The Spanish American war took place between the months of February and December in 1898. This war saw the transformation of American society from being a modest nation to a crucial player in the international arena. It also resulted in the acquisition of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines through the treaty of Paris.
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The Debate of African American Involvement in the War
At the time of the Spanish American war, American society was pursuing expansionist strategies and this presented different dynamics for racial relations in the military. In that decade, the army had grown both in size and might and they therefore felt little need for black soldiers. In fact most African Americans that had been recruited in the army in the 1890s got vey poor receptions upon returning to their country. They would frequently be subjected to antiracists sentiments while serving in that army. Therefore by the time the US began pondering over expansionist strategies, tensions were still prevalent between black and white soldiers and many questioned the necessity of actually involving African Americans in any war. On the other hand, Black Americans were interested in demonstrating their ability to defend the founding principles of their nation by involving themselves in war. Despite this interest in participation, most blacks rarely got the opportunity to enter into war zones. On top of that, they were unhappy with the way they were being treated in their own countries but this did not make any of them resort to violent means.
After America witnessed the sinking of the Maine, it became clear that they had to engage in war with the Spaniards. However, this event occurred unexpectedly and caught the US off guard as its army size was not sufficient to cater for its expansionist strategies. Therefore, the country had to resort to unconventional measures for recruitment. It looked towards the African American population because these black soldiers had ample experience. Also, it was assumed that their bodies could easily adapt to humid conditions that can render them immune to the tropical diseases of the Spanish territories.
The first expedition focused on Cuba where the first black units were disseminated and they included the 10th, 9th, 24th and 25th Cavalries. They had to wait in Florida before entering Cuba and it was while in this state where racial prejudices against them were reaffirmed. Nonetheless, when they entered Cuba, they were designated to a route that lacked roads and it was quite difficult for them to march towards their targets. On the other hand, the 1st volunteer cavalry (Rough riders) consisting of Theodore Roosevelt and other white soldiers were also assigned to this same area. They had better routes and were therefore the first to meet enemy fire. In one of their encounters at San Juan Hill, the white soldiers from the rough riders found themselves surrounding by Spaniards. They were at a very disadvantageous position and were it not for black soldiers from the 10th and 9th cavalries who came in and engaged enemy fire, the rough riders would have died mercilessly.
Aside from that, black soldiers also participated in Las Guasimas and El Caney battles where they demonstrated heroic actions on behalf of their country. It was this participation that led to recognition of five black soldiers who were given Medals of Honor. Twenty five soldiers were also granted certificates of merit. Examples included George Anderson, Lt, Jacob Smith, Cpt. Horace Wheaton and Colonel Charles Young. Later on in 1922, the Spanish American war was reviewed and eight more soldiers were accredited for their actions. The tenacity and courage with which these soldiers fought for their countries was quite admirable especially given the fact that a substantial number of them accepted missions that had been rejected by white only soldiers. For instance in the month of July 1989, the 24th infantry accepted a mission that eight white units refused.
Despite all this patriotism, there was a lot of controversy concerning the treatment of the black soldiers who participated in this war as racists often tried to downplay their importance in the war. Those volunteers who came back from the Spanish American war were treated in a cruel manner by their fellow citizens. Most of them were not allowed to eat at the same table or even in the same restaurant as white patrons. For instance, in Kansas City, white soldiers would often be invited into restaurants and given free food while the black soldiers would be greeted by sneers. This implied that white supremacists try to ignore the importance of those soldiers during the war. They assumed that America was only able to secure the three Spanish territories as a result of white only efforts. In fact, it is this point of view that was recorded by many war analysts as very little emphasis was given to a holistic view of all the citizens that took part in the war. Most of the returning soldiers were not promoted within the army and very few of them were encouraged to continue serving their nation.
The Spanish American war was crucial to African Americans in a number of ways. First of all, it allowed for the use of black commanders within their units, secondly, it provided them with an opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism outside of US soil and lastly it led to eventual recognition by Great American leaders such as President Roosevelt who had served alongside the black soldiers.