One of the great travesties in the study of American history is the lack of credit given to the accomplishments of African Americans. In times of war while the United States was becoming an empire, roles of African Americans were overlooked. There is no greater example than that of the Spanish American War. African American soldiers played a remarkable role in this war, and all too often their role has been disregarded and passed over by authors of the subject. Evidently, these authors were almost all white. Only with research from African American authors and historically accurate descriptions from the soldiers themselves, can one find the true nature of the role that African Americans played in the Spanish American War.

In 1898 the United States was in a moral dilemma, considering whether to aid Cuba in its fight for independence from Spain. When the United States joined the fight and turned the Cuban fight for independence into the Spanish American War, the debate continued to linger among the American people. One group that had heavily conflicting views was the African Americans. There were several reasons why this group opposed the war effort. “They consistently argued that charity begins at home, or at least it ought to.” African Americans were having enough problems in their own country, with the emergence of the Jim Crow laws, as well as lynching and abundant racism. These anti-imperialists envisioned a war that would only extend a racist empire, leaving the colored people of the Spanish colonies in the same oppressed shape as they were in, or maybe worse. They refused to support something they thought they would regret.

Other African Americans had opposite views. While they understood the ideas of their fellow peers, they still believed they should embrace the war effort, hoping finally for a benefit from Manifest Destiny. They felt a racial kinship with a large segment of the Cuban population. “Intervention in Cuba promised to end the autocratic rule of Spain and pave the way for an independent, democratic regime which Negro Americans consistently envisioned as a black republic.” They viewed Cuba as a potential haven for African Americans escaping from the oppressive atmosphere of the United States. Another reason for participating in the war was to raise their status in their own country. African Americans who were advocates of the war truly believed that their participation in the military effort would win respect from the white population and therefore enhance their status at home. They hoped a display of patriotism would help diminish racial prejudice against them. Lastly, some just simply wanted the leadership, honor, and recognition that came with being in the United States military.

There were ten regiments of African American soldiers that Congress sent to Cuba, but only four saw action. They were the 9th 10th, 24th and 25th. These regiments were made up of both volunteer and enlisted soldiers. The white soldiers’ sentiments towards the black soldiers were not very supportive. Racism abounded everywhere. The mere presence of armed black troops was sufficient enough to make prejudice whites paranoid. They were not considered skilled enough to lead, only to follow. Therefore, the black regiments were led by white commissioned officers. This led to even more racial tension.

The Spanish soldiers’ thoughts towards the African American soldiers were greatly different. They seemed to respect, and almost fear them more than the white soldiers. One Spanish soldier in the war said it best when he claimed “we knew the American soldiers would fight hard and bravely, but we didn’t leave our positions until we saw creeping on toward us these black men, these Haitians.” The men he believed to be Haitians were actually Americans, African Americans.
African Americans played a vital role in combat, at times saving the United States from the hands of defeat. The battle for El Caney, a major turning point in the war, was won through the heroism of the 25th regiment. Without proper sleep or food, this all-black volunteer regiment joined the battle already underway. Marching in, they found their white comrades decimated by the Spanish, the Rough Riders included. As they advanced, they met the soldiers retreating. “As we pressed forward all the reply that came from the retiring soldiers was: ‘There is no use to advance further! The Spanish are entrenched and in blockhouses. You are running to sudden death.’” Nonetheless, the 25th marched on and fired so effectively that they unnerved the Spanish, who began shooting erratically. Another example of the fear the Spanish had towards the black soldiers is this statement from a black soldier participating in the battle, 1st Sergeant M.W. Saddler:

“When they saw we were colored soldiers, they knew their doom was sealed. They were afraid to put their heads above the brink of their entrenchment, for every time a head was raised there was one Spaniard less.” The Americans won the battle, thanks to the efforts of the 25th regiment. This regiment was led by black officers; their white commissioned officers were either dead or injured. They saved the day for the United States at the Battle of El Caney.

Despite the accomplishments of the African American soldiers, appropriate credit was never given, and recognition was barely received. This situation was not accidental. The press did not feel the need to mention the plight of the African American soldiers in the war, mainly because the United States new only of the white man’s burden. There was never a black man’s burden. Another problem was the lack of black authors and journalists; most publications had only white writers on their staffs. To this day there is still a lack of information given about African American soldiers in historiographies on the Spanish American War. For example, Luis Perez’s The War of 1898: The United States & Cuba in History and Historiography speaks often about how white American soldiers felt contempt towards fighting for Cuban independence. Yet it never mentions how African American soldiers felt fighting for the freedom of Afro-Cubans, most of who were former slaves themselves. There is information out there, the truth can be found. Unfortunately in most cases, one must turn to an African American author to find all sides of the story of the Spanish American War.

African American soldiers played an incredibly significant role in the Spanish American War. This role has been gravely overlooked by all involved in the matter, whether it is the media, historians, or military leaders themselves. It is essential to give the African American soldiers their credit for the role they played in the outcome of the war. Without their accomplishments, the United States may never have been able to become the American Empire.