Vivid Account of Black Troops in WWI Combat

By Coffman, Edward M. | Army, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Vivid Account of Black Troops in WWI Combat


Coffman, Edward M., Army


Vivid Account of Black Troops in WWI Combat The American Foreign Legion: Black Soldiers of the 93d in World War I. Frank E. Roberts. Naval Institute Press. 263 pages; photographs; maps; notes; index; $29.95 (ALiSA member's cost, $23.96).

In this book, Frank E. Roberts provides a chronicle of the experiences of the four black regiments that served with distinction in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) but were assigned to French divisions throughout their combat service.

America entered World War I at a time when Jim Crow laws and racism permeated the society and politics of the country. Blacks hoped that their participation in the war effort would help tear down the social barriers. On the other hand, the Wilson administration wanted their support but within the restrictions of segregation. Thus most of the 380,000 blacks who served in the Army were in labor units officered by whites. Despite the good records of the four black regular regiments during the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Wars, there was concern that blacks would not do well in combat. Some Army officers disagreed but still assumed that, as in the case of the regular regiments, they would be led by whites. Indeed, in 1917, there were only three black line officers in the entire Regular Army.

In the early part of the war, the Wilson administration did accede to black leaders' desire to form two infantry divisions. The 92nd consisted of draftees with newly minted company-grade black officers. The two National Guard regiments (Eighth Illinois and Fifteenth New York), together with various units from several states consolidated into another regiment, were joined by another draftee regiment in the 93rd Division. Unlike the 92nd, however, this division simply consisted of the four infantry regiments redesignated the 369th (15th New York), 370th (8th Illinois), 371st (draftees) and 372nd (composite National Guard).

The War Department rushed the 369th to an embarkation port after a few weeks at a southern camp where prejudice brought tempers to the boiling point. Gen. John J. Pershing, who wanted to use the regiments of the 93rd as labor troops, promptly ordered the New Yorkers to such duties when they arrived in January 1918. War Department concern about reneging on the promise that there would be two black combat divisions, and the influence of the politically well-connected colonel of the 369th changed his mind. …

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