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Hidden Heroism: Black Soldiers in America's Wars
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Hidden Heroism: Black Soldiers in America's Wars

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by Robert B. Edgerton

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In Hidden Heroism, Robert B. Edgerton chronicles the history of African-American participation in American wars, from the French and Indian War to the present. He argues that blacks in America have long endured a “natural coward” stereotype that stemmed from racial prejudice and intensified as blacks gradually received freedom in American


In Hidden Heroism, Robert B. Edgerton chronicles the history of African-American participation in American wars, from the French and Indian War to the present. He argues that blacks in America have long endured a “natural coward” stereotype that stemmed from racial prejudice and intensified as blacks gradually received freedom in American society.

It was common for black soldiers who served admirably in combat to return home to little recognition of their achievements and deeply entrenched racism from whites who perceived them as a threat. Although this situation was somewhat rectified by the time of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, the stereotypes have not been fully eradicated. This book provides an accessible and well-informed study of this little-known but significant aspect of race relations in American military history.

Editorial Reviews

A valuable muckraking type of work that makes available excellent...historical evidence.
Marion (SC) Star & Enterprise
Edgerton writes powerfully of the relationship between race in American society and race in the American military.
Journal of Military History
...provides a well-written summary of the contributions of African-American soldiers over the years.
Weston Town Crier
Hidden Heroism offers in one volume a summary of Black participation in American armed conflicts...While the topic is military history, it is accessible to the non-military reader.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Differing from such standard works as Bernard Nalty's Strength for the Fight (1986) and Gerald Astor's The Right to Fight (1999), this generalist's history focuses on debunking the most controversial aspect of its subject: the racist argument that African-Americans were natural cowards, unwilling and unable to meet the demands of the battlefield. This "American exceptionalism," according to Edgerton, is best interpreted as arising from a long-standing fear of black uprisings, originating in the slaveholding South and spreading northwards after the Civil War, despite a post-Civil War corps of black professionals that served with pride of regiment and pride of race. In the two World Wars, a white-dominated military culture not only insisted that blacks could not fight, but denied them training for combat. It is scarcely surprising that some victims of the stereotype lived down to it, while others rose above it. Edgerton intriguingly takes account of civilian riots, and the armed forces' recent success in drastically reducing institutional racism in a relatively short period of time. Throughout, the book is carefully argued and documented, although reliant on secondary sources. And if its subject now feels like something of a straw man, all the better. (Feb.) Forecast: Public and university libraries will be a lock for this title, as will the African-American studies market. Yet Edgerton's accessible style will make it appealing to buffs as well as to regular readers of history. In order for it to reach them, booksellers will have to be able to see beyond Westview's academic focus. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Investigates the history of African-American participation in American wars, from the French and Indian Wars to the present. Demonstrates that blacks were often subjected to increased racism after returning from armed service because they were perceived as a threat to whites. Includes b&w historical photos. Edgerton teaches anthropology at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Medicine. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
Serviceable survey of the role of African-Americans in the US military. UCLA anthropologist Edgerton (Death or Glory, 1999, etc.) offers a timely work in light of recent—and long overdue—honors accorded to African-American veterans of WWII and Korea. The slighting of African-American soldiers was no accident, he argues, inasmuch as generations of white officers and political leaders regarded black fighters as"naturally cowardly,""unfit to associate with the American soldier," and marked by"inferior intelligence, carelessness, false pride, and easy discouragement." Edgerton rightly notes that military oversight committees in Congress and the upper ranks were long dominated by Southerners likely to be unsympathetic to civil-rights concerns, but he does not adequately explore how racism in the American military reflected and sometimes departed from racism in the society as a whole. His account is pockmarked by flaws large and small: he overestimates the role of black soldiers in the American Revolution while undervaluing the essential role of"buffalo soldiers" in the Indian Wars; he confines his discussion almost entirely to the US Army, neglecting the other services; and his chapter on the use of slaves in non-American armies, awkwardly sandwiched between analyses of Vietnam and the Gulf War, seems designed to show Edgerton's command of the anthropological literature and contributes little to his thesis. Still, this portrait has its uses, especially because it quotes liberally from overlooked documents implicating the American military and political leadership in overtly racist policies. Better works on the subject are readily available.

