The Depot

The Army After 245 Years

WWI era soldiers in uniform in a line 15th Regiment Infantry New York National Guard

The U.S. Army celebrates its 245th birthday this Sunday, June 14, 2020. The Army was created more than a year before the Declaration of Independence and its first major task was to fight, and win, an eight-year war for independence from the British. It is the largest and oldest active military force in the United States and it is considered the nation’s first national institution.

At the conclusion of the war in 1783, only two Army companies were kept by the U.S. Congress to “safeguard military arms and stores,” according to U.S. Army historians, but all other soldiers were discharged. In the reorganization, the 1st American Regiment was formed and given the mission of national defense. The U.S. Army, in 1784, consisted of one regiment, eight infantry and two artillery companies, about 700 men.

Today, the U.S. Army is comprised of about 480,000 active duty forces, 336,000 Army National Guard soldiers, and 189,500 Army Reserve soldiers and it is operating in more than 80 nations and at least six continents. At its peak, the U.S. Army had 8,267,958 soldiers in 1945.

Given the racial unrest occurring in our country at the moment, the Army birthday can’t be recognized without acknowledging the important role of African Americans in the U.S. Army and how the U.S. Army brought change to our nation. While the Army’s record of racial integration is far from perfect, and includes evidence of racial injustice, the Army was an instrument of change that helped the nation usher in civil rights laws and demonstrated that societal integration was possible.

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army was integrated. Blacks and whites fought alongside of each other. For decades it was believed that the Army did not integrate until the 1950s, but according to the U.S. Army, black soldiers served in every major battle of the Revolutionary War. One exception was America’s first all-black unit, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment (the unit also included Native Americans and people of European ancestry, like Hispanics—it was led by white officers). The regiment repelled three assaults by the British during the battle for Rhode Island in 1778. The unit later fought in Yorktown in 1781 and was a part of the victorious forces of that battle.

In the Civil War, black units were organized and fought against Confederate forces, although they were led by white officers. Approximately 186,000 black soldiers, including 94,000 former slaves, ultimately served in the Union Army. Approximately 38,000 were killed in action. At the end of the Civil War, the Army dissolved black volunteer regiments and created several active duty regiments of black soldiers. Two were cavalry regiments that were posted in the west and were heavily engaged in the Indian War. Around that time, in 1868, Cathay Williams enlisted in the Army making her the first African American female to serve in the U.S. Army.

1877 portrait of former slave, Henry Ossian Flipper graduating from West Point

Not even a decade later, in 1877, a former slave, Henry Ossian Flipper became the first African American to be commissioned in the U.S. Army and in the U.S. military after graduating from West Point. He was also the first African American officer to become a commander when he joined the famed Buffalo Soldiers in Oklahoma.

In World War I, African Americans were drafted to serve and there were many volunteers from the black community. While all-black units were sent to the war, organizations concerned with the advancement of colored people continued to lobby for changes in the way the War Department utilized African Americans in the ranks.

As a result, in 1917, the War Department opened an officer training school for black officer candidates and in October of that year, more than 600 men received their officer commissions. In all, more than 1,300 men would become officers through the program before it was shut down. The newly minted officers would get assigned to lead African American units and several African American officers started to serve in the U.S. military.

In 1940, Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. became the first black general officer in the U.S. Army and in the armed forces. His son would later become a pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen and become the first African American to reach the rank of general in the Air Force. Davis Sr.’s investigations into discrimination helped expose the Army’s racial problems.

In the 1940s, racial segregation continued in the U.S. Army, but in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order legally ending discrimination in the armed forces. Despite the legal milestone, racism continued in the ranks, but that same year, the Tuskegee Airmen of the U.S. Army Air Force were formed and flew into the annals of history.

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman finally desegregated the military by issuing an executive order and in the Korean War the Army returned to its initial composition. Blacks and whites integrated and fought alongside of each other. In October 1951, the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment, which had served during the Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII and the beginning of the Korean War, was disbanded. African American soldiers were integrated into combat operations. By 1953 the Army had integrated more than 90 percent of the black troops in its ranks.

Since then, we’ve seen the first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gen. Colin Powell), the first black four-star general (Gen. Roscoe Robinson Jr.) and other great achievers that illustrate the color of a person’s skin has nothing to do with the ability to achieve. Today, the Army’s ranks are comprised of about 21 percent African American soldiers in all three of the Army’s components.

If history has taught us something it is that sometimes the vision and bravery of a few can lead to the enlightenment of masses. The Army hasn’t always gotten it right on race, I know that and I’m not naïve. The march ahead is a long one, but as a guy who has served in all three components, in the officer and enlisted ranks, and as a minority who has stood in formations with men and women of every color, it is doing better than the society it is sworn to defend.

Happy birthday, U.S. Army.

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