Black Soldiers in the War

Indiana black citizens--and blacks across the country--had great sympathy with the Cubans fighting for freedom. Black newspapers regularly praised the "colored" leaders in Cuba. "The Indianapolis World, one of the few black Democratic newspapers in the nation, noted that the absence of race prejudice among 'the Cuban patriots' would make the island 'an inviting field for emigration from the United States' after independence" (Gatewood, 115-16).

Black citizens were anxious to help the Cuban patriots. Nationwide, however, black citizens demanded that black officers be allowed to command black troops. Blacks should "be allowed to participate in the military effort in a manner that would elevate their status rather than perpetuate a racial caste system" (ibid., 117).

The first call for volunteers on April 25, 1898--generally limited to national guard/militia troops--had few blacks. Most state militias did not allow blacks to enroll (Cosmas, 136). Indiana's National Guard had had two companies of black soldiers since the mid-1880s, in spite of a constitutional provision limiting service to white males.* These men had served well under black officers in several emergencies. By 1898, however, the companies had been disbanded in a complex dispute over organization (Gatewood, 118-20).

News Clipping

Reproduced from microfilm of the Indianapolis Freeman, An Illustrated Colored Newspaper,
July 23, 1898. The Freeman was a black Republican newspaper (Gatewood, 115).

With the second call for volunteers in May 1898, there was an effort to recruit black volunteers. There had been protests to the White House and Congress that black exclusion from the volunteer army was a "denial of equal citizenship." Eventually 8,000-10,000 black soldiers were in the volunteer army. Included in that number were several regiments of black soldiers with black officers (Cosmas, 136).

The War Department broke its racial policy because Indiana fought for, and was the first state to obtain, an exception to that policy. Governor James Mount and Senator Charles Fairbanks finally went to President William McKinley to gain permission to raise two companies of black soldiers with black captains who had served in the Indiana National Guard (Gatewood, 127, 139). Indiana was represented in the war by these two companies.

Like most volunteer units, black units did not engage in any battles. Black soldiers in the regular army, however, fought gallantly--under white officers--at the battle of San Juan Hill, Cuba with the Rough Riders and Theodore Roosevelt (Cosmas, 136).

* The Indiana constitutional restriction against blacks in the national guard was removed in 1936, long after blacks had begun to serve. Women were recruited in 1973 after a constitutional amendment removed the word 'male' from the militia provision (Watt and Spears, 194).