Today, it's common knowledge that black enlisted and officer personnel of the Georgia National Guard contribute immensely to readiness of the force. But, what may not be so common is the story of the Georgia State Volunteers "Colored" who were part of the state militia a century ago and how one adjutant general attempted to disband them at the turn of the century.
Fourteen years after the conclusion of the War Between the States, Georgia's white state militia was composed of 19 companies divided into the First Volunteer Regiment, Second Battalion and Third Battalion as well as the Ninth Battalion. In addition there were 29 "independent companies of infantry, two of artillery and eleven of cavalry."1 The Georgia Volunteers, Colored, on the other hand, comprised 11 companies divided into the First and Third Battalion with "nine independent companies of infantry, one of artillery and one of cavalry."2
For both white and black troopers life in the militia was remarkably similar. Both had to provide their own saddles, horses and uniform. Indeed, not until the recommendations of the Advisory Board of the Adjutant and Inspector General of the state in 1889 was the question of uniforms a major subject. Wrote J. McIntosh Kell, adjutant and inspector general:
We recommend... that a simple and serviceable uniform be adopted for the entire force of the State... but we do not ask that the State provide this uniform yet, though it should do it. . . one year's experience can enable the Adjutant and Inspector General to report how far the said uniform can be provided.3
Kell did recommend that the state begin to supply canteens, haversacks and the like to the battalions so that when called upon the militia could readily respond. To fund these purchases the board asked for an appropriation of $25,000.
By 1896, the Guard was attempting to regulate the size of its companies, limiting white and black troops alike to not more than six per battalion. Yet there were differences, especially in armaments. For example white artillery units at the close of 1896 had "3 brass field pieces, and four 3-inch "M.L. rifles, 1 Gatling gun,"4and a host of revolvers, and other weapons. The colored troops had only "3 brass field pieces"5and a few other smaller weapons scattered about.
While the troops overall were treated "on paper" as equal, it was clear that the "colored troops" were being phased out, and not too subtly. They were denied equipment and their numbers regulated and reduced. By 1900, Phill G. Byrd, the adjutant general, put into words , what some must have been saying, "disband" the Georgia Volunteers Colored.
Byrd had a logical reason: the black state militia was ineffective. Although he admitted that the administration and records of the single battalion of infantry and one battery of artillery was good, he noted that,
The State. . . has a right to expect more than drills and administration for the money appropriated to the military department. That the colored troops cannot be called into service for quelling riots and restoring and preserving order is not their fault, yet this condition exists; and, so long as it does I do not see how it can be just, economical or practical to divert the sum of $87.50 per month from the support of those troops who must expect to do all the riot duty required, and pay it for armory rent for troops that could under no circumstances be safely called on for this the only class of duty a State soldier will be called upon to perform.6
Byrd added that equipment issued to "colored" troops could be better used in white militia units. The Adjutant General subsequently asked the General Assembly to disband the troops.
Although Byrd's recommendation was apparently not acted upon outright by the General Assembly, the numbers of Georgia Volunteers "Colored" continued its decline anyway due to attrition. To help things along, the Adjutant General, then S. W. Harris, ordered in 1904 that,
The maximum enlistment of companies of infantry and light artillery, colored, shall not exceed fifty men. Company commanders will make application for the discharge of such a number of men, who are the least desirable, as may be necessary to reduce their enlistment to fifty.7
At the time, however, Georgia's militia was undergoing a reorganization. Indeed, the question of retaining black troops at all, was resurfacing as a result of Congressional passage of the "Dick Bill", which gave new recognition to state militias, authorized equipment, and weapons and made the continued existence of "colored troops" in Georgia again a problem. Col. William G. Obear, inspector general for the state, wrote in 1904 that,
The passage of this law (the Dick Bill), requires serious consideration of the question whether the colored troops should be retained in the service or not. The law contemplates that they be put on the same equality in every way with other troops and requires the repeal of section 34 of the Military Code, which discriminates against them to the extent that it makes the colored officer always junior to the white officer, regardless of relative rank. If these troops are to be retained and their status is to be the same as that of white troops it will certainly decrease the enlistment of desirable men in the white organization, for no matter how remote the chance may be, men will not desire to put themselves in a position where a colored officer may command them or demand their salutes in recognition of his rank. In addition to this it is not seen how the colored troops can be of any practical benefit to the State as they could not be used to suppress riot where white men were engaged without aggravating the affair and it would be a doubtful experiment to use them on a mob composed of their own race.8
Obear again praised the troops for their readiness and efficiency, but their continued existence would be "a detriment to the other and larger branch of service."9
By the beginning of the Great War, in 1914, and the outbreak of war in Europe, the Georgia State Volunteers "Colored" were no more. In his annual report that year the Adjutant General, Brig. Gen. Joseph Van Holt Nash, noted that the strength of the National Guard comprised three regiments of infantry, one separate battalion of infantry, five troops of cavalry, three batteries of artillery; four companies of coast artiffery and one field hospital.10 Nowhere, as had been the case just 24 years before, were black units listed, Byrd's recommendation had finally come to pass.
by B. I. Diamond
1. John McIntosh Kell, Report of the Adjutant and Inspector-General of the State of Georgia for the Year 1889 (Atlanta: W. J. Campbell, State Printer, 1890), p. 1.
3. Ibid., p. 51.
4. Oscar J. Brown, "Statement of the Condition of the National Guard of Georgia in 1896 for the War Department," Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of Georgia for the year 1896 (Atlanta: Franklin Printing and Publishing Co., 1897), p. 144.
6. Phill G. Byrd, "Report of the Adjutant-General; Georgia State Troops -- Colored," Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of Georgia from Jan. 1, 1899 to Oct. 17, 1900 (Atlanta: Franklin Printing and Publishing Co., 1900), p. 13. Byrd contended that his remarks were made "with no cause for prejudice or bias," p. 13.
7. S. W. harris, "General Orders, No. 1," Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of Georgia for the Year 1904 (Atlanta: Franklin Printing and Publishing Co., 1904), p. 15.
8. William G. Obear, "The Dick Bill; Colored Troops," Ibid., p. 80.
10. Jopseph Van Holt Nash, "Organization December 31, 1914," Report of the Adjutant-General, State of Georgia for the Year 1914 (Atlanta: Charles P. Byrd, State Printer, 1915), p. 4.