Buffalo Soldiers by Vale Fitzpatrick

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Buffalo Soldiers

by Vale Fitzpatrick

It should be noted that despite the numerous accomplishments of African American soldiers, or as they were nicknamed “buffalo soldiers” many whites felt that African American troops could not perform well without white officers. However, these whites who traveled with or saw the Buffalo soldiers in action were surprised at their capabilities and gave them a grudging respect. The renowned western artist Fredrick Remington traveled with the 10th Cavalry on patrol and wrote respectfully of their abilities in an 1889 article for The Century.

During the American Civil War 180,000 blacks served in the Union Army. During the summer of 1866 the United States Congress reorganized the regular army. In March 1866 the Senate, debating the army bill, accepted an amendment from Benjamin F. Wade which allowed for regular army black regiments. The post Civil War Army initially had a strength of 57,000 and experienced a long decade of decline settling at a troop level of 26,000 by 1876. Congress recognized the military merits of black soldiers by authorizing two regiments of black cavalry; the 9th and 10th Cavalry, along with four black infantry regiments, the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st. In March 1869 the four infantry regiments were consolidated into the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments1.

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The two cavalry and two infantry regiments were composed of black enlisted men commanded by white officers. Only a handful of black officers existed, such as Henry O. Flipper who became the first black graduate of West Point in 1877. From 1866 to the early 1890s the buffalo soldiers served at a variety of forts and posts throughout Texas and southwest. They participated in 168 or almost 13 percent of the 1,296 skirmishes and battles between 1866 and 1897.2 Between 1869 and 1890, during the Indian war, black soldiers won fourteen Congressional Medals of Honor, nine certificates of merit, and twenty-nine orders of honorable mentions. Despite their valor white citizens objected to black soldiers stationed in their towns, the Army consistently stationed the black units along the frontier, instead of an eastern appointment. Some of their more notable assignments were the restoration of order in the wake of the Johnson Country cattle war in Wyoming (1882), and in Chicago Pullman strike (1894).

During the Indian Wars (1865-1890), The United States Army was deployed to hundreds of isolated forts and posts throughout the West, with little more than a company of infantry or cavalry present. This isolation bred a strong sense of camaraderie. The officers and men often felt part of an extended family that relied on its own customs, rituals, and sense of honor separate from that distant civilian world or from the very different military society “back east.” Chaplain George M. Mullins of the 25th Infantry in 1877 said, “they are possessed of the notion that the colored people of the whole country are more or less affected by their conduct in the Army.”3

When Black regiments were established most white officers were convinced that blacks were mentally inferior and could not make good soldiers. Some officers even requested assignment at a lower rank in a white regiment rather than accept appointment to a “colored regiment.” However, white officers became very loyal to their “buffalo troops.” A memorable and well-publicized incident occurred at Fort Leavenworth in 1867. The post commander, Col. William Hoffman, ordered the Tenth Cavalry not to form on parade so close to his men of the Third Infantry. Colonel Grierson sprang to the Tenth’s defense, and the two colonels engaged in a heated dispute in front of the assembled command. Although most Anglo officers of black regiments took great pride in their units, in return they suffered social condescension, if not ostracism from the rest of the officer corps. Despite discrimination, there was equality in pay as both black and white soldiers received a basic starting pay of $13 a month for a private.

According to historian Robert Utley, blacks brought to the Army certain strengths and weaknesses that reflected their heritage of Slavery and subordination. Almost all were illiterate, throwing on their officers the burden of paperwork. Further, few possessed the mechanical skill necessary for the daily functioning of a military unit. Lack of resourcefulness, initiative, and a sense of responsibility made them more dependent upon good leaders than white soldiers and less effective when acting individually. At the same time blacks excelled in discipline, morale, patience and good humor in adversity, physical endurance and sobriety. Above all they performed well on campaign and in combat.4

The 1880 annual report of General J. M. Schofield, Superintendent of the Military Academy, illustrates the racial and patronizing view many whites had about black officers. He stated, “To send to West Point for four years’ competition a young man who was born in slavery is to assume that half a generation has been sufficient to raise a colored man to the social, moral, and intellectual level which the average white man has reached in several hundred years. As well might the common farm horse be entered in a four mile race against the best blood inherited from a long line of English racers.”5 All the NCOs, however, were black, and enjoyed considerable prestige in black communities. Because blacks had few opportunities in civilian society, many able men enlisted and proved to be superb Indian fighters. (In the 9th Cavalry, eleven noncommissioned officers won the Medal of Honor during the regiment’s long campaign against the Apaches in the Southwest.)

Despite racism African American were eager to join. “The soldiers themselves welcomed the assignment as an opportunity to demonstrate their ‘soldierly qualities’ and to win respect for their race.”6 Black regiments achieved distinction for their role in campaigns against the Indians in the West and acquired an enviable combat reputation.

Elements of the four black regiments served during the Spanish American War, the Philippine insurrection and John J. Pershing’s 1916 punitive expedition. Increasing racial tension in society - exemplified by the Houston Riot of 1917 - marked the end of the buffalo soldiers as combat units. None of the so called buffalo soldier regiments were sent to France during World War I. By World War II the 9th and 10th cavalries were disbanded, and their personnel transferred to service units. The 25th Infantry was deployed to Korea at the start of the conflict however by the armistice the United States military was desegregated.

 1Morris J. MacGregor, Jr. Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-1965 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History United States Army, 1985) http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/books/integration/IAF-01.htm [accessed 9-15-06] pagination unclear in Internet edition

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