Story of the Buffalo Soldiers

Buffalo Soldier Memorial of El Paso, Fort Bliss. Wikipedia

Buffalo Soldier Memorial of El Paso, Fort Bliss.
Wikipedia

During the Civil War, more than 180,000 black soldiers served in segregated Union Army regiments, and many of those units achieved outstanding combat records. After the war, the U.S. Congress reorganized the peacetime army to include black enlisted men in the Ninth and the Tenth United States Cavalry. By 1869 Congress added the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth United States Infantry—all under the leadership of white officers. As these soldiers moved to posts in Texas and across the Southwest and the Great Plains, the Indians began calling them “Buffalo Soldiers.” Most accounts claim they earned Indian respect––and the moniker––for their fierce fighting ability. Others say the title came from the Indians’ regard for the black soldiers’ tightly curled hair that resembled the hair on the bison’s face. Accepting the respect of their adversaries, the Buffalo Soldiers adopted the image of the bison on their regiment crest.th

The army paid the black recruits $13 a month plus food, clothing, and shelter—more than most freedmen could earn after the Civil War. The five-year enlistment meant that they took part in most of the major Indian campaigns in Texas. Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at almost every fort on the frontier from the Rio Grande to the Panhandle—helping to build and repair the outposts. They escorted mail teams, stagecoaches, cattle herds, and survey crews. They built roads, strung miles of telegraph lines, and performed ordinary garrison duties in the isolated western outposts. They recovered thousands of head of stolen livestock and spent months on the trail of horse thieves and Indian raiders.

Thirteen enlisted men and four regiments earned the Medal of Honor by the end of the Indian Wars in the 1890s. Many went on to serve in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and Pershing’s punitive expedition into Mexico against Pancho Villa.

Participated in the Spanish-American War Wikipedia

Participated in the Spanish-American War
Wikipedia

By the turn of the 19th century, the Buffalo Soldiers faced increasing racial prejudice. Resentment and anger that developed during Reconstruction in the South drove a wedge between citizens and anyone in a Federal uniform, especially a black man transformed from slave to person of authority. Buffalo Soldiers were stationed outside segregated communities and were subjected to increasing harassment by local police, beatings, and occasional sniper attacks. One example of the increasing tensions between white citizens occurred in Brownsville in 1906 when the newly arrived Twenty-fifth regiment was falsely accused of a murder. When members of the unit could not name the culprits, President Theodore Roosevelt followed recommendations to dishonorably discharge 167 men because of their “conspiracy of silence.” It was 1972 before an inquiry found them innocent, and President Nixon granted the two surviving soldiers honorable discharges––without backpay. When Congress finally passed a tax-free pension the following year, only one Buffalo Soldier survived. He received $25,000 and was honored in ceremonies in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles.

Buffalo Soldier regiments were not called to duty during WWI, however, many of the experienced personnel served in other black units. After the Ninth and Tenth cavalries were disbanded, their men served in other WWII units. The Twenty-fifth saw combat in the Pacific before being deactivated in 1949. The Twenty-fourth, the last Buffalo Soldier regiment to see combat, served in the Pacific during WWII and in the opening days of the Korean War, before being deactivated in 1951.

In 1948 President Truman issued an executive order abolishing racial discrimination in the United States Armed Forces, but it was another fifteen years before Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara issued a directive obligating military commanders to stop discrimination based on sex or race in facilities used by soldiers or their family.

Buffalo Soldier National Museum in Houston Wikipedia

Buffalo Soldier National Museum in Houston
Wikipedia

Manifest Destiny Marches Across West Texas

The end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, fulfilled the dreams of manifest destiny for many citizens and politicians as the United States acquired the land belonging to Mexico that stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The following year, gold was discovered in California and the rush was on. Forts had to be constructed to protect the advancing surge of settlers whom the Apache and Comanche were not happy to see crossing their hunting grounds and their route into Mexico.

Henry Skillman received a contract in 1850 to carry mail from San Antonio to El Paso. On that first mail run Skillman used a Concord coach pulled by six mules and a company of eighteen well-armed men including Big Foot Wallace (Watch for Wallace’s story in next week’s blog). They established a stage stand in Limpia Canyon at the base of the Davis Mountains, and E. B. Webster, possibly the first white man in the area, remained at the site as the master of the stage station. The mail continued to go through, extending the route to Santa Fe and adding passenger service.

Historic Fort Davis

Historic Fort Davis

In 1854, Jefferson Davis the Secretary of War ordered a line of military posts along that southern route. The commander of the department of Texas selected Limpia Creek northeast of the mail station because of its “pure water and salubrious climate.” The string of forts stretched from San Antonio to El Paso, and Fort Davis became the name for both the town that grew up around the mail station and the new post. Settlers and adventurers by the thousands chose the southern route to avoid the snow and mountain terrain of the northern trails.

