The Black “Immune” Regiments in the Spanish-American War
By LTC Roger D. Cunningham, USA Ret.
In April 1898 Congress declared war on Spain, and patriotic Americans of all colors rallied to the flag. The rampant discrimination that characterized race relations in this country during the Gilded Age caused some black citizens to question America’s crusade to end Spanish oppression of dark-skinned Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Filipinos, when they were facing similar conditions of injustice in the United States. Many other African Americans, however, hoped that they could gradually expand opportunities for racial equality by supporting the “splendid little war.”
The soldiers of the Regular Army’s four black regiments–the 9th and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry–performed their duty without question. They deployed to Cuba and made significant contributions to the speedy victory, earning five Medals of Honor and twenty-nine Certificates of Merit for their gallantry under fire. Thousands of other African Americans also served in the 200,000-man Volunteer Army that was specially raised to augment the regulars. President William McKinley asked each of the states, territories, and the District of Columbia to provide a quota of units based upon their respective populations, and eight governors–from Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia–included segregated black units in their contributions to that force. Ohio’s Governor Asa S. Bushnell offered command of his state’s black battalion to 1LT Charles Young, the Regular Army’s only black line officer, and Young’s acceptance earned him a temporary promotion to major in the Volunteer Army.
Concerned about the health risks that tropical diseases would pose for American troops when they deployed to the Caribbean theater of operations, the War Department almost immediately began to consider organizing specialized units. In late April, the New York Times reported that Secretary of War Russell Alger wanted to recruit “at least half a dozen special regiments of yellow fever immunes for service in Cuba.” Alger asked Senator Donelson Caffery (D-LA) whether 6,000 immunes could be recruited in the Gulf states, and Caffery optimistically responded that “he could raise 20,000 such volunteers in New Orleans alone, as practically all the natives had had the fever, and all would volunteer.”
Congress settled for half the number of men offered by Senator Caffery, and in early May it empowered President McKinley to authorize Secretary Alger to organize “an additional volunteer force of not exceeding ten thousand enlisted men possessing immunity from diseases incident to tropical climates.” The resulting ten infantry regiments were popularly known as the “Immunes,” and they soon attracted volunteers–primarily from the South–who had been unwilling or unable to enlist in Regular Army or state units. The Washington Post ridiculed the concept, saying: “Among all the fallacies and crack-brained nonsense bred by the war, we know of none so extravagant as the ‘immune regiment.’” The New York Times pointed out, however, that efforts would be made to secure recruits who, if they had not passed through yellow fever epidemics, at least would be “thoroughly acclimated to a hot climate and…accustomed to outdoor life. When so made up[,] it is considered that these regiments will be far superior for rough and ready campaigning in Cuba to the ordinary volunteers.”
Many erroneously believed that African Americans were naturally immune to tropical diseases or at least were better suited for service in the tropics. Booker T. Washington wrote the Secretary of the Navy that Cuba’s climate was “peculiar and danger[o]us to the unaclimated [sic] white man. The Negro race in the South is accustomed to this climate.” Other black leaders lobbied in Washington to reserve all ten regiments for their race. Although they lacked the political clout to accomplish that lofty goal, President McKinley was well aware that most states had refused to accept black volunteers, and he wanted to recognize the martial spirit of the minority that staunchly supported his Republican party. On 26 May, the adjutant general’s office issued General Orders, No. 55, indicating that five of the Immune regiments would be composed of “persons of color.” Shortly thereafter, that number was reduced to four, and the 7th through the 10th U.S. Volunteer Infantry (USVI) were designated for black enlisted men and lieutenants. Company commanders and “field and staff” officers were to be white, a policy that angered most African Americans.
