and hence in order to prevent a total loss, would follow the dictates of business prudence and sell his bright slave man to Georgia. The Maryland or Virginia slave who showed suspicious aspirations was usually checked by the threat, "I'll sell you to Georgia;" and if the threat did not produce the desired reformation it was not long before the ambitious slave found himself in the gang of that most despised and most despicable of all creatures, the Georgia slave- trader. Georgia and Canada were the two extremes of the slave's anticipation during the last decade of his experience. These stood as his earthly Heaven and Hell, the "Underground Railroad," with its agents, conducting to one, and the odious slave-trader, driving men, women and children, to the other. No Netherlander ever hated and feared the devil more thoroughly than did the slaves of the border States hate and fear these outrages on mankind, the kidnapping slave-traders of the cotton and cane regions. I say kidnapping, for I have myself seen persons in Georgia who had been kidnapped in Maryland. If the devil was ever incarnate, I think it safe to look for him among those who engaged in the slave-trade, whether in a foreign or domestic form.
Nothing is more striking in connection with the history of American Slavery than the conduct of Great Britain on the same subject. So inconsistent has this conduct been that it can be explained only by regarding England as a conglomerate of two elements nearly equal in strength, of directly opposite character, ruling alternately the affairs of the nation. As a slave-trader and slave-holder England was perhaps even worse than the United States. Under her rule the slave decreased in numbers, and remained a savage. In Jamaica, in St. Vincent, in British Guiana, in Barbadoes, in Trinidad and in Grenada, British slavery was far worse than American slavery. In these colonies "the slave was generally a barbarian, speaking an unknown tongue, and working with men like himself, in gangs with scarcely a chance for improvement." An economist says, had the slaves of the British colonics been as well fed, clothed, lodged, and otherwise cared for as were those of the United States, their number at emancipation would have reached from seventeen to twenty millions, whereas the actual number emancipated was only 660,000. Had the blacks of the United States experienced the same treatment as did those of the British colonies, 1860 would have found among us less than 150,000 colored persons. In the United States were found ten colored persons for every slave imported, while in the British colonies only one was found for every three imported. Hence the claim that the American Negro is a new race, built up on this soil, rests upon an ample supply of facts. The American slave was born in our civilization, fed upon good American food, housed and clothed on a civilized plan, taught the arts and language of civilization, acquired necessarily ideas of law and liberty, and by 1860 was well on the road toward fitness for freedom. No lessons therefore drawn from the emancipation of British slaves in the West Indies are of any direct value to us, inasmuch as British slavery was not like American slavery, the British freedman was in no sense the equal of the American freedman, and the circumstances surrounding the emancipation of the British slave had nothing of the inspiring and ennobling character with those connected with the breaking of the American Negro's chains. Yet, superior as the American Negro was as a slave, he was very far below the standard of American citizenship as subsequent events conclusively proved. The best form of slavery, even though it may lead toward fitness for freedom, can never be regarded as a fit school in which to graduate citizens of so magnificent an empire as the United States.
The slave of 1860 was perhaps, all things considered, the best slave the world had ever seen, if we except those who served the Hebrews under the Mosaic statutes. While there was no such thing among them as legal marriage or legitimate childhood, yet slave "families" were recognized even on the auction block, and after emancipation legal family life was erected generally upon relationships which had been formed in slavery. Bishop Gaines, himself born a slave of slave parents, says: "The Negro had no civil rights under the codes of the Southern States. It was often the case, it is true, that the marriage ceremony was performed, and thousands of couples regarded it, and observed it as of binding force, and were as true to each other as if they had been lawfully married." *** "The colored people generally," he says, "held their marriage (if such unauthorized union may be called marriage) sacred, even while they were slaves. Many instances will be recalled by the older people of the life-long fidelity which existed between the slave and his concubine" (Wife, T. G. S.) "...... the mother of his children. My own father and mother lived together over sixty years. I am the fourteenth child of that union, and I can truthfully affirm that no marriage, however made sacred by the sanction of law, was ever more congenial and beautiful. Thousands of like instances might be cited to the same effect. It will always be to the credit of the colored people that almost without exception, they adhered to their relations, illegal though they had been, and accepted gladly the new law which put the stamp of legitimacy upon their union and removed the brand of bastardy from the brows of their children."
Let us now sum up the qualifications that these people possessed in large degree, in order to determine their fitness for freedom, then so near at hand. They had acquired the English language, and the Christian religion, including the Christian idea of marriage, so entirely different in spirit and form from the African marriage. They had acquired the civilized methods of cooking their food, making and wearing clothes, sleeping in beds, and observing Sunday. They had acquired many of the useful arts and trades of civilization and had imbibed the tastes and feelings, to some extent, at least, of the country in which they lived. Becoming keen observers, shut out from books and newspapers, they listened attentively, learned more of law and politics than was generally supposed. They knew what the election of 1860 meant and were on tiptoe with expectation. Although the days of insurrection had passed and the slave of '59 was not ready to rise with the immortal John Brown, he had not lost his desire for freedom. The steady march of escaping slaves guided by the North star, with the refrain:
"I'm on my way to Canada,
That cold but happy land;
The dire effects of slavery
I can no longer stand,"
proved that the desire to be free was becoming more extensive and absorbing as the slave advanced in intelligence.
It is necessary again to emphasize the fact that the American slaves were well formed and well developed physically, capable of enduring hard labor and of subsisting upon the plainest food. Their diet for years had been of the simplest sort, and they had been subjected to a system of regulations very much like those which are employed in the management of armies. They had an hour to go to bed and an hour to rise; left their homes only upon written "passes," and when abroad at night were often halted by the wandering patrol. "Run, nigger, run, the patrol get you," was a song of the slave children of South Carolina.
Strangers who saw for the first time these people as they came out of slavery in 1865 were usually impressed with their robust appearance, and a conference of ex-slaves, assembled soon after the war, introduced a resolution with the following declaration: "Whereas, Slavery has left us in possession of strong and healthy bodies." It is probable that at least a half-million of men of proper age could then have been found among the newly liberated capable of bearing arms. They were inured to the plain ration, to labor and fatigue, and to subordination, and had long been accustomed to working together under the immediate direction of foremen.
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Meet the Author
Theophilus Gould Steward (1843–1924) was an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and chaplain to the Twenty-fifth U.S. Colored Infantry. For 17 years he was a Professor of History, French, and Logic at Wilberforce University.
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