Black History Month 2014: The first Black people to… work in the US military

Continuing my “First Black” series…

Every year for Black History Month I explore the obvious and not so obvious parts of American history that those called Black have taken part in. The things that we (Black people) have done other than be stolen from our homeland and made forced labor in a land foreign to us. I’m going to start this series by looking up the first time someone African-American did something and broke the color barrier in that activity or field. I’ll be starting with Wikipedia and working my way out:

I will be learning a lot of this as I go since I am a product of the standardized Euro/Anglo/Caucasian leaning public school system. I hope you enjoy learning with me. I’ll be going down the list chronologically as it appears in the Wikipedia article.

For my twenty-third entry this month I have a FIVE-for-one:

1861: First North American military unit with African-American officers: 1st Louisiana Native Guard of the Confederate Army

1862: First recognized U.S. Army African-American combat unit: 1st South Carolina Volunteers

 – First African-American field officer in the U.S. Army: Martin Delany
– First African American to be commissioned as captain in the Regular U.S. Army: Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall, known as OSB Wall

1866: First African-American woman enlistee in the U.S. Army: Cathay Williams


1st Louisiana Native Guard photo used to "prove" that Blacks fought for the Confederacy

1st Louisiana Native Guard photo used to “prove” that Blacks fought for the Confederacy

The 1st Louisiana Native Guard (CSA) was a Confederate Louisiana militia of free persons of color formed in 1861 in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was disbanded in February 1862; some of the members joined the Union Army’s 1st Louisiana Native Guard regiment (later the 73rd Regiment Infantry U.S. Colored Troops).

SIDE NOTE: Some people feel that the above Wiki is perpetuation of a falsification of Civil War history. See one aspect of this point here:

Uncropped photo of a Pennsylvania based regiment with the Union officer still in the picture

Uncropped photo of a Pennsylvania based regiment with the Union officer still in the picture


1st South Carolina Volunteers (Union)

1st South Carolina Volunteers (Union)

The First South Carolina Volunteers was a Union Army regiment during the American Civil War. It was composed of escaped slavesfrom South Carolina and Florida. There had been previous attempts to form black units in New Orleans and Kansas, but they were not officially recognized. The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, whose exploits are memorialized in the film Glory, was formed afterwards and drew from free Northern blacks.

Department of the South staff officer James D. Fessenden was heavily involved in efforts to recruit volunteers for the 1st South Carolina. Although it saw some combat, the regiment was not involved in any of the war’s major battles. Its first commander was Thomas Wentworth Higginson who was—as were all the other officers—white. A proclamation by Confederate President Jefferson Davis had indicated that members of the regiment would not be treated as prisoners of war if taken in battle[citation needed]. The enlisted men would be auctioned off as slaves and the white officers were to be hanged. The threat was not carried out officially.

The regiment was a step in the evolution of Union thinking towards the escaped slaves who crossed their lines. Initially they were returned to their owners. Next they were considered contraband and used as laborers. Finally the legal fiction that they were property was abandoned and they were allowed to enlist in the Army, although in segregated units commanded by white officers. Harriet Tubman served with these men as a cook, nurse, spy, and scout. Susie King Taylor, whose husband and other relatives fought with the regiment, also served as a laundress and nurse for the men from August 1862 until mustering out on February 9, 1866.[1] As a hangover from the “contraband” days, black privates were paid $10 per month, the rate for laborers, rather than the $13 paid to white privates. The men served as the precedent for the over 170,000 “colored” troops who followed them into the Union Army.

Col. Higginson, a minister, author and abolitionist, documented the Gullah dialect spoken by the men and made a record of the spirituals that they sang.

The regiment was re-designated the 33rd United States Colored Infantry Regiment on February 8, 1864.


Martin R. Delany

Martin R. Delany

Martin Robison Delany (May 6, 1812 – January 24, 1885) was an African-American abolitionist, journalist, physician, and writer, arguably the first proponent of American black nationalism. He was one of the first three blacks admitted to Harvard Medical School. Trained as an assistant and a physician, he treated patients during the cholera epidemics of 1833 and 1854 in Pittsburgh, when many doctors and residents fled the city. Active in recruiting blacks for the United States Colored Troops, he was commissioned as a major, the first African-American field officer in the United States Army during the American Civil War.

After the Civil War, he worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau in the South, settling in South Carolina, where he became politically active. He ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor and was appointed a Trial Judge. Later he switched his party loyalty and worked for the campaign of Democrat Wade Hampton III, who won the 1876 election for governor.


Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall

Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall

Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall, known as OSB Wall, was the son of a planter, Stephen Wall, and his slave, Pricilla, who, during the American Civil War, became the first black man to be commissioned as captain in the Regular US Army.

Wall attended Oberlin College, established a successful footwear business in the town of Oberlin, OH and then read law under John M. Langston. After the Civil War, he played an active role in the Reconstruction, ran a law practice in Washington, DC and was a magistrate.


Cathay Williams

Cathay Williams

Cathay Williams (September 1844 – 1892) was an American soldier. She is the first African-American female to enlist, and the only documented to serve in the United States Army posing as a man, under the pseudonym William Cathay.


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