by Jay W. Sharp
Black troopers, usually under the command of white officers, marched westward in the decades immediately following the Civil War for the purpose of bringing the Indian peoples of the desert Southwest and the Great Plains to heel, opening the land for settlement. The troopers came in those years, free at last from the malignant institution of slavery; burdened still by the injustices of bigotry and discrimination; and buoyed now by the promise of America. Most not all, but most meant to earn their place and their fellow black and white soldiers’ respect in the new social structure of the land. They would be called “buffalo soldiers” first by the Indians, who apparently identified the troopers’ dark skins, nappy hair and ferocious and tenacious fighting spirit with that iconic animal of the plains. The troopers bore their name with pride, as a mark of distinction.
A Legacy of Service
Before the buffalo soldiers, black troopers, in a fruitless quest for freedom from bondage, fought on both sides during the American Revolution. In Emmaneul Gottlieb Leutze’s famous painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, a black soldier mans a pole on the starboard side of the bow of the general’s boat in the middle of the icy river.
Free black soldiers fought under General Andrew Jackson in the 1814 and 1815 Battle of New Orleans. Fourteen-year-old black drummer Jordan Noble beat the famous long roll that summoned his general’s troops, throughout the heaviest fire, to prosecute the fight.
Some 180,000 black soldiers served in the Union army during the Civil War, and when that monumental national tragedy ended in May of 1865, “taps had sounded over the bodies of 33,380 of those who had given their lives for freedom and the union,” said authorities William H. and Shirley A. Leckie in their book The Buffalo Soldiers.
The Black Regiments of the Desert and Plains
After enabling federal legislation in the summer of 1866, four new black regiments were established, drawing recruits from black Civil War veterans of the Union army and from free blacks of the Northeastern states and former slaves of the former Confederacy. Many of the newest recruits had not reached their 20th birthdays. Some had barely reached their 16th birthday. Most of them, deprived of an education, could neither read nor write. Many of those in new cavalry units scarcely seemed grown; they averaged no more than five and a half feet tall and weighed no more than 155 pounds, according to Charles L. Kenner in his Buffalo Soldiers and Officers of the Ninth Cavalry 1867-1898: Black & White Together.
The new units comprised the 9th U. S. Cavalry Regiment, under Colonel Edward Hatch, organized in Greenville, Louisiana; the 10th U. S. Cavalry Regiment, under Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson, organized in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; the 24th Infantry Regiment (combined from the 38th and 41st Infantry Regiments), under Colonel Ranald S. MacKenzie, organized in Fort McKavett, Texas; and the 25th Infantry Regiment (consolidated from the 39th and 40th Infantry Regiments), under Colonel Joseph A. Mower, organized in New Orleans, Louisiana. According to the Leckies, 818 recruits enlisted in the 9th Cavalry and 1147 enlisted in the 10th (about 20 percent of the total U. S. Cavalry). Comparable numbers of black men joined the two infantry regiments.
According to historical “sketches” written for the U. S. Army by regimental officers in the 1890s, 9th Cavalry companies served at posts in western Texas, from the mouth of the Rio Grande up the river and into the Chihuahuan Desert for eight years, from 1867 to 1875. The 9th served in southern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona from 1875 to 1887. (Thirty years later, the 9th would take part in General John J. Pershing’s Mexican campaign to capture and punish Pancho Villa, who had raided Columbus, New Mexico, on March 9, 1816.) The 10th Cavalry campaigned in the Southern Plains from 1867 to 1875, in western Texas from 1875 to 1885, then in New Mexico and Arizona until the late 1880’s. The 24th Infantry served in the Southern Plains from 1869 to 1888 then in New Mexico and Arizona until the early 1890’s. The 25th Infantry served in western Texas from 1870 until 1880.
In their postings, the regiments performed a broad spectrum of duties. The 9th Cavalry companies, according to Lieutenant Grote Hutcheson, who wrote one of the historical sketches for the army, spent weeks and months away from their garrisons, campaigning in Indian scouts and battles, and in fact, “...more time was spent in campaign than in garrison, and the troops covered thousands of square miles of territory.” In garrison, black regiments often took responsibility for helping ensure the local peace. The Leckies said, “Law and order were little more than a hope in the post-Civil War Southwest, and civil authorities were compelled constantly to call upon the army to assist in rounding up border scum.” The 24th Infantry, posted to San Carlos, the Chiricahua Apache reservation in southeastern Arizona, found its duty “particularly trying under circumstances of danger,” said Lieutenant W. W. Hovey, who wrote another of the historical sketches. However, “...the only incident of note was the fight of Paymaster Wham’s escort, composed of men of the 24th Infantry and 10th Cavalry, who when attacked by a gang of robbers made a brave stand for which medals of honor or certificates of merit were given according to rank.” The 25th Infantry, said Lieutenant George Andrews, who wrote still another of the historical sketches for the army, had a “record of 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...” According to the International Museum of the Horse Internet site, “Without the protection provided by the 9th and 10th Cavalries, crews building the ever expanding railroads were at the mercy of outlaws and hostile Indians.”
