Film History Essentials: “Colored Troops Disembarking” (1898)

What it’s about:

A group of African American soldiers, newly-arrived in Tampa, Florida in preparation for deployment to Cuba, carefully make their way to shore.

Why it’s essential:

William C. Paley was an English immigrant to the United States who was making a living exhibiting x-rays until the machine began to cause issues with his health. Naturally, he turned to film as an adjacent endeavor, and by the spring of 1898, he had contracted with Edison’s company to cover the brewing Spanish-American conflict (war would not be declared until late April). The American Mutoscope Company, Edison’s chief competitors, were already on the scene, and it was imperative he not be left behind for the first American war to be captured on film.

Paley traveled to Key West and spent late March and early April filming views, including the funeral for the crew of the Maine, fleet maneuvers, and scenes around Havana Harbor. After completing his trip, he arrived back in New York to find such a demand that he returned to Florida only a few days later. This time, he stayed in Tampa (where ground troops were arriving as the United States prepared to invade) filming scenes of everyday military life while waiting to join the assault on Cuba.

Colored Troops Disembarking was filmed at the beginning of May, and this is how the Edison Catalog described it:

The steamer ‘Mascotte’ has reached her dock at Port Tampa, and the 2nd Battalion of Colored Infantry is going ashore. Tide is very high, and the gang plank is extra steep; and it is laughable to see the extreme caution displayed by the soldiers clambering down. The commanding officer struts on the wharf, urging them to hurry. Two boat stewards in glistening white duck coats, are interested watchers looking for ‘tips’ perhaps. The picture is full of fine light and shadow effects.

The Mascotte (see right) had run a regular route from Tampa to Havana for over 20 years, but was apparently diverted to carry troops in this instance (what with the state of war between the endpoints of its usual run). The “2nd Battalion of Colored Infantry” doesn’t seem to correspond to any available unit listings. It’s possible they were a group from a specific state. The 6th Virginia Volunteer Infantry had two battalions, for example, but they weren’t mustered until later, and were never stationed in Florida.

There were also ten volunteer infantry regiments formed in Southern states. Known as the “Immunes,” these regiments were composed of men who had already had yellow fever, in the hopes that they would be strengthened against the tropical diseases any force invading Cuba could expect to face. Four of the regiments, the 7th through the 10th, were made up of exclusively African Americans. It was widely believed at the time that black people possessed an innate immunity to many of these tropical diseases, as well as a natural affinity for the region’s climate (a holdover, obviously, from the not-too-distant era of slavery).

Buffalo soldiers of the 24th, on the march in Cuba

Because this was filmed soon after the declaration of war, the soldiers that appear in this film were most likely members of the Regular Army. Four black-only regiments, established after the Civil War, served in the US Army at this time (the United States’ military would not be integrated for another half-century). The members of these four regiments were the only African American troops to participate in the fighting in Cuba (and thus the only black troops likely to have been stationed in Florida in early May). Two of the regiments were cavalry (the 9th and 10th), but the other two were the 24th and 25th Infantry. Collectively, these troops were commonly known as “buffalo soldiers,” a nickname that originated during their service in the American Indian Wars of previous decades.

What stands out in the catalog description, though, is the phrase, “it is laughable to see the extreme caution displayed by the soldiers.” The tone of mocking disrespect is surprising at a time when jingoism was particularly prevalent throughout the nation. First of all, it’s difficult to see what’s laughable. The description has already pointed out that the ship is docked at high tide, causing the ramp to be unusually steep. The soldiers are carrying their weapons, along with fully-loaded packs (which are not light). There are multiple points where one of the soldiers slides a few inches as they make their way down, indicating how treacherous their footing is. “Extreme caution” was the only sensible approach.

But of course, it’s not really about what makes sense. It’s about the very rigid constraints that surrounded socially-acceptable ways to include African Americans in cultural products consumed by European Americans. They could conform to a number of pre-existing characters based on broad stereotypes. They could be entertainers (dancers, singers, etc.). Failing anything else, they could be reduced to comic figures, to be ridiculed and laughed at, and definitely not taken seriously.