The issue of commissioning black officers was a sensitive one, because many Americans doubted that a people only one generation removed from slavery could produce effective military leaders. More than 100 black men had “worn shoulder straps” during the Civil War–one surgeon had even earned the brevet rank of lieutenant colonel–but they all had left the service during or shortly after the war concluded. Since that time, the Regular Army had commissioned eight African Americans–three line officers and five chaplains–but Charles Young and four chaplains were the only ones remaining on active duty. Governors from twenty-two states and the District of Columbia also had commissioned hundreds of black officers in the segregated units that served in their respective militias. Many of these units were still serving in 1898, and the African American community reasonably expected that they should be accepted into the Volunteer Army without leadership changes. John Mitchell Jr., the outspoken editor of the Richmond Planet, expressed this view as “No officers, no fight!”
All the officers in the Volunteer Army’s black state units were African Americans, except for those in the 3d Alabama and the commander and one assistant surgeon in the 6th Virginia. The War Department, however, decided that it would only authorize 100 black officer billets for the Immunes–twenty-four lieutenants and a chaplain in each black regiment. Officials hoped that this policy would not create problems, but many doubted the efficacy of commissioning so many African Americans. The New York Times reported that “Army experts” regarded black officers as “an experiment which may or may not turn out well,” and it also noted that “there is some doubt whether colored troops will follow one of their own race as well as they would a white officer.” Virginia’s Richmond Dispatch offered a blunter assessment that “the presence of shoulder-strapped Negroes in our army would be a constant source of embarrassment and weakness.”
To organize the Immune regiments, the War Department divided the South into recruiting regions. General Orders, No. 60, issued on 1 June 1898, designated the commanders for eight of the ten units–all but the 1st and 2d USVI–and assigned them geographic areas in which to recruit, as well as specific cities in which to locate their regimental headquarters. The states of Arkansas, Missouri, and western Tennessee were assigned to the 7th Immunes, and CPT Edward A. Godwin of the 8th Cavalry was selected as the regimental commander. The 8th Immunes would recruit in Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and West Virginia, and be commanded by MAJ Eli L. Huggins of the 6th Cavalry. The 9th Immunes would come from Louisiana and be commanded by CPT Charles J. Crane of the 24th Infantry. The 10th Immunes would recruit in Virginia and North Carolina. The regiment’s first commander would be MAJ Jesse M. Lee, of the 9th Infantry, but he would be replaced by CPT Thaddeus W. Jones, from the 10th Cavalry. The order failed to indicate which units would accept black volunteers, but Adjutant General (BG) Henry C. Corbin had already sent the new colonels a confidential letter informing them that their lieutenants and enlisted men were to be “persons of color.”
CPTs Godwin, Jones, and Crane were West Point graduates–Godwin having graduated in 1870, Jones in 1872, and Crane five years later. Godwin and Huggins had seen enlisted service during the Civil War, and in 1894 Huggins had received the Medal of Honor for his “great boldness” fighting Sioux Indians in Montana in 1880. Lee had served with black regiments for four years in the 1860s. Crane and Jones had each been assigned to black regiments for more than twenty years, and Jones accompanied the 10th Cavalry to Cuba and earned a Silver Star citation before joining the Immunes. All of the officers were seasoned professionals and well qualified to command volunteer regiments, but many Southern congressmen resented their selection, as well as the six colonels designated to command the white regiments. The politicians complained that while most enlisted Immunes came from their region, only one of the colonels–the 6th USVI’s Laurence D. Tyson, of Tennessee–could be “credited properly to the South.”
Promoted to colonel in the Volunteer Army, Edward Godwin proceeded from Fort Meade, South Dakota, to Memphis, Tennessee, the city designated as his regimental headquarters. In mid-June, however, he moved his headquarters 250 miles north to St. Louis, instructing his company commanders to gather at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, a picturesque army post overlooking the Mississippi River, a few miles south of the city. COL Godwin eventually accepted seven companies from Missouri, three from Arkansas, one from Tennessee, and one from Iowa. Some of these units had been raised by black men, who were forced to step aside and allow white captains to command them.
