Autobiography of an American Nigger in San Juan


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There are many who have been educated at West Point who are broad in their sympathies, democratic in their ideas, and responsive to every appeal of philanthropy and humanity; but the spirit of West Point has been opposed to the admission of Negroes into the ranks of commissioned officers, and the opposition to the commissioning of black men emenating from the army will go very far toward the defeat of any project of that kind.

Very naturally the strong public sentiment against the Negro, which obtains almost universally in the South, has thus far prevented the recognition of his right to be treated precisely as the white man is treated. It would be, indeed, almost revolutionary for any Southern Governor to commission a Negro as a colonel of a regiment, or even a captain of a company. Even where there are exceptions to this rule, they are notable exceptions. Everywhere through the South Negro volunteers are made to feel that they are not upon the same plane as white volunteers. If this is done it will mark a distinct step in advance of any taken hitherto.

It will recognize partially, at least, the manhood of the Negro, and break down that unnatural bar of separation now existing.

The History of Negro Soldiers in the Spanish-American War

If a Negro is a lieutenant, he will command his company in the absence of the captain. He can wear epaulets, and be entitled to all the rights and privileges 'of an officer and a gentleman;' he is no longer doomed to inferiority. In case of battle, where bullets have no respect of persons, and do not draw the line at color, it may easily happen that a regiment or battalion will do its best work in the face of the enemy under the command of a Negro chief. Thus far the Government has been swift to recognize heroism and efficiency, whether performed by Commodore Dewey at Manila or Lieutenant Hobson at Santiago, and it can hardly be otherwise than that it will be ready to recognize exceptional prowess and skill when performed by a Negro officer.

The immortal Lincoln gave them this chance when he admitted them to wear the blue and carry a musket; and right manfully did they justify his confidence. There was not better fighting done during the civil war than was done by some of the Negro troops. With my experience, in command of 5, Negro soldiers, I would, on the whole, prefer, I think, the command of a corps of Negro troops to that of a corps of white troops.

With the magnificent record of their fighting qualities on many a hard-contested field, it is not unreasonable to ask that a still further opportunity shall be extended to them in commissioning them as officers, as well as enlisting them as soldiers. But so long as we draw no race line of distinction as against Germans or Irishmen, and institute no test of religion, politics or culture, we ought not to erect an artificial barrier of color.

If the Negroes are competent they should be commissioned. If they are incompetent they should not be trusted with the grave responsibilities attached to official position. I believe they are competent.


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Some of the officers who accompanied the wounded soldiers on the trip north give interesting accounts of the fighting around Santiago. They were with the Rough Riders and ran into an ambuscade, though they had been warned of the danger. If it had not been for the Negro Calvary the Rough Riders would have been exterminated.

I am not a Negro lover. My father fought with Mosby's Rangers, and I was born in the South, but the Negroes saved that fight, and the day will come when General Shafter will give them credit for their bravery. It has been hinted by a portion of the Negro press that when the war ended, that if there is to be the millennium of North and South, the Negroes will suffer in the contraction. There is no reason to encourage this pessimistic view, since it is so disturbing in its nature, and since it is in the province of the individuals composing the race to create a future to more or less extent.

The wedge has entered; it remains for the race to live up to its opportunities.

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The South already is making concessions. While concessions are apt to be looked upon as too patronizing, and not included in the classification of rights in common, yet in time they amount to the same. The mere statement that "the colored brother can have half of their blankets whenever they want them," while doubtless a figure of speech, yet it signifies that under this very extreme of speech an appreciable advance of the race.

It does not mean that there is to be a storming of the social barriers, for even in the more favored races definite lines are drawn. Sets and circles adjust such matters. But what is desired is the toleration of the Negroes in those pursuits that the people engage in or enjoy in general and in common.

It is all that the American Negro may expect, and it is safe to say that his ambitions do not run higher, and ought not to run higher. Money and birth in themselves have created some unwritten laws that are much stronger than those decreed and promulgated by governments. It would be the height of presumption to strike at these, to some extent privileged classes.

It is to be hoped that the good fortunes of war will produce sanity and stability in the race, contending for abstract justice. Private Smith of the Seventy-first Volunteers, speaking about the impression his experience at Santiago had made upon him, said:. But, somewhat, now I feel very differerently toward them, for I met them in camp, on the battle field and that's where a man gets to know a man. I never saw such fighting as those Tenth Cavalry men did.

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They didn't seem to know what fear was, and their battle hymn was, 'There'll be a hot time in the old town to-night. That's not a thrilling hymn to hear on the concert stage, but when you are lying in a trench with the smell of powder in your nose and the crack of rifles almost deafening you and bullets tearing up the ground around you like huge hailstones beating down the dirt, and you see before you a blockhouse from which there belches fourth the machine gun, pouring a torrent of leaden missiles, while from holes in the ground you see the leveled rifles of thousands of enemies that crack out death in ever-increasing succession and then you see a body of men go up that hill as if it were in drill, so solid do they keep their formation, and those men are yelling, 'There'll be a hot time in the old town to-night,' singing as if they liked their work, why, there's an appropriateness in the tune that kind of makes your blood creep and your nerves to thrill and you want to get up and go ahead if you lose a limb in the attempt And that's what those 'niggers' did.

