Photo from the Library of Congress, Illustrations by Ted. S. Komala
Buffalo Soldiers are part of America’s lexicon and collective legend. Perhaps this is because of our love of anything “Wild West.” Maybe, it is a little part hero worship. And of course, there’s that Bob Marley song. But beyond the mystique, there are some core truths: Those who were originally known as the Buffalo Soldiers were the first all-black standing units of the United States military in 1866. One of the groups, the 10th Cavalry, was formed and based here in Kansas, at Fort Leavenworth. According to historian Robert Morris, the Buffalo Soldiers were recognized for their courage and discipline at a time when many white settlers on the frontier commonly thought black soldiers were disease carriers, cowards and likely deserters.
In fact, their courage may be why it is believed some of the Native Americans they encountered gave the cavalry soldiers of the 10th, and their counterparts in the 9th, the unique moniker. Comparing these soldiers to the buffalo—a creature that fights fiercely even when wounded or cornered—would seem apropos. Of course, another story that the Indians thought the soldiers’ thick hair resembled the curly tuft of fur on the buffalos’ backs could be applicable as well. Either way, the animal would have been sacred to the Natives, and the soldiers came to wear the nickname with pride.
The Buffalo Soldiers rode out into a nation that was full of expansion and conflict. Excited to stake claim on their own piece of land and make a fresh start, Euro-American settlers had begun to pour into the frontier. The government, battered and exhausted from five years of the Civil War, turned to formerly enslaved persons as a new way to fill the army’s ranks. For their part, the African-American men who joined the ranks had compelling reasons to enlist.
“One of the things that attracted African-American men to join the army is that they were surrounded by people just like themselves,” explains Shelton Johnson, who has done extensive research about Buffalo Soldiers as a park ranger with the Division of Interpretation and Education at Yosemite National Park. “Moving from the South saved many black people’s lives back then. Some saw joining the army as a way to escape the oppression of civilian society. The original Buffalo Soldiers were men who literally could not be men in the South without being dead men. These men joined the army for a sanctuary. They would not have lasted long in the South immediately after the Civil War. They would have been lynched.”
Barrie Thompkins, a Buffalo Soldier reenactor and member of the Nicodemus Buffalo Soldiers Association, Kent Cavalry Company F, believes the men’s reasons were probably pretty practical. “Joining the army gave them a purpose,” he says. “This was at the end of slavery, so where else would they go and what else were they going to do? For many black men, it was a better option than sharecropping.”
Glory and reality
Once they became soldiers, the men quickly realized the honor and glory would have to come after other things. Historian and filmmaker Kevin Willmott explains, “The Buffalo Soldiers were given the worst duties—things the white soldiers didn’t want to do like digging ditches, latrines and graves. And it wasn’t without harassment from white soldiers and settlers. That was an ongoing obstacle.” The Buffalo Soldiers were given hand-me-down everything. From uniforms, to weapons and tools, even to horses. According to historian Tracy Barnett, the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Leavenworth were told they had to put their housing in the lowest, swampiest areas. The result was sickness and death for some soldiers.
Even with these conditions, the Buffalo Soldiers were given some of the most difficult tasks: to remove Native Americans in the Great Plains and Southwest and relocate them to “Indian territory,” which is now known as Oklahoma. It ended up being a three-decade-long campaign. They had been taught that Indians were “savages” who must be shown the “civilized” way of life.
Denise Low, a former poet laureate of Kansas who is part Lenape and Cherokee, notes that by riding out against the Native peoples, the Buffalo Soldiers achieved an unfortunate parity with the whites who marginalized them. She writes that by serving under the flag, the soldiers became “part of the forces that sought to eradicate the Indigenous way of life.”
The journals and letters of the Buffalo Soldiers indicate that some of them were aware of this tragedy. “Every individual who put on the uniform had his own story, but many realized they were instruments of the government, helping to fight another group of people and aiding their own oppressors in displacing a people from their land,” says Johnson.
African-American men had faced dilemmas in serving in the U.S. military even before the Buffalo Soldiers had come along. The first American to die in the Revolutionary War was a former slave named Crispus Attucks. And in the Continental Army, 5,000 troops were black while thousands others fought with the British, who in notable cases advanced and protected their status as free men. Black soldiers participated in 39 major battles and 410 lesser skirmishes during the Civil War. Fifteen states contributed volunteers to the United States Colored Troops (USCT), the official designation given to nearly all black formations in 1864. The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry and the 1st South Carolina Regiment were the first two black formations to be recruited and sent into combat.
Two Civil War heroes, Edward Hatch and Benjamin Grierson—both white—were the first colonels assigned to the 9th and 10th cavalries. “Hatch and Grierson were considered quite progressive back in that day, to head colored units,” explains Johnson. “George Armstrong Custer was one of the first people offered those units and he turned it down. He thought being in charge of units of black soldiers would be bad for his career.” Thompkins adds, “Custer said he did not ‘want anything to do with those brunettes.’”
In that sense, says Johnson, the story of the Buffalo Soldiers was the story of all African-American men who fought for the United States. “They were fighting the same battles over and over again, fighting on two fronts: the enemies of the United States and the internalized racism that existed in the United States itself.”
