The Active Army currently has 1446 chaplain authorizations. From the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the 20th century, however, only 34 chaplain billets were authorized throughout the entire Regular Army. Beginning in 1884, four of those billets belonged to the African-American chaplains of the “Buffalo Soldier” units: the 9th and 10th cavalry regiments and the 24th and 25th infantry regiments. The most prominent African-American to fill one of these chaplain billets was Allen Allensworth (1842–1914). Allensworth served as a chaplain for the 24th Infantry Regiment from 1886 to 1906. When he retired from the Army in 1906, he was the highest ranking African American in the entire Army.
His story is worth telling.
The U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School has this biographical sketch of Chaplain Allensworth [original link now dead]:
Born a slave prior to the Civil War, he retired from the U.S. Army in 1906 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. At that time he was the highest ranking African-American ever to have served in the U.S. Regular Army. He was also on his retirement, the second highest ranking Army chaplain.
Allensworth fled north at the beginning of the Civil War and joined the Navy, serving on Union gunboats on the Mississippi River until the end of the war. After the war he began his formal education and eventually was ordained as a Baptist minister. He was a pastor at a number of churches in both the north and the south. In 1886 Allensworth, now 44 years old, began his career as a U.S. Army chaplain. As he wrote to President Grover Cleveland at the time, his aim was “to show, in behalf of his race, that a Negro can be an officer and a gentleman.”
For twenty years Chaplain Allensworth served with one of the Army’s four Black units, the 24th Infantry Regiment. He spent these two decades with the 24th mainly in the West, and finally in the Philippines. He was widely known in the Army as an educator. His educational programs were praised in the Army-Navy Journal. Brigadier General McCook, the commander of the Department of Arizona, recommended that Allensworth’s program be adopted on an Army-wide basis. A number of other Army chaplains used Allensworth’s methodology in organizing their own educational programs during this period.
CaliforniaHistory.net picks up Chaplain Allensworth’s story after he returned to civilian life [link now dead]:
After leaving the army, Allensworth and his family settled in Los Angeles. It was there that he came up with the idea of establishing a self-sufficient, all-black California town, a place where African Americans could live their lives free of the racial discrimination that so often plagued them elsewhere. His dream was to build a town where black people might live and create “sentiment favorable to intellectual and industrial liberty.”
In 1908 he founded the Tulare County town of Allensworth, a new settlement in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley about thirty miles north of Bakersfield. The black settlers of Allensworth built homes, laid out streets, and put up public buildings. They organized a glee club, an orchestra, and a brass band.
But the town soon ran into some serious problems. The dry and dusty soil made farming difficult, and poisons seeped into the drinking water. The town lost its founding father in 1914 when Colonel Allensworth was killed in an accident in Los Angeles. The town’s discouraged settlers drifted away in the next couple of decades and Allensworth was reduced almost to a ghost town.
Chaplain Allenworth’s life is somewhat more complicated than these brief summaries suggest. He served as a civilian nurse in the Army near Louisville at the beginning of the Civil War. His service with the Army allowed to him to hide from his owner, but he still remained subject to recapture as long as he remained in the slave state of Kentucky. He intended to flee to Canada to gain his freedom, and eventually escaped to Ohio. By this time, however, he became convinced of the union cause. Lincoln had made slavery the core issue of the war by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863. Allen decided to join the Navy in April of that year. He risked his life and freedom by deciding to join the fight.
Allensworth was active in business, the lecture circuit and Republican party politics before he entered the chaplaincy. He was also involved in the budding ecumenical movement and nascent civil rights movement at the end of the 19th century. His duties with the Army were as extensive as recruiting for the Spanish-American War and reforming the Post Exchange system.
Allenworth’s biography Battles and Victories of Allen Allensworth is online at the University of North Carolina and gives extensive details about his life.