African-American troops serving mainly in the American Southwest during the late nineteenth century.
During the American Civil War, more than 180,000 African-Americans served in the United States Army under white officers in segregated, so-called colored regiments. After the war, with the reduction in size of military forces, these troops were consolidated by Congress into four all-black units: the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiments. Although these units would eventually see action in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, in the Philippine Insurrection, and along the Mexican border before and during World War I, their chief fame is for their service on the western frontier in the late nineteenth century. There they earned the name “Buffalo Soldiers,” either because Native Americans thought the black troopers’ hair resembled that of the buffalo or because their fighting spirit reminded the Indians of the buffalo. Either way, the troopers proudly accepted the name as a sign of respect and honor, and it is still applied today to U. S. Army units that are linear descendants of the original Buffalo Soldiers.
Very high standards of recruitment were set by the regiments’ commanders. Because a career in the army usually offered African- Americans better lives than they could lead as civilians at the time, four or five men applied for every opening in the regiments. Thus, the army had its choice of the best candidates, both physically and intellectually. While white soldiers frequently felt underpaid and illtreated, the Buffalo Soldiers were generally delighted with any pay (recruits received $13 a month, plus room, board, and clothing) and were far more accustomed to hard knocks than their white counterparts. Certainly, once in the army, the black troopers found much to their liking. Many of the men availed themselves of after-hours schools established by the regiments and run by their chaplains, so that they might overcome the illiteracy forced on them by slavery. They drank far less than their white counterparts and deserted at a rate of only one-tenth that of such “crack” regiments as Custer’s Seventh Cavalry or Mackenzie’s Fourth Cavalry. Indeed, the Tenth Cavalry posted the lowest desertion rate of any regiment in the U. S. Army in the late nineteenth century.
The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry were among the ten cavalry regiments thinly spread among more than 50 forts in the western states and territories. There they quickly established a reputation for bravery, daring, and incredible endurance. The troopers were constantly in the field, pa- trolling against hostile Indians over harsh terrain and in every extreme of weather. In over a hundred battles and skirmishes, from the Canadian border to south of the Rio Grande, they distinguished themselves against adversaries such as Geronimo, Sit- ting Bull, Victorio, Lone Wolf, Satank, and Satanta, not to mention Billy the Kid and Pancho Villa. Although the efforts of the black troopers were often belittled or simply ignored by the army administration and the newspapers, professional soldiers understood that the Buffalo Soldiers had developed into the most outstanding fighting units in the army. Toward the end of hostilities in the Sioux outbreak of 1890-1891, four companies of the Ninth Cavalry marched 108 miles through a howling blizzard to rescue twice their number of Seventh Cavalry troopers. Along the way they fought two engagements. For this they earned almost no official recognition.
The Buffalo Soldiers’ duties were not limited to fighting. They escorted thousands of civilian contractors’ trains and mail stages over the dangerous frontier. They aided local law officers in making arrests, pursued and captured rustlers and horse thieves, and transported criminals to the nearest civilian courts. They protected cattle herds moving west and kept the stage and wagon trails open. They built and maintained many army posts around which future towns and cities sprang to life, strung thousands of miles of telegraph wire, and guarded the United States-Mexican border. Finally, they explored and mapped some of the most rugged and inhospitable country in North America, opening up a large portion of the continent to settlement. For instance, the Tenth Cavalry scouted 34,420 miles of uncharted terrain and opened more than 300 miles of new roads. One patrol alone was out on the Staked Plains of the Texas Panhandle for 10 weeks in the fall and winter of 1877 covering over 1,360 miles without losing single man or horse.
In spite of their abilities, the Buffalo Soldiers suffered frequent injustices, both from within and without the army. Many superior officers discriminated against the black regiments in housing, equipment, mounts, and assignments. Junior officers often refused to accept transfers to the units because they believed the commissions in the regiments to be socially de grading. Despite promises of fast promotion, officers such as George Armstrong Custer and Frederick Benteen refused commissions with African-American units. Because of such prejudice, the Buffalo Soldiers consistently received some of the worst assignments the army had to offer, but they carried out those assignments without complaint, and without faltering.
Among many civilians, the hatreds engendered by the Civil War and Reconstruction were still fresh, and in some minds former slaves carrying guns were all-too-painful reminders of Southern defeat and Northern victory. Many Texans saw the stationing of black troopers in their state as a deliberate attempt by the government to further humiliate them. Thus, relationships between troopers and locals were often antagonistic at best, and troopers frequently found themselves in siege-type situations, in danger as much from civilians in the settlements as from hostile native forces on the frontier. However, the Buffalo Soldiers managed to meet this prejudice with a stoic resolve and a devotion to duty that eventually surmounted such mistreatment. As one historian noted: “The protection afforded by the [black] cavalryman’s carbines had a marvelous way of transcending the issue of race” (Hamilton, 1987).
With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, the Buffalo Soldiers were sent to Cuba and, led by John J. Pershing, they participated in the desperate charge that secured San Juan and Kettle Hills, fighting alongside future president Theodore Roosevelt and his outfit, the Rough Riders. After their brilliant performance in Cuba, elements of all four black regiments saw action in the Philippine Insurrection. Scattered among army posts throughout the archipelago, black soldiers participated in military operations from northern Luzon to Samar, fighting against the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics of the Filipinos. When the Mexican bandit-general Pancho Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916, a 7,000-man American force received permission from the Mexican government to pursue him. General John Pershing was given command, and he immediately added the Buffalo Soldiers to the expedition. When the United States withdrew from Mexico in 1917 in order to join the Allies fighting World War I, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry stayed behind on the border to guard against possible Mexican invasion or German subversion. In 1918, they fought a pitched battle with Mexican forces at Nogales that ended any threat of German-inspired Mexican intervention.
In 1941, the Ninth and Tenth regiments were formed into the Fourth Cavalry Brigade, commanded by General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., at Camp Funston, Kansas. In 1944, all the horse cavalry regiments were disbanded and, with them, the long and proud service of the Buffalo Soldiers ended. With their sweat, blood, ability, and fidelity, the Buffalo Soldiers won the respect that often eluded them in civilian life at that time. In all, six officers and 15 enlisted men of the Buffalo Soldiers won the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery and gallantry under fire. They were truly the elite soldiers of the late- nineteenth-century United States Army.
References: Carroll, John M., The Black Military Experience in the American West (New York: Liveright, 1971); Downey, Fairfax, The Buffalo Soldiers in the Indian Wars (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969); Hamilton, Allen, Sentinel of the Southern Plains (Fort Worth: TCU Press, 1987).