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

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Former Texas Slaves Serve in the Union Army

Three Holland brothers—Milton, William, and James—were slaves born in the 1840s on Spearman Holland’s plantation near Carthage. Apparently their father was Spearman’s half brother, Capt. Bird Holland who purchased his sons from Spearman and moved them to Travis

Only known wartime photo of Milton Holland in uniform, c. 1863 or '64 Wikipedia.

Only known wartime photo of Milton Holland in uniform, c. 1863 or ’64
Wikipedia.

County. Little is known of their early life except that Bird Holland freed his three sons in the 1850s and enrolled them in Albany Manual Labor Academy, a private school in Ohio that maintained the very unusual policy of admitting both black and female students.

Bird Holland, who had served as Texas Secretary of State, joined the Confederate Army in November 1861. Meantime, sixteen-year-old Milton eagerly volunteered for the U.S. Army, only to be turned down because of his race.

Milton and his older brother, William, may have joined a group of blacks that formed the Attucks’ Guard, which was named for Crispus Attucks, the first man (who was also black) killed in the Revolutionary War. The Attucks Guard marched to Albany to offer their service, but they were turned down. It was not until June 1862 that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton allowed black Americans to enlist and even then they had to serve in separate units, receive less pay than white soldiers, and be commanded by white officers. And they were not allowed to rise above the rank of non-commissioned officer.

While Milton waited for his opportunity to join the military, he used the skills he learned at the Albany Manual Labor University to work as a shoemaker for the quartermaster department. In June 1863 he joined the Fifth United States Colored Troops, and his older brother, William, joined the Sixteenth United States Colored Troops.

Although both brothers fought in several battles, it was Milton who rose to the rank of sergeant major. In late September 1864 while engaged in hand-to-hand combat at Chaffin’s Farm and then at New Market Heights, Virginia, all the white officers were either killed or wounded. Milton and three other black soldiers led the troops in routing the enemy and securing a victory that opened the door to nearby Richmond. Despite being wounded in the charge, Milton Holland continued to lead his men. For his extraordinary

1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland wearing Medal of Honor. Courtesy of Rob Lyon c. 1865

1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland wearing Medal of Honor. Courtesy of Rob Lyon
c. 1865

service he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on April 6, 1865, one of sixteen black soldiers in the Civil War to receive this country’s highest honor. He was promoted to captain in the field, but the U.S. War Department refused to honor the commission because of his race. Ohio’s Governor David Tod offered to commission Holland as a captain if he would agree to be reassigned to another regiment as a white man. Holland refused the offer, declining to deny his racial identity.

During the war, Milton’s father and former owner, Bird Holland, had risen to the rank of major in the Confederacy. He was killed on April 8, 1864, while serving as head of his regiment in the battle of Mansfield during the Red River Campaign.

Milton Holland mustered out of the army and settled in Washington D.C. where he worked as a clerk in the U.S. Treasury Department and studied law at Howard University, graduating in 1872. He established a law practice, remained active in Republican politics, held offices in two black-owned banking businesses, and founded the Alpha Insurance Company, one of the first black-owned insurance companies in the country. After his death from a heart attack in 1910, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Milton’s brother William attended Oberlin College, returned to Texas, taught in several Texas schools, and held a position at the Austin post office. After moving to Waller County, he was elected to the fifteenth legislature where he sponsored bills establishing Prairie View Normal College (now Prairie View A&M University) and The Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Institute for Colored Youth, where he was superintendent for eleven years.

Born into slavery, both brothers served the United States with honor as freedmen.

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.