Red Caps: The Liberian Frontier Force & African-American Officer Corps in Liberia, 1909-1930

The Republic of Liberia is a singularly unique African nation as the only country on the continent to be colonized by African descendants and exclusively self-governed by them in the 19th century. Liberia was supported originally by the American Colonization Society which procured territory on West Africa's Atlantic coast for both free slaves and African-American citizens from the northern United States beginning in the year 1822. Liberia proclaimed independence in 1847 with Joseph Jenkins Roberts (b.1809-1876) elected as the nation's first president.

Liberia's first professional military, the Liberian Frontier Force, or LFF, bears a controversial legacy as a colonial, anti-African constabulary. Organized, trained, and commanded by African-American  U.S. Army officers beginning in 1910-1911, the Frontier Force was the primary military solution used to brutally subjugate the indigenous tribes of Liberia, 1909-1936. American influence on civil and military life in Liberia is undeniable even in the modern era, where American military advisers continue to train Liberian soldiers as recently as 2012. A National Geographic article from September of 1910, touted the country as the "only American colony in the world."

Liberian Frontier Force Troopers c.1914

Creation of the Liberian Frontier Force, 1907-1910

The Liberian militia was formed to protect the fledgling colony at Cape Mesuardo (which eventually became the capital of Monrovia) from the hostile tribes to the northern interior. The Liberian militia and the U.S. Navy worked to combat the slave trade along coasts of West Africa which was still lucrative in the 1840s-1850s. The officers and generals in the state militia would have been exclusively Americo-Liberian land owners and civil administrators. They were the descendants of slaves or had been born into slavery themselves in U.S. states like Virginia, Maryland, or South Carolina. In Liberia, they were the ruling aristocracy-politicians, generals and officers, and civil servants. 

Protected only by the militia and without a professional military, Liberia was powerless against the French and British and their appetite for territory in West Africa. In 1885, the British annexed territory near the Gallinas river in the northeast of the country followed by the French seizing portions of the County of Maryland in 1892 and 1907.* In 1908, the Liberian Frontier Force was created during the presidency of Arthur Barclay. Originally financed through a British loan, the LFF's composition was to be similarly styled on the British West African Frontier Force, according to historian Timothy D. Nevin in his astounding article, The Uncontrollable Force: A Brief History of the Liberian Frontier Force, 1908—1944. There were localized threats in 1909-1910 including the Grebo and Kru who were preparing for armed resistance against Liberian taxation. Coupled with the looming possibility of European annexation, the LFF was established at an important crossroads in Liberia's history.

Map of Liberia & Americo-Liberian Settlement in the 19th Century

The first incarnation of the Liberian Frontier Force proved to be an unmitigated failure after the original commanding officer, Major R. MacKay Cadell, led a revolt over backlogged pay after a year of service in January 1909. Liberian militia were poised to defend the capital from 250 LFF rebels led by Maj. Cadell, a South African British officer who had served in the Second Boer War. A month later in February, a British gunboat appeared off the coast of Monrovia and it appeared that the English were beginning an invasion. Liberian fears quickly dissipated however after Maj. Cadell left the capital and the rebelling soldiers dispersed.

* Liberia's County of Maryland began as a separate colony in 1833 at Cape Palmas which had been funded by an American colonization group from the U.S. state of the same name. This short-lived micro republic was located nearly 300 miles away from Monrovia, with it's own capital at Harper. Under the threat of attack by the Grebo, Maryland was formally annexed by Liberia in 1857.

