- Brothers to Buffalo Soldiers: Perspectives on the African American Militia and Volunteers, 1865–1917
Only within the past generation have military historians brought the study [End Page 312] of African American regulars to center stage. The signs of success are the proliferation of titles and the division of scholarship into competing schools. Bruce A. Glasrud, retired Dean of Arts and Sciences at Sul Ross State University, hopes to move the black militia forward as editor of this collection of readings.
Judging from his selection of journal articles and astute editorial comments, his chances appear good. Glasrud has chosen leaders in the field of the black experience: Otis Singletary, Roger Cunningham, Alwyn Barr, Marvin Fletcher, and William Gatewood, among other gifted writers. He has also made the wise decision to draw from multiple sources. The locales are primarily in the South—Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia—though, notably, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio also receive examination. No essay focuses altogether on one state; each story melds with the larger background. The time span of the collection is 1865–1917, but there is some material that ties together loose ends after the latter date. The Spanish-American War (1898) divides the accounts, with five articles before that splendid little war and six after. In the composite treatment, Glasrud illuminates the motivations for enlistment, the service of the volunteers, and their treatment and reaction.
Financial reward, patriotism, and anticipation of recognition of their contributions persuaded many blacks to enlist in the militia in both time periods. Anticipation of recognition dwindled to a desperate hope by 1898, after the failure of the Reconstruction Acts. The rising tide of racism around the turn of the twentieth century dashed the hopes of the war veterans.
Certainly, white treatment of the blacks varied from place to place: Illinois and even Virginia and North Carolina rated above Georgia and Texas. Nevertheless, African Americans experienced racial prejudice everywhere, and it often took the form of violence from white militiamen, police, and streetcar conductors in the former states of the Confederacy, where beatings and shootings often awaited the defiant.
Bitterness over the refusal of the white establishment to respect constitutional and human rights emboldened African American regulars to forcefully retaliate in Texas garrison towns and elsewhere, but the militiamen had fewer options. They lived among their antagonists, who also worked and paid them. There was no federal employer, though the War Department supplied only nominal security for the regulars, no united separate community, and, when off duty, no symbols of authority. Although there were pushbacks against exclusion from the commissioned ranks and the most egregious acts of humiliation, the blacks usually persevered.
The patience of the militiamen notwithstanding, bigots considered even their limited status a threat to the social system, a prejudice reinforced by the condescending attitude of some white officers and the reluctance of the War Department to send them into combat. The Dick Act of 1903, which ended the racial separation of National Guard units, enabled southern states to abolish the black militia.
The general reader will find some surprises: the continuation of black militia after Redemption, the occasional tolerance of some southern states toward the militia, and the long-standing limited scholarship on the subject. Mostly, though, the reader will experience frustration at another example of white America’s historical difficulty in accepting an equitable multiracial society. [End Page 313]