African Americans in the CT National Guard, 1870 to 1919
An item titled “Race Feeling at Manassas” in the New Haven Daily Morning Journal and Courier of September 6, 1904 should alert historians to the fact that the story of the Black Connecticut guardsmen has not yet been fully told. It has long been known that in the time between the Civil War and the First World War, African American males in Connecticut had opportunities that were uncommon in much of the United States. One significant example of this was the opportunity for Black residents to serve with the Connecticut National Guard (CNG). Serving with the CNG did not necessarily mean, however, that Blacks were officially in the CNG.
Though Connecticut was not ready to admit blacks into the National Guard, men who had returned from the Civil War decided to form independent companies. This was done so that if the opportunity presented itself, they would be ready to become part of the official guard. As early as 1869, the Wilkins Guard was formed in New Haven. This company was named in honor of James H. Wilkins, the first black man from Connecticut to enlist in the all black Connecticut Civil War Regiment(Saunders, page 1).
Even though they were considered separate, there were times when the Black companies were called to serve alongside the regular CNG units. This occurred when the CNG participated in maneuvers and war games that were held at Manassas VA in September 1904. Ernest Saunders recounts the details of the event in his book Blacks in the Connecticut National Guard (1977):
The Secretary of War invited the organized Militia of the State of Connecticut to participate in the joint field exercises with the regular army at Manassas, Virginia. These exercises were to be held September 3rd to 10th, 1904. The Adjutant-General of Connecticut accepted the invitation. The whole of the Connecticut Brigade, including the First Separate Company, left New Haven by boat at 10 a.m., arriving in Jersey City at about 4 p.m. The group then took trains to Virginia, arriving there at about 7:30 a.m. (Saunders, page 26).
The author goes on to say that “The entire exercise of nine days was considered a success. The officers and men from Connecticut were indebted to the officers and men of the Fifth United States Infantry for many courtesies and numerous helpful hints as to their duties.” Saunders further asserted, “The conduct of the entire brigade was such as to call forth commendation from all” (Saunders, page 26). Saunders’ positive assessment, while undoubtedly true in part, was not the consensus. First Separate Company for example, faced significant challenges at the camp.
The New Haven Journal and Courier article tells part of this story. According to the September 6, 1904 piece, white Southern soldiers refused to salute Black officers and despite the restriction against live ammunition in camp, ball cartridges were ominously found and confiscated. The ball cartridges were just one symptom of a general atmosphere of racial intolerance commended by Southern political leaders. According to an article in the New York Tribune, the governor of Georgia, Joseph Terrell, praised the refusal of a Georgia soldier to salute an African American officer at the camp. The former governor of Georgia, Allen D. Candler, was quoted in the same piece as saying that “any Yankee who thinks a Georgia soldier will salute a negro is a d__n fool.” When the maneuvers were over, the tension between black and white troops was diminished but not gone. The Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser of September 12, 1904 reported that at the final review of the troops, “the Southern men simply withdrew,” rather than mingle with the First Separate Connecticut Infantry. Although the Manassas maneuvers ended without a serious conflict, they presaged the race tension and discrimination the First Separate Company would face when it was called up for duty in the First World War.
When the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, it did not have a large Army prepared for war. Among the organized units that were ready for training were the state National Guard units, which included the “colored” National Guard units. The First Separate Company of Connecticut was called up on July 31, 1917 (Scott, pages 33-34). On January 1, 1918, combined with several other “colored” National Guard units and 250 black draftees, First Separate Company was now designated Company M, 372nd Regiment, 92nd Division, U.S. Army (Scott, page 239; Saunders, page 42). On April 14, 1918, the 372nd Regiment arrived in France, and was attached to the French Army. Scott notes their good luck: “It was the fortune of the 372nd Regiment, U.S. Army, to be brigaded, together with the 371st Infantry, throughout its entire period of service overseas, with the 157th Division of the French Army, the famous ‘RED HAND” Division’” (Scott, Page 239).
Although the black troops were attached to the French Army, the U.S. Army advised the French that the manner in which the French military and French civilians treated the black troops would be of concern to white Americans. Here is an excerpt from a memo sent to French officers, on behalf of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) signed by Col. J.A. Linard, Chief of the French Mission at the AEF:
- We must prevent the rise of any pronounced degree of intimacy between French officers and black officers. We may be courteous and amiable with these last, but we cannot deal with them on the same plane as with the white American officers without deeply wounding the latter. We must not eat with them, must not shake hands or seek to talk or meet with them outside of the requirements of military service.
- We must not commend too highly the black American troops, particularly in the presence of (white) Americans. It is all right to recognize their good qualities and their services, but only in moderate terms, strictly in keeping with the truth.
- Make a point of keeping the native cantonment population from ‘spoiling’ the Negroes. (White) Americans become greatly incensed at any public expression of intimacy between white women with black men….Military authority cannot intervene directly in this question, but it can through the civil authorities exercise some influence on the population. (Signed) LINARD (Saunders,pages 68-69)
The harsh recommendations of the AEF were not welcomed by the French. According to Saunders, when the document was discovered by the French people, they “collected and burned as many as could be found” (Saunders, page 69). The French considered it an affront to the men who had come to save France from the Germans.