Upon formation, the 9th Cavalry was assigned to the Texas area and fought in many campaigns of the “Indian Wars,” including tracking down and capturing famous Apache military leaders like Geronimo and Victorio, a master strategist. The highly trained and experienced U.S. Army embarked on a year-long chase to find Victorio and his people. And just when they thought they had him, he would trick them and effectively elude them. The Buffalo Soldiers were able to finally track him down. And once they did, “the Buffalo Soldiers and Victorio’s troops fought for so long, for over 14 days nonstop,” explains Thompkins. “They literally had to decide to take a timeout because both sides were exhausted.”
Beyond the Plains
After the frontier battles, the Buffalo Soldiers were sent to various places, for a variety of campaigns—both major and minor. The 9th and 10th cavalries were sent to Cuba in 1898 to fight in the Spanish-American War. And even there, they continued to face prejudice. Signs in certain businesses told the black soldiers to stay away. They were instructed by their superiors to stay on the docked ship they arrived on while their white counterparts were allowed to leave the boat and travel about as they pleased. In the tropical Cuban climate they were not given lightweight uniforms to wear. Instead, they were expected to continue donning their heavy woolen uniforms. At the time, future president Theodore Roosevelt was second in command of the armed forces in Cuba. The famous “Rough Riders” he headed were in quite a jam when they lost their weapons and found themselves surrounded by heavily armed Spanish fighters.
“When the movies have depicted that battle, you rarely if ever see portrayals of the Buffalo Soldiers. When, in fact, they saved the day,” says Johnson. Willmott elaborates, “Roosevelt admitted that the Buffalo Soldiers saved his troops and helped win that battle. He made the famous statement of ‘they can drink from our canteens’, which at that time really meant something.”
Five black cavalrymen won the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery during that campaign. Unfortunately, Roosevelt’s gratitude didn’t last. He later told newspaper reporters that the Buffalo Soldiers had been slow and cowardly. The record, however, belies his words.
Other officers, however, became advocates for the Buffalo Soldiers. One of these was General John Pershing, who went on to command American forces during World War I. As a first lieutenant in 1895, he took command of the 10th Cavalry to help find and apprehend the famous Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. He personally chose the 10th for this assignment. Though they were unsuccessful, Pershing never forgot the tenacity and work ethic of his soldiers. Years later, General Pershing would be instrumental in having the all-black 92nd and 93rd infantry divisions fight in WW I, but under French command (because of newly enacted Jim Crow laws the soldiers were, in effect, shut out from fighting for America). They were the first Americans to fight in France in WW I and would continue to fight in that country for the duration of the war. Due to his association with the Buffalo Soldiers, Pershing was given the name of “Black Jack.” Although it was meant as a slight on his character, he liked it and kept the nickname.
National Park Service
Americans love their national parks; so do visitors from other countries. But how many people are aware that the Buffalo Soldiers were among the first park rangers? In 1899 and then in 1903–1904, the soldiers worked in both Yosemite and Sequoia National Park. “The military stewardship of the parks started because once those areas were designated as national parks, the people who at one time chopped down trees to build their houses and killed deer to feed their families had to be removed,” explains Johnson. “The army was already set up to enforce law and order in the Wild West. The military brought a sense of safety and security to the newly formed National Parks. In 1903 the Buffalo Soldiers built the first trails on top of Mt. Whitney, which at that time was the highest peak in America. They also built the first usable wagon road through Giant Forest in the Sequoia National Park, and in 1904 they created a nature trail in Yosemite, which is considered the first in the National Park system.”
Johnson notes the soldiers would go on to serve at locations that were or would become national parks and sites across the United States: the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Site in Alaska, the Haleakal National Park and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii and Glacier National Park in Montana. In a sense, any visitor to these locations owes a debt of gratitude to the Buffalo Soldiers.
“The way I see it is when someone does a good job, they deserve to hear a thank you,” continues Johnson. “Part of my job as a ranger and educator is to make sure that their contributions are not forgotten.”
After President Truman desegregated the U.S. military in 1948, the Buffalo Soldiers’ days were numbered, and the all-black units were disbanded between 1951 and 1953. However, their legacy endures.
Barrie Thompkins wants people to know the soldiers were men of many talents. “Some say all the Buffalo Soldiers did was build forts and roads. In all, there were 23 who received the Congressional Medal of Honor. They’re the highest decorated cavalry regiment in all of U.S. military history, so how can anyone say all they did was build roads?” says Thompkins. “They helped settle the West. They strung telegraph lines. They delivered the mail when Pony Express ended. Their contributions are numerous and great.” “Their spirit lives on in various forms of the civil rights movement,” says Johnson. “Whether it was W. E. B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, or Malcolm X, the soldiers’ courageous spirit is seen in them. The Buffalo Soldiers had to keep fighting the same battle over and over again. That battle was to prove that they could fight.”
“It’s a complicated legacy,” says Willmott. “Their challenge was that they were second-class citizens at best. The reality was that they were fighting for white society against another people of color. They were in challenging racial and ethical situations, but they thought if they succeeded, that would push civil rights along. They felt they were fighting for a bigger cause even though they were fighting for a nation that didn’t want them.”