As early as 1640, the General Assembly made racial distinctions regarding firearms, stating, “ALL persons except negroes to be provided with arms and ammunition.” In 1754, at the start of the French and Indian War, the General Assemblythe forced enlistment of all unemployed men, aged twenty-one to fifty, with the exceptions only of , , and slaves. This presumably left free African Americans eligible for service, although Virginia law still prevented them from being armed. A year later, the assembly “free mulattoes, negroes, and ” from being drafted into the militia but required that they “be employed as drummers, trumpeters, pioneers, or in such other servile labor, as they shall be directed to perform.” While most performed menial labor, some served as body servants for officers who were not accompanied by their own slaves. During their disastrous attack on Fort Duquesne, on September 14, 1758, the Americans armed and pressed into service their body servants, and a few were killed or wounded.
At the start of the American Revolution (1775–1783), African Americans generally were not allowed to serve in the Continental army. (Some served early on but were not immediately allowed to reenlist.) On November 7, 1775, however, Virginia’s royal governor,, issued a freeing all enslaved African Americans who enlisted with the British. About 800 joined, and many fought at Great Bridge, a British defeat, on December 9, 1775. The next month, the Continental Congress allowed free blacks who had already served to reenlist. The next year, General allowed the army to enlist any free man, black or white. The General Assembly , but restricted free blacks to service as “drummers, fifers, or pioneers.” After the war, by order of the federal Militia Act (1792), African Americans could not join militias at all. They already were prohibited from serving in what was then a small standing army.
During the War of 1812, a few free blacks were allowed to fight with American forces, largely because too few white men had enlisted. At the same time, free African Americans comprised about one-sixth of the navy. Three decades later, during the Mexican War (1846–1848), African Americans were barred from the army while about 1,000 served in the navy. Free African Americans were admitted to Virginia’s antebellum militia, known as the Virginia Volunteers, but only as musicians. Units that employed black musicians included the Richmond Light Infantry Blues and the Norfolk Light Artillery Blues.
Gallery of African American Soldiers
In Richmond after the war, some black veterans may have formed unofficial militia units, in part for self-protection, and such groups apparently marched in an Emancipation Day parade on April 3, 1866, and again on July 4. In May 1867, Major General John M. Schofield, commander of the, ordered one unit, the Lincoln Mounted Guard, to be disbanded when its members refused to obey segregation laws on a streetcar.
In 1868, Congress enacted legislation allowing former Confederate states, once they had reentered the Union, to create militias. Virginia rejoined the Union in January 1870, and a year later reestablished the Virginia Volunteers. Even before that, in 1870, the state’s first official black militia unit organized in Richmond, calling itself the Attucks Guard, after Crispus Attucks, the mixed-race man famous for being the first casualty of the Boston Massacre (1770). In 1872 the General Assembly authorized black units such as the Attucks Guard to join the new militia.
That same law also determined the basic outlines of the militia. Volunteer companies were to consist of between 50 and 100 men each, and from six to ten companies could organize into a regiment. Enlisted men, who served for five years, were responsible for their own uniforms while the state provided arms and equipment. The men elected their officers who, in turn, appointed noncommissioned officers. Robert L. Hobson, a barber by trade, became the first captain of the Attucks Guard.
While some people apparently worried about violence between black and white militiamen, the Richmond Daily Whig, on August 30, 1871, assured its readers that the Attucks Guard was “composed of the very best and most respectable colored men in this community” and that its members had resolved to keep the unit separated from political concerns. The next year, the company visited Petersburg. On February 23 the city’s Daily Progress reported that the men looked good in their gray uniforms, “a much handsomer spectacle than if they had been encased in the dark blue habiliments, which we were wont to see colored men attired in during and immediately after the late war.”
Other black militia units followed. The Carney Guard, organized in Richmond and commanded by Captain Richard H. Johnson, joined the militia in March 1873. (The unit was named for William H. Carney, a Virginia native who received the Medal of Honor for his service in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry during the Civil War.) The Union Guard, of Manchester, and the Petersburg Guard also joined in 1873. Seventeen additional units were established and recognized by the state over the next decade, including companies from Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, Lynchburg, Danville, Fredericksburg, and Staunton. Virginia had one of the largest number of black militiamen of any state, with 170 black officers receiving commissions from the governor.
Maintaining a unit was often difficult and required money, able and willing men, and effective leadership. As a result, many companies were unable to continue. The L’Ouverture Guard—named for Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804)—was the first to drop out of the militia, probably in 1880. Others gradually followed suit, either voluntarily or because they could not meet the requirements of service. The nineteen black companies that served in the Virginia Volunteers in 1884 had, by late in 1895, been reduced to just eight. Four companies managed to last for at least twenty-five years: the Attucks Guard, the Carney Guard, the Petersburg Guard, and the Langston Guard, organized in Norfolk and named for the politician. Black militias constituted between one-fifth and one-third of the Virginia Volunteers’ total recruitment. As such, black militiamen were underrepresented compared to their numbers in the larger population (36–40 percent), but the historian Roger D. Cunningham has suggested that this was probably caused not by discrimination but by the often-prohibitive costs of membership.
