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Buffalo Soldiers (25070 hits)

Buffalo Soldiers

Background and Summary

“Buffalo soldiers” is a nickname originally applied to the members of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army, given to them by the Native American tribes they fought. Formed on September 21, 1866, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the term eventually was applied to these other units: the U.S. 9th Cavalry Regiment, the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment , the 24th Infantry Regiment, the 25th Infantry Regiment, the 27th Cavalry Regiment  and the 28th Cavalry Regiment. Although several Black regiments were established to fight alongside the Union Army during the Civil War, the "Buffalo Soldiers" were established by Congress as the first peacetime all-Black regiments in the regular U.S. Army.

Sources disagree on how the nickname "buffalo soldiers" originated. According to the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, the name originated with Cheyenne warriors in 1867; the actual Cheyenne translation was "wild buffalo." However, writer Walter Hill documented the account of Col. Benjamin Grierson, who founded the 10th Cavalry regiment, recalling an 1871 campaign against the Comanche tribe. Hill attributes the origin of the name to the Comanche due to Grierson's assertions.

Some sources assert that the nickname was given out of respect and in honor of the fierce fighting ability of the 10th cavalry. Other sources assert that Native Americans called the Black cavalry troops "buffalo soldiers" because of their dark curly hair, which resembled a buffalo's fur. Still other sources point to a combination of both legends. Regardless of how the name originated, the term “buffalo soldiers” became a generic term for all Black soldiers. It is now used in reference to U.S. Army units that trace their direct lineage back to the 9th and 10th cavalry units and whose bravery earned them an honored place in U.S. history.

Colored Troops

During the Civil War, the government formed regiments known as the “colored troops,” composed of Black soldiers led by White officers. After the war, Congress reorganized the army, authorizing the formation of two regiments of Black cavalry with the designations 9th and 10th, and four regiments of Black infantry, designated the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st Infantry Regiments. The 38th' and 41st were reorganized as the 25th Infantry Regiment, with headquarters in Jackson Barracks, New Orleans. The 39th and 40th were reorganized as the 24th Infantry Regiment, with headquarters at Fort Clark, Texas, in April of 1869. All of these units were composed of Black enlisted men commanded by White officers, such as Benjamin Grierson, Ranald S. Mackenzie and, occasionally, Black officers such as Henry O. Flipper.

From 1866 to the early 1890s, these regiments served at a variety of posts in the Southwest and Great Plains regions. They participated in most of the military campaigns in these areas, including the Apache Wars, and earned a distinguished record. Thirteen enlisted men and six officers from these four regiments earned the Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars. In addition to military campaigns, the "buffalo soldiers" served a variety of roles along the frontier from building roads to escorting the U.S. mail.

After the Indian Wars ended in the 1890s, the regiments continued to actively serve and participated in the Spanish-American War, including the Battle of San Juan Hill, where five more Medals of Honor were awarded. The regiment took part in the 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico and also the Philippine-American War.

Serving Time

A lesser known involvement was the 9th Cavalry's participation in the fabled Johnson County War, a land war in Johnson County, Wyo., between small farmers and large, wealthy ranchers in 1892 that culminated in a lengthy shootout between local farmers, a band of hired killers and a sheriff's posse. The 6th Cavalry was eventually ordered in to quell the violence and take possession of the band of hired killers with orders from the president.

Soon after, however, the 9th Cavalry was specifically called upon to replace the 6th, as the 6th Cavalry was swaying under the local political and social pressures and were unable to keep the peace in the tense environment. The buffalo soldiers responded from Nebraska within two weeks and moved the men to the rail town of Suggs, Wyo., creating Camp Bettens, despite a racist and hostile local population; one soldier was killed and two wounded in gun battles with locals. Nevertheless, the 9th Cavalry remained in Wyoming for nearly a year to temper unrest in the area.

Another forgotten contribution in the buffalo soldiers’ history involves eight troops of the 9th Cavalry and one company of the 24th Infantry Regiment who served in California's Sierra Nevada as some of the first national park rangers. In 1899, buffalo soldiers from Company H, 24th Infantry briefly served in Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park and General Grant (Kings Canyon) National Parks. Army regiments had been serving in these national parks since 1891, but until 1899 the soldiers serving were White. Beginning in 1899, and continuing until 1904, all-Black regiments served during the summer months in the oldest national parks in the country: Sequoia and Yosemite. Because these soldiers served before the National Park Service was created in 1916, they were "park rangers" before the term was even coined.

