Buffalo Soldiers

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Podcast Transcript

During the US Civil War, over a quarter million African-Americans served and fought on the Union side with distinction.

After the Civil War, in a reorganization of the United States Army, permanent, albeit segregated, units of black soldiers were created.

These units served with distinction in almost every military conflict fought by the United States until the end of the Second World War. 

Learn more about the Buffalo Soldiers, their origin, and their service, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The origin of the Buffalo Soldiers dates back to the Civil War. 

In 1862, the United States Congress passed two bills that began the process of black military service in the Union Army. 

The Confiscation Act of 1862 freed slaves from any slave owner in rebellion, and the Militia Act of 1862 allowed the president to use freed slaves in any way he saw fit. 

Initially, Lincoln didn’t do anything, but after the Emancipation Proclamation in September, full enlistment began in January 1863. 

They didn’t have full integration with regular army units. Rather, there were separate segregated units led by white officers.

There were a little under 80,000 black soldiers who enlisted from Union States, the majority of which came from border states like Missouri, Kentucky, and Washington DC

More than double that number, however, came from freed slaves from states in rebellion. 

Despite not being allowed to serve for the first 18 months of the war, black Union soldiers suffered higher casualty rates than white soldiers. As with white soldiers, the vast majority of casualties were due to disease, not combat deaths, but they did suffer uniquely by confederates on the battlefield, especially if they were captured. 

Ulysses S. Grant was initially skeptical of black units in the army but changed his mind at the Battle of Vicksburg when he noted “The negro troops are easier to preserve discipline among than our white troops, and I doubt not will prove equally good for garrison duty. All that have been tried have fought bravely.”

In total, 16 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to black soldiers during the war, and numerous other medals were awarded as well. For many black leaders of the era, military service during the war was an important part of obtaining citizenship.

Frederick Douglas, who served as a recruiter for the Union Army and whose sons served in combat, noted, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”

After the war when the Army was reorganized for peacetime, given their high levels of service, the decision was made to keep black units as a permanent part of the Army.

In 1866, Congress created six all-black regiments: 2 cavalry and 4 infantry, however, this was reduced to 2 cavalry and 2 infantry units after an Army-wide reduction of units in 1869.

The four units were the 9th Cavalry Regiment, the 10th Cavalry Regiment the 24th Infantry Regiment, and the 25th Infantry Regiment.

Three of these units, all but the 25th infantry, still exist today, albeit as integrated units of course. 

The name Buffalo Soldier has been the subject of debate, however, there is general agreement that the name came from Indian tribes they encountered. 

One story holds that it was given by the Cherokee and another is that was by the Comanche. Another story is that it was given because of the texture of the hair of the soldiers, another is that the name came from their fighting spirit, and yet another story is that it was given by plains Indians because the soldiers wore coats made of buffalo hides in the winter. 

The name originally only applied to the soldier of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, but eventually was also given to the 9th Cavalry, and finally to all four all-black regiments. 

As with most Army units after the war, their primary assignment was in the American West. 

Many of the men who enlisted initially were Civil War veterans. Most of them felt that they had better odds in the Army where their food, lodging, and clothing were provided, even though they didn’t make a lot of money. It was a more appealing option than what they would have encountered in the private sector after the war. 

A map of buffalo soldier engagement plotted out over the United States shows most of them occurring in the Great Plains, and in the southern half of the country. The largest concentration of assignments was in West Texas, New Mexico, Southeast Arizona, as well as western Kansas, and Eastern Colorado. However, there were occasional missions as far north as Montana and Utah.

The buffalo soldiers were involved in most of the high-profile events which took place during the period from 1867 to 1890, the period which is commonly referred to as the Indian Wars. 

They were involved in the Apache Campaign in Arizona and New Mexico, and the Ghost Dance War which included the Massacre of Wounded Knee. They didn’t take part in the massacre, but they did guard the Pine Ridge Reservation where it occurred and did have to relieve the 7th Cavalry when they were besieged. 

They were involved in the Johnson County War in Wyoming between small and larger ranchers, an event that is worthy of its own episode.

They also helped removed Sooners who entered the Oklahoma Territory. 

In total, there were 23 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded to buffalo soldiers during the Indian Wars. 

The first black commissioned officer in the US military was born a slave in the south and  Henry O. Flipper was also the first black graduate of West Point in 1877 and went on to become the first black commander of a buffalo soldier unit. 