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Chapter One

"The Average Negro
Is Naturally Cowardly"

From the earliest days of the British colonies in America, a few military men and civilians argued that black Americans, free or slave, should be allowed to fight against whatever pressing threat was at hand-by Indians, French, or Spaniards—and some of them did so. Even southern colonies like North Carolina and Virginia used blacks in their militias during the French and Indian War, and blacks served in the militias of most northern colonies, especially New York. After the fighting ended, a few of these African Americans were praised for their service, with their courage and devotion to duty sometimes noted. But there were many more voices, often influential, that opposed arming such men, arguing that whatever military service they might provide was useless because blacks were far too undisciplined, unintelligent, childlike, and downright cowardly ever to be entrusted with arms. Sometimes, a more forthright reason was given. In 1703, the South Carolina law granting slaves the right to fight Indians was revoked: "There must be great caution used, lest our slaves, when arm'd, become our masters."

    As time passed, evidence that black Americans had fought courageously in America's earlier wars was not only ignored but was also systematically denied by influential military officers and government officials. Although some blacks were praised for their service as warriors during the time of the Revolutionary War, "authorities" were quick to dismiss them as useless cowards. Manyleaders during the Revolution, including George Washington, who often said that he favored the abolition of slaves, considered blacks "cowardly, servile and distinctly inferior by nature." This conviction continued for almost 200 years thereafter until the conflict in Vietnam finally convinced most Americans—but still not all—that blacks could fight every bit as courageously and as well as other Americans.

    Although this rejection of blacks as soldiers was by no means confined to the American South, it received its most strident support there, typically taking the form of assertions that Africans were by nature inferior in all ways. It was widely said, and apparently actually believed by many, that in the course of history, the very few men in Africa who had been relatively courageous and intelligent had never been enslaved but instead had done the enslaving of others. Moreover, it was said, the most manly and intelligent of those who had been taken into slavery had been sold in the West Indies with only the childlike and cowardly dregs being sold in the United States. Arguments like these were made so consistently and so confidently that they seem to have convinced many Americans that Africans were, in fact, naturally cowardly and that only the most craven of these docile, timid, childlike, "subhuman" people had been brought to slavery in America.

    There were powerful self-protective factors at work in creating this image of cowardice, as anyone possessing even a passing acquaintance with slavery in the American South can readily understand. The specter of armed slaves taking their revenge against white slave owners was an unceasing nightmare that grew in urgency for slave masters as word of the Haitian revolution of 1791 reached America, stunning many southerners with the news that black slaves had killed hundreds of French slave owners before setting themselves free. Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue, was by far the richest island in the West Indies, and its takeover by some 500,000 slaves, two-thirds of them African-born, was unthinkable to American slave masters, not to mention their counterparts in the West Indies. When Napoleon sent thousands of French soldiers with orders to defeat the rebels and reimpose slavery, the U.S. South rejoiced only to despair again when the ingenuity and courage of the black rebels led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, Henri Christophe, and Jean J. Dessalines—with help from tropical diseases—decimated the French, setting Haiti free.

    This successful slave rebellion was made only slightly less fearsome to U.S. slave owners because of their increased insistence that slaves in the United States were so meek and cowardly that they need not be feared. One slave owner freely admitted that his slaves could easily kill him and his family, "Yet we all feel so secure, and are so free from suspicion of such danger, that no care is taken for self-protection—and in many cases, as in mine, not even the outer door is locked." At the start of the U.S. Civil War, a Virginian rose in the Confederate Congress to boast that "the slaves" loyalty was never more conspicuous, their obedience never more childlike." At this same time, British lawyer and famed Crimean War correspondent William "Billy" Russell toured the South, everywhere being told about the childlike docility of the slaves. But if the slaves were so docile and cowardly, he wondered, why did he everywhere encounter such elaborate police precautions, night patrols, curfews, and the like? Russell concluded, "There is something suspicious in the constant never-ending statement that 'we are not afraid of our slaves." Charles Olmstead, a northern visitor to Alabama in 1860, also commented on the constant vigilance of southerners over possible slave rebellion, the slightest rumor often sparking a major military response. He came to the conclusion that Alabama farmers were "terrified" of their slaves.