One particular buffalo soldier Capt. Charles Young who served with Troop I, 9th Cavalry in Sequoia National Park during the summer of 1903 deserves special recognition. Charles Young was the third Black person to graduate from the United States Military Academy, and at the time of his death, he was the highest ranking Black person in the military. In 1903, he made history in Sequoia National Park by becoming acting military superintendent of Sequoia & General Grant National Parks. During Young's tenure in the park, he named a giant sequoia for Booker T. Washington. Recently, another giant sequoia in Giant Forest was named in Young's honor.

In 1903, 9th Cavalry soldiers in Sequoia built the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, as well as the first usable wagon road into Sequoia's Giant Forest, in Sequoia National Park. And in 1904, 9th Cavalry soldiers in Yosemite built an arboretum on the South Fork of the Merced in the southern section of the national park. This arboretum had pathways, benches and some plants that were identified in both English and Latin. Yosemite's arboretum is considered to be the first nature museum in the national park system.

Systemic Prejudice

In Sierra Nevada, the buffalo soldiers regularly endured long days on the saddle, slim rations, racism and estrangement from family and friends. As military stewards, the Black cavalry and infantry regiments protected the national parks from illegal grazing, poaching, timber thieves and forest fires.

Until fairly recently, this was yet another forgotten story, but Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson researched and interpreted the history in an attempt to recover and celebrate the contributions of the buffalo soldiers in Sierra Nevada. In total, 23 buffalo soldiers received the Medal of Honor, the highest award given of any military unit.

Buffalo soldiers were often confronted with racial prejudice from other members of the army, as well as from civilians in the areas where they were stationed. Some people occasionally responded with violence, particularly in Rio Grande City, Texas, Brownsville, Texas, and Houston. Buffalo soldiers did not participate as organized units during World War I, however experienced non-commissioned officers were provided to other segregated Black units for combat service, such as the 317th Engineer Battalion.

Early in the 20th century the "buffalo soldiers" found themselves being used more as laborers and service troops rather than active combat units. During World War II the 9th and 10th Cavalry were disbanded and the soldiers were moved into service-oriented units. One of the infantry regiments, the 24th Infantry, served in combat in the Pacific theater. Another was the 92nd Infantry Division, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers Division, which served in combat during the Italian campaign in the Mediterranean theater. Yet another was the 93rd Infantry Division, including the 25th Infantry Regiment, which served in the Pacific Theater of Operations.

Despite some official resistance and administrative barriers, Black airmen were trained and played a significant part in the air war in Europe, gaining a reputation for skill and bravery. In early 1945, after the Battle of the Bulge, American forces in Europe experienced a shortage of combat troops and the embargo on using Black soldiers in combat units was relaxed. The American Military History says: "Faced with a shortage of infantry replacements during the enemy's counteroffensive, Gen. Eisenhower offered Negro soldiers in service units an opportunity to volunteer for duty with the infantry. More than 4,500 responded, many taking reductions in grade in order to meet specified requirements. The 6th Army group formed these men into provisional companies, while the 12th Army group employed them as an additional platoon in existing rifle companies. The excellent record established by these volunteers, particularly those serving as platoons, presaged major postwar changes in the traditional approach to employing Negro troops."

Buffalo Integration

The 24th Infantry saw combat during the Korean War and was the last segregated regiment to engage in combat. The 24th was deactivated in 1951 and its soldiers were integrated into other units in Korea. On December 12, 1951, the last buffalo soldier units, the 27th Cavalry and the 28th Horse Cavalry were disbanded. There are two monuments to the Buffalo soldiers in the state of Kansas, at Fort Leavenworth and Junction City. Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell was guest speaker for the unveiling of the Fort Leavenworth, Kan., monument in July of 1992.

In recent years, the employment of the buffalo soldiers by the army in the Indian Wars has led to modern critical reappraisal of the regiment by cultural historians as being mere shock troops or accessories to the alleged forcefully expansionist ideals of the government at the expense of the Native Americans. This is seen as a far cry from the historical cultural upholding of the buffalo soldiers as being a rare exception to the predominately-malicious, anti-Black socioeconomic climate at the time.

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Wednesday, February 27th 2008 at 1:06PM
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