However, actual military engagements were the exception, not the rule. Most of their job, like the rest of the army in the west at this time, was protecting settlers, hunting down cattle rustlers, protecting mail delivery, and working on infrastructure projects like roads and bridges. 

After the Indian Wars, one of the assignments given to the Buffalo Soldiers is one that few people are aware of. They were some of the very first rangers at national parks. 

Beginning in 1899, soldiers of the 9th Cavalry and 24th Infantry Regiments served in Yosemite, King’s Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks. 

Of special note is Captain Charles Young. Young was the third black graduate of West Point, and he became the first black superintendent of a national park when he was appointed as the superintendent of King’s Canyon and Sequoia. 

I had the pleasure of visiting Charles Young’s home in Ohio, which is itself now part of the National Park System. I highly recommend visiting if you happen to be in Dayton, Ohio, as it is just outside of town.

The late 19th century is the period of time which most people associate with the buffalo soldiers, however, that was by no means the end of the activity of their regiments. 

They saw action in the Spanish-American war in Cuba. In particular, they were heavily involved in the Battle of San Juan Hill and basically saved Theodore Roosevelt.  Roosevelt’s public pronouncements on black soldiers that participated in the battle were initially glowing, however, after the war ended and his public profile increased, he seemingly turned on them and downplayed their role. This was probably done to increase the mystique surrounding his performance in the battle. 

All-black units saw action in the Philippines War, another little-known conflict that is deserving of its own episode, as well as US actions in Mexico in pursuit of Poncho Villa. 

As during the Civil War, the buffalo soldier units all had white officers. One young lieutenant who served with the 10th Cavalry in 1895 was John J. Pershing. 

Pershing served with the 10th cavalry for almost two years before attending West Point, including service in Cuba. While at West Point, he was derided and given the nickname “N-word” Jack because of his service with the buffalo soldiers. 

This was eventually toned down to “Black Jack” Pershing, a nickname that stuck with him the rest of his life, although most people have no idea that its origin was because of his service with the buffalo soldiers. 

When he became the top American commander during World War I, he didn’t integrate the Army because of the demands of President Woodrow Wilson. However, he did continue to think highly of black soldiers throughout his career.

By the first world war, the term buffalo soldier had fallen out of use, but the segregated Army units still remained. 

In World War II, the four historic black regiments served, but there were many more black units that were created as well, including the famous Tuskegee Airmen, which are also worthy of a future episode.  

Another notable example of the service of black soldiers that I covered in a previous episode was the Red Ball Express. They were responsible for the logistics after the Normandy Invasion and the convey of almost non-stop trucks that had to run for months. 

Racially segregated units were formally dissolved in the early 1950s by the order of President Harry Truman and continued under President Dwight Eisenhower. 

All four of the historically black regiments were disbanded. 

During the entire time the buffalo solder units were in existence, the soldiers in those units suffered almost constant discrimination. They were usually subject to living conditions worse than white soldiers, they received substandard gear and equipment, and they were harassment by other white units.

When they were stationed near civilians, they experienced their worst treatment. This was especially the case when they were sent to Cuba and had to wait in Florida where they were subject to the state’s Jim Crow laws.

On the way to Cuba, 1200 men were placed on a ship that had a single toilet. 

Three of the four regiments that were the original buffalo soldier units were brought back. The 9th cavalry was brought back in 1957, the 10th cavalry was reinstated in 1958, and the 24th infantry was reactivated in 1995.

All three of these units honor their history by using “buffalo soldier” as their nicknames today.

The buffalo soldiers have become legendary since their units were disbanded. The most famous cultural reference is probably the 1983 song released by Bob Marley and the Whalers. There have also been many films and television shows that featured the story of the buffalo soldiers. 

Today you can visit the National Buffalo Soldier Museum in Houston, Texas, as well as the Buffalo Soldier Museum at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. There is also a display at the National Museum of African American History in Washington DC.

The very last buffalo soldier died in 2005. Mark Matthews died at the age of 111. Born in 1894, he served in the Poncho Villa Expedition, World War I, and World War II. He was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

On one hand, the buffalo soldiers are a stain on the history of the United States in how they were treated and the fact that they were the result of the racial segregation of the Army. 

At the same time, they also serve as a source of inspiration for the courage they showed and the conditions they showed it under.


The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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