You just heard the Lieutenant say, 'Men, will you follow me? The action of the officers on the field is what I speak of. Somehow when you watch these men with their gold braid in armories on a dance night or dress parade it strikes you that they are a little more handsome and ornamental than they are practical and useful. To tell the truth, I didn't think much of those dandy officers on parade or dancing round a ball room.

I did not really think they were worth the money that was spent upon them. But I just found it was different on the battlefield, and they just knew their business and bullets were a part of the show to them.

Regional Geology

It is not known what proportion of the insurgent army is colored, but the indications are that the proportion of the same element in the volunteer army of occupation will be small. On the basis of population, of course one-third of the South's quota should be made up of colored, and it is to be remembered that they made good soldiers and constitute a large part of the regular army. There were nearly , of them in service in the last war. There has been hitherto among the officers of the army a certain prejudice against serving in the Negro regiments.

But the other day a Lieutenant in the Ninth Infantry said enthusiastically:. I am from Virginia, and have always had the usual feeling about commanding colored troops. But after seeing that charge of the Twenty-fourth up the San Juan Hill, I should like the best in the world to have a Negro company. They went up that incline yelling and shouting just as I used to hear when they were hunting rabbits in Virginia. The Spanish bullets only made them wilder to reach the trenches. Officers of other regiments which were near the Twenty-fourth on July 1 are equally strong in their praise of the Negroes.

Their yells were an inspiration to their white comrades and spread dismay among the Spaniards. A Captain in a volunteer regiment declares that the Twenty-fourth did more than any other to win the day at San Juan. As they charged up through the white soldiers their enthusiasm was spread, and the entire line fought the better for their cheers and their wild rush. Spanish evidence to the effectiveness of the colored soldiers is not lacking. Thus an officer who was with the troops that lay in wait for the Americans at La Quasina on June 24th, said:. We saw their big, black faces through the underbrush, and they looked like devils.

They came forward under our fire as if they didn't the least care about it.

It was the Tenth Cavalry that had this effect on the Spaniards. The fourth of the Negro regiments, the Twenty-fifth Infantry, played an especially brilliant part in the battle of El Caney on July 1st. It was held in reserve with the rest of Colonel Miles' brigade, but was ordered to support General Lawton's brigade toward the middle of the day.

At that hour marching was an ordeal, but the men went on at a fast pace.

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With almost no rest they kept it up until they got into action. The other troops had been fighting hard for hours, and the arrival of the Twenty-fifth was a blessing.


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The Negroes went right ahead through the tired ranks of their comrades. Their charge up the hill, which was surmounted by Spanish rifle pits and a stone fort, has been told. It was the work of only a part of the regiment, the men coming chiefly from three companies. Colonel Milts had intended having his whole brigade make the final charge, but the Twenty-fifth didn't wait for orders. It was there to take that hill, and take the hill it did. One of the Spanish officers captured there seemed to think that the Americans were taking an unfair advantage of them in having colored men who fought like that.

He had been accustomed to the Negroes in the insurgent army, and a different lot they are from those in the United States army. The way the Negroes charged up the El Caney and San Juan hills suggested inevitably that their African nature has not been entirely eliminated by generations of civilization, but was bursting forth in savage yells and in that wild rush some of them were fairly frantic with the delight of the battle. And it was no mere craziness.

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They are excellent marksmen, and they aim carefully and well. Woe to the Spaniards who showed themselves above the trenches when a colored regiment was in good range. Veterans who are comparing the losses at the battle of San Juan, near Santiago, last Friday, with those at Big Bethel and the first Bull Run say that in only one or two actions of the late war was there such a loss in officers as occurred at San Juan hill.

The companies of the Twenty-fourth Infantry are without officers. The regiment had four captains knocked down within a minute of each other. Ducat was the first officer hit in the action, and was killed instantly. His second lieutenant, John A. Gurney, a Michigan man, was struck dead at the same time as the captain, and Lieutenant Henry G. Lyon was left in command of Company D, but only for a few minutes, for he, too, went down.

Liscum, commanding the regiment, was killed. The magnificent courage of the Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas Negroes, which make up the rank and file of this regiment, is the admiration of every officer who has written here since the fight. The regiment has a large proportion of Southern-born officers, who led their men with more than usual exposure.

These men had always said the Southern Negro would fight as staunchly as any white man, if he was led by those in whom he had confidence.

Autobiography of an American Nigger in San Juan Autobiography of an American Nigger in San Juan
Autobiography of an American Nigger in San Juan Autobiography of an American Nigger in San Juan
Autobiography of an American Nigger in San Juan Autobiography of an American Nigger in San Juan
Autobiography of an American Nigger in San Juan Autobiography of an American Nigger in San Juan
Autobiography of an American Nigger in San Juan Autobiography of an American Nigger in San Juan

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