The Legacy of African-American Military Service

During the Civil War, there was much debate regarding the fighting merits of African-American troops. When Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation, he included a provision allowing for the enlistment of black troops in the Union Army. This was not without controversy, as many in the North believed African Americans could not fight as well as white troops.

Public perception was changed, in part, when news of the Battle of Fort Wagner hit northern presses. During that July 1863 battle, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment charged a Confederate fort bravely, yet took massive amounts of casualties. To many in the North, this provided evidence that black troops could be trusted on the battlefield. After the publicity surrounding the 54th Massachusetts, many northerners accepted the formation of African-American units. Although many African Americans joined federally organized “United States Colored Troops” regiments, many African Americans also served as guides, spies, laborers, and assistants for the Union Army both on the battlefield and behind the lines. According to Paul LaRue’s research on the cemetery, there do not appear to be any African-American Civil War soldiers buried on the grounds. Yet, LaRue believes it is possible that several of the quartermaster clerks buried in the cemetery were African American.

John Denny, image courtesy of the Library of Congress

John Denny, Medal of Honor recipient and Buffalo Soldier (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

However, among those buried after the Civil War in Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery are several highly decorated “Buffalo Soldiers,” African-American soldiers who fought in the Indian Wars in the decades after the Civil War. After the Civil War, black military service continued and many African-American soldiers distinguished themselves in the decades following the 1860s. One of those soldiers was Sergeant John Denny, a New Yorker, who fought in the 9th Cavalry Regiment during the Indian Wars. For bravery under fire and helping a wounded comrade to safety in an 1879 engagement in New Mexico, Denny was awarded the Medal of Honor. Buried in the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery in 1901, he rests just yards away from the place where Lincoln thought through and drafted the act that would allow for his eventual military service, the Emancipation Proclamation. Although the struggle for equal rights was a long one, one can see through the incorporation of African Americans into the national military narrative, gains being won throughout the 19th century.

For additional information about Sargent John Denny, check out the Kansas Historical Society’s Kansapedia web encyclopedia‘s page on Denny.

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