The black soldiers known as “Buffalo Soldiers” played a crucial role in the fight for black equality in the armed forces. They were created and served in the United States military during perhaps the most volatile period in the history of America, the post–Civil War era. Often the victims of racial discrimination, the Buffalo Soldiers conducted themselves with dignity and honor. Their efforts during peacetime, as well as during conflicts such as the Indian Wars and the Spanish American War, clearly established that blacks were capable soldiers, and thus aided in the desegregation of the armed forces.
While blacks fought in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, it was their participation in the Civil War that led to the creation of organized black regiments. Because a policy established in 1820 barred blacks from serving in the regular army, many of them fought for the Union Army in volunteer regiments such as the Seventy-third Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops, Hunter’s Regiment, the First Kansas Colored, and the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Regiments of Massachusetts. In The Forgotten Heroes: The Story of the Buffalo Soldiers, Clinton Cox notes that by the end of the Civil War, in excess of 180,000 black men had fought for the Union Army, and that more than 38,000 of these soldiers died in the war.
The bravery that blacks exemplified during the Civil War led Congress to consider the formation of black divisions in 1866. Opinions varied on this idea. Some objected, claiming that blacks could not perform military duties as well as whites, that they were unwanted in the North, and that in the South they would be a nagging reminder of the Union’s victory over the Confederacy.
In spite of the opposition, Congress voted to enlist six black regiments for two reasons. First, given their strong record of participation in the Civil War, several members of Congress voted to create the black regiments out of a sense of fairness. Second, Congress realized that blacks were less likely than whites to desert, because they had fewer opportunities in civilian life. Therefore, on July 28, 1866, Congress passed an act establishing the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries and the Thirty-eighth, Thirty-ninth, Fortieth and Forty-first Infantry Divisions, which were later reorganized into the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiments.
Scores of blacks rushed to enlist for five-year terms at thirteen dollars per month. The men came from several states, including Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Their ages ranged from eighteen to thirty-four, and many of them were former slaves. According to Cox, a typical group of 100 recruits in the Ninth Cavalry had worked as soldiers, laborers, farmers, painters, and cooks prior to enlisting.
A group of 100 enlistees in the Tenth Cavalry had held similar positions, but they were from more diverse geographic locations, such as Missouri, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. In contrast to the men of the Ninth Calvary, the majority of these men had not been slaves. However, their societal position was made clear when they arrived for service and found that blacks had been deemed unfit to lead, and that all of the black regiments had white commanding officers.
Ironically, the black regiments were primarily used during the Indian Wars (1775–1890), which pitted them against fellow people of color who were also being oppressed by the U.S. government. Native Americans had inhabited the land long before white settlers arrived, but the U.S. government viewed them as inferior and waged a campaign to remove them from the plains and onto reservations. In Buffalo Soldiers, Catherine Reef notes that the U.S. government’s primary objective in the conflict had been clear since the early 1800s, when President Andrew Jackson declared that “the American people had a duty to bring a dense and civilized population to a land where only a few savage hunters lived” (1993, p. 21)
Despite the difficult nature of the conflict, the all-black regiments served with pride and distinction. They initially began patrolling the Great Plains in April 1867. Their main duties included removing tribes considered to be dangerous and mapping the unsettled western frontier for white settlers seeking land. Additionally, the soldiers helped to remove settlers from unassigned land and protect law-abiding citizens from Native Americans attempting to either reclaim or remain on the land that the federal government had taken away from them.
Although the all-black regiments’ main duties did not involve fighting, there were many instances when they engaged the enemy. A notable battle occurred on August 1, 1867, when the Tenth Cavalry became involved in a skirmish with the Cheyennes after a panic-stricken railroad worker rode into their post near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He explained that Cheyenne warriors had attacked the workers’ camp and killed seven men.
Under the command of Captain George Armes, thirty-four black soldiers mounted their horses and raced toward the camp. While riding, the troops found themselves surrounded by Cheyenne braves and a gunfight broke out. The Cheyennes had superior position and the soldiers were trapped. After approximately six hours of fighting the soldiers were low on ammunition. Realizing that they needed to escape in order to survive, Captain Armes gave the command and the soldiers broke through the circle, fleeing with nearly three hundred Cheyenne warriors in pursuit. The men rode hard for fifteen miles before they were met by reinforcements who assisted them in driving the Cheyennes away.
