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Buffalo Soldiers

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt

At the close of the Civil War, the United States Congress authorized the formation of six regiments of African American soldiers; two regiments of cavalry and four regiments of infantry. In 1869, Congress agreed on a general troop reduction and the number of black infantry units was reduced to two. African American men were given the opportunity to enlist in the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments or the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiments. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the four black regiments represented nearly ten percent of the entire United States army’s effective fighting force. Blacks were even more numerous in the West. In many western commands, blacks made up more than fifty percent of the available troops. Although the contributions of the African American regiments were significant in taming the West, their accomplishments have always been tempered by the color of their skin.

Buffalo Soldiers - 10th Cavalry In Cuba
10th Cavalry in Cuba
Wikimedia Commons
Buffalo Soldiers 25th Infantry Regiment
25th Infantry Regiment
Wikimedia Commons
Buffalo Soldier was the name given by the Plains Indians to African American soldiers, both cavalry and infantry, who served on the western frontier. Some say the nickname was derived from the tightly curled hair of the black soldiers that resembled the curly hair on the face of a Bison. Others said that the name was given in honor of the tenacity, bravery, and strength of the buffalo that the black soldiers displayed in a fight. One thing is certain, since the Indians revered the buffalo, the nickname was one of respect, and the Buffalo Soldiers proudly featured a bison on their regimental crest. Predecessors to the Buffalo Soldiers first served in Indian Territory during the Civil War. In 1863, they contributed greatly to Union victories at Cabin Creek and Honey Springs and in a second engagement at Cabin Creek in 1864. Of course, the blacks were motivated by the fact that Confederates threatened to return captured African-Americans to slavery or to take no prisoners.

The Ninth Cavalry Regiment was organized in New Orleans on September 21, 1866. The unit’s first commanding officer was Colonel Edward Hatch. Hatch, like all other officers in the African-American regiments, was white. The term of enlistment in the regiment was five years and the pay was $13 a month plus room, board, and clothing. “We Can, We Will” was the Ninth Regiment’s motto, and it remains so today. Most of the unit’s soldiers were recruited from the vicinity of New Orleans or from Kentucky, while the horses were purchased in St. Louis. Empty New Orleans cotton presses were first used as barracks, but a cholera epidemic caused the crowded camp to be moved to Carrollton. The Ninth Cavalry was nearly at full strength by the end of March 1867, with 885 enlisted men, or an average of more than seventy men per troop. The unit was ordered to San Antonio in April for three months of training, but L and M Troops were sent directly to their permanent duty station at Brownsville, Texas.

The Tenth Cavalry Regiment was mustered into service in 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. By the end of July 1867, eight companies had been recruited from the Departments of Arkansas, Missouri, and the Platte. Unfortunately, the commander at Fort Leavenworth was openly opposed to African-Americans serving in the regular army, and he made life as difficult as possible for the new troops. The Tenth’s commanding officer, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, finally requested a transfer. In answer to the request, the regiment was transferred to Fort Riley, Kansas in August, and three of its companies were moved to Indian Territory, in what would later become Oklahoma, to protect the tribes and maintain the peace. In early 1869, the remainder of the Tenth was sent to Indian Territory, where they remained until the end of the Red River War in 1875. “Ready and Forward,” was the motto of the Tenth Cavalry when it was formed and remains so today.”
Buffalo Soldiers Monument at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
Buffalo Soldiers Monument at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
Wikimedia Commons
The Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment was mustered into service on November 1, 1869. Most of the men were drawn from the proposed Thirty-Eighth and Forty-First (Colored) Infantry Regiments, when the United States Congress called for the formation of two African-American infantry regiments instead of the four contained in the original legislation. Recruits were also drawn from freedmen or from the ranks of other colored units in the army, but all of the enlisted soldiers were black. From the day the Twenty-Fourth was activated, until the dawn of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the unit served throughout the western United States. Its missions were diverse and varied, including serving as the garrison for many frontier posts, fighting Indians, apprehending outlaws, and guarding the border along the Rio Grande. “Semper Paratus or “Always Prepared” was the unit’s motto. The Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment is noted for its checkered past, with mostly meritorious garrison service and valorous combat service, marred by a few serious transgressions such as the Houston, Texas riot of 1917.

Like the Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment, the Twenty-Fifth was consolidated from the proposed Thirty-Ninth and Fortieth Infantry Regiments in March of 1869, when the original legislation was amended. In April, the newly constituted Twenty-Fifth Regiment established its first regimental headquarters at Jackson Barracks, Louisiana. The unit was commanded by Colonel Joseph A. Mower. The regiment was transferred to San Antonio, Texas for a brief period in May 1870, but its companies were soon ordered to a number of small frontier Texas posts, including Fort Bliss, Fort Davis, Fort Stockton, and Fort Clark. For the next ten years, the Twenty-Fifth served along the Mexican border in both Texas and New Mexico. The unit was responsible for providing border security, constructing roads and telegraph lines, and conducting occasional operations against the Indians. In 1880, the Twenty-Fifth was transferred to the northern Great Plains, with operations mostly in Dakota Territory.