In 1876 four black companies combined to form the 1st Battalion Colored Infantry, commanded by Major Richard H. Johnson. In 1881, five other units formed the 2nd Battalion Colored Infantry, led by Major William H. Palmer. The battalion was reorganized in 1891. Various efforts to organize the remaining black companies into battalions, and to combine battalions into regiments, all failed. Company officers, meanwhile, received little if any oversight, and in some cases discipline suffered. Making matters worse, black militia units frequently received old, outdated weapons. In 1885, five black companies used Civil War–era muzzle-loading rifles while the Staunton Light Guard was not armed at all. According to Cunningham, while the black militia members represented about 30 percent of the Virginia Volunteers, they had access to only about 6 percent of the state’s best weapons.
The Militiamen and Their Activations
The vast majority of volunteers were unskilled laborers, although officers needed to be educated well enough to pass commissioning exams. William H. Johnson, major of the 2nd Battalion in 1895, was a graduate of Hampton Institute and principal of the Jones Street School, in Petersburg., who was captain of the Attucks Guard from 1876 to 1885, was a postal clerk in Richmond and a member of the city council.
Most militiamen joined for social and recreational reasons. Uniforms and rank offered social prestige, as did the units’ various activities, which included marching, drilling, traveling on excursions, and fighting in sham battles. They also attended competitions for marksmanship, marching, manual of arms, and other drills. Such events were almost always segregated, but in May 1887 the National Drill and Encampment, in Washington, D.C., was opened to both white and black units. It was the only integrated militia competition in the nineteenth century. Two black Virginia companies—the Attucks Guard and the State Guard, from Manchester—and one from Washington, D.C., participated in the competition for best infantry unit, prompting three white units to withdraw. All of the black companies placed near the bottom.
During the Washington event, the Virginia Volunteers led a parade reviewed by President Grover Cleveland, and two white southern units that marched behind them—the Vicksburg Southrons and the Memphis Zouaves—removed themselves and staged their own review. Their action prompted a backlash in the press. Referring to the black companies, a white Virginia militiaman told the Washington Post, “I am a Confederate veteran; I express my honest feelings when I say I am not at all ashamed they came.”
In 1896, the Journal of Military Service Institution of the United States reported that state and territorial militias had been activated 328 times between 1886 and 1895, which averaged close to 8 times per state or territory. Virginia units, by contrast, had been activated 37 times, the most of any state. Five of those involved black companies. Most of the call-ups were local, such as in 1873, when the mayor of Petersburg feared that African Americans might riot ahead of a gubernatorial election, or when an earthquake struck Richmond on August 31, 1886, causing part of the state penitentiary to collapse. In January 1887, Governor Fitzhugh Lee became the only southern governor ever to activate an all-black militia unit when he included a black company among those he called on to help deal with a violent longshoremen strike in Newport News. In 1887, the Petersburg Guard protected against a possible riot, and on January 31, 1888, black companies from Richmond helped respond to a fire at the penitentiary.
In April 1898, after Congress had declared war on Spain, President William McKinley called for volunteers to supplement the nation’s small regular army. Virginia’s quota was three, twelve-company infantry regiments. Even before the war officially began, Major Joseph B. Johnson, a mechanic at Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works, volunteered the 1st Battalion’s services to Governor. Tyler, however, was determined to use only white units. And then, in May, McKinley called for additional volunteers, forcing Tyler, in June, to call up eight black companies. Together they formed the all-black 6th Virginia Volunteer Regiment. Virginia was one of eight states to call up black troops.
Members of the All-Black 6th Virginia Volunteers
, editor of the black-owned Richmond Planet, by wondering whether this wasn’t, in fact, a form of integration normally opposed by the Dispatch. He further suggested that whites were only interested in cashing the larger paychecks offered to commissioned officers in the volunteer army. In the end, however, Governor Tyler tapped Lieutenant Colonel Richard C. Croxton, a white officer in the Regular Army, to command the regiment.
The men remained for two months at Camp Corbin, near Richmond, by which time the war had ended. On September 12, they were transferred to Camp Poland, near Knoxville, Tennessee, for additional training. There, the white 4th Tennessee Volunteer Regiment refused to drill rather than serve in the same brigade as a black regiment. Soldiers from Georgia threw rocks at the Virginians, while Croxton admonished the men of the 6th Virginia to “keep away from the camp of white soldiers” and to overcome prejudice through “good conduct.”