The Black soldiers, themselves, answered the AEF’s disparaging memo in action. One of the best accounts of the courage and determination of the men of the 372nd is found in the regimental records for September 28 through November 10, 1918:
Over the Top' September 28, 1918, the 3rd Battalion started after the Boche. The first blow being delivered by the 2nd Moroccan Division of shock troops. The retreating Boches are still bombarding our position. Machine gun fire is thick and the 88s are falling like hail. On the morning of September 29, 1918, we are trying hard to keep up with the retreating enemy, which is retreating fast, unable to stand our assault. This afternoon it is raining which is unfortunate for our wounded, as there are many. Today is September 30, 1918, and we find that the 1st Battalion is on our right, and advancing fast in the rain and mud. Machine gun opposition is still stiff. Our casualties are small and we have captured a large number of prisoners. October 1, 1918, we are meeting with a stiff resistance from the enemy who has fortified himself in a hill during the past night. Owing to the bad condition of the ground we are not getting any support from the French artillery. October 2, 1918, we have driven the enemy out of Fountain-en-Dormois and are now in the village. Still we are giving the enemy no rest, they are retreating across the valley to one of their supply bases which has a railroad running into the same. The enemy is now burning the supplies which cannot be moved. October 3, 1918, we have advanced and captured the little village of Ardeuil and a considerable amount of war material. Our losses have been rather heavy during the past 24 hours, but we have inflicted a much heavier loss on the enemy. On our right the 1st Battalion has taken the village of Sechaut after some hard fighting by Company A. October 4, 1918, the 2nd Battalion is going in this morning, and we are resting at Vieox, which is about four kilometers from Monthois and is one of the enemy's railroad centers and hospital bases. The enemy is busy destroying supplies and moving wounded. We can see trains moving out of Monthois. Our artillery is bombarding all roads and railroads in the vicinity. The enemies' fire is fierce and we are expecting a counter-attack. October 5, 1918, the German artillery has opened up good and strong and we are on the alert. They attacked us and a stiff hand-to-hand combat ensued. Again he has been driven back, suffering an exceedingly heavy loss. We have taken many prisoners from about twelve different regiments. After resting a little, we continued our advance and are now on the outskirts of Monthois. October 6, 1918, the enemy is throwing a stiff barrage on our left where the 333rd French Infantry is attacking. The enemy is again being driven back. The liaison work of the 157th Division has been wonderful, not the slightest gap has been left open. October 7, 1918, our patrols entered Monthois early in the morning but were driven out by machine gun fire, but returned with gun and its crew. We have just received word that we are to be relieved by the 76th Regiment, French, sometime during the night; we were relieved at 8:00 P. M. We hiked a very long distance over the ground. We fought so hard to take to Minnecourt where the regiment proceeded to reorganize. Regiment left Somme Bionne Oct. 11, 1918 to entrain for Vignemont. Left Valmy 8:00 A. M. Oct. 12, 1918 and arrived at Vignemont Oct. 13, 1918. Hiked 15 kilometers to St. Leonard and arrived Sd. Left St. Leonard for Ban de Laveline in the Dept. of the Bosges Oct. 15, 1918, arrived at Laveline 10:15 P. M. Sd. November 7, 1918, 1 officer and 22 enlisted men captured by German patrol. Nov. 10, 1918, a patrol of Co. A, took several prisoners from a German patrol (Scott, Pages 241-243).
Clearly, in the fall of 1918, the men of the 372nd, proved themselves over and over. Their valor was recognized in a famous order issued by General Goybet, Commander of the (French) 157th Division. In that order, General Goybet paid tribute to the Black soldiers who served under his command.
H.Q., December 15, 1918 157th Division Etat-Major. GENERAL ORDERS NO. 245 On the 12th of December, 1918, the 371st and 372nd R. I. U. S. have been replaced at the disposal of the American Higher Command. With a deep feeling of emotion, on behalf of the 157th Division, and in my own personal name, I come to bid farewell to our brave comrades. For seven months we have lived as brothers at arms, partaking in the same activities, sharing the same hardships and the same dangers. Side by side we took part in the great Champagne Battle which was to be crowned by a tremendous victory. Never will the 157th Division forget the indomitable dash, the heroical rush of the American Regiments up the Observatory Ridge and into the plain of Monthois. The most powerful defenses, the most strongly organized M. G. nests, the heaviest artillery barrages, nothing could stop them. These crack regiments overcame every obstacle with a most complete contempt for danger; through their steady devotion the RED HAND Division, for nine whole days of severe struggle, was constantly leading the way for the victorious advance of the 4th Army. Officers, non-commissioned officers, and men, I respectfully salute our glorious comrades who have fallen, and I bow to your colours, side by side with the flag of the 333rd Regiment of Infantry they have shown us the way to VICTORY. Dear friends from America, when you will be back again on the other side of the ocean don't forget the Red Hand Division. Our brotherhood has been cemented in the blood of the brave and such bonds will never be destroyed. Remember your General who is proud of having commanded you, and be sure of his grateful affection to you all for ever. General Goybet, Commanding the 157th Division. (Signed) GOYBET. (Scott, Page 250)
General Goybet’s tribute was high praise, but it could not fundamentally change the country to which the troops would return. Racial discrimination was the norm in most of America, and especially egregious in the South under Jim Crow laws. Black Americans also knew that mob violence directed against them, such as lynching, could erupt at any time. While there has never been any record of lynching in Connecticut, the Guardsmen returning to Connecticut would have been aware of what was happening in other states. In May 1919, the Norwich Bulletin, for example, published an editorial titled “Our Own Barbarity,” in which they pointed to the irony of a war for democracy abroad and atrocity in the American South.