    As Russell and Olmstead suspected, the slightest sign of aggression by a slave would usually bring brutally harsh punishment. Even so, there were approximately 250 armed slave uprisings in the South, and a few in the North, most of them leading to the loss of white lives. An example occurred in 1712 in New York City, where black and Indian slaves joined in revolt killing 9 whites and wounding others. In response, 18 slaves were captured, tortured, and hanged or burned to death. One was sentenced to be "burned with a slow fire that he may continue in torment for eight to ten hours." In Louisiana, in 1811, some 500 slaves armed themselves and rebelled, marching on New Orleans in military formation. They were met by troops who shot 60 to death and later executed another 16. In 1822, a slave in Charleston, South Carolina, divulged an alleged plan of rebellion to be led by a former slave named Denmark Vesey, who had won $1,500 in a lottery and purchased his freedom. He had lived a respectable life for some years in Charleston before conceiving a plan to raise an army of 9,000 slaves, kill every white man, woman, and child in the city, then sail to Africa and freedom. Vesey and 36 slaves were hanged.

    Nat Turner's 1831 rebellion in Virginia left fifty whites dead, fourteen of them women and thirty-one of them children. Although it was the last major armed slave rebellion in the United States, it was the bloodiest and the longest remembered, with those who participated in it branded as madmen, not human beings with legitimate grievances. Still, neither this rebellion nor any other in U.S. history came close to success. All were small in the numbers of rebels involved, local in scope, and of short duration. The largest, Nat Turner's insurrection, lasted only two days. This should not be surprising because except in South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, slaves were badly outnumbered by whites, who were not only heavily armed but could also call upon their state and local militias and even the federal army for support. What is more, the slaves often had paid informants among them. Conversely, in the West Indies, where slaves greatly outnumbered whites, revolts often came close to the success seen in Haiti, and several led to the establishment of free colonies. A similar pattern was seen in Brazil, and even a relatively small number of African slaves in Mexico staged larger revolts against their Spanish masters than any seen in the United States.

    Even before the slaves arrived in the New World, aboard the heavily guarded ships of various European nations, African men and women and children often joined together and despite their chains, debilitating illnesses, and near starvation overcame their heavily armed and usually vigilant guards, taking over the ships and sailing some of them back to Africa and others to parts of South America or the Caribbean, where these Africans set up free villages, some of which survived well past the time of emancipation in the United States. All told, there were many hundreds of shipboard slave rebellions, about one for every eight to ten voyages, according to one historian. Another historian found that despite the incredible odds against the slaves, some 20 percent of the more than 400 shipboard insurrections he studied succeeded in freeing all or some of the captives. Although the great majority of these rebellions failed, they did not do so because the men, women, and even children who fought to regain their freedom lacked courage.

    African slaves landed in Florida as part of a Spanish expedition as early as 1526, and many soon after escaped to take up life with Indians, but the first African slaves to reach the English colonies in America arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 aboard a Dutch privateer. By the following year, slaves had reached New York, and in 1641, Massachusetts became the first state to give statutory recognition to slavery. Still, the flow of slaves to the northern east coast of the American colonies was a trickle compared to the flood of African men and women sold along the rice and tobacco areas near the coast farther south. What is more, the death rates of slaves in cold Massachusetts were twice those of whites, whereas whites in South Carolina died twice as often as African slaves, usually as victims of malaria. Transatlantic slave ships occasionally sailed directly to Charleston, but most of the slaves who were shipped to the American colonies came from the West Indies, relatively few coming to the colonies directly from Africa, reinforcing the southern belief that they were discards unwanted by West Indian planters.

