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“Buffalo” Soldiers

“Buffalo” Soldiers. In the post–Civil War regular army, Congress set aside six regiments for black enlisted men in the reorganization act of 28 July 1866. These were the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry Regiments. The act marked the first inclusion of black units in the regular army. It was seen as recognition of the contribution black units of the Union army had made in the Civil War. In the spring of 1869, the 38th and 41st were merged into the 24th Infantry Regiment; the 39th and 40th became the 25th. Commissioned officers of the black units were white (the only exceptions before 1901 were Henry Flipper, Charles Young, and John Alexander).

Until the 1890s, the black regiments served almost entirely at remote western frontier posts. Comprised initially of mostly illiterate former slaves, they overcame their shortcomings and the army's initial tendency to supply them with cast‐off equipment. They also faced considerable racial hostility and occasional violence from white civilians throughout their frontier service.

All saw action against hostile Indians. Sergeant Emanuel Stance of the Ninth Cavalry was the first of eighteen black soldiers to receive the Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars between 1870 and 1890. Both cavalry regiments played prominent roles in the brutal Apache wars of 1877–81; they suffered more casualties than all the other frontier campaigns. They also fought in Cuba, in the Philippine War (1899–1902), and in Mexican border skirmishes (1915–16).

The sobriquet “Buffalo” Soldiers was applied first to the 10th Regiment around 1870. The term apparently originated with the Cheyenne Indians, who may have seen a similarity between the curly hair and the dark skin of the soldiers and the buffalo. Soon the Ninth's troopers also became known as buffalo soldiers, and ultimately the infantrymen too came to be considered buffalo soldiers. Many writers contend that the name reflected the Indians' respect for the soldiers, but Native American commentators disagree.
[See also African Americans in the Military; Army, U.S.: 1866–99; Plains Indians Wars.]

Bibliography

William H. Leckie , The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West, 1967.
Arlen L. Fowler , The Black Infantry in the West 1869–1891, 1971.
Frank N. Schubert , On the Trail of the Buffalo Soldier: Biographies of African Americans in the U.S. Army, 1866–1917, 1995.

Frank N. Schubert

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