Life in a Black Regiment
Both in the military they volunteered to serve and in the civilian communities they came to protect, the buffalo soldiers often experienced vestiges of prejudice and discrimination. In one instance, said the Leckies, a white lieutenant named Edward Heyl, “ordered three [buffalo soldiers] hung by their wrists from a tree because they had been slow, he thought, in removing their horses’ nosebags.” In another instance, two soldiers with the Ninth Regiment, Troop E, passing through Santa Fe, New Mexico, found themselves under arrest for the “possession of arms,” said Kenner. “Hauled before a judge,” said incensed commanding officer Colonel Hatch in an report to his Assistant Adjutant General, “they were fined the amount of money found on their persons and releasedminus their weapons, which had been confiscated.”
When not on patrol, the buffalo soldiers garrisoned at forts surrounded by small villages largely comprising saloons and gambling parlors. They often lived in squalid and poorly ventilated barracks, typically having to bathe in a nearby creek. They ate beef, bacon, potatoes, beans and, with good luck, fruit or jam, said the International Museum of the Horse. They suffered from dysentery, diarrhea, bronchitis and tuberculosis.
When not on patrol said Hutcheson, writing about the 9th Cavalry, “...the every-day life of the men in garrison was similar to that of the present time [1890s]. There was the same drill, stables and parade; the amount and kind of fatigue bore a strong resemblance to that of to-day; there were logging teams for the saw-mill and special details for the garden; men mixing mud for adobes and burnishing brasses for orderly; but guard duty, though no more tedious than now, was spiced with an element of danger which added zest to the duty. Strict orders prohibited all persons from leaving the immediate limits of a garrison, except in small parties, and they were enjoined always to carry their carbines. Heavy herd guards were detailed, and lookouts were posted on high ground during grazing hours.
“Ashen slats on bunk irons and a bedsack filled with straw made a very good bed for its fortunate possessor, while the less favored ones were often at their wits end to improvise a comfortable resting place out of two blankets. Sheets, pillows, white shirts, linen collars and barrack shoes, were not dreamed of, and bath tubs were unknown...
“A great event was the distribution of the mail, and whether weekly, semi-weekly, or daily, the hour of its arrival was looked forward to by all, and, as the cloud of dust in the distance heralded its approach, the entire garrison, from the commanding officer to the latest recruit, hastened to the post office...”
Even though they faced the prejudices of some officers and citizens and the harsh living conditions of the desert frontier, the buffalo soldiers took pride in their uniforms. They adopted “Ready and Forward,” as their motto. Relatively few deserted, especially in the later years, said Kenner, and consequently, “black units often developed a high esprit de corps,” which “helped to win the respect of most of their officers...”
The buffalo soldiers often found a kind of joie de vivre a zest for life in their military postings, a survival mechanism forged, perhaps, on the anvil of slavery. Typical of young soldiers, many enthusiastically gambled away their monthly paychecks (a princely sum of $13), said Kenner, and they took their punishment when caught by the officer of the day. They competed and some excelled in sports events, especially baseball and track and field. They found solace and pleasure in music, said Kenner. They had voices so “rich and full of melody that I am very glad if I can hear them as I go to sleep,” said Emily Andrews, wife of commanding officer Colonel George Andrews, at Fort Stockton, in western Texas’ Chihuahuan Desert. “In sounding the bugle calls, they were ‘disposed to improvise, and vary even upon the orthodox calls,’” said the post surgeon at Fort Concho, in Texas’ southern plains.
The Serious Business of War
When campaigning across thousands of square miles in their primary duties of protecting the frontier, the buffalo soldiers battled both the Indians and the lawless.
In the Southwestern deserts, the 9th Cavalry, for instance, fought in often-bloody skirmishes with the Mescalero Apaches at West Texas’ Howard’s Wells, Eagle Springs, Camp Lancaster, Fort Quitman, the Pecos River, the Guadalupe Mountains and Crow Springs between 1867 and 1875, according to Hutcheson. Transferred to New Mexico territory in 1875, the 9th pursued and captured “innumerable roving bands of the wily and treacherous Apache tribes,” forcibly returning them to their reservations. Companies of the 9th fought across much of Apacheria, including southern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and northern Chihuahua. In patrol after patrol, they battled in New Mexico’s desert basins and mountain ranges, in Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains and in Mexico’s Boca Grande and Guzman mountain ranges.
After numerous campaigns in the Southern Plains, the 10th Cavalry, transferred to western Texas in 1875, took up the pursuit of the Mescaleros. “This carried the troop,now over the scorching wastes of the Staked Plains [Texas’ High Plains],now across the border into the unknown territory of the “Gringo”-hating Mexicans,now up and down the rocky fastnesses of the Guadalupe Mountains and the bad lands bordering the upper Rio Grande,” said Lieutenant John Bigelow, Jr., still another author of the 1890s military historical sketches.
Although the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments patrolled widely across the deserts, they engaged primarily in comparatively minor skirmishes with the Indians. They did, however, lay much of the foundation for the settlement of the Southwest. They patrolled the desert, guarded communities, escorted military supply trains and mail coaches, ran down outlaws and horse thieves, built roads and telegraph lines, and constructed and repaired military posts.
