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The Buffalo Soldiers | Commemorative National Day – July 28th

Feature photo caption: The Sentinel Statue by Reynaldo Rivera honoring the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Selden historic site near Las Cruces, New Mexico

Annually on July 28th, the commemoration of the formation in 1866 of the first regular army regiments of African American soldiers takes place.  The first Buffalo Soldiers Day took place in 1992 following an act of Congress and proclaimed by President George Bush designating July 28th as Buffalo Soldiers Day.  At this time, General Colin Powell, Joint Chiefs of Staff, dedicated a monument to the Buffalo Soldier.  That monument is located at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where the 10th Calvary Buffalo Soldiers were based.  

A brief history tells us that during the Civil War there was the formation of the U.S. Colored Troops.  180,000 fought for the Union of which 33,000 lost their lives. Thousands more black men fought for the South.  After the Civil War ended, many black men enlisted to escape massive unemployment and racial violence taking place in the South.  Thus, in 1866, the birth of the 9th and 10th Cavalries and the 24th and 25th Infantries were formed.  These regiments consisted of all black troops with white officers.  This meant $13 per month, regular meals, and uniforms for the troops.  At that time, there were only ten (10) cavalries in the U.S., and two (2) or 20% of them were black.  These troops were dispatched west and from 1867 – 1891 it was their job to bring peace and order from the Canadian to the Mexican borders and from the Rocky Mountains through the prairie plains.  Oft times fighting was a secondary job as both black and white soldiers constructed forts, roads, guarded stagecoaches and cattle drives, laid railroad lines and telegraph wires and delivered the mail.  It is also important to note, the U.S. Army was the official administrator of national parks at that time meaning these black troops were also responsible for Yosemite and Sequoia National parks and eventually Yellowstone.  They were expected to bring law and order to these wilderness lands by protecting park animals and trees from thieves and forest fires.  

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Colonel Benjamin Grierson and the 10th Cavalry were ordered to protect the Plains states or Territories.  Often, they were fighting hostile Indians, but they further protected five tribes of Indian farmers from less domesticated Indians such as Comanches, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapahoe warriors common in Kentucky and Indian Territory (Oklahoma).  Colonel Edward Hatch and the 9th Cavalry were ordered to Texas where Indians, Comancheros, and Mexican bandits were their foes.  It was their job to not only force Indian rebels back to their reservations but to also remove white pioneers that illegally settled on Indian treaty land.  It was during this initial time period that the Buffalo Soldiers’ nickname was established.  It came from the Cheyenne Indians as a compliment that the dark curly hair of the troops resembled the coat of the buffalo which the Indians held in high esteem.  The soldiers understood this and took great pride in the nickname and adopted the buffalo as a part of their regimental insignia.  They then officially became the Buffalo Soldiers.

The troops at Fort Davis, Texas were assigned tasks as follows:  The Cavalry were primarily fighting and protecting where the Infantry were staffing the garrison, maintaining roads, guarding stagecoach lines, and erecting telegraph systems.

On September 7, 1867, the first mention of these troops was made in Harpers Weekly, a journal of civilization and political magazine based in New York City.  The Buffalo Soldiers received high praise in the Harpers Weekly article.  This being said, you have probably noted the prejudice realized by the simple fact these were segregated troops.  Further, prejudice existed for the 9th and 10th Cavalries from the very people they defended.