Each Immune company was authorized three officers and eighty-two enlisted men and was slightly smaller than state volunteer companies. Regiments had an additional “field and staff” (headquarters) of ten officers and eight enlisted men, for a total authorized strength of 46 officers and 992 enlisted men. Recruits between the ages of eighteen and forty-five were enlisted for two years of service (unless sooner discharged), and those whose leadership abilities impressed their company commanders were appointed as noncommissioned officers (NCOs)–a first sergeant, a quartermaster sergeant, four sergeants, and eight corporals. Two musicians, an artificer (mechanic), a wagoner, and sixty-four privates rounded out each unit. As the regiment’s twelve companies were mustered into federal service, they were lettered from A to M (J was not used).
COL Godwin’s first companies came from St. Louis, which had a black population approaching 35,000. Because the War Department refused to commission black officers above the rank of lieutenant, the city’s recruits initially gave the new regiment “the cold shoulder.” According to the Post-Dispatch, the recruiting was “the flattest thing which has struck St. Louis recently.” Professor Obadiah M. Wood, a local black high school principal whose earlier offer to raise a regiment with himself as its colonel had been rejected, actually hindered the recruiting and expressed doubts that a single black company would be raised in Missouri. In spite of obstacles created by him and other disgruntled black leaders, three St. Louis companies (A-C) were mustered into service by mid-July. Four other Missouri companies came from Moberly (E), Columbia (F), Kansas City (K), and Springfield (L). Little Rock, Arkansas, also provided three units (G-I), while Company D came from Memphis. Company M, from Des Moines, Iowa, completed the regiment’s organization on 23 July.
Godwin selected a fairly impressive group of black officers. There were at least six college graduates (two with professional degrees) and seven had invaluable military experience–three in the Regular Army and four in the National Guard. When Godwin reported his unit’s status to BG Corbin, he indicated that the question of appointing lieutenants had given him “more trouble than everything else connected with the organization of the regiment.” He added that his black officers were “industrious and willing,” but they had “everything to learn, as well as the men.” Godwin also opined: “I believe that the regiment is composed of good material, and will in time do good service.”
Meanwhile, COL Eli Huggins was consolidating his 8th Immunes at Fort Thomas, Kentucky, which overlooked the Ohio River about three miles southeast of Cincinnati. COL Huggins accepted four companies from Tennessee, which were recruited in Greenville (C), Harriman (D), Murfreesboro (E), and Columbia (F). Three units came from the Kentucky cities of Louisville (H) and Winchester (I and K), and two from Charleston (L) and Parkersburg, West Virginia (M). Two companies also came from Washington, D.C. (B and G), while Newark, New Jersey, provided Company A. The Newark Evening News covered its volunteers’ well attended departure for Kentucky, reporting that as the train pulled out, “a rousing cheer went up …and every face that looked out of the car was seemingly a happy one.”
Huggins’s staff included a black assistant surgeon, 1LT William W. Purnell, a graduate of Howard University Medical School in the nation’s capital. Six other black Washingtonians also secured commissions in the regiment, including Company G’s first lieutenant, Benjamin O. Davis, who would later enlist in the 9th Cavalry, earn a commission in the Regular Army in 1901, and end his exemplary military career by becoming the Army’s first black general in 1940. 1LT William McBryar, of Company M, was one of more than a score of talented black NCOs from the Regular Army who were commissioned in the Immune regiments. McBryar, from the 25th Infantry, had been awarded the Medal of Honor in 1890 for his bravery pursuing Apache Indians in Arizona.
The men who enlisted in the 8th Immunes were primarily semi-skilled and unskilled workers–the case in all four of the black regiments–with only about two percent of them having white-collar jobs. More than three out of five men worked as laborers, which was the main occupation listed for each company. Farmer, cook, miner, and waiter were the next four most common occupations, although they were not found in every unit. Almost half the regiment’s farmers enlisted in Company K, from Winchester, while the miners only served in the companies raised in Harriman (D), and Charleston (L). More than one-third of the men were illiterate, as evidenced by the “Xs” they placed on company muster-in rolls. Only about one-sixth of them were married.
