Chapter six: Buffalo Soldiers and the Defense of the West



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CHAPTER SIX: Buffalo Soldiers and the Defense of the West
Approximately twenty five thousand African American men served in four all-black regiments, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth Infantry, between 1866 and 1917. This chapter explores the varied experiences of those "buffalo soldiers" in the West. In The 9th and 19th Cavalry: First Years, First Officers, and First Recruits, Ninth Cavalry, 1866, we see the initial issues and challenges involved in the formation of these regiments. Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Davis, Army Life in Nebraska: The Fort Robinson YMCA, African American Families on the Military Frontier, and The 24th Infantry in Salt Lake City put forward various descriptions of life at military outposts in the region. Black Soldiers and the Opening of the Llano Estacado, Regimental Bands in New Mexico Territory, and Black Troops and White Strikers in Idaho suggests the significance of their presence in the West beyond the usually advanced "pacification of Indians" role. Conversely, that role is highlighted in Black Soldiers Rescue a New Mexico Town. The ambivalent, contradictory relations between blacks and Indians is suggested in the vignettes Isaiah Dorman at the Little Big Horn, 1876 and Private W.A. Prather's Poem, while the story of the first black officer to serve in the West is profiled in The Henry O. Flipper Saga. In A Black Officer Speaks at Stanford we get an opportunity to hear the attitude of one African American soldier toward the major social issue for America's black citizenry--the place of Booker T. Washington's philosophy of accommodation in the campaign for the abolition of second-class citizenship. Soldier-civilian conflicts are highlighted in The Sturgis Episode, 1885 and The Houston Mutiny and Race Riot, 1917. Finally, The Fight at Carrizal depicts the last major military engagement of the buffalo soldiers, ironically not in the western United States but in Northern Mexico.

Terms for Week Six:

Isaiah Dorman
Edward Hatch
Benjamin Grierson
Fort Davis
Emanuel Stance
Llano Estacado
Henry O. Flipper
Charles Young
Houston Mutiny
Brownsville Affray
Suggs, Wyoming
Fort Robinson YMCA
Mrs. James Brown
Strugis, Dakota Territory
Tularosa, New Mexico
The Battle of Carrizal
Burke, Idaho


THE NINTH AND TENTH CAVALRY: FIRST YEARS, FIRST OFFICERS
The following vignette profiles Edward Hatch and Benjamin Grierson, the first commanding officers of the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments.
Early in August, 1866, General Grant telegraphed General Philip Sheridan, commanding the Division of the Gulf, and General William T. Sherman, commanding the Division of the Missouri, to organize a regiment of Negro cavalry in their respective divisions. The new regiments were designated as the Ninth and Tenth United States Cavalry, and Grant recommended two officers with brilliant Civil War records to command them--Colonel Edward Hatch of Iowa and Colonel Benjamin Grierson of Illinois.

Edward Hatch, a...native of Maine, had gone early to sea and then engaged in the lumber business in Pennsylvania. In 1855 he moved to Iowa and was residing there when the war came. He received appointment as a captain in the Second Iowa Cavalry in August, 1861, and in less than a year was its colonel. He took part in Grierson's famous raid of 1863, received citations for gallantry and meritorious service at the battles of Franklin and Nashville, and closed out the war as brevet major general of volunteers. Able, decisive, ambitious, and personable, he received Grant's unqualified endorsement to lead the Ninth Cavalry.

Benjamin Grierson was a most unlikely candidate for a distinguished career as a cavalryman. Since the age of eight, when a pony kicked him in the face and left a cheek scarred permanently, he had been skittish of horses. A small-town music teacher and an ardent admirer of Abraham Lincoln, he volunteered immediately when the war came and sought a commission in the infantry. But fate decreed otherwise and when his appointment came through, he found himself a major in the Sixth Illinois Cavalry. Despite an almost complete lack of military experience and his dislike of horses, Grierson was soon promoted to colonel and was selected by General Grant in April, 1863 to lead three regiments of cavalry in a diversionary raid through Mississippi.

