In Their Own Words

Diaries and Letters by African American Soldiers

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“A salute fired early from Fort Duane in honor of the reported capture of Charleston & Columbia S.C. The Colored troops reported to have taken quite an active part in the Capture of Charleston which I hope is true as it will be the means of showing Genl Sherman that colored troops can & will fight.” –Lt. John Freeman Shorter, 55th Massachusetts Infantry, February 20, 1865

“Friction between the races. Though the colored troops are not equipped with guns, according to all reports, they behaved themselves most bravely and pluckily against the Marines.”  –Cpl. Roy Plummer, 506th Engineers, December 19, 1918

Diaries and letters written by members of the military give a glimpse into the everyday lives of servicemembers and reveal a more personal view of the military experience. These records often capture first-hand details of service and war that might otherwise be forgotten. For African Americans serving in a segregated military, writing in diaries and sending letters often helped them cope with difficult issues including trauma experienced both in battle and as African Americans in the military.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture has objects in its collection relating to African Americans in the military from the American Revolution through the War on Terror, including several personal diaries and letters from the Civil War and World War I eras. Many of these diaries and letters have been transcribed by the public and are now searchable and easy to read online. Below are examples of some of these transcribed objects from the NMAAHC collection.

Red leather covered diary.

Diary of Lt. John Freeman Shorter, 1865.

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Gift from the Liljenquist Family Collection

2nd Lt. John Freeman Shorter’s Civil War Diary

In 2016, volunteers in the Smithsonian Transcription Center transcribed a diary written by Civil War soldier John Freeman Shorter. This diary, written from January 1–September 30, 1865, details Shorter’s experiences as an African American soldier and officer during the final days of the Civil War. Shorter’s diary entries often focus on the weather, everyday activities, and his recuperation from a leg injury sustained during the Battle of Honey Hill. Other entries describe significant national and personal events such as the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and Shorter’s commissioning as a second lieutenant.

The rising sun betokens fair weather & a tolerable warm day. The Detail again left the Hospital & this time was more successful. taken with a chill in the morning & confined to bed all day. a report circulated that Maj Genl Sheridan had arrived at the Head also that arrangements were being made for peace. immediately.

Lt. John Freeman Shorter, entry from April 21, 1865

2nd Lt. John Freeman Shorter (1842–1865) was a great-great-grandson of Elizabeth Hemings, the matriarch of the Hemings family enslaved at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Shorter was raised as a free man in Washington, D.C., before moving to Ohio. In 1863, he traveled to Boston to enlist in the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the first African American volunteer regiments created after the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation.

In March 1864, Shorter became the first enlisted soldier in the 55th Massachusetts to be promoted to the rank of an officer and one of only three fully commissioned black officers in the regiment. The other two black officers in the 55th Massachusetts were James Monroe Trotter and William H. Dupree. Despite their promotions, because of their race, the Army did not formally commission or recognize these three men as officers until the summer of 1865, after the war had ended. The chaplain of the 55th Massachusetts called Shorter, Trotter, and Dupree, “three as worthy men as ever carried a gun.”

Diary entry from July 10, 1865.

Entry from July 10, 1865:

the morning clear & pleasant after a pleasant nights rest arose taken Breakfast after which went to the Hotel from which place in company with Maj Nutt proceeded to the office of Capt Robinson Commissary of Musters & was mustered as 2nd Lieut in the 55" mass Regiment spent the remainder of the Day visiting in the city

View full transcription.

Gift from the Liljenquist Family Collection

When the Massachusetts regiments were formed, African American soldiers were promised equal pay to that of all other soldiers. However, African American soldiers only received around half of the pay that their white counterparts received. Most soldiers in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantries chose to forgo their pay until they were paid the same as their white counterparts. Shorter became a leader in the fight for equal pay and by October 1864 (almost eighteen months later) the War Department intervened, and the soldiers were provided full pay.

In November 1864, Lieutenant Shorter was “severely wounded in his right knee and hip by a musketball [sic]” during the Battle of Honey Hill and sent to a hospital. Although disabled by his leg wound, he stayed with his regiment throughout the remainder of the war. In August 1865, Shorter was honorably discharged and headed home to Ohio to marry his fiancé. Sadly, Shorter succumbed to smallpox, dying shortly before arriving home.

Letters from Col. Charles Young to Sgt. Oscar W. Price

Mentorship is an important aspect for any young service member looking to advance in rank and obtain leadership positions in the military. For African Americans serving in the military in the early 20th century, the lack of black officers made finding these mentorship opportunities especially difficult. Sgt. Oscar W. Price found a mentor and friend in the highest-ranking African American officer of the era, Col. Charles Young.

In 2016, volunteers transcribed a series of letters that Young sent to Price, which highlight the support and advice that Young gave to Price as a young soldier looking to advance in the military. This collection of letters and documents also tells the story of Colonel Young, who was denied the command of troops during World War I due to health reasons and set out to prove to military leaders that he was, in fact, fit for duty.

Charles Young in a West Point uniform.

Col. Charles Young as a cadet at West Point, 1889.