Fortunately, from the point of view of W.E.B. Dubois, the war had well-prepared African American veterans to meet the challenge of racism at home. Despite the persistence of racism and discrimination, the returning Black soldiers, by virtue of the wartime experiences that changed them, returned with new pride and self-confidence. An item in the August 1919 issue of The Crisis speaks of this change:
The United States, says the Chicago, Ill. Tribune, has a new type of Black man to deal with. This type is developing a strong social consciousness out of which arise questionings and resentments. The paper continues: The new type works hard, grows steadily prosperous, and simultaneously with the realization of the worth of its labor, is irked by patronage, by those jokes about the razor, which some of us still think are droll, and by that lofty petting which some of us still believe colored men from 17 to 70 must like. They do not.... The returning colored soldiers are a big factor in, and big contributors to, this new Negro consciousness. They return with heads up, with a more acute sense of the hard conditions to which they were born, and with a fresh determination, since they rightly enough have been made much of, to make something of themselves. They have been under discipline and the effect of discipline is dual. It both tames and makes a man, and it has done both for thousands of these once irresponsible lads. Dr. Cary says that many of them have told him that they tire and sicken of the banquets and dances given them upon their return, and that they seek ’something lasting, something worthwhile’. The phrase epitomizes the new aspiration of the new Negro. 'Something lasting, something worthwhile’ " (The Crisis Vol. 18, No. 4, August 1919, page 196).
DuBois, then, saw the experiences of the First Separate Company and other African American units as opening up the era of the New Negro, an era in which true civil rights could be won.
The recent digitization of by the Connecticut Digital Newspaper Project of the New Haven Journal and Courier, under all the variant titles that it carried from 1880-1908, has already helped us to enrich the story of the state’s African American guard. Issues from January 1895 to June 1902 are currently online and additional years of publication will be appearing over the course of the fall and they, too, should be searched for anecdotes that will fill out the history of Connecticut’s African American community.
Searching Further in Chronicling America:
To explore the topic of the First Separate Company of 1880-1918 in online Connecticut newspapers, go to http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/, click on the “Advanced Search” tab, select “Connecticut,” select the years “1880-1918,” and enter these terms into the boxes called “with the phrase” or “with ALL the words.”
Suggested Search terms
- First Separate Company
- Wilkins Tigers
- Wilkins Guard
For Additional Research:
“Race Feeling at Manassas”, New Haven Daily Morning Journal and Courier September 6, 1904, Page 1
“True Georgia Grit,” New York Tribune, Sept. 7, 1904, Page 1 http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1904-09-07/ed-1/seq-1/
“The Maneuvers Over,” Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser, Sept. 12, 1904, Page 2 http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85025007/1904-09-12/ed-1/seq-2/
“Our Own Barbarity,”Norwich Bulletin May 24, 1919, Page 4 http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014086/1919-05-24/ed-1/seq-4/
“Changes in Psychology,” The Crisis, Vol. 18, No. 4, August 1919, Page 196 http://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1295988471984375.pdf
Saunders, Ernest. Blacks in the Connecticut National Guard: A pictorial and chronological history 1870 to 1919. New Haven, New Haven Afro-American Historical Society, 1977. State Library Catalog Link http://www.consuls.org/record=b1345710~S1
Scott, Emmett J. Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in The World War. Chicago: Homewood Press, c1919. State Library Catalog Link http://www.consuls.org/record=b1774906~S1
Mason, Monroe and Arthur Furr. The American Negro Soldier with The Red Hand of France. Boston, The Cornhill Company, 1921. UCONN Library Catalog link http://primo-pmtna01.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/01UCT:EVERYTHING:01UCT_ALMA21365605560002432
Note for Researchers
* According to Saunders, the “Wilkins Guard” was established in 1869. This unit was not officially part of the CNG. In 1879, Connecticut established the Fifth Battalion of the CNG, composed of four independent companies (A, B, C and D) of Black guardsmen. Company A was from New Haven. In 1888, the Fifth Battalion was disbanded and only Company A and B (now known as the First Separate and Second Separate Companies) were retained. On June 12, 1896 the state disbanded the Second Separate Company. On July 3, 1899, First Separate Company was disbanded. However, this was met with a public outcry against disbanding the last company of Black guardsmen. On October 16, 1899, the First Separate Company was reinstated in the CNG . This company would continue under that name until January 1, 1918, when it was placed on active duty as Company M, 372nd Regiment, 92nd Division, U.S. Army.