Grierson's six-hundred-mile, sixteen-day raid through the Confederate heartland contributed materially to Grants successful operations around Vicksburg, let the latter to describe the raid as the most brilliant expedition of the war, and made the easygoing, tolerant Grierson a national figure. By the time of Appomattox he was a brevet major general of volunteers and had the confidence of both Grant and Sherman. Mustered out of the service in April, 1866, he gave brief thought to a business career and then accepted the proffered command of the Tenth Cavalry.

Hatch and Grierson wasted no time in...organizing their regiments. The former established headquarters at Greenville, Louisiana, and the latter at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. From the first, however, difficulty was encountered in procuring experienced officers, for many of them refused to serve with Negro troops. More than a few agreed with Brevet Major General Eugene A. Carr that Negroes simply would not make good soldiers, and took a lower rank in order to serve with a white regiment. The dashing "boy general," George A. Custer, refused a lieutenant colonelcy with the Ninth and wrangled the same rank in the newly formed Seventh Cavalry--a decision that was probably a stroke of good fortune for the Ninth and launched Custer on the road to the Little Big Horn and a dubious niche in history ten years later...
Source: William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West (Norman, 1967), pp. 7-8.

FIRST RECRUITS, NINTH CAVALRY, 1866
The initial difficulties of recruiting a regiment of soldiers from a recently enslaved population are profiled in the vignette below. This account describes the first soldiers who joined the Ninth Cavalry in Louisiana and the only mutiny to occur in the regiment, an uprising in San Antonio in 1867.
Army recruiters, with great haste and little judgment, concentrated their efforts in New Orleans and vicinity and had little difficulty in enlisting the necessary numbers, for in most instances they seemed to have winked at physical qualifications. Many young Negroes were eager to enlist because the army afforded an opportunity for social and economic betterment difficult to achieve in a society all but closed to them. Thirteen dollars a month was meager pay, but it was more than most could expect to earn as civilians, and when food, clothing, and shelter were added, a better life seem assured.

For whatever reason they enlisted in droves. Nor were all of them from Louisiana. Kentucky contributed, among others, farmer George Gray, doomed to die of tetanus in the post hospital at Fort Clark, Texas, and laborer William Sharpe, with an Indian arrow awaiting him on the rocky banks of the Pecos River. Little Emanuel Stance, nineteen years old and scarcely five fee tall, was a native of Charleston, South Carolina, with a Medal of Honor in his future. From Virginia came Washington Wyatt who would die at the hands of persons unknown in Austin, Texas, before he reached his twenty-first birthday. And so they came, farmers, teamsters, dyers, cooks, bakers, painters, waiters and cigar makers, to enlist for five years in the Ninth Regiment of Cavalry, USA.

But they came too quickly and officers were far too few to train, discipline, and educate so many green recruits or vent to keep them busy at routine tasks. The men were nearly all illiterate and filled with superstition. The wildest rumor found ready ears and provoked constant unrest, while the enforced idleness led to gambling, drinking, quarreling, and fighting. [Prostitutes] swarmed about the camp along with other undesirables. The cotton compresses in which they were quartered became overcrowded and along with rations, poorly cooked over open fires, led to illness and disease. Cholera struck in October and November, killing twenty-three men and spreading fear among the rest. Desertions became frequent and morale slid toward the vanishing point.

Despite the difficulties and shaky discipline, Hatch managed to organize all twelve companies of the regiment by February 1867, though only eleven officers had reported for duty at that time. Rumors of impending service on the frontier were circulating among the men, and officers noted that some of their neophyte troopers were becoming surly and unruly. Rumor became fact in March when Hatch received orders to transfer the regiment to Texas. Two companies, L and M, were to take station at Brownsville on the Rio Grande while the remaining ten companies were to encamp near San Antonio and undergo further training.

Marching orders had come much too soon. Hatch had little more than an ill-disciplined mob on his hands and the stage was set for violence and tragedy. En route to San Antonio mutiny flared in K company and was suppressed only with great difficulty. When the city was reached...friction developed quickly between troopers and citizens. Clashes with police became an almost daily occurrence. Serious trouble was only a matter of time, and it came on April 9 as too few officers trove to control their men. Mutiny broke out in A, E., and K companies, and before order was restored Lieutenant Fred Smith of K was forced to shoot two of his troopers.

