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“Black Jack” Of The 10th
A Negro cavalry regiment was John J. Pershing’s “home” in the service. From it came his nickname, and he never lost his affection for—or failed to champion—the valorous colored troopers he led.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
On July 1, the 10th participated in the general advance on the landward defenses of Santiago, with the Spanish-held blockhouses of San Juan Hill looming before them. The regiment’s jumping-off position, Pershing would recall later, was “a picture of a peaceful valley; there was a feeling that we had secretly invaded the Holy Land.” Once the offensive was launched, however, there was less time for poetic reflections. Sergeant Bivins, with the Hotchkiss guns (small-bore, rapid-fire cannon), wrote his friend that his battery had to stop 143 times along the seven miles of narrow trail leading to San Juan Hill. Once in range of the Spanish positions, the 10th’s light artillery opened up with its black-powder shells, promptly drawing a vigorous counterbattery fire. Pershing saw “a projectile from an unseen Spanish gun” set off a Hotchkiss piece, wounding two cavalrymen. One was Sergeant Bivins, who was stunned and bleeding but insisted on keeping up with the advance.
The 10th began taking heavy casualties, particularly after an observation balloon collapsed in the treetops above and served as a target marker for the Spanish infantry. Richard Harding Davis, who was wearing the silks of the New York Herald for that war, watched in admiration as the Negro troopers held their ground even as the 71st New York Volunteers, coming up on the 10th’s left flank, withered under the Spanish volleys and fled toward the rear. The Spanish fire, Davis observed, “was endured for an hour, an hour of such hell of fire and heat, that the heat in itself, had there been no bullets, would have been remembered for its cruelty.”
Davis came across Lieutenant Thomas A. Roberts, who had been wounded in the abdomen, lying under a tree with three of his troopers, all of whom were wounded also. “When the white soldiers with me offered to carry him back to the dressing-station,” Davis wrote, “the Negroes resented it stiffly. ‘If the Lieutenant had been able to move, we would have carried him away long ago,’ said the sergeant, quite overlooking the fact that his [own] arm was shattered.”
Just before the 10th joined the assault on San Juan Hill, Pershing took over the job of guiding the 2nd Squadron through barbed-wire entanglements and an “almost impenetrable thicket”—an act for which he was later awarded the Silver Star. He went with the skirmish line up the hill. It was one of the storybook charges of U.S. military history—the regular 1st Cavalry, the 10th, and the Rough Riders all racing for the fortified crest. Regardless of what Pershing remembered as “a sleet of bullets,” the charge “continued dauntless in its steady, dogged, persistent advance until like a mighty resistless challenge it dashed triumphant over the crest of the hill. …”
To Pershing there was only one word for it: “glorious.” Sergeant George Berry planted the 10th’s colors on San Juan Hill, and on the crest nearby the wounded but not disabled Sergeant Bivins sank the shaft of a flag presented by Illinois schoolgirls on the way to Camp Chickamauga. “White regiments, black regiments,” said Pershing, “regulars and Rough Riders, representing the young manhood of the North and South, fought shoulder to shoulder, unmindful of race or color, unmindful of whether commanded by an ex-Confederate or not, and mindful only of their common duty as Americans.” To more than one participant that charge seemed an act of national and racial reconciliation. A young Rough Rider named Frank Knox, later a Chicago newspaper publisher and Secretary of the Navy in the second Roosevelt’s administration, wrote home that he had become separated from his own unit, “but I joined a troop of the Tenth Cavalry, colored, and for a time fought with them shoulder to shoulder, and in justice to the colored race I must say that I never saw braver men anywhere. Some of those who rushed up the hill will live in my memory forever.”
The 10th had lost half its officers and one fifth of its enlisted men in the charge, but Pershing would recall that “I saw a colored trooper stop at a trench filled with Spanish dead and wounded and gently raise the head of a wounded Spanish lieutenant, and give him the last drop of water from his own canteen.” Pershing was to become notorious for his granite-faced lack of emotion as commander of the A.E.F., but in recalling that moment on the crest overlooking Santiago, he declared: “We officers of the 10th Cavalry could have taken our black heroes in our arms.”
A similar emotion assailed Richard Harding Davis as he watched the supply and ammunition wagons come up from the rear. “The colored regulars of the 10th were the first to come down after the ammunition, and seemed overjoyed at the fact that the wagons held cartridges and not, as some supposed, rations. The web belts of most of them were empty, and in no one belt were there more than half a dozen or ten of the 150 cartridges with which the men had begun the day. The Negro soldiers established themselves as fighting men that morning, and the chuckles they gave as they shoved the cartridges into their belts showed that, though they did not have food or water, so long as they had ammunition they were content.”