A few of the troops were graduates of West Point.  In 1877, Henry Flipper graduated and served as a Buffalo Soldier.  While stationed at Fort Davis, Texas, he was accused of embezzlement, was court-martialed, and given a dishonorable discharge.  In 1887, John Hanks Alexander graduated from West Point.  In 1889, Charles Young graduated from West Point.  He had many accomplishments including being the first black U.S. national park superintendent, first black military attaché, first black man to achieve the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army, and the highest-ranking black officer in the regular army until his death in 1922.  Benjamin O. Davis Sr was highly educated and achieved the rank of Brigadier General.  His son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr graduated from West Point and in 1941 was a member of the first group of African Americans admitted to the Army Air Corps and to pilot training.  Henry V. Plummer was an American Baptist preacher and was appointed chaplain of the 9th Cavalry Regiment of the Buffalo Soldiers by President Chester A. Arthur in 1884.  He became a role model to the Troopers.  Sadly, prejudice sought him out and in 1894 he was dishonorably discharged for drunkenness and poor conduct part of which included a charge of fraternizing with the enlisted men.  However, it took until 2005 to upgrade his discharge to honorable.  It should be noted that some of these men were former slaves.  Additionally, in 1886 Allen Allensworth, a former slave and Civil War Veteran who taught himself to read and write, and became the second black chaplain.  He spent the next two decades with black troops becoming one of the Army’s most innovative and dedicated black educators.  Also, while stationed at Fort Bayard, he wrote an education manual.  Through his leadership, three more black chaplains were appointed – William T. Anderson, Theophilus G. Steward, and George W. Prioleau.

Following the Civil War, there were sixteen (16) military installations in New Mexico.  Eleven (11) of these installations had black soldiers stationed at them.  Between 1866 – 1900, the Buffalo Soldiers in the Territory of New Mexico were charged to maintain the peace, making the territory safe to live in.  In the late 1870s, the Buffalo Soldiers played an instrumental role in the Lincoln County War being brought into the conflict through Fort Stanton.  The following Buffalo Soldiers received the Medal of Honor while fighting in New Mexico:  Sgt. Thomas Shaw, Sgt. George Jordon, Sgt. John Denny, and Sgt. Brent Woods.  

At one point when the 9th Cavalry was assigned to the Great Plains, they were summoned to assist General George Custer and his 7th Cavalry.  They traveled an unheard of 100 miles in a day and were instrumental in saving Custer and the 7th Cavalry in that battle.  Coincidently, General Custer had been one of the first offered to head one of the Buffalo Soldier units, but he turned it down indicating he felt it would be bad for his career.  It should also be noted that William O. Wilson received the final Medal of Honor for bravery for this particular battle.  Twelve men of the 9th Cavalry had received the Medal of Honor.

The 24th and 25th Infantry spent eleven (11) years stretched thin, covering hundreds of miles on the frontier border of Texas.  They served out of Forts Davis, Stockton, Quitman, McEavitt, and Clark.  They were met at Forts Davis and Stockton by the 9th Cavalry.

In 1889, the 24th Infantry had two of its members receive the Medal of Honor – Sgt. Benjamin Brown and Corporal Isiah May.  This was accomplished while they escorted the Paymaster in eastern Arizona and were wounded in an attack by bandits.

1890 saw the end of the Indian Wars with the massacre of the Sioux at the Battle of Wounded Knee in South Dakota.  The Buffalo Soldiers did not fight in this war; however, they were stationed at the Sioux Pine Ridge in the aftermath.

On February 15, 1898, the Battleship Maine was anchored in the Havana harbor.  It was blown up.  266 souls on board went down with the ship.  The blame was placed on Spain and the Spanish-American War resulted.  This would become the first time that all four regiments of the Buffalo Soldiers would serve together.  They were gathered in Georgia, then traveled to Tampa where they embarked for their journey to Cuba.  It needs to be noted that with all the time these troops had spent on the frontier, they were shocked when they arrived in the South by the effect of the Jim Crow laws.  As learned through the journal of Sgt. Horace Bibbins (one of the best shots in the Army):

“When the Buffalo Soldiers left Montana by train they were met with great fanfare along the route.  After approaching and traveling through the South that all changed.  Some stations had waiting rooms indicating the were for “Whites only.”  It was a revelation to us”, Bibbins wrote.

Sgt. Horace Bibbins

It was at this time that Lt. John J. Pershing, a white officer, indicated he was witness to beatings, shootings, and near riots as the Buffalo Soldiers were re-introduced to civilized society.  (Historians have noted that the Jim Crow laws took full force in the 1890s and for over 15-years that followed, the black population suffered worse than just prior to the Civil War and following the Civil War.  The NAACP was founded in 1910 and historians have noted this was not just a coincidence.