At the same time, Croxton complained to the governor that many of his officers were inefficient, uneducated, and without “the power to command confidence on the part of the men.” He created a nearly all-white board of review on October 1, 1898, which convened two days later. He ordered all of the 2nd Battalion’s officers to appear. Convinced that the board was a sham, nine officers resigned.
The 1st Battalion’s officers, meanwhile, appealed to their superiors for the appointment of black officers to replace those who had resigned, and a large gathering of African Americans in Richmond resulted in a committee charged with meeting Secretary of War Russell A. Alger. The secretary, however, explained that the appointment of volunteer officers was a state, not a federal, issue. Others called for Croxton himself to be fired. Tyler responded to the outpouring by appointing eight white officers and one black officer to fill the nine vacancies.
When, on November 2, the new officers first called the regiment to order, the soldiers under their command refused to respond. Croxton immediately charged the men with mutiny and the white newspapers echoed that, referring repeatedly to the “Mutinous Sixth.” On November 18, 1898, the regiment was transferred to Camp Haskell, near Macon, Georgia. According to the historian Willard B. Gatewood Jr., “The transfer was greeted with expressions of profound regret by most of the Negro soldiers, because to them Georgia represented the very nadir of the black man’s existence.”
Several of the Virginians responded to white taunting by chopping down a persimmon tree that supposedly had been used to hang black men. Others tore down racist signs. In December, a streetcar conductor shot and killed an enlisted man of the 6th Virginia for not sitting in the black section of his trolley. Nevertheless, after allegedly threatening white townspeople, the entire regiment was arrested, disarmed, and placed under guard. Still, the soldiers continued to complain about their white officers, who, they said, enforced a strict racial segregation and even employed black soldiers as personal servants. In a letter to the editor, published in the Richmond Planet on December 24, 1898, one black soldier, “The colored officers have as their cooks hired men whom they brought from Richmond. The white officers have detailed men from the Second Battalion.”
On January 26, 1899, the 6th Virginia mustered out of service at Camp Haskell and returned to Richmond. The Virginia Volunteers were reconstituted later that year but did not include any black militiamen. The National Guard was established in 1916, serving as a federal umbrella organization for all state militias. Five years later a group of black Virginians petitioned Governorfor the creation of a black battalion in the Virginia National Guard; Davis refused.
Many black Virginians also served in the 10th U.S. Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of ten regiments formed during the Spanish-American War and composed of men, the so-called Immunes, who were believed to be resistant to tropical diseases. Congress authorized the regiments—four of which were all-black—on May 11, 1898, in anticipation of fighting in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. By July 16, Virginia had raised four companies from Alexandria, Richmond, Hampton, and Pocahontas, accounting for about 30 percent of the regiment’s 46 officers and 992 enlisted men. The men were mostly unskilled laborers, including many miners from Pocahontas. The officers were a near-even mix of white and black. The lieutenants, many of whom were experienced military men, were African American, but only two were Virginians: William Blaney, of Company B, and William A. Hilton, of Company E. The captains and those of higher rank were white.
After enlisting, the men were sent to Camp Dyer, near Augusta, Georgia, where, on August 18, black townspeople presented them with a regimental flag. When the War Department integrated the officers’ mess, the regiment’s colonel resigned in protest. Thaddeus W. Jones, a veteran of the all-black 10th Cavalry, became the new commanding officer. On September 18, the regiment transferred to Lexington, Kentucky, but instead of deploying to the Philippines, it transferred again in mid-November, this time to Camp Haskell, near Macon, Georgia. There the soldiers faced much the same discrimination as the 6th Virginia; in fact, when the men of the 6th Virginia were arrested, the 10th U.S. Volunteers was charged with guarding them.
The regiment mustered out of service at Camp Haskell on March 8, 1899. After boarding trains, some of the soldiers fired their weapons and wounded a white teenager. By the time they reached Griffin, Georgia, the mayor had, the Griffin Rifles, to restore order. A white brakeman was killed when either the militia or town citizens fired a volley into the train. At least one white Immune regiment, the 6th U.S. Volunteers, exhibited similar behavior after discharge as the black 10th, but without a similar response. Regardless, other incidents occurred as the train delivered the soldiers to their homes: the Immunes were alleged to have shot off rounds, stolen whiskey, and looted saloons. They arrived in Richmond on March 10.
The experience of the 6th Virginia Volunteers and the 10th U.S. Volunteers, and, in particular, their response to Deep South racism, suggested to many white observers that black soldiers were unfit for duty. On March 10, 1899, the Atlanta Constitutionthat African American soldiers during the Civil War “were, most of them, fresh from the discipline of slavery and no doubt made fairly good troops. The modern negroes are now in a transition state and it will be years to come before they come around to that conception of citizenship which enables the whites to submit to the discipline necessary to make good troops.”