Thursday, February 2, 2012

Buffalo Soldiers: The African-American Contribution to Guarding the Frontier

On July 25, 1992, a monument of a soldier on
horseback was dedicated at Fort Leavenworth,
Kansas. This would not seem to be an unusual
event, except that the soldier was an African-
American who symbolized thousands of black
soldiers who suffered, fought and died for their
country. For the most part, the historical record
remains virtually blank in regard to the role played
by African-Americans in the settlement of the
western United States during the 19th century, and
this is especially true of the Buffalo Soldiers.

During the American Civil War, over 186,000
African-Americans volunteered to fight, not only
for the preservation of the Union, but also for
their rights as human beings. With the end of
the war in the spring of 1865, black troops were
included in the force of 50,000 soldiers sent to
Texas to reinforce a United States ultimatum to
France’s Napoleon III, demanding the withdrawal
of his forces from Mexico. Twenty-five African-
American regiments, including two of cavalry,
served in Texas following the war.
On July 28, 1866, Congress established a peacetime
army, drastically reducing the size of the force,
and abolishing all the African-American units
created during the Civil War. Four new cavalry
regiments were created, however, including two
“composed of colored men, having the same
organization as is now provided by law for cavalry
regiments.” Four new “colored” infantry units
were also created. The six new black units were
the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 38th, 39th, 40th
and 41st Infantry. (The infantry units were later
consolidated into the 24th and 25th Infantry
Regiments). Initial recruits were veterans of
Civil War units, as well as recently liberated
slaves. During and after the Civil War, African-
American regiments were composed entirely of
black troops, commanded exclusively by white
officers. According to the cultural bias of the day,
blacks were not educated or intelligent enough
to rise above the rank of sergeant. There were
three exceptions, however. In 1877, 2nd Lt. Henry
O. Flipper, the first African-American graduate
of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was
assigned to the 10th Cavalry. Although there were
several appointments of African-Americans to
West Point during the 19th century, just three
black cadets (Flipper, John H. Alexander, and
Charles Young) graduated, and all were assigned
to African-American units. There is evidence that
these officers, especially Flipper and Alexander,
were relieved of their duties due to trumped-up
charges; they were the victims of racial prejudice
at the hands of their fellow white officers.
Black troops who served in the West eventually
acquired the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers.”

Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry, 
some wearing buffalo robes, Ft. Keogh, Montana

 Legend states that American Indians
who encountered African-Americans in the West
saw a similarity between the hair of the black
soldiers and that of the buffalo. Since the buffalo
was an important and revered animal to Native
Americans, the term was thought to express the
respect they held for the soldiers - who were
often their enemies. The four black regiments,
two infantry and two cavalry, remained in the
West until the Spanish-American War. During this
period, the U.S. Army consisted of just 10 cavalry
and 25 infantry regiments, meaning that one in
five cavalry soldiers and one in eight infantry
soldiers were black.
During their nearly three decades on the frontier,
Buffalo Soldiers served at some of the worst, most
isolated posts in America, performing their duties
under unusually difficult circumstances. The
Army often supplied inferior horses (often cast-
offs from white regiments), and substandard food.
Reality dictated that life at a frontier outpost was
lonely, especially because Buffalo Soldiers were
not always welcome in the towns neighboring
their posts. Off-duty time might be passed in
singing, accompanied by the mouth harp, card
playing, wagering on dice, reading or writing
letters home. Personal hygiene was also observed
during these hours. Soldiers of the 19th Century
were fond of tobacco and beer, which could be
purchased from the post sutler. Photos of loved
ones back home made the long years on the
frontier seem less solitary.
Soldiers of the 1860s to 90s were issued two
uniforms, one for dress and one for field use. The
dress uniform was worn for parades, inspections
and ceremonies. Uniforms, especially headgear,
were influenced by Prussian styles during most
of this era. While staying in a garrison or fort, a
soldier was expected to keep his uniform and
equipment in spotless condition. To improve
their status and earn promotion, soldiers studied
army manuals and handbooks, and practiced on
the shooting range. Post schools and libraries
offered many illiterate soldiers the opportunity
to learn to read and write. Each of the black units
was assigned a chaplain, whose duty was to look
after the moral health of the men and promote
literacy among them. Literacy also paved the road
to a possible promotion, for non-commissioned
officers were required to know how to read and
While on campaign, a soldier’s uniform and
equipment were modified for the extreme
conditions of the American West. Personal
possessions were carried in a haversack, and
included eating utensils, a mess tin, rations
including hardtack (hard bread), coffee and
salt pork, a tin cup, takedown tools for a rifle
or carbine, and a “housewife” (sewing kit).
Cavalry troopers carried their field equipment
on horseback, but infantrymen, called “walk-a-
heaps” by the plains Indians, carried their shelter
half, blanket and poncho wrapped in a horseshoe-
shaped blanket roll slung over their shoulders. In
addition, the foot soldier had to carry a rifle with
100 rounds of ammunition, a bulging haversack,
and a canteen full of water, adding up to about
50 pounds of equipment per man. Infantrymen
could be expected to carry these loads twenty to
thirty miles a day on a long campaign, which often
involved passing through burning deserts and
wind-swept plains, in the heat of summer and the
intense cold of winter.
Despite such hardships, black soldiers performed
splendidly. It is thought that more than 12,000
served during the late 19th century, most for
the five years of the average enlistment. They
garrisoned forts, protected settlers and railroad
crews, guarded mail and stage routes, built roads
and forts, strung telegraph lines, and generally
kept the peace. African-American troops fought
more than 125 engagements with American
Indian tribes; the expeditions against the Apache
leaders Victorio and Nana were conducted almost
exclusively by black troopers. They also fought
against Mexican outlaws and border desperadoes,
and helped to control bandits, cattle thieves, and
bootleggers in the sometimes lawless west. Their
re-enlistment rate was higher than average, and
measurably higher than their white counterparts
in other regiments. Eighteen African-Americans
were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor
for deeds of valor between 1866 and 1898, a very
high percentage representing a legacy of courage
and patriotism.
When war was declared with Spain in 1898, all
four of the African-American army units were
called eastward to fight in the Caribbean. When
the Rough Riders made their famous charge up
Kettle and San Juan Hills in Cuba, they were
assisted by elements of the 9th and 10th Cavalry,
whose contributions to the success of the charge

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