The Pacification of The Hinterlands & The Frontier Force, 1910-1936

Beginning in 1910, a small cadre of African-American U.S. Army soldiers came to Liberia, tasked with directly training and fighting alongside the Liberian Frontier Force. The first to arrive was Lt. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. (b.1880-1970), who later became the first African-American Brigadier General during World War II. President Barclay and his successor, President Daniel E. Howard, 1916-1920, would insist that only African-American officers would be offered commissions in the LFF constabulary following Maj. Cadell's revolt of 1909. See, African-American Officer Corps in Liberia, for more

Service was difficult in Liberia and by 1911, Lt. Davis, describing the Liberian Frontier Force as "worthless", left Monrovia. The American military mission continued and would have a vital influence in shaping the fledgling Liberian military. The subsequent pacification of the hinterlands in 1910-1921 by the LFF, bears some parallels to American campaigns in the Philippines and Haiti. The Kru rebellion began in 1912, although labor disputes and resistance to government taxation had turned into open revolt as early as May 1909. The Grebo were attacked by the LFF at Rock Town in 1910 but the Frontier Force was repulsed. In December 1913, a large LFF task force led by Major Wilson Ballard, besieged the paramount Kru village on the Rock Cess. The LFF lost eight killed and fifteen wounded but succeeded in totally destroying the village, engaging in a prodigious slaughter of the defenders before scattering the survivors into the bush. This battle was recalled in a New York Times article which illuminated the copious bloodshed during the assault on Rock Cess.

Their were additional armed revolts by the Mano and Gio peoples in the north central hinterlands in August 1911-1912 as well. Armed with German weapons, the Kru were a numerous, sea faring people who fiercely resisted first slavery and then Liberian federal control of the interior and river regions to the south. During World War I, the Liberian government halted the sale of firearms to all African natives because the fear of widespread armed insurrection against the country was so grave.† 

Kru Sailor photographed c.1888

In March 1916, U.S. Navy Captain Frank Schofield and the USS Chester delivered a cache of rifles and ammunition to the Liberians which aided them tremendously in suppressing the rebellions along the River Cess. U.S. military rifles were known to Liberian soldiers thereafter as "Schofield Rifles". On 22 November 1915, the LFF launched an amphibious attack on the Kru controlled river areas but it wasn't until June 1916 when the last rebel strongholds at Rock Cess and Sanguin were destroyed. The Gola, from western Liberia and east Sierra Leone, were brought into federal control in 1918-1919. The German's supplied weapons to the indigenous West Africans and had strong economic interests in Liberia c.1909-1918, but the only direct action related to the First World War occurred when the German submarine, U-154, shelled a French cable station near Monrovia, killing four Liberians.

The pacification campaigns against the hinterland villages often entailed imposing taxes and taking captives that could be ransomed later. Some villagers were sold into slavery and forced labor which the United States and the League of Nations investigated in the late 1920's. Rape, public floggings, and petty theft were widespread and came to be the preferred methods of the LFF "red caps" and the militia when dealing with their indigenous neighbors. Sympathetic tribes were employed (or enticed) during this period to fight against rival tribes. From 1920-1921, the pacification of the Kpelle people was undertaken by the LFF, marking the last of the significant hinterland campaigns.

Besides police actions and garrison work on the frontier, mutinies affected the LFF during it's earliest existence. Significant LFF revolts took place in 1909, 1911, and 1917, brought upon by errant pay, a poor officer corps, and widespread political corruption. The militia distrusted the LFF especially after a Frontier Force detachment led Capt. Arthur Brown arrested a Liberian militia colonel and a district commissioner who were then put on trial for killing eight tribal chiefs. Both were acquitted of murder but the "Cooper-Lomax Affair" highlighted the divide between the LFF and the Americo-Liberian county militias. Another Kru rebellion began in 1931 which was not completely defeated until 1936. The last LFF mutiny in 1938 involved soldiers guarding the volatile River Cess districts but was otherwise bloodless and inconsequential.

LFF Red Caps in Monrovia 1932

† Between 1908-1922, the Liberian Frontier Force fought campaigns or "police actions" against a staggering amount of different West African tribes or ethnic groups. These included the Gola and Mandingo to the northwest, multiple bands of Kru along the southeastern coast, the Bassa, Kpelle, Gbandi, Mano, Kissi, and the Grebo in Maryland.

