military social experiment

Even before the end of the Civil War, the Union Army quickly embraced the fruits of its social experimentation. One year after standing up black regiments, the Union had established the Bureau of Colored Troops to oversee the fast-growing ranks of African-American infantrymen; by 1864, Congress established equal pay for African-American troops, including those who had fought for the Union since 1862. The pay decision wasn’t born out of some thought experiment about equality and liberty, but concerns over troop morale and readiness: African-American soldiers of the 55th Massachusetts had waged war with Congress over compensation, a sign to lawmakers of possible instability in the ranks. (Those soldiers earned their keep: Just weeks later, members of the 55th valiantly laid down their lives during a disastrous Union rout at Honey Hill, South Carolina.)

Southern states, of course, spent the post-war years building a new regime of oppressive Jim Crow laws, but the Department of War didn’t abandon its social experiment once hostilities ceased. African-American troops comprised a significant portion of the Union’s southern occupying force during Reconstruction, and Congress stood up six regiments of so-called “Buffalo Soldiers” in 1866 to maintain order in the American West and maintain order during the Spanish-American and Philippine wars.

Though they were frequently kept from combat and overseen by white officers, their service paved the way for future civil rights victories for African-Americans. Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it best: “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”