- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 11, 2002

THE BLACK REGULARS, 1866-1898
By William A Dobak and Thomas D. Phillips
$34.95, 360 pages, illustrated
REVIEWED BY ALAN GROPMAN

"The Black Regulars," a history of the historic black Army units9th and 10th Cavalry, 24th and 25th Infantry during the last third of the 19th century is a must read for anybody interested in African-American military history, or the history of the American West.It is more than an outstanding book: It is the best chronicle of these faithful, effective and highly professional soldiers published to date.It is scrupulously and imaginatively researched and documented, effectively written, well paced and illustrated, objective, and thorough.
We are, fortunately, past the stage of informing Americans that blacks served heroically after the Civil War in the West in histories that, for the most part, tell only of the faithfulness and heroism of the black troopers.This history covers all the bases, probes the dark side as well as the laudatory, and in the process explodes some myths.Black soldiers had the same human failings as whites troopers, and we learn about rowdy (and randy) troops.
But as William Dobak and Thomas Phillips point out, alcohol caused fewer problems for blacks in uniform than for whites, black soldiers were generally better behaved than whites, and the desertion rate for black units (certainly a key indicator of professionalism) was a small fraction of that of white outfits.Over the three decades covered here, because blacks reenlisted at a much higher rate than whites (and, again, had a much lower desertion rate) the black regular units became highly dependable probably the most reliable regiments in the Army.
One senior officer pondered the success of the Buffalo Soldiers and the black infantry and concluded peacetime soldiering attracted "as a rule only … the poorest classes of whites in this country," but the Army was "probably the best position that is offered to a black man, and … the United States can probably receive the services of the best." According to Mr. Dobak and Mr. Phillips, this commander's "observation was close to the truth."
Service in the West in the closing decades of the century "was not a life of high adventure," for black or white soldiers the authors tell us, "with each day bringing fresh Indians and outlaws to chase.Their task the entire Army's task was to preserve order, which they did in the 1870s by trying to ensure that Indians left their reservation only to hunt, in the 1880s by keeping white intruders out of those same reservations, and in the 1890s by guarding property during labor strikes.They escorted railroad surveyors and track layers, built roads, and strung miles of telegraph and telephone wire themselves." Western movies have provided a decidedly romanticbut highly inaccurateview.
Mr. Dobak and Mr. Phillips assert that the "black regiments had their origin in the army's need for men."Indeed. And that, dear reader is also the reason the United States military today is 15 percent female.The Army of the 19th century, except for the four-year Civil War, was an all-volunteer force, like today's.Because there was a low propensity to serve in the military like today the War Department had to turn to a minority group not hitherto welcomed in the military.In the 19th century blacks, and in the 21st females.
Like the military of today, to recruit and retain qualified and competent blacks, the military of the late 19th century had to offer African-Americans something like equal opportunity, and it did.Over the last three decades since the all-volunteer military was inaugurated, the United States armed forceshave had to provide equal opportunity for females in order to recruit and retain effective women, and have, therefore, slowly opened nearly all specialtiesincluding most combat fieldsto entice women to come on board and remain.
In the 19th century blacks were paid the same as whites, had the same authority that went with grade and rank (albeit in a segregated environment), and treatment in the Army was definitely better than it was in civilian life.Blacks who became involved in the military justice system, for example, received the same treatment as whites, had comparable sentences when found guilty, were acquitted as often as whites, and testimony from blacks was totally acceptable, something not found in most states in the country, and completely missing from the states of the old Confederacy and formerly slave states that had remained in the Union.
The black regulars, moreover, did not tolerate ill treatment and prejudice by civilians and bigoted law officers.
When treated uncivilly or illegally, these troopers fought back, often with their rifles and pistols, and they certainly knew how to use them.If blacks who fought back were disproportionately punished, it was by civilian politicians, not the Army.
Read "The Black Regulars."It is outstanding and complete, and it fills a felt need.

Alan Gropman is chairman of the Grand Strategy Department at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.


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