Because ships were in short supply, the cavalry horses were left behind and the cavalry would fight on foot in Cuba.  The Buffalo Soldiers arrived in the Ports of Siboney and Daiquiri, Cuba.  Their target, the city of Santiago.  Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders referred to this as the “Splendid Little War.  As it turns out, the Buffalo Soldiers and other units fought together becoming intermingled.  The battles of Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill were won.  It was Lt. George Berry of the 10th Cavalry who planted the U.S. Flag on San Juan Hill.  The Rough Riders were flanked by the 9th and 10th Cavalries.  Much credit was given to the success of this war by the Buffalo Soldiers.  This was echoed by Teddy Roosevelt.  It should be noted that during this war, an epidemic of yellow fever occurred.  A call went out for volunteers to assist with the hospital.  The 24th Infantry answered that call to care for the sick men.  Many of the 24th Infantry fell sick themselves and died.

In 1916, the 10th Cavalry patrolled the U.S./Mexican border during the Army Expedition to capture Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.  The expedition was led by Brigadier General John J. Pershing.  This expedition was unsuccessful and was disbanded so full attention could be given to Germany and World War I.  Interestingly, the 10th Cavalry along with the 35th Infantry did participate in a border skirmish at Nogales, AZ.  On August 27, 1918 during this skirmish it is noted that German military advisors supposedly fought along with Mexican soldiers against the U.S. on U.S. soil during World War I.

During World War II, the 25th Infantry Regiment was based at Fort Huachuca which was also the home base of the Black 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions.  They all fought in the Pacific theater during World War II.  There were other Black divisions who served and it was felt they all carried out the traditions of the Buffalo Soldiers.  Black airmen were trained (Tuskegee Airmen) and a shortage of combat troops was experienced.  General Eisenhower asked for volunteers to which 4500 black soldiers responded.  The excellent records of all these men earned them accolades for skill and bravery.

In 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981.  This was the first federal piece of legislation to desegregate the military and went against the norms of the Jim Crow laws.  Due to this, during the Korean War, integrated units of blacks and white troops were formed.  The 24th infantry was the last remaining black regiment and saw combat during the Korean War.  It was disbanded in 1951.

While the Buffalo Soldiers were still stationed out west after much of the fighting subsided, forts were built, roads were built, and the many other tasks performed were finished, the Buffalo Soldiers looked to accomplish other things such as hunting to improve their diets.  Participation in inter-company sports became popular and tug-of-war was a favorite.  General Abner Doubleday was in the west at this time and introduced the troops to the game of baseball.  Football began.  Bicycling was also examined not only for sport but if it was a possible means of troop transport.  Prior to being in the service, General Benjamin Grierson had been a music teacher.  He acquired musical instruments, taught the men to play, and formed a regimental band.  Both the Officers and the men contributed to funding the band.  The band became a morale booster and the men gained in popularity and respect as they performed for the civilians. 

Photo credit: Buffalo Soldiers Day

On July 25, 1992, one hundred twenty-six years after the Buffalo Soldier units were formed, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Commander Philpot, U.S. Navy presented the Buffalo Soldier Memorial to the Army.  He had led a 10-year drive to have this memorial completed.  (The Buffalo Soldier Monument is a bronze statue sculpted by Eddie Dixon standing 12’9” tall.)  General Colin Powell, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, read from General Benjamin Grierson’s farewell letter to his troops expressing words of admiration and praise to which General Powell added his own. 

Whether the men realized it or not when they enlisted after the end of the Civil War, they became part of the Civil Rights movement in the United States.  It should further be noted that even though desertion rates were high during and following the Civil War, that was not true of the Buffalo Soldiers.  They further had the lowest court-martial rates of that time.  The Buffalo Soldiers became known and recognized time and time again for their courage and fortitude during their rich history of service in this country.

Sources:
Wikipedia
Smithsonian
History.com
1992 Cable Documentary – The Buffalo Soldier

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