Virginia’s African American Militiamen: Remembering the 6th Virginia Volunteers

Company and staff officers assigned to 2nd Battalion, 6th Virginia Volunteers pose together at Camp Poland, Tennessee, in October 1898. The Soldiers were federally activated in support of the Spanish-American War and were at Camp Poland for training. (Photo courtesy Virginia National Guard History Collection)

RICHMOND, Va. – In 1898, two Virginia battalions of African American Soldiers were mustered into federal service in support of the Spanish-American War. Once on federal active duty, the battalions, formed from companies initially organized as early as 1870, formed the 6th Virginia Volunteers. While the men of these units never saw combat, they trained in Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia before returning home.

“Among the many little-known pieces of Virginia’s military history is the state’s contribution during the Spanish-American War,” said Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia. “Virginia’s African-American and white state militia units served honorably and showed their patriotism by stepping up to serve their country.”

According to an article by historian Bruce A. Glasrud, in 1870 Virginia’s “first official black militia unit organized in Richmond.” Seventeen additional African American companies followed over the next decade, with units forming in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, Lynchburg, Danville, Fredericksburg and Staunton. At the time, Virginia had one of the largest African American militias of any state.

“There is no State where as many colored troops are organized under the same law as the white; and these troops show by their obedience the discipline that they are as proud of their uniform as any who serve in Virginia,” said Brig. Gen. Charles J. Anderson, acting Adjutant General of Virginia in 1893.

On Feb. 15, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain after the sinking of the USS Maine off the coast of Cuba.

“The Spanish-American War was one of the shortest military conflicts in U.S. history but it had a major effect on the country and the military,” explained retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Alexander F. Barnes, command historian for the Virginia National Guard. “As a result of the war, the U.S. became responsible for governing the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico.”

In order to augment the regular Army, Congress created a Volunteer Army, with each state required to provide volunteer forces based on the size of its population. President William McKinley made the first call for these volunteer forces in April 1898.

“A majority of black Americans came to view the conflict with Spain as an extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism and to prove themselves worthy of first-class citizenship,” Willard B. Gatewood Jr. wrote in his 1972 article. Gatewood explained the Soldiers of Virginia’s African American battalions were quick to express their desire to serve their country, but Virginia leadership was hesitant to include a black unit as part of the state’s volunteer force. Ultimately, Gov. James Hoge Tyler sent three of the state’s white regiments in response to the first call for volunteers.

Capt. William Henry Johnson stands with an unknown first sergeant in 1890. Johnson would go on to command 2nd Battalion, 6th Virginia Volunteers. (Photo courtesy Virginia National Guard History Collection)

The following month, in May, President McKinley issued his second volunteer call. This time, McKinley said he wanted to give the African Americans a chance to serve. In Richmond, the debate over whether to send black troops to support the war effort raged. The Richmond Enquirer wrote, “White men for the honor of their country want to see this war […] fought by white Soldiers.” Other white community members said the black Soldiers should go, fearing that, “There will be an uprising of the black man, as soon as they know our white militia is engaged elsewhere.”

The argument over the black militia eventually came to focus on leadership. In the regular Army, black units were typically commanded by white officers and Virginia’s white citizens wanted the state’s volunteer force to follow that standard. According to Gatewood, African American Soldiers said they would only muster under black leadership and John Mitchell, Jr., civil rights activist and editor of the black paper, the Richmond Planet pushed the slogan, “No Officers, No Fight.”

Finally, Gov. Tyler appointed African Americans to battalion and company leadership roles, but selected Richard Claiborne Croxton, a white lieutenant in the regular Army and graduate of West Point, as the regiment commander. Richmond’s 1st Battalion, led by Maj. Joseph B. Johnson, and Petersburg’s 2nd Battalion, led by Maj. William H. Johnson, were mustered together to form the 6th Virginia Volunteers on Aug. 9, 1898, and were sent to Camp Corbin, in Virginia, to start their training. Virginia became one of just a few states to include black Soldiers in their state quota in response to the Spanish-American War.

“Like other volunteers impatient to share in the glory of battle, they wearied of camp routine and tended to complain about being mistreated by their regimental commander,” Gatewood wrote, explaining that the Soldiers spent less than a month at Camp Corbin before heading to Camp Poland, near Knoxville, Tennessee.

Tension between Croxton and the men of the Sixth Virginia Volunteers arose almost immediately. According to Glasrud, Croxton wanted one battalion with black leaders and one with white leaders and viewed the officers of 2nd Battalion as incompetent. He decided to hold a review board for the officers in order to address their competency.

“It was obvious to the Blacks that the hearing was a sham and that Croxton planned to replace them with whites,” Marvin Fletcher wrote in “The Black Volunteers in the Spanish-American War.” Nine officers, including the battalion commander, resigned before the board convened. According to Fletcher, the men had overheard board members discussing the issue and declaring the men incompetent even before they appeared before the board.

“I respectfully state that owing to the fact that my qualifications as a major of the infantry have been favorably passed upon by a military examining board, hence my rank; and knowing that I have no redress from the decision of the board as named; and being persuaded that this order for me means nothing more or less than an outing from the regiment as a Major, I hereby tender my resignation,” wrote Maj. William H. Johnson, commander of 2nd Battalion.

In a letter to the Adjutant General of Virginia, the Soldiers of 2nd Battalion reminded the general that they had mustered under the condition that their leaders would be African American and asked that replacement officers also be black, according to Gatewood.

Croxton maintained that there were no enlisted men within 2nd Battalion who could fill the vacated leadership positions and filled all but one of the vacant slots with white officers pulled from a Virginia regiment.

On Nov. 2, 1898 when the “white officers first appeared at drill and issued orders, not a man responded,” wrote Gatewood. The men lined up for drill, but refused to move when commands were given. The Soldiers were soon surrounded by white regiments, their weapons confiscated and the Sixth Virginia Volunteers were dubbed “the mutinous Sixth” by Knoxville newspapers.

Later that same month, on Nov. 18, the Sixth Virginia Volunteers moved to Camp Haskell, near Macon, Georgia, where racial tension reached new heights. The camp was near a segregated park where, according to Fletcher, “there was a tree used to lynch Blacks.” The Soldiers of the Sixth Virginia Volunteers entered the park, chopped down the tree and split it into firewood. This and other responses by the regiment to local Jim Crow laws eventually led to the disarming and arrest of the entire regiment for almost three weeks.

In Georgia, the black Soldiers were shocked by both the racism they personally encountered and by the treatment of local African American citizens that they witnessed. According to Gatewood, men of the Sixth Virginia Volunteers witnessed black men and women forced to work in chain gangs, as well as intense segregation. In December, Pvt. Elijah Turner of the Sixth Virginia Volunteers was shot and killed by a streetcar conductor for refusing to move out of a seat reserved for white passengers. At the trial, the homicide was ruled justifiable.

In 1899, the Sixth Virginia Volunteers were mustered out of service. They never saw combat and never made it out of the United States, despite their eagerness to serve. The Soldiers returned to Richmond in late January and were met by friends and relatives, according to Glasrud. The black battalions were disbanded and Virginia’s militia was reorganized, eliminating the black units from the state. For the first time in 25 years, Virginia had no African American militiamen and no black Soldiers served in the Virginia National Guard until the 1960s and it wasn’t until Desert Storm that another black officer would take his unit to war.