The military has played a vital role in American history. Thousands of African-Americans, both slaves and free men, have served their country in the military, but history books often have not recognized them for their major contributions.
The United States won its independence from Britain after many years of battle during the American Revolution, which ended two centuries of British rule. Crispus Attucks was a runaway slave in Boston, and in 1770 he became a hero of the Revolution when he led a rebellion, later called the Boston Massacre, against British troops. He was killed, along with other protestors, by British soldiers.
Five thousand free African-American men fought for America in the Revolutionary War. There was even one woman named Deborah Sampson who fought disguised as a man.
Some slaves were sent into battle in their owners' place, and they earned their freedom when they enlisted in the Continental Army. After the war, however, the U.S. Congress barred African-Americans from joining the military.
The Civil War is significant because it is the only war in our nation's history that pit Americans against each other. The Union, or North, battled against the Confederates, or South. The country was divided mainly over the issue of whether to abolish slavery.
Abraham Lincoln, who was president at the time, was against slavery, but the Southern states did not agree with his ideas and plans. Soon, fierce battles broke out between the North's anti-slavery forces and pro-slavery groups in the South.
Even though they often faced severe restrictions, many African-Americans were determined to serve their country during the war. The 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was the first all-African-American regiment that fought for the North.
In 1863 the 54th regiment became famous for leading an attack on Fort Wagner and also captured the Confederate city of Charleston, South Carolina. Sergeant William Carney of the 54th regiment became the first African-American to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
During the Civil War over 180,000 African-Americans fought in the Union Army, and more than 33,000 died. The war ended in 1865 with the North defeating the South.
There was a period of change and readjustment, called Reconstruction, which followed the Civil War. New civil-rights laws and a new president, Andrew Johnson, helped to forever change the lives of African-Americans.
Most Southern states soon abolished slavery. In 1865 the government approved the Thirteenth Amendment, which guaranteed freedom for all African-Americans, and a year later Congress passed legislation allowing African-Americans to serve in the military.
In 1866 the first all-African-American military units were formed. The Ninth and Tenth Black Cavalry regiment, nicknamed the Buffalo Soldiers, rode on horses patrolling the Western frontier. Despite the prejudices and extremely harsh living conditions, the Buffalo Soldiers served their country with pride. They became one of the most distinguished and decorated U.S. Army units of all time.
Go to the next page to learn about more African-American military heroes.
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