The Buffalo Soldiers

From the dawning of the nation, African-Americans have contributed to all the wars and major conflicts in which the United States has been involved.  Shortly after the end of the Civil War, the United States Army organized regiments of black men, many of which had served in the U.S.C.T (United States Colored Troops).  Some of the newly-formed units were infantry while others were cavalry.  The African-American infantry unites organized were the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st.  These units would eventually be consolidated into the 24th and 25th infantry.  The 9th and 10th Cavalry units were also formed.  It was not unusual to see the black cavalry and infantry units fighting side-by-side in battle.

 

During the Indian Wars out west, Native Americans gave these black soldiers, most often the cavalry, the nickname Buffalo Soldiers.  They tagged the infantry with the honorific title “Walk-a-Heap”, but yet sometimes the nickname of Buffalo Soldier bled over into the infantry.  While no one is really quite certain why they called them this, there are a number of theories.

 

Some believe that the Native Americans began calling the black soldiers Buffalo Soldiers because they were hardy and rugged like the respected buffalo.   Others have different ideas.  One idea is that Native Americans saw a resemblance in the Buffalo Soldiers’ s hair and the hair of the African-americans.  Still others hold to the belief that they were given the nickname because many of the black soldiers wore long robes made of buffalo hides.  Some have even ventured to guess the name originated because the skin color of the soldiers and the color of the buffalo were similar.

 

Many of the men who made up these units had been slaves prior to the Civil War.  Many of these had enlisted and fought on the Union side in the Civil War.  They enlisted seeking benefits as simple as food, clothing, and shelter.  Enlistment also afforded them medical benefits.  Victory by the Union gave them freedom.  However, it was through the military that these men saw an opportunity for work and the start of a new life in the west.  The African-Americans who could read and write quickly advanced to officer positions where completing paperwork was a necessity.

 

On the Plains and in the Southwest, the Buffalo Soldiers served in the Indian Wars.  The treatment of African-American Buffalo Soldiers was not a case of equality.  In fact, the Buffalo Soldiers were often issued old horses.  They were given equipment that sometimes proved to be faulty and were given less than needed amounts of ammunition.  These soldiers knew that the hope of a better future for all African-Americans rested on their record.  While many white soldiers on the frontier indulged in drunkenness and alcoholism was not uncommon among both whites and Native Americans, the Buffalo Soldiers for the most part were seldom guilty of either.  The desertion rate, which between 1880-1886 was the lowest of the entire Army, and the number of court martials was significantly lower among the Buffalo Soldiers than their white counterparts.

 

In addition to providing military service, the Buffalo Soldiers contributed to frontier society in other ways.  There were known for the music they provided as they organized bands.  The concerts they gave  and the playing at church benefits often promoted better relations with civilians.  The Buffalo Soldiers sometimes provided the music for parades.  When music was needed for a funeral, the Buffalo Soldiers were there.

 

Being in the military had other benefits for the Black soldiers.  After 1880, each black regiment had an African-American chaplain.  Aside from their normal jobs of providing spiritual guidance, the chaplains took it upon themselves to teach the soldiers in their units to read and write.

 

The Buffalo Soldiers were first used largely in Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico but within a few years were sent to Indian Territory to remover the white homesteaders who were attempting to stake illegal claims on Native American lands.  These homesteaders were called Boomers.  With the discovery of gold on the American River in California, prospectors and settlers rushed into the Southwest.  The Buffalo Soldiers were sent there to protect them against outlaws and Apache raiding parties.

 

Fighting was not the only strategy, the U.S. Government had for staking its claim on the West.  Buffalo Soldiers were used to build roads.    They took action to halt the illegal sale of alcohol and firearms to Native Americans.  These Buffalo Soldiers were even used to police and track down cattle rustlers.  They further promoted westward migration by escorting stagecoaches, especially the ones that carried military payrolls.  One such incident turned deadly.  On May 11, 1889 two coaches, one disguised as an ambulance, carrying the routine payrun through southern Arizona were ambushed by about a dozen non-masked men as they approached Fort Thomas.  Inside the ambulance was Paymaster Joseph Wham, the driver, and a clerk.  They carried with them a strongbox filled with the military payroll in the amount of $28,345.10.  Twelve Buffalo Soldiers escorted the coaches between Fort Grant and Fort Thomas  In a narrow canyon of Cottonwood Wash, the coaches were attached.  The Buffalo Soldiers mounted a brave defense.  Eight of the soldiers were wounded forcing them to take cover.

 

The attack took place near a settlement of Mormons living in the Pima area.  With major Wham’s testimony and the eyewitness identifications by the Buffalo Soldiers, seven men were arrested.  Six were Mormons.  The trial was marred by racial prejudice as jurors were reluctant to take the testimony of the Buffalo Soldiers seriously.  Nonetheless, ten of the twelve Buffalo Soldiers were awarded commendations from the United States government:  two officers, Sgt. Benjamin Brown and Corporal Isaiah Mays, were awarded the Medal of Honor and eight privates received Certificates of Merit.  They were not alone in receiving honors.  Between 1870 and 1890, fourteen more Buffalo Soldiers received the Medal of Honor.

 

The Buffalo Soldiers service on the frontier lasted more than three decades.  They participated in close to two hundred battles during that time.

 

The taming of the West did not end the service of the Buffalo Soldiers.   They were involved in engagements in the Banana Wars, Spaish-American War, Philippine-American War, Border War, World War I, and World War II.

 

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Photo 1: Fossil HD Cover

 

Photo 2: Buffalo Soldiers-1890

 

Photo 3: Buffalo Soldier-1890

 

Photo 4: Buffalo Soldiers-1941

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