|Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum Newsletter
Volume 2 - Issue 3
Published four times each year ~ January, April, July & October
The Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Myer, Virginia
As a young Staff Sergeant, I was assigned to Company E of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment at Fort Myer from 1981 to 1983. The 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment better known as “The Old Guard” is the Army’s oldest active unit - established in 1784. The mission of The Old Guard is to conduct nuclear, biological, and chemical operations as well as area security operations and control civil disturbances in the military district of Washington’s defense
of the capital region. In addition, this elite unit provides around the clock guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers; performs 12-15 funerals daily; places small flags in front of the 280,000 gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery for Memorial Day; and performs at the Kennedy Center, the White House, the Presidential Inauguration, and other highly visible events. Soldiers in The Old Guard must be no less than 5’10” tall with no facial hair or restricted physical conditions. In 1982, the unit authorized its first female soldiers.
My job, as Staff Sergeant, consisted of providing the appropriate equipment and uniforms for The Old Guard soldiers. At times, I traveled with the regimental recruiting team. Prior to any performance or ceremony, these soldiers are allowed three hours to prepare their uniforms. Each soldier’s uniform and equipment is inspected and re-inspected for perfection. Their uniforms are tailor-made and a school-trained barber is available to give soldiers a precise haircut. The Old Guard is the sister unit to the soldiers assigned to Buckingham Palace for the King and Queen of England.
I am proud that I had the opportunity to march on Summerall Field at Fort Myer. These are same grounds where the Buffalo Soldiers trained so many years before. The Old Guard uses this field to honor retiring Joint Chiefs of Staff and other high-ranking military and civilian leaders. When Carmon and I visited Fort Myer in 1998, several buildings have signs mounted with gold lettering stating that the Buffalo Soldiers were stationed there. (Photo from BSRM Collection).
With the recent death of former President Ronald Reagan, the Old Guard soldiers were visible at every ceremony and event. These soldiers always look like perfect tin soldiers. Fort Myer is located in Virginia on hills overlooking the Potomac River. Today, it is home for thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airman working throughout the military district of Washington DC.
History of Fort Myer
Fort Myer began as a Signal Corps post in 1861. Major A. J. Myer began work at Georgetown, District of Columbia, with a small group of volunteers although the Corps eventually grew to about 300 officers and 2,500 men. Authorized as a separate Corps by an Act of Congress, on March 3, 1863, its organization was not completed until August 1864. The outcome was an embodiment of the Army saying that "one campaign in Washington is worth two in the field." More than 2,000 signalmen served at the front. Colonel Myer had his commission vacated in July, 1864, and his successor, Colonel Nicodemus, was dismissed six months later; the command then passed to Colonel B. F. Fisher, who was never confirmed by the Senate.
Signal messages were sent by means of flags, torches, or lights, by combinations of separate motions. The flag or torch was held upright. To signal, the flag was waved to the left or the right, or waved/dipped to the front. When a letter was composed of several figures, the motions were made in rapid succession without any pause. Letters were separated by a very brief pause, and words or sentences were distinguished by one or more dip motions to the front. There were also more than 20 combinations of colored lights which permitted an extended system of prearranged signals. White, red, and green rockets and white flags with a square red center were most frequently used for signaling purposes. When snow was on the ground, a black flag was used; and, with varying backgrounds the red flag with a white center could be seen at greater distances than the white.
To secure secrecy, all important messages were encoded with a cipher disk. Two concentric disks, of unequal size and revolving on a central pivot, were divided along their outer edges into 30 equal compartments. The inner and smaller disk contained in its compartments letters, terminations, and word-pauses, while the outer, larger disk contained groups of signal numbers. Sometimes this arrangement was changed and letters were on the outer disks and the numbers on the inner. By the use of prearranged keys, and through their frequent interchange, the secrecy of messages was almost absolutely ensured.
In every important war campaign, the Signal Corps’ flags flaunted defiantly at the forefront, speeding orders of advance, conveying warnings of impending danger, and sending suggestions of defeat. Throughout the Civil War, they were seen on the advanced lines of Yorktown, Petersburg, and Richmond, in the trenches at Charleston, Vicksburg, and Port Hudson, at the battles of Chickamauga and Chancellorsville, before the fort-crowned crest of Fredericksburg, in Sherman's march to the sea, and with Grant's victorious army at Appomattox and Richmond.
On August 4, 1886, an Act of Congress called for the re-establishment of Fort Myer as a military station and called for the Signal Corps School to vacate the Fort, which it did on August 7, 1886. The Signal Corps is now located at Fort Gordon, Georgia. On July 6, 1887, Fort Myer became a cavalry post. On July 15, 1887, Troop B of the 4th Cavalry from Fort Huachuca, Arizona arrived at the fort. This change required new stables, new troops barracks, and eventually a riding hall. Over the next 30 years, Fort Myer transformed from a region of aging frame structures into elegant brick buildings, many of which still stand and house companies of the Old Guard.