On 20 August, COL Huggins proudly notified BG Corbin that “the regiment is now ready to go on short notice.” Two weeks later, the 8th Immunes was joined by the African American portion of Indiana’s Volunteer Army quota–two companies, primarily recruited from Indianapolis and Evansville. Indiana had included two black companies in its militia since the mid-1880s and had even assigned them to otherwise white regiments until 1896 (a rare instance of militia integration). Governor James A. Mount had been willing to raise a black regiment in addition to his assigned troop quota, but Secretary Alger told him that such a unit could only be accepted as part of Indiana’s quota. Mount was not that indebted to black voters, so he only allowed about 200 black Hoosiers–Companies A and B, 1st Indiana Volunteers–to be mustered into federal service in mid-July. These men would remain attached to the 8th Immunes, as a provisional fourth battalion, for four-and-a-half months.
In October COL Huggins and his men were transferred to Camp George H. Thomas, at Chickamauga Park, Georgia. A few days after arriving there, the Immunes were inspected by a three-man team of officers, led by LTC Marion P. Maus, who found that “[t]he men appeared and marched fairly well, and seemed to be respectful, and generally well contented.” He also reported, however, that the regiment “would not be fit for duty” on account of its “very poor and insufficient clothing” and “badly worn and unfit shoes.” Maus judged the officers to be “fairly well fitted for the performance of their duties” but recommended that three black lieutenants be discharged, one dishonorably.
Maus also inspected the two Indiana companies and found them to be as well drilled as the Immunes. He reported, however, that their six officers, with the exception of one first lieutenant, were “very poorly and insufficiently educated to hold commissions” and that “there was an objection shown to having these companies with the 8th, as it might be considered that they were a part of their organization.” Maus recommended that the Hoosiers be mustered out and that “such of the men that desire to remain in the service” should be assigned to Immune regiments.
The 8th Immunes had strained relations with the local white community, and in November the New York Times reported that the mayor of Chattanooga had informed Secretary Alger that “their presence near the city is undesirable and prejudicial to good order.” COL Huggins explained to the adjutant general that one of the most serious incidents involved one of the Hoosier volunteers, who refused “to leave the ‘white’ car and take the one assigned to colored people.” Huggins added that “[t]he distorted and exaggerated press reports of this affair” falsely attributed the disturbance to his regiment. Chattanooga’s mayor asked that the 8th Immunes be transferred, but it remained at Camp Thomas.
The Indiana companies were mustered out of service in January 1899, and COL Huggins’s regiment followed suit in March. As a train left Chattanooga carrying about half of the discharged soldiers home, it was reported that “a number of the men, who had in some way secured revolvers, began to discharge them in the air and into sheds and vacant houses.” Three local men were wounded. Police roughed up the Immunes when their train passed through Nashville, and the New York Times reported that they “presented a battered appearance” when they reached Louisville, Kentucky.
The 9th Immunes’ designated headquarters was New Orleans, and COL Charles Crane arrived there on 3 June. Crane was not pleased with the War Department’s decision to integrate his regimental officers, a racist attitude shared by most of the “Crescent City’s” white population. A New Orleans Daily Picayune editorial underscored this attitude: “Any association of black with white officers must be official only, and not in any way social. This is the only way to prevent demoralization.” Crane sent a telegram to BG Corbin advising: “If the Lieutenants are to be colored it will be hard to get good men for Captains.” Corbin wisely responded: “Go slow in the matter and wait results without reaching hasty conclusions. It may be much easier and much better than you think.”
New Orleans was the largest city in the South, with more than 70,000 black citizens, but COL Crane initially encountered the same recruiting problem that had confronted the 7th Immunes in St. Louis–local African American leaders were angry that no black officers above first lieutenant would be accepted, and they threatened to boycott the 9th Immunes’ recruiting if that policy was not changed. This situation did not concern Crane, however, and he informed BG Corbin that he could raise the regiment “outside of Louisiana, if necessary, accepting only companies from Texas and Mississippi and Alabama.”