    In reality, there were few enough West Indian plantations that could afford to sell any of their slaves, except, perhaps, those who were the most intractable, not the most docile. The death rate among these dreadfully overworked, badly underfed, and disease-prone slaves was so great that until well into the nineteenth century, the West Indian slave population could not reproduce itself. In 1789, for example, two-thirds of the West Indies slaves were African-born. Unruly West Indian slaves could be flogged savagely, some even killed, but given the shortage of slaves, sublethal punishment was much preferred. For example, an English Jamaican plantation owner named Tom Thistelwood recorded in his diary that after a slave ate some sugar cane he should have been harvesting, he ordered the man flogged, then bound in a prone position while another slave was ordered to "shit in his mouth." And as far as a senior student of West Indian slavery could judge from Thistelwood's diary, the man did not appear to have been a sadist. Similar forms of brutal and degrading punishment were common throughout the Caribbean from Danish to Spanish territory.

    While slaves were trickling into the North American colonies early in the seventeenth century, larger numbers of white indentured servants were arriving from jails and workhouses throughout Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Among them were thousands of Scottish soldiers taken prisoner by Oliver Cromwell, but the majority were common people described as "dirty, lazy, rough, ignorant, lewd, and often criminal." So many hardened criminals were indentured to North American colonists that Benjamin Franklin sarcastically declared that the colonies should repay the mother country for her generosity in sending over every criminal short of murderers by "return shipments of rattlesnakes." These white indentured servants either quickly worked off their period of indenture or simply moved on, often to become productive citizens in another colony, but many others barely managed to eke out a living on the vacant but infertile hill country to the west.

    Their departures left the colonies' needs for labor largely unmet. One solution was the enslavement of Native Americans. By 1704, South Carolina had almost half as many Indian slaves as adult white residents, but like indentured Europeans, these Indians had a tendency to vanish or to fall ill. In response, some were sold to the West Indies, where they were easier to control. African slaves, on the other hand, endured the southern climate and local diseases reasonably well, and due to their skin color it was far more difficult for them to "disappear." Unbeknownst to their owners, these slaves brought with them hookworm, deadly falciparum malaria, yellow fever, and smallpox, all of which would plague whites in the South for many years to comepartial retribution, some educated blacks would later say, for their enslavement.

    During the early years of slavery, most slaves in northern states, and even some in the South, were treated as if they were indentured servants who, after some years of labor for a white "master," could become free to go their own way, buy land, or take up jobs in towns. A. P. Upsher, a member of President John Tyler's cabinet, left this clause in his will:

I emancipate, and set free, my servant, DAVID RICH, and direct my executors to give him one hundred dollars. I recommend him, in the strongest manner, to the respect, esteem and confidence of any community in which he may happen to live. He has been my slave for twenty-four years, during which time he has been trusted to every extent, and in every respect. My confidence in him has been unbounded; his relation to myself and family has always been such as to afford him daily opportunities to deceive and injure us, and yet he has never been detected in a serious fault, nor even in an intentional breach of the decorums of his station. His intelligence is of a high order, his integrity above all suspicion, and his sense of right and propriety always correct, and even delicate and refined. I feel that he is justly entitled to carry this certificate from me into the new relations which he now must form. It is due to his long and most faithful services, and to the sincere and steady friendship which I bear him. In the uninterrupted and confidential intercourse of twenty-four years, I have never given nor had occasion to give him, an unpleasant word. I know no man who has fewer faults, or more excellencies, than he.

    When the Cavaliers from the south and west of England arrived in the Chesapeake region, they at first attempted to create a culture for their African slaves that would re-create the relationships between their ancestors and the rural proletariat that worked on their large English estates. Slaves were rarely referred to as anything but "my people," "my hands," or "my workers," and "they were made to dress like English farm workers, to play English folk games, to speak an English country dialect, and to observe the ordinary rituals of English life in a charade that Virginia planters organized with great care." As one student of the times wrote, "The South was not founded to create slavery; slavery was recruited to perpetuate the South." The speech forms that would come to dominate much of the southern "accent" also came from regional dialects spoken in the south and west of England. Yaller for yellow, ah be for I am, and chimbly for chimney are a few examples among hundreds. What is more, the so-called black dialect, with its dis and dat, leastways, fust, his'n, and the like, owed its origin to this same source. Africanisms were added later.