Fort Myer has been the home of the Army Chief of Staff for nearly a century and General Colin Powell lived there while serving in this position. The Army Chief of Staff home called “Quarter One” was built in May 1899 at a cost of $18,471. It is a two-story structure with a basement and attic and contains 21 rooms on a foundation measuring 40 by 54 feet.
Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Myer
No Buffalo Soldiers unit had ever served east of the Mississippi since Reconstruction, nor had one ever served near a significant center population. The first unit arrived to Fort Myer as part of a reward for their hard service during a brutal winter campaign against the Sioux Indians; known as the Pine Ridge Campaign. The Secretary of War announced the transfer and three remarkable distinctions occurred. First, it was the first black unit to serve east of the Mississippi; second, it was near a city of any size, and last, it was at Fort Myer in the post-Reconstruction period.
On May 22, 1891, Troop K of the 9th U.S Cavalry left Fort Robinson, Nebraska by rail bound for Fort Myer and arrived on May 25, 1891. Upon arrival, the 69 men and three officers received 55 serviceable horses and began training. Troop K performed routine garrison duties with other Fort Myer cavalry units. Garrison duties consisted of drills, parades, practice and still more practice, which differed from one season to another. If the weather proved inclement, there was a riding hall tucked away in one corner of the post in which the drills and shows could be performed.
In August 1893, Troop K served as escort to President Grover Cleveland during a special parade. Cavalry soldiers from Fort Myer were more than show soldiers; they were good saddle riders and complete masters of their horses. They practiced bareback on dead-level heats and jumped hurdles of varying heights that were designed to provide mastery and survival in the field. The soldiers were professionals who, on a moment’s notice, could draw up in a line in front of the White House ready for either action or parade. On October 3, 1894, the 9th U.S. Cavalry returned to Fort Robinson.
In 1916, the 10th Horse Cavalry was part of General Pershing’s expedition into Mexico. They remained on the U.S. southwest border during World War I, and in 1931 its squadrons were sent to support Army training at West Point, NY; Fort Myer, VA; and Fort Leavenworth, KS. Machine Gun Troop of the 10th U.S. Cavalry arrived at Fort Myer on October 15, 1941. They were housed in building 308 and their horse stables were located in buildings 306 and 307, adjacent to the barracks.
Soldiers from the 10th who were later interviewed spoke of segregated facilities such as the dining hall, Post Exchange, and barber shop. Even though this era was characterized by discrimination and unfair treatment, the Buffalo Soldiers of the Machine Gun Troop worked hard to overcome the obstacles. Their exceptional performance and fine talents were displayed during parades and horse shows, as well as their routine duties conducting burials at Arlington National Cemetery.
During World War II, the Army staged an exhibit at the Washington Monument called “Back the Attack.” The Buffalo Soldiers performed daring maneuvers with glittering sabers and colorful uniforms to help sell war bonds. In addition to performing in parades and horse shows, they performed duties as saddlers, horseshoers, drivers for senior grade officers, housekeepers, groomsmen for senior officers, and prisoner escorts. The Machine Gun Troop was also responsible for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s horses which Mrs. Roosevelt rode daily.
Information in this newsletter was taken from Fort Myer Buffalo Soldier. Prepared by the Equal Opportunity Office, Fort Myer Military Community, Fort Myer, VA 22211-5050 (703) 696-2976.
Other books of interest about the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments include:
Billington, M. L. & Hardaway, R. D. (eds.) (1998) African Americans on the western
frontier. Niwot, CO: University of Colorado Press.
Buckley, G. L. (2001). American patriots: The story of blacks in the military from the
revolution to desert storm. NY: Random House.
Burton, A. T. (1999). Black, buckskin & blue: African American scouts & soldiers on the western frontier. Austin, TX: Eakin Publishers.
Carroll, J. M. (ed.) (1972). The black military experience in the American west. NY:
Liveright Publishing Co.
Johnson, H. (1991). Buffalo soldiers: The formation of the ninth cavalry regiment July
1866-1867. Ft Leavenworth, KS: US Army Command and General Staff College.
Glass, E.L. N (ed.) (1972). History of the tenth cavalry 1866-1921. Ft. Collins, The Old
Kenner, C. L. (1999). Buffalo soldiers & officers of the ninth cavalry 1867-1898: Black &
white together. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
Lanning, M. L. (1997). The African American soldier: From Crispus Attucks to Colin
Powell. Toronto, Ontario: Carol Publishing Group.
Leckie, W. The buffalo soldiers. Norman, OK: University Press of Oklahoma.
Mcmiller, A. W. (1990). Buffalo soldiers: The formation of the tenth cavalry regiment
from September 1866 to August 1867. Ft. Leavenworth, KS: US Army Command
and General Staff College.
Schubert, F. N. (1993). Buffalo soldiers, braves and the brass: The story of Ft.
Robinson, Nebraska. Shippensburg, PA: The White Mane Publishing Company.
For more information, contact the
Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum
P.O. Box 30753
Indianapolis, IN 46230