While the Tenth Cavalry survived the battle, thirteen soldiers were wounded and two were killed. Sergeant William Christy of Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and Private Thomas Smith of South Carolina became the first black casualties of the Indian Wars.
While the Tenth Cavalry lost two men, they gained something significant from the battle—the nickname “buffalo soldiers.” There are two popular theories explaining why the Cheyennes referred to the black troops as buffalo soldiers. One flattering theory contends that the Native Americans, who honored the buffalo because it fought ferociously when cornered, were impressed with the bravery and skills that the black soldiers exemplified while surrounded. Thus, the Cheyenne warriors likened them to the buffalo. A second theory posits that the Cheyennes referred to them as “buffalo soldiers” because they wore thick buffalo skins to stay warm during the harsh plains winters. When wrapped in the hides, their dark skin and curly hair reminded the Native Americans of the animal.
Regardless of which theory is true, Native Americans used it as a term of respect and the Tenth Cavalry embraced the name. Significantly, they included a buffalo as the primary symbol in the crest when they designed their regimental flag. While the name was initially given to the Tenth Cavalry, it was later used to refer to all of the black divisions.
The Buffalo Soldiers distinguished themselves as valiant troops during the Indian Wars. The service of Sergeant Emanuel Stance shows the manner in which they fought. On May 20 and 21, 1870, Stance and nine fellow members of Company F of the Ninth Cavalry engaged a band of Apaches while on patrol near their post at Fort McKavett, Texas. At the time, an Apache band was moving toward the Texas panhandle with a herd of horses and two white children that they had taken captive. Stance and the other soldiers charged the Native Americans, who abandoned their horses and fled toward the mountains. A warrior sharing a horse with one of the kidnapped children pushed him off into the brush to make his escape. The buffalo soldiers captured all nine of the horses that the Apaches left behind and the child eventually made his way to safety at the fort. The child’s older brother remained with the Apaches before later being reunited with his parents.
The following morning, overloaded by the extra horses, Stance and his detail decided to return the animals to the fort. As they traveled back, they witnessed a group of approximately twenty Native Americans en route to attack a group of soldiers guarding a small herd of government horses. Stance again ordered his detail to charge and the Native Americans retaliated, but to no avail. They soon fled leaving behind five horses, which Stance and his men captured. As they continued their journey to Fort McKavett, the Native Americans followed them and launched a final attack. Again, Stance and his men successfully drove them away, eventually returning to the fort with fifteen captured horses and all of his men uninjured.
Stance’s bravery did not go unnoticed. The skirmishes that he fought on May 20 and 21 marked his fourth and fifth encounters with Native Americans and, as in the previous battles, he demonstrated courage under fire. He distinguished himself so well that his commanding officer, Captain Henry Carroll, praised his performance. On June 20, 1870, based on Carroll’s recommendation, Stance became the first black soldier in the U.S. Regular Army to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Despite demonstrating loyalty to the U.S. government, the Buffalo Soldiers endured a great deal of racial discrimination while participating in the Indian Wars. Ironically, the white settlers that they were charged to protect were repeatedly hostile toward them. Their hatred of blacks often manifested itself in the form of violence. Events that occurred at San Angelo, a town adjacent to the Tenth Cavalry’s post at Fort Concho, Texas, serve as a prime example of the kind of hostility that the Buffalo Soldiers had to endure.
Cox notes in The Forgotten Heroes that San Angelo was home to many seedy cowboys, ex-Confederate soldiers, and pimps and prostitutes. Unfortunately, the disreputable inhabitants demonstrated their intolerance of blacks on several occasions. In one instance, Private Hiram Pinder of the Ninth Cavalry was shot and killed by a white gambler in a saloon. The townspeople helped the killer escape and he was never captured. Twelve days after Pinder’s death, Private William Watkins was singing and dancing for drinks in another saloon. He tired of performing and decided to quit for the evening, but a rancher named Tom McCarthy insisted that he continue. When Watkins refused, McCarthy shot and killed him. McCarthy then fled, but he was captured by soldiers who turned him over to the sheriff. Instead of jailing McCarthy, however, the sheriff allowed him to remain free because killing a
black person was only considered a minor crime. When he was finally tried for the murder of Private Watkins, an all-white jury found him not guilty.