New Orleans eventually provided the vast majority of the 9th Immune’s recruits, but two companies from Texas did join COL Crane’s regiment. There was a five-company Battalion of Colored Infantry in the Texas Volunteer Guard, but Governor Charles A. Culberson refused to include any black units in the Lone Star State’s Volunteer Army quota, so black Texans eager to serve asked Representative Robert B. Hawley of Galveston to use his influence to get them added to the ranks of an Immune regiment. Hawley contacted the War Department, and on 6 June Secretary Alger notified COL Crane that he wanted him to accept at least two companies from Texas and to correspond with Hawley about the matter.
In late June, Crane and his mustering officer rode the train to Galveston and Houston to muster-in two newly raised volunteer companies–the Hawley Guard and the Ferguson Rifles. The man selected to command the latter unit was CPT Claron A. Windus, from Brackettville, Texas. Born in Wisconsin in 1850, Windus had served as a drummer boy during the Civil War and then lied about his age so that he could enlist in the 6th Cavalry in 1866. Four years later, his bravery as a company bugler during a fight with Kiowa Indians on the Little Wichita River in northern Texas earned him a Medal of Honor. After leaving the Army and becoming a deputy sheriff, Windus gunned down a suspected murderer while trying to arrest him in Brackettville. Ironically, the lawman’s victim was another Medal of Honor recipient–former Seminole-Negro Indian Scout Adam Payne.
The two Texas units joined the 9th Immunes as Companies G and I. The men in the other ten units all came from New Orleans, except for some Louisianans from Donaldsonville and New Iberia, who enlisted in the regiment’s last two companies. As the citizens of the Crescent City celebrated the Fourth of July, COL Crane called upon his personal connection with BG Corbin (they had served together in the 24th Infantry), asking him in a letter to “please see that my regiment is given a place among those sent to Cuba.” Four days later, Corbin replied: “The moment you are ready for assignment, telegraph me and [the] order will be made.”
On 19 July Crane notified Corbin that his regiment was complete, and four weeks later the Picayune made the surprising announcement that “Crane’s Black Band” would be leaving for Cuba immediately, in lieu of COL Charles S. Riche’s 1st USVI. Colonel Riche’s Immunes, which had been recruited in Galveston, had already begun to load equipment on the steamship Berlin when the unit was directed to disembark and make way for the 9th Immunes. The newspaper said “the conclusion seem[ed] inevitable that [the substitution] was intended as a slight to the white Texans.” It noted that Secretary Alger had done everything possible “to snub and slight the Southern troops and the Southern States.” The Picayune concluded that “immunes from the overwhelmingly Democratic State of Texas [were] not good enough for the Secretary’s political partisan purposes, and so they [were] set aside for negroes.”
COL Riche’s Immunes had many disciplinary problems while they were in New Orleans, but COL Crane’s friendship with the adjutant general may have been the key factor in causing the substitution. Whatever the true reasons for the regimental switch were, Crane’s men were happy to be sailing to Cuba. On 17 August, the proud members of the 9th Immunes marched from Camp Corbin, their encampment at the city fairgrounds, down Esplanade Avenue, arriving at the levee in mid-afternoon to board the Berlin “amid the cheers and farewells of a multitude of negroes.” The Times-Democrat said “it was a day long to live in the annals of New Orleans negrodom.” The 1st USVI was the only white Immune regiment that did not deploy overseas, and as it prepared for its humiliating return to Galveston, the 9th Immunes sailed down the Mississippi River, crossed the Gulf of Mexico, and arrived in Santiago, Cuba, on 22 August 1898.
Crane’s unit was the fourth (and only black) Immune regiment to deploy to the island, where fighting had ceased, but scores of American troops were dying from tropical diseases. Shortly after guarding Spanish prisoners on San Juan Hill for a few days, “a wave of tropical fevers” passed through the regiment, killing almost thirty enlisted men and one lieutenant. By mid-September, the men appeared to be stronger, and the unit relocated to a new camp located just outside San Luis, a city about eighteen miles north of Santiago. In San Luis, the 9th Immunes formed a brigade with two other black units–the 8th Illinois and the 23d Kansas.