Buffalo Soldier Heroism
Most famously, perhaps, the buffalo soldiers, especially the 9th and 10th Cavalries, campaigned in the late 1870s and early 1880s against the rampaging bands of the celebrated Apache leaders Victorio and Nana. The regiments would have regarded Victorio as what authority Dan L. Thrapp called “the very embodiment of Apache resistance to white aggression” in his book Victorio and the Mimbres Apaches. They may have seen 75-year-old Nana as an almost supernatural figure who led his dwindling Chiricahua Apache band in a vengeful and destructive raid across northwestern Chihuahua and southwestern New Mexico in 1881. (See Stephen H. Lekson’s Nana’s Raid.)
In one instance, during an escort mission in the Mogollon Mountains of southwestern New Mexico, Sergeant George Jordan, commanding a detachment of 25 buffalo soldiers from the 9th Cavalry’s K Troop, got word late in the afternoon of May 13, 1880, that Victorio meant to attack a small community of settlers near the abandoned post of Fort Tularosa. According to Frank N. Schubert, Black Valor: Buffalo Soldiers and the Medal of Honor, 1870-1898, Jordan, a seasoned campaigner, listened as the messenger begged the troopers to “save the women and children from a horrible fate.”
Jordan and his men, although already exhausted from a full day’s march, voluntarily trekked across the mountains through the night to reach Fort Tularosa. When he and his men arrived, he said, the settlers “came out of their houses waving towels and handkerchiefs for joy.” Jordan, who stood all of five feet four inches in height, said Schubert, had his men after a brief rest throw up a stockade. He set his defenses. He moved the settlers inside the stockade. He stood fully prepared when Victorio attacked as evening fell. “The bloodthirsty savages tried time and again to enter our works,” said Jordan, “but we repulsed them each time...” When Victorio tried to stampede the settlement’s livestock, Jordan dispatched ten men who drove off the Apaches without losing a single man or animal. “The whole action was short but exciting while it lasted,” said Jordan, “and after it was all over the townspeople congratulated us for having repulsed a band of more than 100 redskins.” Jordan had saved the community and its livestock, without suffering a single casualty. George Jordan, dedicated buffalo soldier, would receive the Medal of Honor. Later, he would receive a Certificate of Merit for his actions in another battle.
In the summer of 1881, the 9th Cavalry’s I Troop, under the command of George R. Burnett, a newly minted West Point lieutenant, caught up with Nana and his raiders in the eastern foothills of southwestern New Mexico’s Black Range. After a running battle, said Schubert, the 9th with its young commander, lost the advantage to the crafty old Nana. When Burnett, under heavy fire, got separated from his command, First Sergeant Moses Williams and Private Augustus Walley, both veteran buffalo soldiers, came to his aid. While Burnett and Walley fought for their lives side by side, Williams rallied the troops. When Burnett, whose courage offset his inexperience, raced under a rain of bullets to save three stranded buffalo soldiers, he found Williams and Walley at his side. “Burnett,” said Schubert, “considered himself fortunate to be in the company of as skilled a marksman as Williams.”
Years later, Walley would be remembered by Burnett as a “thoroughly reliable, trustworthy, and efficient soldier,” and Williams would be remembered by the officer for “coolness, bravery, and unflinching devotion to duty...” They each would be recommended by Burnett for a Medal of Honor, which each received in the 1890s.
In May of 1889 11 seasoned black troopers from the 10th Cavalry and the 24th Infantry, escorting Major Joseph W. Wham’s payroll delivery in southeastern Arizona, came under ambush by 12 to 20 outlaws near Cedar Springs, in a canyon just south of the San Carlos Apache Reservation, according to Schubert. Exposed to a sudden hailstorm of bullets, eight of the troopers quickly suffered wounds. While several lay disabled with their injuries, Sergeant Benjamin Brown, hit in the abdomen, fought on until he took a second bullet in the arm. Private Benjamin Burge, his hand mangled, rested his rifle on his forearm and fought on until he took a second wound in his thigh. Eighteen-year veteran Private Squire Williams, shot in the leg, fought on. Money wagon driver Private Hamilton Lewis, his mid-section ripped open, took a fallen comrade’s rifle and fought on. Although the troopers could not save the payroll $28,000 in gold coins Major Wham, a Civil War veteran of 16 battles, wrote that he had “never witnessed better courage or better fighting...” Ten of the buffalo soldiers would be recommended by Wham for awards, including two Medals of Honor and eight Certificates of Merit.
Altogether, said Mark Odintz in The Handbook of Texas Online, “Thirteen enlisted men from the four regiments [the 9th and 10th Cavalries and the 24th and 25th Infantries] earned the Medal of Honor during the Indian wars...”
A Legacy of Loyalty
In their years of service on the frontier, the buffalo soldiers, in spite of continued prejudice and discrimination, forged an enduring bond of loyalty to America and the U. S. Army. “The few who lived to see the onset of World War I volunteered their services to the Army despite their advanced age and previous rejections,” said Schubert. “None was quite as persistent as George W. Ford, the old Cavalryman who had joined the Tenth when it was organized in 1866 and still volunteered for duty in 1917 at the age of seventy.”
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