Hispanics in the Armed Forces

Published 19 Dec 2016

Every Memorial Day, Americans recognize the sacrifice that our men and women in the Armed Forces, past and present, that have paid the ultimate price for the freedoms that we in this country enjoy. And one of the groups of people who the American government and people have always been able to depend upon in these conflicts have been Hispanics. The population of Hispanics in America, until the latter half of the 20th century, has only had moderate numbers of the population. Nevertheless, from the American Revolution to the current war in Iraq, Hispanics have either served or volunteered in combat when American needed them most. What has been lacking in the history books are the names and faces of those who did serve and who did die so that we could have that freedom.

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During the Civil War, the allegiance of Mexican Americans was pided as it was pided among the entire country. “Of the 2,500 Mexican Americans who served at the outbreak of the war, 60% fought for the Confederacy but 40% traveled from Texas where most of Mexican Americans were situated in this country and fought for the Union.” (Hide, 2993 p. 345 When the end of the war finally came, there had been over 10,000 Mexican Americans who had served in The Civil War.

During the war, the government established four separate Calvary companies in California to exploit the excellent horsemanship that these soldiers displayed. There were also over four hundred and fifty Mexican American troops who fought under Major Salvador Vallejo who helped to fight off the Confederate Forces in an invasion of New Mexico. Also, significant numbers of Hispanics fought in the 55th Alabama, 6th Missouri, and 10th Texas Calvary. (Depart. 1992, p.86) Colonel Santos Benavides became the highest ranking member of the Confederate Army.

But by far, the most important Hispanic naval officer was Naval Officer Daniel Farragut. In 1862, in the important naval battle to capture New Orleans, and is famous for, in his battle at Mobile Bay, Alabama to shout at the start of battle: “ Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.” He had a brilliant military career and was made a hero and source of propaganda for the Union cause in the newspapers and pictorials all across Union newspapers. And lastly, two Hispanics were given the Medal of Honor for their actions in the Civil War as displaying courage and sacrifice that went beyond the call of duty.

The involvement of Hispanics would continue into the Spanish American War during the summer of 1898. At that time, the American Army had a very small force of only 30,000 men who were scattered across small posts all over the country. Of the 1,200 men who were part of the 1st U.S. volunteer Army under Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. There were several Hispanic Americans within Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders and who took part in their charge up San Juan Hill. This includes Maximiliano Luna and George Armijo. The next war, World War I, was not as friendly to Hispanic Americans. The war, though on a much larger scale than anything America had seen since the Civil War, did not utilize the services of the Hispanic Americans who were anxious to serve in battle.

Many were ridiculed and made fun of their Hispanic surnames. Also, many did not speak English and were sent to special training centers so that they could improve their English skills. However, because the war was over a few months after American troops arrived in Europe, Hispanics were not given an ample chance to distinguish themselves. However, one individual who received the Purple Heart and the Medal of Honor, Private hector Serna was credited with capturing 24 German soldiers by himself. It was also at this time that Puerto Ricans were given citizenship, and more than 18,000 Puerto Ricans were liable for the military draft. These troops were sent to the Panama Canal to guard the very important waterway that was then in American custody.

An explosion of Hispanics in America had occurred by the start of World War II. The census for 1940 recorded more than 2.7 million people of Hispanic descent. Of that, over 85% lived in California, Arizona, New Mexico or Texas. In 1940, before the war had started, two National Guard Units from the above-mentioned states were sent to the Philippines, largely made up of Spanish speaking individuals. They were sent there if a war did break out. The build-up to World War II was many years in the making, and only the hard-lined isolationists were under the impression that the war would never come to American soil. After the war, more than 65,000 Puerto Ricans served in the American military with many of them going overseas.

Two units of the Puerto Rican National Guard served in the most important Pacific Theatre while most of the others served in Europe. Also, more than 200 served in the Women’s corps where some were used in interpretation and communication. During both World War II and the Korean War, Hispanics and especially Puerto Ricans distinguished themselves on the battlefield. General William Harris of the 65th Infantry said of the efforts of the Hispanics troops; “No ethnic group has greater pride in itself and its heritage than the Puerto Rican people. Nor have I encountered any that can be more dedicated and zealous in support of democratic principles for which the United States stands. Many Puerto Ricans have fought to the death to uphold them.”(Depart, 1992, p. 103)

The role and importance of Hispanics would continue to grow during the conflicts in Iraq during Desert Storm. In that conflict, there were more than 29,000 Hispanics serving in the Armed Forces. This would continue during the current war in Iraq as there have been a number of soldiers from Puerto Rico that have received high praise and medals of courage and distinguished velour for their efforts on the battlefield. And many have died for those actions and the selflessness for which they served. Also, due to the increase in the number of Hispanics living in American, as well as the number of citizens increasing as well, it seems probable that the role that Hispanics play in our country’s future will increase exponentially. As has been seen in the past, that increase of influence in America, will also be translated onto the battlefield. And it is to the benefit of all Americans when that will be the case.


  • Department of Defense. Hispanics in American’s Defense. Washington D.C. U.S Printing Office. 1992
  • Hide, M. (August, 1993) Among the Valiant San Francisco: Borden Publishing.
  • Romero, J. (1997) Hispanics in America’s Defense. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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