Honoring the Men of the 56th United States Colored Infantry and Other African American Military Heroes

An annual gravesite ceremony is held at Jefferson Barracks to remember the 175 African American infantrymen who died on the way home from the Civil War. Also discussed is the history of Africans in American military service.

ST. LOUIS, Missouri – An annual tradition to remember those who fought and served was held at Jefferson Barracks on Friday.

The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War held a gravesite ceremony to honor the 175 African American infantrymen who died on the way home from the Civil War. In the 1930s members of the African American community spearheaded the funeral and created the monument.

The men in the infantry were originally buried just south of St. Louis. Today, they are buried in a mass grave at Jefferson Barracks.

The stone obelisk, which stands on a square stone base, honors the memory of the 175 African American soldiers of the 56th United States Colored Infantry who died of cholera in August 1866.

The soldiers were originally buried at the city’s old quarantine hospital near the Mississippi River. In 1939, responding to the organizing efforts of local citizens, the War Department reburied the soldiers at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. 

In the summer of 2014, the Veterans Administration, at the urging of local community members, placed a marker next to the obelisk that includes the names of all 118 soldiers who served under the banner of the 56th United States Colored Infantry who are buried at the site; this includes 55 African American soldiers whose remains were never recovered.

Overall, nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war, but only about 10,000 fell from injuries sustained in battle; some 30,000 of them died of infection or disease.


Crispus Attucks (c.1723 – March 5, 1770) was an American whaler, sailor, and stevedore of African and Wampanoag Native American descent. Attucks is regarded as the first man of color killed in the Boston Massacre, and as a result the first American fatality of the American Revolutionary War(NOTE: while Attucks is widely thought to be the first American casualty of the conflict, 11-year-old Christopher Seider had been shot and killed a few weeks earlier by customs officer Ebenezer Richardson on February 22, 1770.Historians disagree on whether Attucks was a free man or an escaped slave at the time of his death.

The 10th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army was formed on Sept. 21, 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. This hard-fighting regiment earned the nickname ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ during the Indian Wars from their Native American opponents, due to their battle savvy and their helixed hair and beards.

Although it is widely accepted that Native Americans bestowed the name upon the troopers, there are three major theories surrounding the origin of the name. One suggests the name was acquired during the 1871 campaign against the Comanches, when Indians referred to the cavalrymen as “Buffalo Soldiers” because of their rugged and tireless marching. Other accounts state that Native Americans bestowed the nickname on the Black troopers because they believed the hair of the Black cavalrymen resembled the hair of the buffalo. Another suggests that the name was given because of the buffalo-hide coats worn by the soldiers in cold weather.

On Sept. 6, 2005, Mark Matthews, the last living Buffalo Soldier, died at the age of 111. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The all-African American 369th Infantry Regiment, commonly referred to as the Harlem Hellfighters, were among the first U.S. regiments to arrive in France during World War I. Their brave and bold exploits marked them as one of the most highly decorated units of the war.

Although the 369th was an all-black regiment, it was under the command of mostly White officers, including its commander Colonel William Hayward.

General John J. Pershing assigned the 369th to the 16th Division of the French Army, where they helped repel the German offensive and launched a counteroffensive. The Harlem Hellfighters fought at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood, with a total of 191 days in combat — longer than any other American unit in the war.

“My men never retire, they go forward or they die,” said Col. Hayward. Indeed, the 369th was the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine.

The extraordinary valor of the 369th earned them fame in Europe and America. Newspapers celebrated the feats of Cpl. Henry Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts, among others. In May 1918, they were defending an isolated lookout post on the Western Front, when they were attacked by a German unit. Though wounded, they refused to surrender, fighting on with whatever weapons were at hand. They were the first Americans awarded the Croix de Guerre, and they were not the only Harlem Hellfighters to win awards; 171 of its officers and men received individual medals, and the unit received a Croix de Guerre for the taking of Sechault.

Doris Miller, who went by “Dorie,” was one of the first heroes of World War II , and was awarded the Navy Cross for actions during the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. His face was even used on a recruitment poster.

Miller was presented with the Navy Cross by Admiral Chester Nimitz, then commander of the Pacific Fleet, in a ceremony on the aircraft carrier hero ship USS Enterprise. Miller’s bravery was cited as follows: ‘While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller, despite enemy strafing and bombing and in the face of a serious fire, assisted in moving his Captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety, and later manned and operated a machine gun directed at enemy Japanese attacking aircraft until ordered to leave the bridge.’

Davis’ service as an officer with the famed Buffalo Soldiers regiment in the Philippines and on the Mexican border was exemplary; yet his subsequent assignments as a college ROTC instructor and as a National Guard adviser were far from the front lines.

Miller was killed in action two years later when his ship, the USS Liscome Bay, a Casablanca-class escort carrier, took a Japanese torpedo and sank.

On Oct. 25, 1940, Benjamin O. Davis Sr. became the first African American to hold star rank in the U.S. Army and in the American armed forces. He was promoted to brigadier general, temporary — a situation with which he was all too familiar, as his promotions to major, lieutenant colonel and colonel had all originally been “temporary.” Such was the situation for Black officers in Davis’ day.

All two or three of them.

All of his postings, including duty as the military attache to Liberia, were designed to avoid putting Davis in command of White troops or officers.

As an adviser on race relations in the European theater during World War II, Davis, according to his Distinguished Service Medal citation relates, showed “initiative, intelligence and sympathetic understanding” while conducting investigations, bringing about “a fair and equitable solution to problems which have since become the basis of far-reaching War Department policy.”

On Dec. 9, 1998, Air Force General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was awarded his fourth star, making him a member of that service’s small circle of highest-ranking officers.

However, as the first African American officer to receive this honor in retirement, Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. is a member of an even smaller group. Founder and commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, 33-year veteran of three wars and son of the Army’s first Black general, Davis is “a great warrior, a great officer and a great American,” as Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said when Davis received his fourth star.

Davis Jr. was determined to fly, but after four years of being “shunned” (spoken to only for official reasons) as West Point’s only Black cadet, he found that even his standing as 35th in the 276-member Class of 1936 could not convince the Army Air Corps to allow him to enter flight training.

However, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted the elder Davis to brigadier general, he ordered the Army Air Corps to create a flying organization for colored troops. Davis Jr., the only living Black West Point graduate, was ordered from Fort Benning, Georgia, to Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama.

Although critics and early reviews reported that “the Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot,” Davis used a combination of political diplomacy and professional action to convince detractors that his men were more qualified than some and braver than most. Their March 24, 1945, escort mission to Berlin, resulting in three direct kills and no loss of friendly bombers, is legendary.

Executive Order 9981 was a presidential directive issued on July 26, 1948, by President Harry S. Truman. It abolished racial discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces and eventually led to the end of segregation in the services.

African American military heroes in the post-EO 9981 era include Samuel Gravely, Jr., the first African American vice admiral in the U.S. Navy; Frank E. Peterson, Jr., first African American Marine Corps aviator and general officer; Hazel Johnson-Brown, first female African American general in the U.S. Army; Colin Powell, first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Vernice Armour, first African American female combat pilot.


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