African-American Officer Corps in Liberia, 1910-1930

African-American officers serving in Liberia were only nominally compensated though their work was dangerous. Majors received $2,000 annually and captains received $1,600 but many of these former U.S. Army veterans were college educated and had good jobs back home, making their salaries minimal for the risk and personal cost involved. Most of these officers would of had previous experience in the national guard stateside, the Spanish-American War in Cuba and the Philippines, Mexico, and in the segregated regiments of the AEF during the First World War. In Liberia, they were tasked with training LFF troopers, overseeing road construction, customs and tax collection, and border patrol. Hundreds of outposts and barracks were built and manned throughout the Liberian interior from 1910-1922, with each region divided into twenty three separate districts for military control and civil organization. According to historian Harrison Akingbade, the African-American officer corps in Liberia was highly competitive and the advisers were often quarreling among themselves and with the Liberian government as well. Facing discrimination in society and in the military at home, Liberia gave these officers a chance to command troops in the field with relative independence. Though originally contracted as advisers and training officers, many were thrown into front line service in a multitude of campaigns from 1912-1921. 

Maj. Wilson Ballard (left), Capt. Arthur Brown (center) 1914

Major Wilson Ballard, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, lead the assault on Rock Cess but ultimately resigned his commission as the commander of the LFF in April 1915. Capt. Brown led a unit of fifty troopers into the northeast hinterland occupying Tappi in 1915, ensuring the locals paid their taxes. Capt. Richard Newton, well regarded by his peers and his Liberian employers, patrolled the Cavalla (Cavally) River region, 1911-1913. Capt. Newton's unit saved an undermanned LFF garrison from being overrun by armed force of 300-400 Kru after they attacked a federal outpost in June 1913.

Lt. William Rountree led the operation which finally ended the Kru Rebellions in June of 1916. His Frontier Force detachment battled for three days at Sanguin on the Rock Cess, pursuing the survivors into the hinterlands where many were killed. A year later, Lt. Rountree was sent to Cape Palmas to respond to another Grebo insurgency there. Another officer, Capt. Elridge T. Hawkins, served as a clerk for the American legation in Liberia before commanding LFF detachments against the Gbandi in 1913 and in Cape Palmas in 1915. Hawkins resigned his commission in August of 1915 after being passed up for command in favor of Capt. York

The following American officers served as the commanders of the Liberian Frontier Force 1910-1927; Maj. Wilson Ballard, Maj. William York, Maj. John Anderson, Capt. William Nabors, and Capt. Moody Staten, the last American Frontier Force commander, 1923-1927. In 1927, command of the Frontier Force was turned over to the Liberians although one American, Capt. Hanson Outley, held a commission until October 1930.‡ Perhaps the key personage for the American military mission in Liberia was West Point graduate, Major Charles Young (b.1864-1922) of the 9th cavalry. Maj. Young served as the military attaché to Monrovia during the Kru Rebellions and again from 1919-1922. Like his predecessor Lt. Davis, Young had an low initial opinion of the LFF as a capable fighting force. Maj. Young would nonetheless prove instrumental in reforming the Frontier Force along with Maj. Ballard, 1912-1914.

Capt. Moody Staten, the last U.S. LFF commander, 1923-1927

In late November 1912, Maj. Young received a special commendation to organize a relief column tasked with rescuing Capt. Brown after his LFF unit had been surrounded at Tappi by hostile Gio, Mano, and Mandingo. Named as a special war adviser to the president, this was a sensitive assignment because Maj. Young still held an active U.S. Army commission and was in Liberia in an official capacity for the U.S. War Department. He returned to Monrovia in January 1913 having successfully completed his mission but was invalided stateside (where he was eventually promoted) with malaria and an infected wound caused by a rusty musket round. Young was succeeded by Lt. John E. Green, 1916-1919. Two of the early "bunch" of American officers, Capt. Richard Newton (d.1914) and Capt. James Lee (d.1915), perished from tuberculosis and were buried in Monrovia. They were the only African-American officer casualties in Liberia, 1910-1930.

Colonel Young came back to West Africa in 1920 with a fresh group of officers for Liberian service but he died in Nigeria two years later while on a reconnaissance tour of the region. The 1926 Firestone Agreement brought rubber production and American capital to Liberia, resulting in the appointment of Colonel George W. Lewis, a white American military contractor in 1930, forcing Capt. Outley to resign. Col. Lewis never left Monrovia and did nothing as an adviser until his resignation two years later.

