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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
After the campaign ended with the fall of Santiago and the Spanish surrender, the 10th’s officers sent a stream of letters back to the War Department seeking decorations and promotions for the enlisted men of the regiment. Many of the officers believed that the Negroes should be given commissioned rank. The result was that, when the Army was expanded during World War I, sixty-two noncoms of the 10th were commissioned, twenty of them as captains.
The battle performance of the regiment stiffened the pride of the whole race that had contributed its men to serve under the 10th’s guidons. A compilation of that record, Under Fire with the 10th U.S. Cavalry, was published in 1899 with a foreword by “Fighting Joe” Wheeler; he described “their brave and good conduct, their obedience, efficiency and coolness under a galling fire.” The venerable Rebel declared that they went home from Cuba “covered with glory,” and added: “Those who see in the future of the colored race in America a difficult and perplexing problem will find encouragement in this book, the product of Negro intelligence and the record of Negro heroism.” Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt of the Rough Riders was quoted as writing to a friend: “I wish no better men beside me in battle than these colored troops showed themselves to be.”
Twice in later years Pershing was reunited with the regiment that he regarded as his home in the service. Part of the 10th served under him when in 1906, having been jumped from captain to brigadier general over the heads of 862 officers senior to him, Pershing took command of Fort McKinley in the Philippines. In 1916, while commanding the brigade post at El Paso, Texas, Brigadier General Pershing was appointed to lead the punitive expedition across the Mexican border in pursuit of the insurgent Mexican leader Pancho Villa, who had raided Columbus, New Mexico. The 10th Cavalry formed part of one of the two invading columns. Their chase over the mountains and deserts of Chihuahua failed to net Villa, and almost embroiled the United States in a conflict with the Carranza (Constitutionalist) government in Mexico City, which was increasingly resentful of the American presence.
Pershing made his headquarters at Namiquipa, which by no coincidence was also the headquarters of the 10th Cavalry. On June 17 he ordered two troops of the 10th to reconnoiter in the vicinity of Ahumada to determine the truth of reports that ten thousand troops of the Carranza regime were concentrating there and preparing to attack his line of communications back to the U.S. border. Captain Charles T. Boyd, commanding Troop C, and Captain Lewis S. Morey of Troop K were instructed to avoid a clash with the Carranzistas. But on reaching the outskirts of the town of Carrizal, they found a force of Carranzistas barring the way. The ninety American troopers were heavily outnumbered by four hundred Mexicans who had taken up a strong position along an irrigation ditch and were equipped with four machine guns. It had already been demonstrated in France that cavalry didn’t stand much of a chance against machine guns, but Captain Boyd, the senior American officer, decided to exceed his orders and blast his way through the town and its defenders. It was almost as ridiculous a gesture as the charge of the British light brigade in the Crimea.
Troops C and K charged into the machine guns and rifle fire from the irrigation ditch. Two officers, including Boyd, and seven enlisted men were killed; Captain Morey and ten troopers were severely wounded; twenty-three were captured. The charge drove the Mexicans out of the irrigation ditch, but left the two troops so badly damaged they could only withdraw. Pershing, in fact, had to send out units of the 11th Cavalry to bring the wounded and wandering survivors back to Namiquipa. It was the only defeat the 10th ever suffered in the field. That charge at Carrizal could have touched off an all-out war between Mexico and the United States, but both sides, realizing how close they were to fighting a war neither wanted, began negotiating and decided to appoint a commission that would settle the details of evacuating Pershing’s force.
Shortly afterward, the United States entered World War I. The 10th did not go to France, but Pershing’s concern for the thousands of Negroes who did serve under his command in the A.E.F. was unflagging. Much as he hated speechmaking, he always stopped to address groups of Negro troops and speak of “my service with a colored regiment and how proud we were of its conduct in the Spanish-American War.”
One of the last photographs of Pershing in uniform before his final retirement from the Army in 1932 shows him inspecting a mounted troop of the 10th at Fort Myer, Virginia. By that time, both he and the horse cavalry were brave anachronisms.