The Buffalo Soldiers

In the years nearing the end of the Civil War, black soldiers who wanted to remain in the U. S. Army came under bitter opposition in the United States Senate. Although they had made significant contributions to the Union military effort during the War, few whites seemed to want blacks in the peacetime army. Nevertheless, in 1866, Congress elected to organize the blacks into six new units called the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments and the 38th through 41st Infantry Regiments. All six regiments were the Buffalo Soldiers, but it is the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments which scholars most closely associate with the name, probably because they were mobil on horseback. No intention, however, is meant to slight the infantry’s achievements.

The 10th Cavalry organized in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the 9th Cavalry in Greenville, Louisiana, but the 9th soon relocated to Fort Brown, Texas, on the Mexican border. By 1867, these regiments had gone West to help quell the Indian unrest. The Indians who saw them called them "buffalo soldiers" because their kinky hair resembled the fur of the buffalo, and their strong fighting spirit made them worthy opponents. The soldiers accepted this name with great honor, knowing the Indians would only give it to a respected enemy. It wasn’t long before the 10th Cavalry incorporated a likeness of a buffalo on its regiment’s crest. In 1869, the infantry was greatly reduced…to the 24th being composed of the former 38th and 41st , and the 25th being composed of the former 39th and 40th. Since the black infantry invariably went to the same outposts as the black cavalry, they share equally in the history and glory of the group.

Ten percent of the overall Army’s population was black, but the Buffalo Soldiers often made up half the available forces at specific outposts. In many cases, as a result of their labors, a foundation was laid for future cities, such as Fort Sill and Lawton, Oklahoma. Black soldiers were always eager to enlist. Each term was for five years, and nearly all enlistees were illiterate, since most were from states where it had been illegal to teach blacks to read. All were paid less than their white counterparts. Their quarters were usually overcrowded and squalid…the worst on the post…and their rations were often poorly cooked and insufficient in quantity. Many times, their equipment was inferior, including the horses, but the men were ferocious and courageous in battle, even when heavily outnumbered. Their desertion rate was the lowest in the army, and chronic drunkenness, a source of real concern in other regiments, was almost totally unknown.

In the beginning, all the officers were white, and many of them began as inexperienced cavalry officers with a total contempt for black soldiers. Advertisements appeared regularly in the Army and Navy Journal for white officers seeking transfer out of the black companies, but as the Buffalo Soldiers’ fame spread and their achievements were made known, it became a badge of pride on a white officer’s record. One man who positively refused to command the 9th Cavalry was George Armstrong Custer. Ten years later, in June 1876, the 9th Cavalry was the unit that returned Comanche, the 7th Cavalry’s lone surviving horse, from the disaster at the Little Bighorn.

A true Buffalo Soldier always answered with at least three "sirs:" "Yes sir, Captain sir, it shall be done, sir!" Their motto, "Ready and Forward," fit them well, for all their adversaries, especially the Indians, came to respect and fear them. They were known for their pride. At one point in their career, during the summer of 1880, the two cavalry regiments were involved in the campaign against Victorio and his Apaches, tracking the enemy more than 1,200 miles, an unheard of ordeal for man and beast before or since.

The toughest assignments always fell to the Buffalo Soldiers, and they relished them. They campaigned on the roughest trails of the Great Plains, along the entire Mexican border, in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Dakota Territory. Their antagonists were the enemies of peace, order and settlement, and it sometimes involved placing whole towns under martial law. They fought warring Indians, bandits, cattle thieves, murderous gunmen, bootleggers, trespassers, and Mexican revolutionaries, regardless of the extremes of climate or a terrain that ranged from the wilderness of Big Bend to the badlands of South Dakota. They were at the Battle of Red River and the capture of Cochise. They chased the Chiricahuas into Mexico, engaging Nana, Chato, and Geronimo. In Texas, they campaigned on the Pecos after all manner of hostiles and stormed into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa.

Besides their usual duties of fighting Indians and maintaining law and order, the Buffalo Soldiers also protected the mail and stage coaches, opened new roads and telegraph lines, mapped the streams and water holes. They guarded the railroad workers and watched over animals and supply lines, and they protected immigrants and other travelers and workers not only from Indians, but also from other dangers. They escorted farmers and miners and cattlemen who migrated from the East, and they watched over these groups while they were in the West. Civil officials, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas, could not have performed their duties without them. The extreme courage of these black men in blue played a big part in making the West safe for pioneers.

One of the most famous of the Buffalo Soldiers was Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper. He was West Point’s first black graduate and America’s first black officer, and he became the first black hero in the ranks of the black regiments. He graduated on 14 June 1877, after having sustained a four-year curriculum of loneliness and isolation. When he reported to the 10th Cavalry at Fort Sill, Indian Territory, he was surprised to find that he was readily accepted, even welcomed, by the white officers in the regiment. At all his duty posts in Indian Territory and Texas, he was well-liked and respected, until he ran up against a jealous white officer. Court-martialed on trumped-up charges, he never let humiliation destroy his spirit. In 1972, all charges against him were reviewed and his court-martial dismissed, ensuring him his rightful place in history.

The Buffalo Soldiers were unequaled at waging war and keeping the peace. The only obstacles which they could not overcome were those of prejudice and discrimination. These twin foes were constant enemies, ever harassing, hampering and embarrassing their efforts, but it never defeated their spirit. They left a distinguished record of service in ridding the Indian menace from the Southwest, and it is here that they achieved their greatest glory. They were fighting men, and they "took guff off nobody" on the wrong side of the law.

After the Indian wars, they continued into greatness, playing an essential role in the taking of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. Called all sorts of names, some of them insulting, by various groups who despised not only the military in general, but men of color in particular, the Buffalo Soldiers achieved glory in the face of nearly overwhelming obstacles. Theirs is a story of triumph and sacrifice. In short, they aided in bringing a new civilization into existence.

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