In 1775 when open hostilities broke out between England and her troublesome American colonies, an outside observer might have been forgiven for predicting an early and easy victory for the world’s most powerful Empire with an army and navy of commanding numbers and fighting experience. And that is just what many enslaved African Americans believed; even before Lord Dunmore’s proclamation suggesting eventual freedom for men of color joining his invading forces and other loyalists, large numbers of slaves had taken to following the British soldiers believing that their best chance of freedom was in an English victory. In the end, even though as many as 6,000 fought alongside patriotic American militiamen and sailors at sea, nearly twice that number served the English cause. An iconic example was an escaped New Jersey slave who is remembered as “Colonel” Tye who earned the unofficial title (among others) for the exemplary leadership and tactical skills which made him famous wherever he showed up with his “Ethiopian Brigade” at battle sites of his own choosing.
Likewise, African Americans fought in the War of 1812, recruited enthusiastically by a southern gentleman named Andrew Jackson. They fought valiantly at New Orleans and as seaborne marines and sailors in the Great Lakes battles. In both wars their deaths often came as a result of disease and poorly treated wounds, and the freedom promised as a reward was often challenged by former owners or a pyrrhic victory when they found themselves unemployable.
From the Revolution to the present day, African Americans have fought in every American war or conflict, often under substandard leadership and in the face of reluctant support from senior commanders and government officials. If there was a moment in time when military history should have recognized just how misplaced those earlier prejudices had been, it was on the battlefields of the American Civil War, from Fort Pillow, to Petersburg to the agony of Ft. Wagner and the bravery of those men of the 54th Massachusetts and the white officers who believed in them, trained them and died with them. In fact it shouldn’t be forgotten that any time a white officer serving with black soldiers was taken prisoner by the Confederates, he was often summarily shot and disposed of without honor.
Some of those black Civil War soldiers in blue uniforms with yellow stripes (Cavalry) were released from service in the west and stayed there. For some years I worked in the field of western art, promoting artists, managing galleries and visiting art shows. I learned that the really good artists who knew history and did solid research almost always depicted black cowboys mixed among the others in almost every trail scene. That’s where many a southern veteran finally found the kind of freedom so many yearned for and few realized and I wish I had space to tell more of their stories.
Born as a slave in Tennessee and freed after the war, Mary Fields made her way west in 1884, settling down – more or less – in Cascade, Montana. At more than six feet in height and weighing in at 200 pounds, she did everything from chopping wood to hauling building stones, until she found her real dream job driving a stage coach and carrying the U.S. Mail pulled by her mule, Moses. Regardless of blizzard or flood, she always got through, and if anyone tried to interfere she was never without her 10 gauge shot gun and a pair of six-shooters. “Stagecoach Mary” prided herself on never backing down, and was said to have knocked out more men than anyone in Montana. She smoked the world’s worst-smelling cigars and bellied up to the bar with the best of the men. At age 72, she knocked out one guy who refused to pay a bill with a single blow! Mary’s love for bad whiskey probably led to her liver failure in 1914.
“Stagecoach Mary” Fields could be found working for the Nuns of St. Peter’s Mission one day, and fighting her way through an outlaw ambush the next. Six feet tall and tough as nails she was a legend in the unsettled west.
Another ex-slave named Bass Reeves, born in Arkansas, moved to Oklahoma where he became one of the most storied Deputy U.S. Marshals in the history of that service. In 32 years of service he arrested over 3,000 felons, having to shoot “only” 14 he said, to save his own life. Learning that one of his own sons had murdered his wife, and though deeply saddened, he insisted on affecting the arrest himself. Although conversant with several Indian languages, he was never able to read without help, the warrants he had to deliver. A bronze monument of Marshal Bass Reeves stands in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Among his biographers are several who believe he was the inspiration for the “Lone Ranger”.
During the Korean War for the first time, there was no racial separation, the U.S. Air Force taking the lead thanks to the example of General Benjamin O. Davis and his Tuskegee Airmen . U.S. Defense Dept. Photo
For parallel reading, see the following Al Cooper columns: Tuskegee Airmen – 2/15/2012
Storming Ft. Wagner-A Legacy of Honor – 4/3/2013