Neither of the state regiments had white officers, and this caused friction with the Immunes. One member of the 8th Illinois was not impressed with Crane’s “superior and selfish southern white officers” and wrote that as far as they were concerned, “the man who did the most grinning…and could dance the best or make the best monkeyshines, was the best Negro soldier.” In his memoirs, COL Crane reached quite a different conclusion, noting that his regiment was better disciplined than either of the state units.
In mid-November, several drunken Immunes tried to steal a pig, and a member of the newly organized rural police attempted to arrest them. Later, unidentified Immunes shot at the policeman’s house, and he and several other Cubans were killed, as well as one soldier. COL Crane was away from San Luis at the time and hurried back to investigate the incident, but without success. All three of the black units were ordered to new camps outside San Luis, and the American press gave the affair much bad publicity. The Boston Globe reported that the Immunes belonged to “a command that, from the first, has been disorderly and inefficient.”
In early 1899, Cuban bandits began burning sugar cane fields and robbing plantations, so Crane’s regiment was broken up, and eight of its companies were stationed in towns outside San Luis. Houston’s Company I exchanged its Springfield rifles for carbines and horses and became one of three units that was mounted to pursue the lawbreakers. The men earned the nickname “Bandit Chasers,” and Crane later noted that they killed several of the “Cuban banditti” and thanks to their frequent operations “were fast becoming good soldiers.” When the regiment finally left Cuba in late April, MG Leonard Wood presented Crane with a letter stating that his unit’s work in suppressing bandits had been “especially worthy of commendation.”
The 9th Immunes sailed from Santiago on 26 April, having lost three officers and seventy-three enlisted men to disease. Six days later, after passing through the Staten Island quarantine station, the regiment arrived at Camp George G. Meade, near Middletown, Pennsylvania, for its final muster out of federal service. The War Department allowed volunteers to purchase their weapons, but aware of the problems that the 8th Immunes had encountered in Tennessee, Crane convinced his men to ship them separately. Thanks in part to this preventive measure, his Immunes had no problems as they rode trains to Louisiana and Texas, although one sergeant was killed in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, railway station when another veteran accidentally fired a revolver.
The 10th Immunes had been assigned the states of Virginia and North Carolina for its recruiting. COL Jesse Lee had originally designated Raleigh, North Carolina, as his headquarters, but he claimed that Governor Daniel L. Russell discouraged him from doing this. Lee then considered Charlotte, North Carolina, before finally settling on Augusta, Georgia. In addition to one company from that city (G), Lee accepted two other Georgia units from Atlanta (A) and Rome (I); four Virginia companies from Richmond (B), Alexandria (C), Pocahontas (E), and Hampton (F); three South Carolina units from Spartanburg (H), Darlington (K), and Aiken (M); Company D from Washington, D.C., and Company L from Jacksonville, Florida.
The integration of the 10th Immunes’ officers’ mess attracted national attention in July. In “Jim Crow” America, it was deemed socially unacceptable for the unit’s black and white officers to dine together. According to the New York Times, when COL Lee learned that his officers’ mess would be integrated, he decided to resign his temporary commission in the Volunteer Army and return to the 9th Infantry as a major. The Times approved of Lee’s action, saying that: “His course is simply the course taken by practically the entire white population of the country…as often as the occasion for it arises…The delusion that the two races are socially assimilable is a little too antiquated.”
Two of the 10th Immunes’ first lieutenants, Floyd H. Crumbly and Thomas Grant, had been lieutenant colonels in the Georgia militia–some of the few black militia officers who had been willing to accept demotions to secure commissions in the Immune regiments. Another subaltern, 1LT Edward L. Baker, Jr., reported to the regiment after spending six years as the 10th Cavalry’s sergeant major. In 1902 Baker would receive a belated Medal of Honor for leaving cover and, under fire, rescuing a wounded comrade from drowning at Santiago, Cuba, on 1 July 1898.
