Stories of War
This online exhibition explores the story of African American military service throughout American history and throughout all branches of the armed forces. Within are tales of valor, honor, sacrifice, and courage in the face of discrimination. Learn about figures both known and unknown; from Harriet Tubman to Henry Johnson, from Boston to Fallujah. Since the founding of the nation, African American soldiers have fought and died for the idea of a better America. These are their stories.
When open warfare broke out between Americans and Britain in 1775, leaders such as George Washington opposed the enlistment of Black soldiers. However, they enlisted and were accepted and served. At least 5,000 and up to 8,000 Black soldiers fought for the American side, making up between 3% and 10% of forces.
As was the case during the Revolutionary War, the status of Black soldiers and sailors during the War of 1812 was unclear, and their service not well documented. Nevertheless, they served. Two battalions of Free Men of Color fought in and around New Orleans, notably helping to save it from British attack in 1814 and 1815.
Black troops served during an unprecedented period of U.S. expansion across North America. Native Americans recognized that Black troops were different. Some called them “Buffalo Soldiers,” referring to the appearance of their curly hair and courage in battle.
Even when service in the armed forces was prohibited, Black people risked their lives working in support of their country’s fighting men. In fact, Black Americans were likely “part of every contingent of American troops” in the Mexican War.
In 1861, most Black people felt the Civil War was a fight for the end of slavery. Most historians set the number of Black soldiers and sailors in the Civil War at around 186,000, comprising 10% of the Union armed forces. The Army estimates 38,000 gave their lives. Their service helped win a war not just for freedom, but for our nation’s very survival.
When the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, all existing Black regiments were called upon to fight. Around 2,500 of the nation’s 25,000-man army were experienced Black soldiers. Five Black soldiers and one sailor earned the Medal of Honor during the conflict.
More than 350,000 Black Americans served overseas in the American Expeditionary Force. The 369th Infantry, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, spent 191 days in the front-line trenches—more than any other American unit. During that time, no men were captured, nor any ground taken.
During World War II, U.S. armed forces remained segregated by race. Yet African Americans served in greater numbers and in more assignments than in all previous wars. Roughly 1,200,000 Black servicemembers fought for democracy and against fascism.
During the Korean War, Black Americans served in every branch and sector, and in all combat areas and major operations. In 1950 there were 100,000 Black troops across the U.S. armed forces; by the end, that number was 600,000. More than 5,000 gave their lives to stop the invasion of South Korea by communist forces.
More than 300,000 Black Americans served in Vietnam. As troop numbers increased, so did unrest at home. “We are fighting over here against the Viet Cong and at home against discrimination,” said Captain Clifford Alexander, “Together we can win in both places.”
In the Gulf War, Black troops were nearly 25% of all American forces, and for the Army, closer to 30%. Unlike Vietnam, however, the Gulf War was the first in over a century that the United States fought with an all-volunteer force, and more than 35,000 U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf were women.
Today, there are an estimated 2.15 million Black military veterans nationwide. Though the percentage of service-age African Americans in the U.S. population is between 12 and 13%, they make up 21% of the Army, 17% of the Marine Corps, 10% of the Air Force and Navy, and 5.8% of the Coast Guard.
Check out this National Park Service online exhibition paying tribute to the first African American military fighter and bomber pilots in the United States Armed Forces.
Learn more about an exclusively Black female unit serving overseas during WWII, and how the Buffalo Soldier Educational and Historical Committee continues to honor their legacy today.
Explore this library of oral histories from the American Veterans Center dedicated to African American war heroes from the American Revolution to today.
The National Veterans Memorial and Museum honors the trials and triumphs of Black American Veterans through this collection of video histories.
Explore the U.S. Army’s interactive exhibition paying tribute to African American soldiers throughout history.