In addition to facing discrimination from civilians, the Buffalo Soldiers also encountered systemic prejudice within the military. For instance, black soldiers were always second to their white counterparts when equipment was distributed. White soldiers selected the most pristine weapons and best horses, leaving the Buffalo Soldiers with old rifles and worn-out mares. Furthermore, they were often forced to live in substandard housing infested with bugs and rodents.
Acts of discrimination against the Buffalo Soldiers extended beyond weapons and living quarters. They were constantly reminded of their place in society because high-ranking officers continually denigrated them or shunned them altogether. For example, Gerald Astor notes in The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military that when the Tenth Cavalry, commanded by Colonel William Grierson, initially arrived in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the post commander assigned the troops a campsite in a swamp, but he later criticized them for having muddy tents and uniforms. Furthermore, the post commander also informed the Buffalo Soldiers that they were not allowed within fifteen feet of white soldiers. Additionally, General George Custer refused to accept assignments leading black soldiers, while Captain Ambrose Hooker, commander of the Ninth Cavalry’s Company E, referred to the Buffalo Soldiers as “baboons” and regularly used racial epithets toward them. Although the soldiers’ complained about Hooker’s behavior, no action was taken against him.
Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper serves as another notable example of how the Buffalo Soldiers were mistreated. In 1877 Flipper became the first black graduate of West Point, and he later became the first black commanding officer in the history of the U.S. Regular Army. After receiving his diploma, he passed on several military assignments before choosing to serve at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, with the Tenth Cavalry. Even though he was an officer, Flipper never saw any significant combat and was instead relegated to performing menial tasks such as supervising the erection of poles for telegraph lines and maintaining law and order on the frontier.
Flipper’s military career ended prematurely after he was reassigned to Fort Davis, Texas, where he began a friendship with a white woman. The relationship generated resentment among several of the white officers, and the animosity toward Flipper heightened. His primary duty while stationed at Fort Davis was running the commissary and in July 1881, he was arrested after a discrepancy was discovered in his accounts. He was charged with embezzlement and conduct unbecoming an officer. During the ensuing court-martial, Flipper and his lawyers charged that disgruntled white officers had framed him by stealing the missing funds. Although the money was eventually returned and another prime suspect emerged, Flipper was still tried and found guilty of both charges. As a result, he received a dishonorable discharge from the army on June 30, 1882. (Flipper was finally pardoned, by President William Jefferson Clinton, on February 19, 1999.)
Although they were met with hostility, the Buffalo Soldiers exhibited valor, both on and off the battlefield, throughout the duration of the Indian Wars. By the end of the conflict they had helped settle the Western frontier, for they strung hundreds of miles of telegraph lines and built frontier outposts where towns were soon built. In combat, the Buffalo Soldiers rode more miles and took more prisoners than any other regiment while assisting in the defeat of powerful Native American leaders such as Black Kettle, Victorio, and Geronimo. Furthermore, some of the Buffalo Soldiers, such as Corporal Clinton Greaves, Sergeants William McBryar and Henry Johnson, Sergeant Major Brent Woods, and Private Augustus Walley, were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
While the Buffalo Soldiers are most well known for their service during the Indian Wars, they also participated in the Spanish-American War, which was fought between the United States and Spain in 1898. The sinking of the USS Maine, which had been stationed in Havana harbor as a statement of support for the Cuban revolution against Spain, was a major catalyst for the conflict. Specifically, on February 15, 1898, the ship exploded, killing 260 sailors, and while there was no evidence that a Spanish mine led to the detonation, the incident increased tensions between the United States and Spain. When Spain ended diplomatic talks, the United States responded with a declaration of war on April 20, 1898.
Prior to joining the effort in Cuba, the Buffalo Soldiers once again found themselves the victims of racial discrimination on the home front. All military soldiers were sent to southern states for deployment to Cuba. Upon arriving in the South, the Buffalo Soldiers were greeted with hatred by white soldiers and civilians alike. Kai Wright, the author of Soldiers of Freedom, notes, “Local militias refused to accommodate the black units sent from predominately northern and midwestern states. And local police aggressively enforced Jim Crow laws in public places, violently harassing black troops” (2002, p. 111).
Despite enduring southern racism, all four Buffalo Soldier regiments fought with dignity and honor after arriving in Cuba. On June 24, 1898, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries fought alongside the First Volunteer Cavalry, which is better known as Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, in a key battle in the village of Las Guasimas. The Rough Riders stormed the village but were pinned downed by Spanish gunfire. The Tenth Cavalry fought its way through the jungle, rescued the Rough Riders, and helped force the Spanish soldiers away.
