Buffalo Soldiers

“Negroes had little, at the turn of the century, to help sustain our faith in ourselves except the pride that we took in the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry, the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth infantry … They were our Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson.” –Prof. Rayford Logan, Howard University, Washington, D.C.

It remains a mystery why the Indians called the Black cavalrymen Buffalo Soldiers. Some say it was because the men were rugged as buffalo; others say it was because the Indians saw a resemblance between the soldiers’ hair and the buffalo’s shaggy coat. Also, many of the soldiers wore long buffalo robe coats. The name was primarily applied to the cavalry but sometimes included the Black infantry. The infantry, Black and White, were also called “Walk-a Heaps.”

More than 180,000 Blacks served in the Union Army and of these more than 33,000 died. After the war, the future of Blacks in the Army was not certain. In 1866 Congress passed legislation establishing two cavalry and four infantry regiments (later consolidated to two) to be made up of Blacks. The majority of the recruits had served in all-Black units during the war. The mounted regiments were the 9th and 10th cavalries and the infantry regiments were the 24th and 25th infantry Units. Until the early 1890s, these regiments comprised 20% of all cavalry forces on the American frontier. Their adversaries included Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Victorio, Lone Wolf, Billy the Kid and Pancho Villa.

The Buffalo Soldiers explored and mapped vast areas of the Southwest and strung hundreds of miles of telegraph lines. They built and repaired frontier outposts and protected railroad workers. The soldiers also built roads, discouraged illegal traders who sold guns and alcohol to Indians, policed cattle rustlers and formed escorts for stagecoaches carrying military payroll or other valuables. The Buffalo Soldiers also fought beside Theodore Roosevelt at San Juan Hill and helped to save the 7th Cavalry in the aftermath of Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

The Black regiments received some of the worst assignments the Army had to offer and faced prejudice regarding both the color of their uniform and their skin. Despite the many obstacles they faced, the 9th and 10th cavalries developed into two of the most distinguished fighting units in the Army.

During the early years, the Buffalo Soldiers served mainly in Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico. In 1885 several companies from the 9th cavalry were sent to Indian Territory to remove the Boomers, White homesteaders trying to stake illegal claims on Indian lands. In 1892 four companies of the 24th infantry were transferred from Fort Bayard, New Mexico and Fort Huachuca in Arizona, and in 1896 two companies of the 24th infantry were sent to the Nogales area to fight Yaqui Indians in the final stages of the Indian wars.

Black soldiers patrolled the Mexican border from temporary camps. The Newell Cantonment at Naco was created in response to Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico in 1916. Over 1,000 followers of Pancho Villa rode into Columbus, starting fires and killing nineteen Americans. An agreement between President Woodrow Wilson and Mexican President Venustiano Carranza permitted both nations to pursue bandits across the border. The mission ordered by Wilson was executed by General John J. Pershing who had the nickname “Black Jack” for leading Black regiments early in his career. Among the troops sent across the border were the 24th and 25th infantry and the 10th cavalry.

One of the leaders in Pershing’s mission was Charles Young. Born in Kentucky in 1864, Young continued a military tradition started by his father who had served in the Colored Artillery during the Civil War. Young graduated from West Point and served in the military intelligence unit. In Mexico he led the 2nd squadron against Pancho Villa’s rebels at Agua Caliente. Young became a colonel in 1916 and commanded Fort Huachuca, Arizona in 1916-1917. He was the first African American to achieve the rank of Colonel.

Daily life on the Western Frontier was harsh for the Black soldiers but it was similar to conditions faced by their White counterparts in many ways. Barracks were poorly ventilated and had vermin. Bathing facilities were local creeks. Diseases such as dysentery, diarrhea, bronchitis and tuberculosis were common. Rations were beef or bacon, potatoes, beans, fresh vegetables from the post garden and occasionally fruit or jam. The work week was seven days, with the exception of July 4 and Christmas. The monthly pay for a private was $13.00. Many Blacks studied after hours in schools usually run by chaplains assigned to the Black units. Studying had been forbidden during slavery so most Black soldiers were illiterate.