Composition, Weapons, & Uniforms of the Liberian Frontier Force

Traditional enlisted uniforms of the LFF were passingly similar to colonial uniforms worn by other European nation's foreign troops from North Africa. The LFF kit consisted of tan-khaki shorts and shirt, kitted with a basic bayonet, and satchel. Enlisted troopers marched barefoot on campaign. A red sash was worn on the waist which was unique but the most iconic vestment worn by LFF troopers was the red, fez-like hat which lent its name to the "red caps". The red caps became a menacing portent to the native peoples of the hinterlands during the pacification campaigns of 1909-1921. Frontier Force officers including U.S. advisers, wore a wide brimmed Montana slouch hat, not unlike a park rangers hat. A more traditional peaked cap was also worn by Liberian commissioned officers. Captain Eldrige Hawkins, pictured below, depicts a fine example of the U.S. officers uniform worn in Liberia during this time. Several additional photographs seem to show a ceremonial all-white parade dress that was worn by the LFF.

Capt. Eldrige Hawkins, U.S. LFF Officer, 1914

Firearms were a tightly controlled commodity for the LFF since the republic was often short of funds and the political elite distrusted the rank and file of the Frontier Force. Service weapons varied in type and quantity and enlisted soldiers were certainly not permitted to have them off-duty. LFF troopers were not even allowed to use their weapons on the firing range, though most rifles were so old and in such disrepair that by the mid 1920's this was also a safety precaution. Even the red caps were individually numbered and inventoried. From the earliest period of the Kru Rebellions, 1909-1911, to the late 1920's, LFF soldiers would have of been armed with three different types of "Schofield Rifles", antiquated Peabody breech loaders, Springfield Krag–Jørgensen's, or Mauser 1888 carbines.

Flintlock muskets would not have been uncommon to see in the villages of the hinterlands as late as the early-1920's though some of the indigenous groups like the Greboes of Cape Palmas were well armed with modern weaponry that had been smuggled through the porous borders of Liberia. In December of 1914, the LFF had 540 enlisted soldiers along with seventeen commissioned Liberian officers and five U.S. advisers. Following a reorganization of the LFF which began in May of 1928, all of the old cadres were purged, by 1937-38, the force had close to 900 troopers and officers enrolled. In 1956, the LFF was renamed the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), amalgamating all of the nation's military forces, fully ending the U.S. constabulary tradition established in 1910-1912.

Liberian LFF Officer (R), Enlisted Trooper (L) Holding a Mauser 1888 Carbine

‡Capt. William Nabors (b.1897-1960), had first come to Liberia with Col. Young in 1920 along with Capt. Allen Bean and Capt. Henry Atwood. He later served as a special military adviser to the LFF from 1936-1942. Serving stateside during the inter-war period with the New Jersey National Guard, Capt. Nabors was a vital asset to the U.S. and Liberian governments during the construction projects of 1942-1943, which improved roads and built an American airbase in Liberia.

Suggested Further Reading
The Uncontrollable Force: A Brief History of the Liberian Frontier Force, 1908—1944 By: Timothy D. Nevin. The International Journal of African Historical Studies Vol. 44, No. 2 (2011), pp. 275-297.

African American Officers in Liberia: A Pestiferous Rotation, 1910-1942 By: Brian G. Shellum, Potomac Books, University of Nebraska Press, 2018.

Liberia and the First World War 1914–1926 By: Harrison Akingbade. Department of History, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Accessed January, 2020.

A Splendid Type of Colored American: Charles Young and the Reorganization of the Liberian Frontier Force. By: Claude A. Clegg. The International Journal of African Historical Studies 29, no. 1 (1996): 47-70.

Buffalo Soldiers in Africa: The U.S. Army and the Liberian Frontier Force, 1912-1927-An Overview By Timothy Rainey. Liberian Studies Journal XXI. (1996).