By 13 July, half of the 10th Immunes’ companies had arrived at Camp Dyer, the regimental headquarters established near Augusta. Under the watchful eye of LTC Charles L. Withrow, a New York lawyer in civilian life and the senior officer present, the new recruits pitched tents and learned what “soldiering” was all about. According to the Augusta Chronicle, they were eager to learn, but the large number of “green men” made the training very trying for the officers who were patiently attempting to instruct them.
A correspondent from the New York Times visited the regiment and pronounced that its men were “the finest specimens of physical manhood that can be found in the volunteer service.” Noting that visitors of both races came to the camp on Sunday afternoons, he wrote: “Handsomely gowned women mingled on the parade ground with the wives and sisters of the soldiers–their cooks and chambermaids–and thus a black and white tout ensemble is presented, which is rare, indeed, in an old-time Southern city.”
The War Department quickly designated Thaddeus W. Jones as the new commander of the 10th Immunes, and on 2 August–still weak from a bout with malaria that he had contracted in Cuba–COL Jones arrived at Camp Dyer. A North Carolinian with about twenty-five years of service with the “buffalo soldiers,” Jones was fully sensitized to racial issues and an excellent choice to replace Lee. The Augusta Chronicle reported that being a Southerner, “he would naturally understand the negro.”
September brought news that the 10th Immunes was being transferred to Lexington, Kentucky, where it would form a brigade with the 7th Immunes and perhaps eventually be shipped to the Philippines, since Spanish forces in Cuba had already surrendered. The first elements of COL Jones’s regiment arrived in Lexington on 18 September, and the men established a camp at Weil’s Farm, a few miles west of the city.
In October LTC Maus’s team inspected the 7th and 10th Immunes at Weil’s Farm. Maus was impressed with the number of COL Godwin’s men who were present for inspection, reporting: “I doubt whether another regiment in the volunteer service could show as many men present for duty.” He found that the unit’s marching was excellent, but the men “were very poorly dressed.” Maus also recommended that all three of the officers from Memphis’s Company D be discharged. After the team inspected the 10th Immunes, Maus reported that the men’s clothing was “in a shameful condition.” He found that many of the men “were in rags, while a number had civilian trousers. In some cases the feet of the men were showing through their shoes.” Maus reported that the officers seemed “to perform their duties acceptably” but recommended that four of them–LTC Withrow, a major, a captain, and a lieutenant–be discharged.
The 10th Immunes only stayed in Lexington until mid-November, when it returned to Georgia, this time reporting to Camp Haskell, a few miles from Macon. There were eventually four black regiments assigned to the camp–the 3d North Carolina, the 6th Virginia, and the 7th and 10th Immunes. The men in these units dreaded the oppressive discrimination that characterized race relations in the deep South. It only took some of them a few days to get into trouble with the local authorities, who refused to modify the Jim Crow restrictions that they routinely imposed on Macon’s black community. One member of the 7th Immunes wrote that “the hatred of the Georgia cracker for the Negro cannot be explained by pen.”
None of the black troops responded well to Macon’s racism, but unlike the state units, the 10th Immunes avoided making headlines. In December, a 6th Virginia private was shot and killed by a street car conductor, because he refused to ride in the “trolley” for black passengers that was attached to the rear of the regular car. Later, two men from the 3d North Carolina were shot and killed in a Macon street fight. Such incidents caused one Virginian to describe Macon as “this pest hole of the South,” where a week never passed without some black soldiers being “justifiably homicided.”
The Virginia and North Carolina regiments were finally mustered-out of federal service in late January and early February, and the 7th Immunes followed suit at the end of February. COL Godwin’s men were able to travel to their respective cities without major incidents, and most of the units were joyously welcomed home by friends and family. St. Louis’s three companies were officially welcomed by their mayor, who tendered them the freedom of the city. Recalling his unpleasant stay in the South, one lieutenant told the crowd: “If I owned both Macon, Georgia, and hell, I would rent Macon and live in hell.”
The 10th Immunes suffered through an additional week at Camp Haskell and finally mustered-out on 8 March, as news arrived that two days before, the 8th Immunes had encountered problems after it mustered out of federal service 200 miles to the northwest. This story marked the beginning of national press coverage painting a picture of violence and destruction left in the wake of two black Immune regiments as they traveled home from Georgia.