Only a small percentage of the Black men could bring their wives to the frontier posts. The small villages around the forts were usually a collection of saloons and gambling parlors. Racial prejudice by both local citizens and law officers was widespread. When disputes arose among the Black soldiers and the locals, officials and juries often sided against the soldiers.

The Buffalo Soldiers served in the Indian Wars and distinguished themselves in spite of being issued old horses, insufficient ammunition and faulty equipment. They were rarely guilty of drunkenness in a time and place where alcoholism was common. Their rate of desertion and court martial was much lower than that of White soldiers. From 1880-1886 the 24th infantry held the record for the lowest desertion rate in the entire United States Army. In 1888 the 24th and 25th Infantry were tied for the honor.

The Buffalo Soldiers organized excellent bands that encouraged good relations with the civilian populations. They offered concerts, played for parades and funerals, and provided dance music for church benefits.

Lt. Henry O. Flipper served in the 10th cavalry and was the first Black to receive a commission and graduate from West Point. Discrimination in West Point against Blacks was pervasive in the last quarter of the 19th century when Flipper attended. After graduating he was assigned in 1877 to the 10th Cavalry.

In the spring of 1881, Colonel William R. Shafter became commander of the post in Fort Davis, Texas, where Lt. Flipper was assigned the duties of Acting Assistant Quartermaster and Acting Commissary of Subsistence. Colonel Shafter relieved Flipper of his Quartermaster duties. It was then that Lt. Flipper discovered commissary funds missing from his trunk. Afraid of the ill-tempered Colonel Shafter, Flipper acted to conceal the loss until the money was found. Lt. Flipper was charged with embezzlement and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. The court found him guilty of misconduct and ordered his dismissal.

Following his dishonorable discharge from service, Lt. Flipper spent 37 years as a civil and mining engineer in the state and in Mexico and became the first Black to gain recognition in the engineering profession. From 1893-1901 he worked for the Department of Justice as a special agent for the Court of Private Land Claims.

Lt. Flipper maintained his innocense of the misconduct charge and sought to have a bill clearing his name passed in Congress. He died in 1940 at age 84 with his dishonorable discharge still in place. Professor Cortez Williams states that Flipper’s discharge was later changed to an honorable one as a result of the research of University of New Mexico student Donald Walker in the late 1960’s. In 1976 the United States Army reviewed Lt. Flipper’s case and posthumously awarded him an honorable discharged dated June 30, 1882. He was pardoned of all charges by President Bill Clinton in 1999.

An article in The Perspective magazine states that the Buffalo Soldiers served as an inspiration to those who came after them in the Air Force and Navy including the Tuskegee Airmen and the Golden Thirteen. In 1941 the Air Force began a program in Alabama to train Black servicemen as military pilots or “Tuskegee Airmen,” as they came to be known. The Tuskegee Institute, the school founded by Booker T. Washington, conducted the flight training. The Tuskegee Airmen trained to be fighter pilots flew in the 99th Fighter squadron in combat duty in North Africa and the 332nd Fighter Group that flew combat missions in Italy. In February 1944, the Navy commissioned its first African American officers, a major step forward in promoting the status of Blacks in the Navy. Twelve commissioned officers and a warrant officer who received his rank at the same time came to be known as the “Golden Thirteen.”

The Buffalo Soldiers Society of New Mexico today informs adults and youth about the history of those who came before them. The Society consists of 25 members from various walks of life. From retired members of all branches of the military to a retired Boy Scout leader, today’s Buffalo Soldiers share the same dedication to the uniform as the original Buffalo Soldiers did. The New Mexico unit performs at schools, colleges, historical societies, parades, and government events. These Buffalo Soldiers are not re-enactors but educators. They describe themselves as a traveling museum as they have from 50 to 70 authentic artifacts with them whenever they give a presentation. The organization has received an endowment from the New Mexico Humanities Council to teach the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.


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