Hatch placed the blame for the tragic affair on a shortage of officers, and Captain W.S. Abert, Sixth Cavalry, assigned to investigate the mutiny, sustained him, but added that many of the men were "too light, too you and have weak constitutions." He might have added that among the villains in the piece were careless or indifferent recruiters who had enlisted far too may many who were unfit for military service...


Source: William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West (Norman, 1967), pp. 9-11.

BUFFALO SOLDIERS AT FORT DAVIS, TEXAS
The following account is a description of Fort Davis, Texas, [named in 1856 after Secretary of War Jefferson Davis], a "typical" outpost for buffalo soldiers.
Until it was surrendered at the beginning of the Civil War, the first Fort Davis was a humble-enough post, appreciated by those stationed there only because of its agreeable climate and the resultant good health of the troops. Confederate troops occupied the Fort briefly in the Civil War. Then, abandoned for five years to the Indians and the winds, the huts and sheds were almost totally in ruins when the U.S. Army returned in 1867 to reestablish some authority in the wilderness. the post-war troops, assisted by civilian craftsmen, began a complete reconstruction of the post. By the time the fort was abandoned in 1891, the abode and stone buildings comprised one of the largest and most imposing of the Army's establishments in the Southwest.

Those first regulars to return in 1867 might have caused a stir had there been anyone to witness their arrival. They were Negroes... Between 1867 and 1885 all the regular colored units were stationed at Fort Davis at one time or another. From the post's records a picture of the Negro in combat against the Indian emerges, a picture that enlarged a number of times includes the history of the colored regiments and their accomplishments from the Mexican border to Dakota Territory.

The first Negro regiments to arrive at the ruins of Fort Davis were six companies (troops) of the Ninth Cavalry under command of the regiment's lieutenant colonel, Wesley Merritt... The troopers soon found that the days of the Trans-Pecos were long, hot, and dry. Their arduous labor at construction of barracks and stables was broken occasionally by long patrols and futile chases. While these trips were welcomed for the change of pace they offered, the men of the Ninth learned the frustrations of Indian fighting. By the time the soldiers learned of the latest raid and made ready for the chase, the wily Comanches or Apaches usually had made good their escape. Usually, too, the Indians kept clear of the routine patrols, preferring a slash at some undefended wagon train. The boredom felt by the troops was broken rarely by direct contact with the enemy...

One of the most important contributions of the Negro infantry at Fort Davis was road building, a duty they thoroughly detested. In the twisting canyons that led to the fort, they constructed rock-walled roadbeds that still stand, now weed-covered monuments that testify to back-breaking labor and a high proficiency. but picks and shovels were a long way from the alluring stories of the recruiting sergeant. The regimental history of the Twenty-fifth Infantry summed up it Texas years as "a continuous series of building and repairing of military posts, roads and telegraph lines; of escort and guard duty of all descriptions; of marchings and counter-marchings from post to post, and of scouting for Indians which resulted in a few unimportant skirmishes...

The forts themselves were not much to look at, especially in the 1870s. Despite popular conceptions they were rarely stockaded and Indians never attacked them. Most enlisted barracks were often mere hovels in the early post-war years. Congress resisted authorizing construction funds for forts that seemed to be closing down every few years as Indian warfare shifted from one area to another. The post surgeon walked through the barracks at Fort Davis, which was better than most forts, one night at ten o'clock and found the squad rooms almost suffocating due to the crowded conditions... The food remained very much the same throughout the Indian wars: beef and bacon, potatoes, beans, fresh vegetables from the post garden, bread, and sometimes fruit or jam made up a typical ration. The post surgeon at Fort Davis noted that "colored troops consume much more of their ration than white troops."...