    Attitudes would change as the years passed. This cultural charade ended and chattel slavery took over, but during the mid-eighteenth century, and lasting for many years thereafter, not only were slaves in the North as well as the South reasonably well treated, but many northern towns celebrated what was known as "Negro Election Day," an annual festival that attracted blacks from the countryside to towns for the election of black "judges" and "kings" who would "rule" the town for a day, dressed in their masters' clothes, riding their horses, and feasting on "tribute" given to them. Along with great feasting there was parading—in grand costumes—and much dancing, and no small amount of alcohol was downed. In addition to the pleasures of this one-day role reversal, this annual ritual gave northern slaves an opportunity to choose leaders who could resolve disputes and present complaints to white masters during the ensuing year.

    So it was in the British West Indies, where slaves enjoyed a "noisy, unrestrained, and orgiastic" Saturnalia for two or three days at Christmas. As in the Saturnalia of slaves in ancient Rome, West Indian slaves not only abandoned all work, but they dropped any hint of subservience, becoming disrespectful toward their owners and overseers, and sometimes verbally aggressive as well. The mood during this Saturnalia was largely relaxed and celebratory, but the usual markers of inequality were set aside, and slave owners permitted excesses that would ordinarily be punished severely. But after Christmas ended, slave owners once again issued orders and slaves meekly obeyed. This pattern of annual ceremonial license did not spread throughout the Caribbean or to the U.S. South although slave owners on most plantations did tend to relax their control somewhat on Sundays and Christmas.

    The numbers of slaves in the colonies grew to represent over 19 percent of the entire population in 1790, but whereas the numbers of slaves in the South increased dramatically, those in the North fell from 60,000 in 1775, to 36,000 in 1800, to only 3,568 in 1830, most of them in New Jersey. Owners of the 450,000 slaves held in the South in 1775 improved their techniques of control, adding subtle psychological mechanisms to the threat—but infrequent actuality at that time—of deadly physical force. Slave owners encouraged ties of loyalty between slaves and their owners' families by, among other things, having slave women suckle white children, and by making house slaves so much a part of the family that they often developed great affection for their masters. It was also a common practice for slave masters to be unfailingly kind to slave children, leaving the need for discipline entirely to their parents. They also encouraged strong emotional bonds among slaves themselves so that a man's escape from a plantation and his slave family would seem less desirable. At the same time, however, although slave owners repeatedly insisted that they rarely separated slave family members by sales to other slave owners, from 1820 to 1860 every decade saw 10 percent of all slaves in the northern tier of slaveholding states sold to new masters in the Deep South, where slavery was growing in profitability. Even much earlier, it was common for slave families to be sold apart from one another. For example, James T. Woodbury, a British visitor to Washington, D.C., who wished to visit George Washington's tomb, was guided there by an elderly black man who had long served travelers in this way:

This old man was formerly the slave of General Washington. Mr. Woodbury asked him if he had any children. "I have had a large family," he replied. "And are they living?" inquired the gentleman. The voice of the aged father trembled with emotion, and the tears started to his eyes, as he answered: "I don't know whether they are alive or dead. They were all sold away from me, and I don't know what became of them. I am alone in the world, without a child to bring me a cup of water in my old age." Mr. Woodbury looked on the infirm and solitary being with feelings of deep compassion. "And this," thought he, "is the fate of slaves, even when owned by so good a man as General Washington! Who would not be an Abolitionist?"

    While slave owners consistently inculcated the idea that male slaves were "happy-go-lucky," meek, and passive creatures who were quite incapable of martial spirit, they also went out of their way to reward slaves for their docility when, as so often happened, they deceptively portrayed themselves as docile. Many whites knew better—some slaves killed themselves rather than endure the horrors of their lives—but their image of a compliant, nonaggressive population of slaves may have allowed slave-owning families to feel safer on their isolated plantations. This tradition continued well into the twentieth century. For example, sociologist U. G. Weatherly wrote in 1923 in the American Journal of Sociology—the leading journal in that field—that "the Negro belongs to perhaps the most docile and modifiable of all races." How this could have been written after the bloody "red summer" of 1919, which we will discuss later, is difficult to explain.

