“Get a good life insurance policy, with your family as beneficiary. Bring your Bible and yourself.”
Advice of Charles Davis Young to a friend joining the Tenth Cavalry
The first black colonel in the United States Army, Charles Davis Young, was born in 1864 in Tennessee, the son of slaves. His father escaped from slavery in January 1865 and served in the Fifth Regiment Heavy Artillery, United States Colored Troops. Settling in Ripley, Ohio after the War, Young’s father had saved enough from his military pay to buy land and build a house. Charles Young attend an otherwise all white school in Ripley and graduated at the top of his class. Young greatly admired his father, and decided to follow in his footsteps and embark on a military career. In 1883 he earned appointment to West Point by coming in second on the competitive examination in his Congressional District. When the first place candidate decided not to go, Young was admitted.
Young’s years at West Point were trying. He roomed for three years with John Hanks Alexander, the only black cadet at West Point. The attitude of the rest of his class to him can be gauged by the nickname he was tagged with: ” the load of of coal”. As many cadets before and since, he struggled with mathematics and had to repeat his first year as a result. However, he discovered a hitherto unknown facility for foreign languages and learned several. The disdainful attitude of most of his fellow cadets was constant, but his endurance and good humor throughout ultimately led to friendships with some white cadets that lasted the remainder of his life. Young graduated last in his class in 1889. He was the third black to graduate from West Point and would be the last until 1936.
His service with the Army was largely with the segregated “Buffalo” black cavalry regiments of the Ninth and the Tenth which had earned reputations for valor and professionalism. On duty Young developed a reputation as all Army, a stern disciplinarian and stickler for regulations. Off duty he was a kind and cultured man who took an interest in the professional development of his subordinates. One of those subordinates in 1900 was Sergeant Major Benjamin O. Davis. Young encouraged him to take the Officer Candidates’ test and tutored him for the test. Davis passed and was ultimately commissioned. In 1940 he was promoted to Brigadier General, the first black to attain that rank in US military history.
During the Spanish-American war Young was promoted to the temporary rank of Major of Volunteers and commanded the 9th Ohio, a black volunteer regiment, Young thus becoming the first black to command a regiment in American military history. Due to the brevity of the War, the 9th Ohio did not see service overseas, a fate common to most of the volunteer regiments raised in that War. Young did serve in combat in the Philippines, commanding a troop of the Ninth Cavalry in the fight against Insurrectos on Samar. His courage and leadership caused his men to give him the nickname “Follow me”.
Interspersed with command duties with troops, Young had the usual variety of assignments that were common for Army officers during this time period. He served as superintendent of two national parks and was assigned as military attache in Haiti and Liberia. In 1912 he wrote The Military Morale of Nations and Races, which postulated that with good training, and good leadership and fair treatment, the members of any race could make good soldiers. He dedicated the book to Theodore Roosevelt, a personal friend who had taken an interest in Young’s career. During the Punitive Expedition in 1916 into Mexico, Major Young attained notoriety due to successful cavalry charges against Mexican bandits while commanding a squadron of the Tenth Cavalry. Young was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and assigned to command Fort Huachuca in Arizona.
With the US heading to War in Europe it was assumed that Young might become the first black general in the US Army. That prospect came to an end when Young failed a medical exam in early 1917 due to high blood pressure and damage to his kidneys, a legacy from his service in Liberia. Young was retired, a retirement that Young protested. It is likely that racism played a large factor in his retirement, more than a few white officers reacting with dismay to the prospect of serving under a black general. Writing to Theodore Roosevelt for help in gaining reinstatement, Roosevelt immediately offered him command of one of the two black regiments Roosevelt planned to serve in the Rough Riders that Roosevelt had received Congressional approval to raise for service in World War I. Roosevelt said Young would have carte blanche in choosing the officers of his regiment. Alas, President Wilson refused to authorize the raising of the Rough Riders.
In June 1918, to show he was physically fit for service, Young rode horseback the 500 miles from Xenia, Ohio to Washington DC. The trip to Washington took 16 days. Young experienced both racism and respect from the various Whites he encountered. In a town with a bad reputation for racism against blacks, Young’s attempt to gain reinstatement was met with sympathy by local whites who asked what they could do to help. Young responded that there was nothing they could do for him, but he would be grateful if black troops traveling through the town would receive a kind welcome.
Young met with Secretary of War Baker who promised to look into the situation. On November 6, 1918 Young was placed back on active duty and promoted to Colonel. He remained on active duty until his death in 1922 when he died of nephritis. He is buried, appropriately, in Arlington. When he was buried, an estimated 100,000 people lined his funeral procession.