After the battle at Las Guasimas, the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiments joined the Rough Riders and the Tenth Cavalry. Together they fought significant battles at San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill. Casualties were high, and the Tenth Cavalry lost 20 percent of its men. At one point, the Twenty-fourth regiment suffered massive losses when they charged past several white regiments that were reluctant to move forward. Frank Knox, a Rough Rider and future Secretary of the Navy, later remarked about the Buffalo Soldiers, “I must say that I never saw braver men anywhere” (Wright 2002, p. 114). At the conclusion of the battles at San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill, the U.S. troops were firmly in control of the war. Unfortunately, the Buffalo Soldiers’ role in winning the conflict is rarely documented. Instead, the Rough Riders are often glorified as the lone heroes of the war.
After the Spanish American War, the Buffalo Soldiers took part in the Philippine-American War (1899–1902) and the Punitive Expedition in New Mexico (1916–1917), which marked their last considerable combat action. Incidents of racial violence involving the Buffalo Soldiers in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906, and Houston, Texas, in 1916 served as rallying points for whites calling for an end to black military service. Therefore, at the onset of World War I, the Buffalo Soldiers were not called upon to serve, while other blacks were relegated to menial positions. When Congress finally expanded the military draft to include black combat troops, the War Department opted to create the all-black Ninety-second and Ninety-third Divisions in October and December 1917, respectively. These divisions were reactivated during World War II, but the Buffalo Soldiers were formally recreated when the War Department expanded the Ninety-third Division to include the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiments. In 1941 the War Department activated the Second Cavalry Division, into which it put the old Ninth and Tenth Cavalries. Unfortunately, the three units saw limited combat during the conflict.
After World War II, black soldiers returned home with a renewed sense of hope. They believed that because the American people recognized that Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was wrong, they would also realize that treating blacks as second-class citizens was unfair. While it took many years for the United States to fulfill black America’s desire for equality, President Truman took an important step toward making it a reality. On July 28, 1948, the president signed Executive Order 9981, which permanently ended racial segregation in the military. The process of full integration took several years to complete, but by the time of the Korean War (1950–1953), the Twenty-fourth Regiment was the last remaining unit of the Buffalo Soldiers. The Twenty-fourth Regiment was used sparingly in Korea and was officially deactivated on October 1, 1951.
The Buffalo Soldiers played an integral role in paving the way for blacks seeking to enlist in the military. They endured racism and served in harsh conditions, making it possible for blacks to be accepted as equals. While they were scarcely used late in their tenure, their skill, bravery, and valor led to the establishment of other successful black units, such as the Fifty-first Defense Battalion, the 761st Tank Battalion and the Tuskegee Airmen. They also paved the way for the desegregation of the military. Although largely missing from history books, the Buffalo Soldiers have been commemorated with statues and museums in places such as Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; Fort Bliss, Texas; Junction City, Kansas; Tucson, Arizona; and Washington, D.C.
SEE ALSO Black Civil War Soldiers.
Arnold, Thomas St. John. 1990. Buffalo Soldiers: The 92nd Division and Reinforcement in World War II, 1942–1945. Manhattan, KS: Sunflower University Press.
Astor, Gerald. 1998. The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military. Novato, CA: Presidio.
Carlson, Paul Howard. 2003. The Buffalo Soldier Tragedy of 1877. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
Cox, Clinton. 1993. The Forgotten Heroes: The Story of the Buffalo Soldiers. New York: Scholastic.
Downey, Fairfax. 1969. The Buffalo Soldiers in the Indian Wars. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Leckie, William H. 1967. The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Reef, Catherine. 1993. The Buffalo Soldiers. New York: Twenty-First Century Books.
Schubert, Frank N. 1997. Black Valor: Buffalo Soldiers and the Medal of Honor, 1870–1898. Wilmington, DE: SR Books.
———. 2003. Voices of the Buffalo Soldier: Records, Reports, and Recollections of Military Life and Service in the West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Stovall, TaRessa. 1997. The Buffalo Soldiers. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House.
Tucker, Phillip Thomas. 2002. Cathy Williams: From Slave to Female Buffalo Soldier. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.
Wright, Kai. 2002. Soldiers of Freedom: An Illustrated History of African Americans in the Armed Forces. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal.
"Buffalo Soldiers." Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/buffalo-soldiers
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