At the outbreak of the Civil War, the government was fighting the Indians in the west. It withdrew most of its men and resources from the Indian wars, to concentrate on ending the rebellion. At the end of the Civil War, 186,000 black soldiers had participated in the war, with 38,000 killed in action. Southerners and eastern populations did not want to see armed Negro soldiers near or in their communities. They were also afraid of the labor market being flooded with a new source of labor. General employment opportunities in these communities were not available to blacks, so many African-Americans took a long hard look at military service which offered shelter, education, steady pay, medical attention and a pension. Some decided it was much better than frequent civilian unemployment.
When Congress reorganized the peacetime regular army in the summer of 1866, it recognized the military merits of black soldiers by authorizing two segregated regiments of black cavalry. Orders were given to transfer the troops to the western war arena, where they would join the army's fight with the Indians. White officers commanded all of the black regiments at that time.
Initial recruiting efforts concentrated on filling recruitment quotas with little regard for the recruit's capability and soldiering skills. These recruits had to be discharged and replaced, causing a delay in some regiments arriving at their assigned posts. Over a period of time, since whites could get good jobs in peacetime and even highly educated blacks usually could not, recruiters increasingly, began to enlist blacks who were more intelligent and capable than the average white soldier.
Black soldiers who fought in the Indian Wars, fought to win and to give their lives if necessary, for their personal beliefs. They wanted to gain the respect and equality they never saw as slaves and rarely received as freedmen, so they continued on as soldiers. They were sadly mistaken in thinking they would gain these components of freedom, in a country which still held deep racial and cultural prejudices.
As soon as these soldiers were relocated into hostile environments, they were engaged in life and death struggles. They were under fire. Friends were killed and their oath to keep the peace, put to the test by Indians, settlers and those outside the law. Though they guarded railroads and telegraph lines, stagecoaches, arms shipments, towns, homesteads, whites and Indians, they never knew when they would be ambushed by foes or the very townspeople they were protecting. Not infrequently, just by entering a town or saloon, shoot-outs occurred. There was also the occasional sniper, waiting for a kill. Those that murdered troopers were never punished for their crimes, even when there were witnesses. The troopers always responded with a deadly intent of their own. When investigated by the military, those troopers found guilty were punished accordingly, but not always justly.
After arriving at their posts the alternatives to soldiering were: desert to all white communities (where they were regarded with hateful scorn and risked imprisonment), death and torture at the hands of the Indians, or possible death by exposure to the killing heat and freezing cold. Though the Buffalo Soldiers did their duty in carrying out the government's version of law and order on the frontier west, many influential blacks such as Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce, continually spoke out for the Indians and against the United States treaty making and treaty breaking policies.
Segregation in the Military
The army supported segregation. It maintained separate facilities where possible. The Buffalo Soldiers built many forts whose facilities at times they couldn't use. At Fort Concho for example, there were separate rooms for educational purposes. The necessities of military life forced white and black troops together, breaking down long standing prejudices. Lieutenant Charles J. Crane always believed in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon and resented his appointment to the Twenty-third Infantry. But in his autobiography he wrote he was happy with the assignment.
“So brave and courageous were these men that their legendary Indian foes called them Buffalo Soldiers. Their commanding officer, Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson of Civil War fame, said the name was given because the Indians respected a brave and powerful adversary, which relates directly to their much-revered buffalo. Others say it was due to the similarity of the soldier's hair to that of the hair surrounding the buffalo's head.”
The Buffalo Soldiers’ units had the lowest desertion rate in the army, though their army posts were often in the worst country in the west. Official reports, show these soldiers were frequently subjected to the harshest of discipline, racist officers, and poor food, equipment and shelter. In spite of these deprivations, the morale of these soldiers remained high. Some white commanding officers were proud to lead these men and publicly expressed their feelings. In the end, 20 Buffalo Soldiers won the Medal of Honor, the highest award this country gives for the most outstanding performance under enemy fire.
Possible Reasons for the name Buffalo Soldiers
Close-cropped, military haircuts emphasized the curly texture of the men’s hair; American Indians saw a similarity to the curly pelts of the bison
A black soldier, dressed in the dark blue, woolen uniform and sitting astride a dark, military-issue horse, if outlined on a horizon, looked much like a shaggy buffalo
Although the standard winter military issue was dark blue, woolen overcoats, some black units were issued buffalo-hide coats