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Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

BLACK MILITARY UNITS

BLACK MILITARY UNITS

BLACK MILITARY UNITS, prohibited by state officials and Ohio's militia law of 1803, served in the CIVIL WAR nonetheless. However, legal restriction of militia service to whites was not removed in Ohio until 1878. Beginning in 1861, Cleveland blacks (see AFRICAN AMERICANS) eagerly sought to take up arms against the slaveholding Confederacy, repeatedly urging Ohio governors to form black military units, to no avail. (One exception, a local light-skinned African American, John H. Cisco, enrolled as a white soldier in the 124TH OHIO VOLUNTEER INFANTRY and was promoted to colonel in Aug. 1861.) Some blacks turned to the federal government: on 14 Aug. 1862, Newell Goodale issued a public call to form a regiment composed of local blacks and soon claimed to have 1,000 men. However, the U.S. secretary of war refused direct admission for the troops into the federal armed service.

In early 1863, local blacks found a way to serve in the war. Massachusetts had received permission to form black military units and recruited heavily in Ohio. In Feb. 1863, Joseph D. Green organized a military company and in April took about 30 men to Massachusetts to join its 54th and 55th regiments. Another group from Cleveland apparently left for Massachusetts later. In June 1863, Ohio received permission from the secretary of war to organize separate black military units. The first of these was the 127th OVI, which later became the 5th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troop. Clevelanders Gustavus W. Fahrion, Eilery C. Ford, and Frank J. Ford served as captains in the unit, which saw action in North Carolina and Virginia. In January, Ohio organized a second black unit, the 27th USCT; it had 15 officers and 1,423 men when mustered into service.

After the war the state returned to its discriminatory policy of an all-white militia. Local black veterans were denied permission to form volunteer militia companies in 1866. But in 1870, blacks used their votes to win Republican acceptance of black militia service. By 1875 Cleveland blacks had formed 2 militia units: the City Guards and the Barnett Guards. The City Guards were in existence by late 1874, when they held a Christmas festival to raise funds; in Aug. 1875 they celebrated the anniversary of the emancipation of the British West Indies; and in 1876 they joined other local militia in the Washington's Birthday parade and at summer encampments. The Barnett Guards also participated in the summer encampments that year. Such units were expensive to maintain, however, since the burden of buying arms, maintaining armories, and hosting socials rested with the militiamen themselves. By 1877 Cleveland's 2 black militia units had become inactive. After changes in the law made the state and localities partners in sharing militia costs, in 1895 black Clevelanders organized another militia unit, L'Ouverture Rifles, named in honor of the Haitian patriot Toussaint L'Ouverture. With the outbreak of the SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR, this unit of 67 men entered the Ohio National Guard, on 27 May 1898, as Company D of the 9th Battalion. It did not see action during the war and was mustered out of federal service in Jan. 1899. It did see action on 21 July 1899, however, when, according to one historian, it "brutally restored order during a railway strike" in Cleveland. Pres. McKinley once praised officers of the company as being "the most conservative elements in American society." In 1900 popular Cleveland businessman John C. Fulton was elected commander of the 9th Battalion.

Discrimination in the military became apparent again during WORLD WAR I. Company D was called into federal service in the summer of 1917 but was poorly supplied. It later became Company H of the 372d Regiment and was scheduled for overseas duty in 1918. But only days before its scheduled departure, a number of its ranking officers, including Clevelanders Major John C. Fulton and Captain William Green, were relieved of duty and discharged as physically unfit. Despite this blatant move to eliminate high-ranking blacks, the black troops performed well in Europe. The 372d was loaned to the French and saw considerable combat; the entire officer corps of Company H was either killed or wounded in the Argonne in Sept. 1918. The 372d received the Croix de Guerre, France's highest military medal, and Company H returned to a warm and ceremonious reception in Cleveland on 22 Feb. 1919. After the war, the Cleveland company returned to the Ohio National Guard as Company E of the 372d Infantry. It was called into federal service again in Mar. 1941. After training at Camp Dix, NJ, the unit served on the U.S. mainland until it was sent to the Pacific early in 1944. Transfers and its use as a training unit deprived the company of its Cleveland identity prior to its deactivation in Jan. 1946. In 1947 a branch of the Columbus-based 183d AAA (Automatic Weapons) Battalion was established in Cleveland. The 183d was redesignated the 137th AAA Battalion (Self-Propelled) in 1949 and was called into federal service on 15 Jan. 1952 for the KOREAN WAR, but saw no combat before reverting to a state unit in 1954. The Ohio National Guard was integrated in 1954 by order of Ohio Governor Frank Lausche.


Black, Lowell Dwight. The Negro Volunteer Militia Units in the Ohio National Guard, 1870-1954 (1976).