When Texas seceded from the Union prior to the Civil War, federal troops abandoned Fort Davis. The Confederates occupied it for only a year and then retreated to San Antonio after failing to take New Mexico.

When the federal troops returned in 1867, the garrison consisted mainly of white officers and black enlisted men of the Ninth and

10th Cavalry, Fort Davis

10th Cavalry, Fort Davis

Tenth U.S. Cavalry regiments and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth U.S. Infantry regiments who were given the respectful title of Buffalo Soldiers by the Comanches. In a series of Apache raids the Buffalo Soldiers of Fort Davis fought several battles before the Apaches retreated to Mexico, and the fort settled into a quiet routine of protecting the cattlemen who began moving into the area.

The fort was abandoned in 1891, but the nearby town of Fort Davis, the highest town in Texas at 5,050 feet, began attracting wealthy Gulf Coast residents eager to escape the summer heat, and it developed into a tourist haven. When the

Restored Enlisted Barracks

Restored Enlisted Barracks

Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway proposed building a line through Fort Davis, the citizens refused, claiming the railroad would attract low-class people.

Congress designated Fort Davis as a national historic site in 1963. The adobe and stone buildings have been restored to their 1880 appearance

Fort Davis Panorama

Fort Davis Panorama

Buffalo Soldiers in Texas

During the Civil War more than 180,000 black soldiers served in segregated Union Army regiments.  Realizing that many of the black units had achieved outstanding combat records, the U.S. Congress reorganized the peacetime army to include black enlisted men in the Ninth and the Tenth United States Cavalry and by 1869 the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth United States Infantry—all under the

Buffalo Soldier National Museum

Buffalo Soldier National Museum

leadership of white officers. As these soldiers moved to posts in Texas and across the Southwest and the Great Plains, several explanations surround the Indians’ calling them “Buffalo Soldiers.”  Most accounts claim they earned Indian respect for their fierce fighting ability.  Others say the title came from a combination of the Indians’ regard for the buffalo and the black soldiers’ tightly curled hair that resembled the hair on the bison’s face. Accepting the respect of their adversaries, the Buffalo Soldiers

Crest of the Buffalo Soldier

Crest of the Buffalo Soldier

adopted the image of the bison on their regiment crest.

The army paid the black recruits $13 a month plus food, clothing, and shelter—more than most black men could earn after the Civil War.  Their enlistment was for five years and when they reached Texas they took part in most of the major Indian campaigns.  They were stationed at almost every fort on the frontier from the Rio Grande to the Panhandle—helping to build and repair the outposts.  They escorted mail teams, stagecoaches, cattle herds, and survey crews.  They built roads, strung miles of telegraph lines, and performed ordinary garrison duties in the isolated western outposts.  They recovered thousands of head of stolen livestock and spent months on the trail of horse thieves and Indian raiders.

Although thirteen enlisted men and four regiments earned the Medal of Honor by the end of the Indian wars in the 1890s, and many went on to serve in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and Pershing’s punitive expedition into Mexico against Pancho Villa, by the turn of the last century the Buffalo Soldiers faced increasing racial prejudice.  Resentment and anger that developed during

Texas forts served by Buffalo Soldiers

Texas forts served by Buffalo Soldiers

Reconstruction in the South drove a wedge between citizens and anyone in a Federal uniform, especially a black man transformed from slave to person of authority.  Buffalo Soldiers were stationed outside segregated communities and were subjected to increasing harassment by local police, beatings, and occasional sniper attacks.  One example of the increasing tensions between white citizens occurred in Brownsville in 1906 when the newly arrived Twenty-fifth regiment was falsely accused of a murder.  When members of the unit could not name the culprits, President Theodore Roosevelt followed recommendations to dishonorably discharge 167 men because of their “conspiracy of silence.”  It was 1972 before an inquiry found them innocent, and President Nixon granted the two surviving soldiers honorable discharges, without backpay.  When Congress finally passed a tax-free pension the following year, only one Buffalo Soldier survived, and he received $25,000 and was honored in ceremonies in Washington, DC and Los Angeles.

Buffalo Soldier regiments were not called to duty during WWI, however many of the experienced personnel served in other black units.  After the Ninth and Tenth cavalries were disbanded, their men served in other units during WWII.  The Twenty-fifth saw combat in the Pacific before being deactivated in 1949.  The Twenty-fourth, the last Buffalo Soldier regiment to see combat, served in the Pacific during WWII and in the opening days of the Korean War, before being deactivated in 1951.

In 1948 President Truman issued an executive order abolishing racial discrimination in the United States Armed Forces, but it was fifteen years later before Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara issued a directive obligating military commanders to stop discrimination based on sex or race in facilities used by soldiers or their family.

The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum was founded in 2000 as “the only museum dedicated primarily to preserving the legacy and honor of the African-American soldier.”  It is located in Houston and will honor military heroes at the 14th Annual Gala on February 28, 2014.