The reputation that the Negro soldier earned at Fort Davis and throughout the West would outlast the trying time. Today, Fort Davis is National Historic Site. Its structures and its museum tell the larger story of its history of regiments of both colors. But in the colorful exhibits and in the mute barracks, the memory of the Negro soldier emerges--a Remington print, brass insignia of the Twenty-fourth Infantry, a clear bugle call echoing from the cliffs, and, always, the legacy.


Source: Erwin N. Thompson, "The Negro Soldiers on the Frontier: A Fort Davis Case Study," Journal of the West 7:2 (April 1968):217-233.

BLACK SOLDIERS AND THE OPENING OF THE LLANO ESTACADO
In the following account historian Paul H. Carlson describes the role of Lieutenant Colonel William R. Shafter and the men of his command, the 24th Infantry in opening the Llano Estacado or Staked Plains to settlement. The following are accounts of his expeditions into the region in 1871 and 1875.
From the time the first white men reached the region with Coronado in the sixteenth century until well into the second half of the nineteenth century, the Great Plains were referred to as the "Great American Desert." The description was applied particularly to the Llano Estacado portion of the Southern Plains which, it was commonly believed, would be uninhabited for hundreds of year if, indeed, it would ever be suitable for civilization.

Because it was void of timber, had only scattered water holes, lacked adequate landmarks, and presented an almost limitless "ocean" of waving grass, white men tended to stay clear...and even Indians frequented the Staked Plains only to hunt buffalo or to cross it... But it was [Colonel] William R. Shafter who, with his black troops, provided most of the reliable knowledge of the dreaded and barren Llano Estacado and led the final assault against hostile Indians there...



[1871] At the end of April [1871] Shafter, having been ordered to the trans-Pecos region, left with a small escort for Fort Davis. Less than sixty days after assuming command at the post, he with his diligent black troops, prompted by a daring Comanche attack at Barrilla Springs resulting in the theft of 44 horses and mules...[began] probing the untamed Llano Estacado. With a command totaling eight-six officers and men, Shafter and the hard-driving bluecoats turned a routine pursuit of Indian horse thieves into a major exploration of the...southern Staked Plains. For twenty-two days they followed Indian trails which led through the torrid Sand Hill and onto the Llano Estacado to a point southwest of present Hobbs, New Mexico, and thence southwestward to the Pecos River. In al they covered some 417 grueling miles, suffering enroute from thirst, dust, sand, heat, and other maladies of the region. During one stretch of seventy miles they marched almost two days without water.

The immediate result of the scout proved revealing. Shafter and his black troops discovered and destroyed an abandoned Indian village... They captured about twenty horses and mules and [an Indian woman] who informed them that the Comanches...Lipan and Mescalero Apaches, long time enemies, had concluded a peace. Lead, they found at the Indian camp, stamped with the trademark of a St. Louis, Missouri firm, provided important evidence that the Sand Hills was a place of barter for the Comancheros. Of far more significance [was] the penetration into the Sand Hills where it was generally believe that soldiers could not operate. The expedition not only destroyed another Indian sanctuary, but it brought back geographical knowledge necessary for future operations.



* * *

[1875] As the finale to the Red River War Shafter with his black troops was to scout the Staked Plains... The resulting expedition was the most thorough exploration of that region to that time. For six months, June to December, the Negro soldiers of his command criss-crossed the Llano Estacado over a maze of trails, covering more than 2,500 miles... On August 7, near present Lorenzo, Shafter with his men overtook nine Comancheros, mounted, armed and with several pack mules. Although the traders would say nothing as to the whereabouts of Indians, Shafter took them into his service as guides. From here he continued south...on the Yellowhouse stream within the present city of Lubbock...heading into a region absolutely unknown to Anglo and Negro Americans... Unquestionably this was a remarkable scout., The command...fulfilled its orders to sweep the Plains of Indians... The magnificent horse-and-buffalo days of the proud Southern Plains Indians were gone forever... Indeed, the next year, 1876, Charles Goodnight trailed a large cattle heard from Colorado...into the Palo Duro Canyon, thus marking the opening of the Staked Plains and the beginning of the...West Texas Cattle industry...