On a purely-conscious, surface level, any film that strayed outside of prescribed norms in its depiction of African Americans on-screen risked locking itself out of exhibition in an entire region of the country. The restrictions imposed by a need to coddle (white) Southern audiences continued to influence what films got made and where those films could be shown until within the living memory of an average adult. However, on a deeper, perhaps even subconscious level, these constraints existed not only because of regional prejudices, but because of fear—fear of what it would mean to acknowledge African Americans as capable, or intelligent, as contributing members of society, or even as fellow human beings, and above all, as equals.

Members of the 24th at San Juan Hill

In real life, African Americans consistently failed to remain inside of white peoples’ comfort zones or perform down to their low expectations. An Edison copywriter could manufacture any number of reasons to mock black people, but no one was laughing when (to cite just a few noteworthy occurrences) the 10th Cavalry rescued Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders from certain destruction after they recklessly charged into an ambush, or when members of the 10th were the first to reach the crest of San Juan Hill a few days later (the Rough Riders’ famous charge notwithstanding). It wasn’t a joke when the 24th Infantry captured the Spanish positions guarding the approach to Santiago, or when they went to help at an army hospital that was overwhelmed with cases of yellow fever, dysentery, malaria, and typhoid, after eight other units had refused.

Many of their white comrades, having benefited from their bravery, were quick to state their appreciation. Teddy Roosevelt was among those who were effusive in their praise of the black troops’ actions. However, perhaps stung when the story of his unit’s rescue by the 10th Cavalry began to circulate, Roosevelt later tempered his praise with accusations that black troops lacked initiative and were of very little value without white officers to lead them.

This flew in the face of many firsthand accounts of their actions in battle, but they were typical of most white Americans’ dogged refusal to give black Americans their due. While the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th Infantry were charging up San Juan Hill, the 25th Infantry was fighting the lesser-known Battle of El Caney. Leading the charge here, as well, a member of the 25th captured the Spanish flag at the top of the hill, but he was ordered to hand the flag over to an officer of the 12th Infantry, who proceeded to claim credit for the capture. And so it went.

Why you should see it:

One of the great difficulties of navigating film history, particularly from this period, is the need to balance two important objectives that are often in conflict. On the one hand, it is incredibly important that there be real acknowledgement of the tremendous prevalence (in early films) of the overt racism that infected nearly every facet of American culture. To skirt past the most egregious examples is to risk minimizing them, and perhaps even give a false impression that these ideas were less common and less normalized than they actually were. It could even result in people being completely ignorant of the reality of that time, as (in fact) many people already are.

On the other hand, in emphasizing their significance, perhaps by labeling them as “essential” or suggesting that they are films that people “should” see, it is important that we not seem to be celebrating or promoting them. At the same time, the existence of racism in American society is not some long-ago memory, so far back in the past that its causes, effects, and symptoms no longer influence our lives. It is an unhealed wound, and as we draw attention to it, we have to be intentional about avoiding further inflammation. Films have a power to return history to life in a way that few other things can. We must therefore be cautious about what we choose to resurrect, and how.

The reality of black history is that African Americans have never been merely passive victims of prejudice and oppression. There have always been those who fought, in a thousand different ways, for full equality before the law and in society. Although many of these figures are household names, most are totally unknown. Their contributions are visible from the effects they collectively achieved through a long and bitter struggle.

We don’t know the names of the black soldiers who appear in this film. The description makes it clear that they were subject to ridicule, and we know from history that they faced far worse even as they prepared to put their lives on the line. However, like the dancers from “The Passing Show,” their accomplishments transcend their characterization by others. Colored Troops Disembarking shines a light on racism in 19th-century America, and on the prejudice experienced by black troops, while inadvertently highlighting their quiet determination to press onward despite their circumstances.


~ by Jared on March 17, 2023.

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