    Some of the slaves who were taken to the New World came from African societies with a history of practicing such a benign form of slavery that second or third generations of slaves' descendants could become free, esteemed, and even wealthy men and women, their slave origins never to be mentioned. The Kingdom of Asante was such a place. But elsewhere in Africa, slavery could be every bit as brutal as it was in the West Indies or Brazil. People taken into slavery by such societies can hardly have been expected to accept their fate passively, and most fought valiantly until overwhelmed. What is more, although few southern slave owners appear to have known much, if anything at all, about African history, most African societies placed great value on martial ability, and for many, bravery in battle was a man's highest virtue, one that women fervently encouraged, even demanded. Courage in battle was inseparably linked to wealth, spiritual values, esthetics, and sexuality. Africans captured in battle and sold into slavery may have been on the losing side of a battle, but many were every bit as imbued with a warrior ethos as those who captured them.

    Some black Americans, both slave and free, fought well in the various wars against Indians and the French that preceded the Revolutionary War, but their first publicly acknowledged service as soldiers came in the War for Independence. It is widely asserted today that the first American to die in this war was a powerful, six-foot-two-inch, light-skinned forty-seven-year-old runaway slave from Framingham, Massachusetts, named Crispus Attucks. A sailor for nearly twenty years, his ship was in port in March, 1770, when he led a group of white Bostonians in shouting insults, throwing snowballs, and brandishing clubs against a unit of British troops whose history of drunken brawling and explosive violence appalled some of their own officers and incensed many Americans. Apparently without orders from their commander, the British soldiers opened fire and Attucks was the first to die, followed by several white Americans. This "Boston Massacre" became famous, but later research has shown that a black youngster, Christopher Snyder, had been killed by British soldiers a few days earlier.

    At the Battle of Bunker Hill, it was often written that an African American named Peter Salem—also from Framingham—shot and killed British major John Pitcairn, but the accuracy of this claim is in doubt. However, another African American named Salem Poor received a citation for unquestioned bravery during this battle; it was signed by fourteen white officers: "We only beg leave to say, in the person of this said negro centers a brave and gallant soldier. The reward due to so great and distinguished a character, we submit to Congress." Another slave, named Saul Matthews, received high praise from Baron yon Steuben, General Lafayette, and General Nathaniel Greene. Despite growing protest from the southern colonies, many African American slaves and freedmen alike joined Washington's army in the early stages of the war, enduring the frostbite and the frequent near starvation of his troops, only to be sent away when southern objections grew too shrill.

    In response, other runaway slaves joined British loyalist forces, where they were used primarily as laborers, guides, spies, and pilots in the Chesapeake waters in return for the promise of freedom after the war. Perhaps 100,000 slaves joined the British in search of their freedom, and some fought bravely against Washington's men. Most notable among those who fought were men in the Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore's, so-called Ethiopian Regiment, each of whom wore a sash across his British uniform with "Liberty to Slaves" written on it. Few of these men or others who fought in British units found freedom. Instead, most died of smallpox while crowded onto British ships. So common was smallpox among them that British officers actually planted infected men on "Rebel Plantations" hoping to create chaos and death. Over 1,000 of these runaway slaves eventually found freedom in Africa, others settled in Canada and Britain, and a few even settled in Central Europe after visiting there as a drum corps. Others found refuge in the West Indies as freedmen, but some were resold into slavery.


Meet the Author

Robert B. Edgerton is the author of more than twenty books on a variety of sociological, anthropological, and historical topics, including Africa’s Armies: From Honor to Infamy—A History from 1791 to the Present. He teaches anthropology at the UCLA School of Medicine.

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Hidden Heroism: Black Soldiers in America's Wars 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
dr_mom More than 1 year ago
there are so many things in this book that i had no clue and i consider myself to be a black history nerd. i really enjoyed this book. although at times, i was upset that this story and those similar are rarely discussed in schools, colleges/universities. it really speaks to how much of american history (yes, black history is american history) is written from a single viewpoint. a must read