Source: Paul H. Carlson, "William R. Shafter, Black Troops, and the Opening of the Llano Estacado, 1870-1875," Panhandle-Plains Historical Review 47:(1974)1-18.

THE HENRY O. FLIPPER SAGA
When Henry O. Flipper received his commission as a cavalry second lieutenant in 1877, he became the first Negro graduate of the United State Military Academy at West Point. Born of slave parents in 1856 at Thomasville, Georgia, Flipper grew up in Atlanta. From West Point Flipper served in Texas and New Mexico Territory between 1878 and 1882 when he was court-martialed at Fort Davis, Texas and dismissed from the U.S. Army. After leaving the Army Flipper spent thirty-seven years as a civil and mining engineer in the Southwest and Mexico and eventually became the first African American to gain prominence in that profession. The account below comes from his memoirs.
In the spring of 1880 our troop...at Fort Still were ordered to Fort Davis, Texas...to go into the campaign...against Victorio and his band of hostile Mescalero Apaches, who were on the war path in New Mexico, southwest Texas and northern Mexico. We had to march over 1,200 miles. Before reaching the Red River we came to a very deep creek that was flooded and we could not cross. We waited...three days for the water to go down but it showed no signs of falling. I suggested to the Captain a way to get over and, after I explained it to him, he told me to go ahead. I had all the wagons unloaded, took the body from one and wrapped a tent fly around it, making a boat of it. I then had a man swim across with a rope, each end of which he tied securely to a tree. In this way I rigged up a ferry on which we ferried over all our effects, the woman and children and the swam the horses and mules. We then put the wagons together and pursued our journey.

We proceeded on our way and finally reached Fort Davis, then commanded by Major N.B. McLaughlin of my regiment, a very fine officer and gentleman. We remained there just long enough to get our quarters arranged and were ordered into the field against the Indians. They had broken out in New Mexico, had committed all sorts of depredations and had been driven into Mexico by the 9th Cavalry, colored. They swung around into Texas and we were sent against them. My Troop and "G" Troop, 10th Cavalry, some of the 8th Cavalry, white, from Fort Clark, Texas and the 9th Cavalry, were the troops in the field. There was also a single company of Texas Rangers. We were ordered to old Fort Quitman, an abandoned fort on the north bank of the Rio Grande. Here I was made Camp Quartermaster and Commissary. We did considerable scouting from here. Forty miles below us on the river there was a...lieutenant and ten men. The Indians surprised them one morning at day light and killed several of them, got all their equipment, horses, etc. Two of the men, in underclothing, reached our camp in the afternoon with the news and Captain Nolan sent me and two men with dispatches to Gen. [B.F.] Grierson at Eagle Springs. I rode 98 miles in 22 hours mostly at night, through a country the Indians were expected to transverse in their efforts to get back to New Mexico. I felt no bad effects from the hard ride till I reached the General's tent. When I attempted to dismount, I found I was stiff and sore and fell from my horse to the ground, waking the General. He wanted to know what had happened and the sentinel, who had admitted me, had to answer for me. One of the men unsaddled my horse, spread the saddle blanket on the ground, I rolled over on it and with the saddle for a pillow, slept till the sun shining in my face woke me up next morning. I then rode back.

There were no troops at Eagle Springs where the General was... He ordered the troops concentrated there and we started for that place. Other troops were coming from the opposite direction. The Indians attacked the General the morning after I left. He and the half dozen men of the escort with him got up in the rocks and stood them off till we could arrive, a courier having been sent by him to hurry us. We came in a swinging gallop for fifteen or twenty miles. When we arrived we found "G" Troop had already come and the fight was on. We got right into it and soon had the Indians on the run. We lost...three men killed, a number wounded, among them, Lt. Collady of "G" Troop and got 19 Indians. We buried the soldiers where they fell... This was the first and only time I was under fire, but escaped without a scratch...
Source: Theodore D. Harris, ed., Negro Frontiersman: The Western Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper, First Negro Graduate of West Point (El Paso, 1963), pp. 15-17.


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