When the train carrying the first increment of the 10th Immunes reached Griffin, about halfway between Macon and Atlanta, the men began firing small arms and yelling like Indians. The New York Times reported that the city was “at the mercy of the negroes, who kept up a fusillade of shots until the train carried them beyond the city limits.” Before the regiment’s second increment reached the town, Griffin’s mayor activated the local militia company, and its men were issued five rounds of ammunition and marched to the railroad station, where they were joined by nearly 100 deputized civilians.
About two hundred heavily armed and angry Georgians met the next trainload of Immunes and ordered them to be quiet, but as the train pulled out of the station, the soldiers began shooting again, and the militia company reportedly fired a volley into the last car. This resulted in a white brakeman being fatally wounded, while one of the Immunes suffered a slight wound. The Immunes’ lack of discipline resumed as they traveled farther north through the Carolinas. According to the New York Times, “the riotous troops forced their way into stores and saloons, taking whatever they wanted. A switchman who failed to run at their command was fired upon and people on the streets [were] insulted.” When the four companies of Virginians finally arrived in their hometowns–Alexandria, Hampton, Pocahontas, and Richmond–there were no reported incidents, nor were there problems with the Washington unit’s homecoming.
Because the 10th Immunes had already mustered out of federal service and was no longer subject to military discipline, the War Department did not investigate or make amends for the Griffin affray or any of the other alleged incidents. There were few doubts that some of the homeward bound black veterans had been drinking and firing privately owned weapons, but the extent of their misconduct and whether white citizens had overreacted remained subject to interpretations that were predictably divided along racial lines. A few of the 10th Immunes’ white officers publicly supported their men, including LTC Withrow, who wrote a widely publicized letter to Georgia’s Governor Allen D. Candler criticizing the Griffin militiamen, “who disgrace[d] the uniform of your state and demonstrate[d] their total unfitness to bear your commissions and your arms.” Governor Candler strongly supported the actions of his white constituents and later attempted to justify a lynching at Palmetto, Georgia, by complaining that the Immune regiments had “placed in the mind of the negro a spirit of boldness.”
Thus, the overall record of the black Immune regiments was forever tainted by the San Luis, Chattanooga, and Griffin affrays. White Americans, especially in the South, would always remember the units as undisciplined mobs, and racists would cite their indiscipline as clear proof that African Americans were unsuitable for military service. The Atlanta Constitution declared: “The modern negroes are now in a transition state and it will be years to come before they come around to that conception of citizenship which enables the whites to submit to the discipline necessary to make good troops.” A New York Times editorial maintained that enlisting “the so-called immune regiments was a mistake,” because “[t]hey were not ‘immune’ from anything but the obligations of law and discipline and decency.”
The War Department was much fairer in its assessment of the black Immunes. Although neither black nor white Immune regiments had shown any immunity to diseases–a total of seven officers and 241 enlisted men had succumbed to them–it was still commonly believed that black soldiers performed better than white troops in tropical climates, so in September 1899 the last two of twenty-five new volunteer regiments organized for service in the Philippine War–the 48th and 49th USVI–were reserved for African American enlisted men and company officers.
Thad Jones became the lieutenant colonel of the 48th USVI, while Charles Crane held the same rank in the 38th USVI, and COL Edward Godwin commanded the 40th USVI. More than thirty former Immune lieutenants served as officers in the new black regiments, and several former Immune NCOs also were able to secure shoulder straps. Scores of other black Immunes also headed for the Philippines by enlisting in the 48th and 49th USVI or in one of the Regular Army’s four black regiments. Reporting on the leadership of the two black volunteer units, the adjutant general noted: “It is believed that the best equipped men of our colored citizens have been commissioned in these regiments.” An even greater demonstration of official confidence, however, was the fact that all of the companies in the 48th and 49th USVI were commanded by black captains. This was a small but important step in the advancement of the race, not only in the Army, but within society as well.