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Charles Young (1864–1922) was born enslaved in Kentucky in 1864. In 1889, he graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, becoming the third African American—and last until 1933—to graduate from West Point. Throughout his career, Young served in the 9th U.S. Calvary; on the staff at Wilberforce University; as a major of the 9th Ohio Infantry Regiment during the Spanish-American War; as superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant national parks; as a military attaché in Haiti and Liberia; and as a major in the 10th U.S. Calvary during the 1916 Punitive Expedition, where he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

In 1917, Lt. Col. Charles Young was selected by a military board for promotion to colonel. As the highest-ranking African American Regular Army officer, many believed he would command troops when the United States entered the war and eventually become a general. However, Young was forced into retirement at the rank of lieutenant colonel because of a medical condition. Young spent the next year trying to prove that he was fit to command troops in battle. In June 1918, he rode 497 miles in 16 days on horseback from Wilberforce, Ohio, to Washington, D.C., to prove his fitness. Young was eventually reinstated at the rank of colonel on November 6, 1918, five days before the armistice ending World War I.

Itinerary for Col. Charles Young’s trip from Wilberforce, Ohio, to Washington, D.C., enclosed in a letter sent to Oscar Price on August 14, 1918.

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View full transcription here. 

Oscar Wendell Price (1893–1970) was born in Cedarville, Ohio. He attended nearby Wilberforce University where, in 1918, he became acquainted with Col. Charles Young, who after being forcibly retired was serving as the head of Wilberforce’s military science department. Price enlisted in the U.S. Army on October 18, 1917, and in early 1918 was training as a sergeant at Camp Sherman in Ohio.

Price wanted to be an officer. He appealed to his friend and mentor, Young, to write a recommendation for him to attend Officer Training School. Young refused to write the recommendation stating in a letter on July 14, 1918, “I did this for your good, in order that everything that comes to you may be of your own merit and thus strengthen and moralize and neutralize you for the big things in front of you. You are strong enough in intellect to cope with every difficulty that may arise without any politics which do not go in military—or rather should not if we want a decent organization.”

A handwritten document.

Letter to Oscar W. Price from Colonel Charles Young, July 14, 1918, stating why Young wouldn’t write Price a letter of recommendation.

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View full transcription here.

Price was eventually recommended for Officers’ Training School on his merits by the president of Wilberforce University. He attended Officers’ Training School at Camp Dodge, Iowa, and was commissioned a second lieutenant. Colonel Young’s letters kept by Lieutenant Price show how important the correspondence between the two men was from both a professional and personal standpoint.

Neither you nor anyother red-blooded black man wants to take an unfair advantage over our comrades in this goround. We want all that we have to come from merit, gain, hard work and the mercies of a good God.

Col. Charles Young to Sgt. Oscar Price, August 14, 1918

Cpl. Roy Underwood Plummer’s World War I Diary

Roy Underwood Plummer (1896–1966) was born in Washington, D.C., and enlisted in the Army in 1917. After the war, Plummer returned to Washington, D.C., and graduated from Howard University School of Medicine in 1927. He practiced medicine in the District of Columbia for over 40 years.

Corporal Plummer served in Company C of the 506th Engineer Battalion. African American engineer battalions provided manual labor including the building of roads and railroads and construction of fortifications. The engineer battalions along with service/labor battalions, stevedore units, and pioneer infantry regiments were made up of approximately 160,000 African American soldiers serving as Services of Supply troops in France during the war. These Services of Supply units were essential to the war effort, allowing for the supply and movement of combat troops.

Handwritten diary entries fir January 4-5, 1919.

Diary entries for January 4–5, 1919, discussing “rumors about returning home,” a poem about a day being “whiled away,” and news of the death of former president Theodore Roosevelt.

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Gift from the family of Robert L. Plummer Sr.

Throughout the war, Plummer kept a diary, which he received as a Christmas gift from his friend Albert L. Boddy in 1917. He began writing in it on December 15, 1917, just days before his regiment left for Europe. Plummer’s training as a clerk is evident throughout his diary and is shown through impeccable handwriting and clear descriptions of events and his surroundings. He regularly comments on various topics including the entertainment of troops, French citizens and towns, issues of race and violence perpetrated against African American soldiers in Europe, and even the impact of the Spanish Influenza of 1919 on his unit.

Still cold, and the epidemic still spreading, especially in Company “A.” Our company dons “Flu” masks as a preventive measure.

Cpl. Roy Plummer writing in his diary about the Spanish Influenza, January 24, 1919

This diary is currently available for transcription in the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Help transcribe this diary to learn more about the experiences of an African American soldier serving in a segregated unit during World War I.

Whether written in a camp, barracks, hospital, or even a trench, diaries and letters provide first-hand accounts of historic events and give glimpses into the military and social culture of the time. However, many of these records are difficult to read and decipher and are not searchable online. Through transcription these records are now searchable, readable, and easily available to students, researchers, and anyone with a desire to learn more about the African American military experience.

view current NMAAHC transcription projects

Written by Douglas Remley, Rights & Reproductions Specialist
Published on May 18, 2020