Near the end of August 1867, the Buffalo Soldiers of the Tenth Cavalry had one of their first fights at the Saline River some twenty-five miles northwest of Fort Hays, Kansas. After a railroad work party was wiped out, Company F of the Tenth was ordered to locate the band of hostile Cheyenne who had perpetrated the massacre. While following an active trail, Company F, commanded by Captain George Ames, was surrounded by 400 Cheyenne warriors. Captain Ames immediately ordered the company to form a hollow square formation with the horses in the middle. He then slowly walked his command to better ground while maintaining the defensive square. After eight hours of fighting, 2000 rounds fired, and nearly fifteen miles of movement, the Cheyenne finally withdrew. Only one Company F trooper was killed, and Captain Ames, who had been wounded in the hip, later commented, “It is the greatest wonder in the world that my command escaped being massacred.” Ames also stated that his men displayed “…devotion to duty and coolness under fire.”
Buffalo Soldiers Captain Armes Wounded.\
Wounded and Lifted on a Horse
Painting by C. Taylor describes when Captain Armes was wounded

Wikimedia Commons
In September and October of 1868, Troops H and I of the Tenth Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Brevet Lieutenant Colonel (Captain in the Regular Army) Louis H. Carpenter, took part in two notable actions. The initial action was the Buffalo Soldiers’ rescue of Lieutenant Colonel Forsyth and a party of 48 white scouts, who had been surrounded and attacked by some 700 warriors of mixed tribes on a small sand island on the north fork of the Republican River. The fight became known as the Battle of Beecher Island. The second episode occurred two weeks after Carpenter had returned to Fort Wallace with the Beecher Island survivors. Troops H and I were ordered to escort supply wagons to the Fifth Cavalry near Beaver Creek. As they neared the creek, the Buffalo Soldiers were attacked by a large force of Indians. After a hot running fight and an effective defensive stand, the “hostiles” retreated. Lieutenant Colonel Carpenter was later awarded the Medal of Honor for the two separate actions.
Buffalo Soldiers Rescue Battle of Beecher Island.

The Rescue depicts Bvt Col. Louis H. Carpenter greeting Lt. Col. G. A. Forsyth at the Battle of Beecher Island
Wikimedia Commons

In July 1867, elements of the Ninth Cavalry Regiment were transferred to western and southwestern Texas and detailed to maintain law and order from Fort Clark to El Paso, the vast area that stretched between the Rio Grande and the Concho Rivers. Troops A, B, E, and K, under the command of Colonel Hatch, and the Regimental Headquarters were posted to Fort Stockton, and Troops C, D, F, G, H, and I, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt were stationed at Fort Davis. Troops L and M, under the command of Lieutenant Hamilton, had previously been dispatched to Brownsville for garrison duty. The Ninth remained in Texas for eight years, nearly all of it in the field, where they participated in the Apache Wars from 1875 to 1881. That service included the Battle of Tularosa where elements of the Ninth led by Sergeant George Jordan repulsed an attack by Chiricahua Apaches. The Ninth Regiment was eventually transferred to Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1881, and to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in 1885.

Regimental Headquarters for the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments were officially transferred to Fort Concho, Texas, on April 17, 1875, however, the regimental companies actually arrived at the fort in May 1873. At various times from 1873 until 1885, Fort Concho served as the headquarters for companies A-F, K and M of the Ninth Cavalry, companies A, D-G. I, and L of the Tenth Cavalry, companies D-G, and K of the Twenty-Fourth Infantry, and companies G and K of the Twenty-Fifth Infantry. While serving at Fort Concho, the Buffalo Soldiers provided protection from Indians, guarded mail and travel routes, laid new telegraph lines, provided protection from Mexican revolutionaries and bandits, and gained vital knowledge of the West Texas terrain. The Tenth Cavalry Regiment alone scouted some 34,420 miles of unmapped country, opened more than 300 miles of new roads, and laid over 200 miles of telegraph lines.

Patrolling activities took the Buffalo Soldiers through some of the most rugged and desolate countryside in the West. The numerous patrols carried out by the African-Americans made possible the preparation of accurate maps that located scarce water holes to aide survival, discovered mountain passes to ease movement, and identified good grazing land that would aid future settlement. All of this was accomplished while the Buffalo Soldiers remained on constant alert for attack by hostile Apaches or Kiowa-Comanches. In addition to their other activities, Buffalo Soldiers assisted local law enforcement and federal marshals, escorted stagecoaches and freight wagons, guarded railroad construction workers and mail carriers, and relentlessly pursued outlaws, horse thieves, and cattle rustlers. The assignment to West Texas produced a rugged brand of soldier, one who could face hardship with confidence and who became accustomed to surviving in an area that provided few comforts and never any luxuries.

