African American soldiers have been fighting for our country since the Revolutionary War, but it was not until after the exodus of about 1 million soldiers from the army (following the end of the Civil War) that President Andrew Johnson went to work with the Congress to establish, in 1866, six African American Army regiments. This was the first time African American troops were allowed to serve in the army during peacetime. These special Army units were made up of the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry regiments and the Thirty-eighth, Thirty-ninth, Fortieth, and Forty-first Infantry regiments. Three years later, the four infantry regiments were combined to create the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry regiments.
After the Civil War, this all volunteer army (the soldiers were not drafted or forced into service) was made up of just over 50% native born Americans, the rest made up mainly of recent immigrants, with the majority of those coming from Ireland, Germany and England, followed by Canada, Scotland, France and Switzerland. Many of these men had served in the military in other parts of the world and were looking for something familiar in a new and different place. The average age of someone enlisting for the first time was 23 years old. Few of the men who joined were educated and many were illiterate. Those who joined tended to come from the bottom of the economic ladder and were tired of working 16-hour days for 50 cents a day, when they could find a job. There were no minimum wage laws, which made the 13 dollars a month offered by the army appealing.
Men saw the army as a way to secure a better job after they left the army than they had before they enlisted. They also were entitled to receive a pension if they served 30 years or more. In addition, if they served more than 20 years or had a disability discharge they could qualify to live in one of the Soldiers’ Homes or National Military Homes.
Financial reasons were also important. Not only would they be paid 13 dollars a month, they would also have three meals a day, a place to live and a uniform provided for them. Some soldiers hoped to save up a portion of that 13 dollars a month to buy land of their own.
While many of the immigrants joined the army to gain a better grasp of the spoken language of the United States, some African Americans, as former slaves, had not been allowed to learn to read and write. They may have joined for the education that was offered to the enlisted men. The army provided chaplains that would teach school to the men outside of their regular working hours and it was this education that would help assure a chance for better employment after their service.
Enlistment required that a man sign an official document that committed the soldier to serve five years (in 1866 it was possible to enlist for three years, but by 1869 the enlistment period was five years) “unless sooner discharged by the proper authority.” Recruiting was done in several places across the United States. The Ninth Cavalry, organized in Greenville, Louisiana, was initially comprised of men from the New Orleans vicinity. In late 1866, recruiting was conducted in Kentucky as well. In some places the men were first trained for a few weeks and in others they were immediately sent out for duty. Upon enlistment the men were issued uniforms and received half pay until they were sent out to their assignment. For at least 10 years after the Civil War, most of the uniforms and equipment issued was surplus leftovers from the war, often not in the best condition, but for many was still better than what these men might have had outside of the army.
Both a recruiting officer and an examining officer saw the new recruit. It was the recruiting officer who made sure the recruit filled out the enlistment application and was sworn in, which often meant reading it aloud to him as well as completing the application for him. The examining officer would examine him to make sure he was healthy, at least 18 years old and would record his height, hair color, scars and any other identifying marks. Once the paper was complete there was an oath that was taken by the new recruit.
teaching the lesson
1. Download a copy of each PDF listed above for each student. After presenting the background information (“African Americans in the Frontier Army,” “The Buffalo Soldiers at Ft. Davis” and “A Milestone In Black History”) and reading aloud the enlistment play, have the students complete the Venn diagram that you have downloaded. The diagram should ask students to compare and contrast the reasons why a new immigrant and an African American who was a recently freed slave might join the army.
2. After having discussed the Venn Diagrams (you could also read aloud the Fort Davis play on recruitment at this point), hand out to the students a copy of the 19th century Oath of Allegiance and the 21st century Oath of Allegiance that you have downloaded from the Materials section above. How are the oaths different and how are they the same? Download William Hawkins’ enlistment papers and give each student a copy. How would you expect today’s enlistment papers to look?
3. After the discussion, pass out the letter writing assignment (that you have downloaded) and explain that they will write a one page paper taking on the persona of a new recruit and writing a letter home to their family. Students need to tell their families why they decided to join the army, what their expectations of the army are, and their plans for the future, i.e. do they intend to stay in the army as a career, try to save money to buy something, have they joined to experience the excitement of the west or simply to get away from home.
Standard 14: Understands the course and character of the Civil War and its effects on the American people
Standard 17: Understands massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity
Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes