African Americans and the State Militia

Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry or the 9th Cavalry, while stationed at Yosemite National Park. ca. 1899 (Shutterstock)

What is the historical relationship between African Americans and the state militia? Today, some may believe the militia to be a group of young Black men united for the purpose of militantly defending the Black community from white incursions. Historically, it has been perceived as a defense force protecting Black people. It also has been envisioned by some as the substitute for a white-dominated local police force policing all-Black communities—a militia self-trained in firearm use, serving as a community resource ready to keep the Black community secure while being in and of the community.

This idealized image and set of assumptions are what sometimes define interactions with a public audience when I discuss my research on late nineteenth-century Southern Black militiamen. Some also asked how my scholarship might inform and help restore modern-day Black hopes of communal integrity (through armed self-defense by Black men and women) against white supremacy. Often their questions remind me of the classic Civil Rights and Black Power works by Robert F. Williams and Lance Hill.

During the Civil War, the United States government invited Black men to become citizen-soldiers to defend the U.S. This war was perhaps the one time, aside from the Revolutionary War, when the nation empowered Black men with guns. However, this moment of national defense raised questions of gender, access to weapons, the significance of voting rights earned on the battlefield, and Black citizenship. Historians including Carole Emberton, Tera W. Hunter, Edythe Ann Quinn, and Holly Pinheiro, Jr. debate the costs of war, freedom, and Black life in the U. S.

The post-Civil War world challenged notions of gender and the nation that tested the resiliency of American institutions. It was within this nexus of postbellum change that Southern African Americans endeavored to carve out a place for themselves not only within the national community of U. S. citizens, but within the Southern state where they challenged both racial and gender discrimination. Black people in the nineteenth century used the militia to organize as they made efforts to claim U.S. citizenship.

Black militia service has a long history in the Americas. State-sponsored militia in the eighteenth century provided men of African descent access to state institutions, white leadership, and an opportunity to participate in public institutional functions. Black militiamen serving in the state-sponsored militia units were sometimes soldiers who participated in combat fighting for the colonial state in defense of the Colony. For example, Jaime Feliciano Gonzalez was born in bondage in Montevideo in 1820; by 1843, he served in an artillery unit and nine years later (in 1852) he rose to an artillery officer—and engaged in the watershed Argentine Battle of Caseros.

Three years later, Gonzalez expressed an interest in the political realm and he held active membership in Uruguay’s Colorado Party. His military and political careers continued into the 1870s: he served in the Buenos Aires army, the overthrow of the Uruguayan president and in combat service in Paraguay’s War of the Triple Alliance, 1864-1870. Afro-Uruguayan men nominated Gonzalez in 1872 for a seat in the House of Representatives. By 1890, the freedman was recognized as “Uruguay’s first known colonel of African descent.”

White Colonial North Americans used Black bodies to defend Georgia and South Carolina with the caveat of occasional rewards recognizing Black militia service with land, the right to vote, or occasional freedom. Black militia service did not lead to an open invitation of belonging, citizenship, or a seat at the table of nation-state formation in contrast to some Afro-Latin moments of militia service. By 1792, “the people’s army,” the militia populated by the citizen-soldier, would be racially legislated in the U. S. as white men only reflecting the contract between the state and white male liberty. The U.S. existed as an agreement where the nation protected personal property—including slaves and white notions of liberty—in exchange for white defense of the national and state governments from foreign invasion. State and national defense was the singular responsibility of white male, citizen soldiers.

In response, Jeffery Kerr Ritchie’s work on antebellum African American militiamen has proven that Black men did seek to organize state militias in the North. Rhode Island, an exception in this story, in the 1840s, mobilized its Black companies to put down a white working-class insurrection. Twenty years earlier, the state disfranchised Blacks. As a reward for the Black units’ 1840 defense service African American voting rights were restored. North of the border, Black Canadians served the state defending provincial governments and the British empire’s imperial needs that included putting down the William Lyon Mackenzie rebellion for Canadian independence, constructing a road, and peacekeeping between Catholic and Protestant workers constructing the Welland Canal, 1837-1850. The Canadian government disbanded these Black militia units in 1850.

By the antebellum era, Northern African Americans were less successful in organizing all-Black militia companies. White state officials opposed arming African Americans with state power and guns. Nevertheless, Ritchie noted Black militia organizations near the end of the antebellum era organized in the U. S. as a response to slavery. Black militiamen armed themselves hoping to confront and destroy the peculiar institution on the eve of the Civil War. Yet, Black service was rejected both before and during the Civil War. As a result, some Black people debated whether the war needed African American bodies to fight a war among whites, North and South. The antebellum U.S. white traditions minimized the militia’s political advocacy for Black people, except in public parades in exchange for armed African Americans providing service to the state as a defender of state governance against white violence.

Southern Black access to militia formation was part of the postwar nation-building process in some states. Black militia formation focused less on military defense in lieu of providing political power to Black communities. Georgia is a case study of that process defining rural and urban African American aspirations for the militia. Rural Black Americans used the militia to defend their political and economic autonomy. Urban all-Black state-funded units proved that African Americans had advanced beyond bondage. This dichotomy, rural Black controlled independent and urban all-Black state militia units, defined postbellum Georgia’s Black militiamen for decades until after the Spanish-American War.

The world of Black militiamen needs further exploration. Did Black U.S. Army veterans become militiamen and combine their combat training with political skills since the postbellum militia for people of African descent was part of the overall Black search for freedom, belonging, claims-making, and citizenship? Scholarly research is predominantly focused on manhood and military service. What role have women played in militia formation, operation, and public celebrations of Blackness?

What is clear is that from the colonial era in the Americas to the end of the nineteenth-century, the African descendant militiaman was a combat soldier in some parts of the Americas—and hoped to parlay wartime service into peacetime individual and collective political rights . The post-Civil War Black militiaman was more a political and economic advocate hoping to secure freedom, citizenship, and belonging in a transforming United States.

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Gregory Mixon

Gregory Mixon is a Professor of History in the Department of History and affiliated faculty with the Department of Africana Studies and American Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He teaches African American, Southern, and United States History and racial violence with a research focus on the years 1860 to 1930. He is currently working on a comparative study of Black militiamen in North Carolina and South Carolina, 1865 to 1898. He is also a founding member of the Romare Bearden Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is the author of Show Thyself A Man: Georgia State Troops, Colored, 1865-1905. (University Press of Florida 2016); and  The Atlanta Riot: Race, Class, and Violence in a New South City (University Press of Florida 2005).