The Tenth Cavalry Regiment played a vital role during the 1879-80 Apache War campaign against Victorio and his band of warriors from the Mescalero Reservation near Fort Stanton, New Mexico. After escaping from the reservation, Victorio and some 125 to 150 warriors wreaked havoc across southern New Mexico and far West Texas before crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico. Colonel Grierson, commanding the Tenth, and a detachment of the Twenty-Fourth Infantry was ordered to prevent Victorio and his band from returning to the Guadalupe Mountains on the Texas-New Mexico side of the border, but the wily Grierson decided not to try and intercept the Apaches. Instead, he posted troops at all the strategic water holes and crossings along Victorio’s likely route to the mountains, knowing that the Apaches could not cross the dry Trans-Pecos without water.

The largest concentration of troops ever assembled in the Trans-Pecos region took part in the campaign, including six troops from the Tenth Cavalry, who were assigned to patrol the area from the Van Horn Mountains west to the Quitman Mountains, and north to the Sierra Diablo and Delaware Mountains. Most encounters with the Indians resulted in only light skirmishing, however major confrontations between the Tenth and the Apaches took place at Tinaja de las Palmas, a water hole south of Sierra Blanca, and at Rattlesnake Springs, north of Van Horn. The victory at Rattlesnake Springs was pivotal. Four days earlier, Captain Thomas C. Lebo’s Company K had located and destroyed the Apache supply camp in the Sierra Diablos. Defeated at every turn, hungry, and denied use of the only available water holes, Victorio had no choice but to abandon the Trans-Pecos and flee back across the Rio Grande into Mexico. October 15, Mexican forces killed the infamous Apache war chief in the Tres Castillos Mountains. The death of the great Victorio ended the Indian threat to West Texas.


Although not as well known, the Ninth Cavalry Regiment also participated in the fabled 1892 Johnson County, Wyoming land war between farmers trying to protect their crops and wealthy ranchers seeking to keep the range unfenced. The war climaxed in a lengthy shootout involving local farmers, killers brought in and paid for by the ranchers, and a sheriff’s posse that leaned toward the cattlemen. Initially, the Sixth Cavalry had been ordered to quell the violence, but they had been too easily swayed by local political and social pressures. The Ninth Cavalry was called in to relieve the Sixth, and the Buffalo Soldiers were on the scene within two weeks. In spite of dealing with a racist and hostile local population, troopers of the Ninth were able to take control of the situation. One trooper was killed and two were wounded in gunfights with the locals. The Ninth Cavalry Regiment remained in Wyoming for nearly a year to quell the violence and the tension that followed their arrival.

Buffalo Soldiers Victors On Kettle Hill
Victors on Kettle Hill (Col. Theodore Roosevelt in the center)
Wikimedia Commons

During the 1890's, after the Indian Wars had come to a conclusion, Buffalo Soldiers continued to serve with distinction. Units took part in the 1898 Spanish-American War charge up San Juan (Kettle) Hill with Theodore Roosevelt, the 1899 Philippine Insurrection, and John J. Pershing’s unsuccessful 1916 pursuit of Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. Unfortunately, by the turn of the century the Buffalo Soldiers found themselves facing increasing racial prejudice. They were banned from taking liberty in segregated towns near their posts and were the objects of racial slurs, beatings, harassment from law enforcement, and even several sniper attacks. In light of the intolerant hatred and sometimes violent behavior they were forced to live with, it is no wonder Buffalo Soldiers occasionally responded with violence. The Ninth Cavalry took part in the racial disturbances in Rio Grande City in 1899, the Twenty-Fifth Infantry allegedly attacked civilians in the Brownsville raid of 1906, and the Twenty-Fourth Regiment was at the center of the 1917 Houston Riot.

In nearly 30 years of dedicated and arduous service, Buffalo Soldiers won the grudging respect of even the most prejudiced of their white officers. The black cavalrymen and infantrymen were awarded nine Medals of Honor for meritorious valor in combat and earned countless other awards and commendations for distinguished service. More importantly, Buffalo Soldiers were a credit to the African-American race. Helped along by a John Ford film, "Sergeant Rutledge," the popularity of the Buffalo Soldiers surged in the 1960’s. A Tenth Cavalry Regiment reenactment unit was formed in 1965 and in the 1990’s a Buffalo Soldiers’ reenactment group, working with the Texas Parks Texas and Wildlife Commission, performed a number of historical programs at parks and other sites across the state.


© Jeffery Robenalt
, December 2, 2014 Column
jeffrobenalt@yahoo.com
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Sources for "Buffalo Soldiers"

  • Carroll, John M., The Black Military Experience in the American West, (New York: Liveright Press, 1971).
  • Fowler, Arlen L., The Black Infantry in the West, 1869-1891, (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971).
  • Kenner, Charles L., Buffalo Soldiers and Officers of the Ninth Cavalry, 1867-1898, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999).
  • Leckie, William H., The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967).
  • Nalty, Bernard C., Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military, (New York: Free Press, 1986).
  • Odintz, Mark, “BUFFALO SOLDIERS,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qlb01), accessed January 10, 2014. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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