The Buffalo Soldiers
Six black regular army regiments were authorized by an act of Congress in 1867, two cavalry, the 9th and 10th, and four infantry regiments, the 38th through 41st. About half of the regiments’ strength were veterans of the US Colored Troops and provided most of the regiments’ non-commissioned officers. Two years later, budget cutbacks reduced the infantry regiments to two and the four were combined into the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments.
Stationed in the most remote posts, all four regiments played major roles in the Indian Wars — they were one-fifth of the soldiers who “won” the West! They developed a reputation as fierce fighters, causing the Cheyenne to term them “Buffalo Soldiers,” after the animal they depended on for their sustenance. The earliest known use of this descriptor was 1872, when the wife of a white infantry officer wrote, “The officers say that the Negroes make good soldiers and fight like fiends … the Indians call them ‘buffalo soldiers’ because their woolly heads are so much like the matted cushion that is between the horns of the buffalo. These “Buffalo Soldiers” are active, intelligent, and are resolute men…and appear to me to be rather superior to the average white recruited in time of peace.” The white majority did not at all appreciate those comments.
” They served longer on the frontier, deserted less, and reenlisted more often than their white counterparts, even though they were generally deployed to the most remote and undesirable outposts. Between 1866 and 1885, only 2 out of 1,000 black soldiers reported on sick call for drunkenness as opposed to 54 out of 1,000 white soldiers.
All four Buffalo Soldier regiments were transferred to Florida in the spring of 1898 in preparation for the war with Spain, assigned to capture the major eastern city, Santiago de Cuba. The 9th and 10th Cavalry formed the core of the 1st Brigade, which included the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, popularly known as the “Rough Riders,” under Lieutenant Colonel Teddy Roosevelt, serving in the dismounted cavalry division under ex-Confederate Major General “Fighting Joe” Joseph Wheeler, whose cavalry exploits during the Civil War earned considerable fame. This “splendid” little 113-day conflict, the product of heated yellow journalism and rank jingoism, cost 280 American lives and 1,577 wounded. Unfortunately, far more soldiers died of disease than bullets or shrapnel.
The four black regular regiments were hotly engaged throughout the campaign, and charged up San Juan Hill along with the Rough Riders. Their heroics were so noteworthy that Roosevelt initially declared, “We went up absolutely intermingled, so that no one could tell whether it was the Rough Riders of the men of the 9th who came forward with the greater courage to offer their lives in the service of their country…I don’t think any Rough Rider will forget the tie that binds us to the 9th and 10th Cavalry.” Sadly, in the interest of political expediency, Roosevelt later wrote: “Negro troops were shirkers in their duties and would only go as far as they were led by white officers.” It worked; Roosevelt became New York’s governor in 1899, vice president in 1900, and president in 1901 when McKinley was assassinated. Nevertheless, the valor and grit of the four units was widely appreciated — again, for a brief interlude.
All four regiments served one or more tours suppressing Philippine rebels, but none of the four Buffalo Soldier regiments saw service overseas during World War I due to the rabid racism of the Wilson administration, although three of the four had been part of the Punitive Expedition along the Mexican Border against Pancho Villa in 1916, penetrating 400 miles into Mexico. During World War II, the two cavalry regiments were assigned to the 2nd Cavalry Division, which was disbanded when it arrived in North Africa in 1943. Its troops were used as stevedores; some constructed an airfield for the Tuskegee Airmen.
The 25th Infantry was assigned to the 93rd Infantry Division when it was activated in May 1942. The 25th Infantry Regiment deployed to the Pacific Theater at Guadalcanal in January 1944. The division’s regiments campaigned in New Guinea, Northern Solomons (Bougainville) and the Bismarck Archipelago (Admiralty Islands), mostly conducting mop-up operations, unloading ships, and clearing battlefield damage. The 25th Infantry was demobilized after the war ended.
The 24th Infantry Regiment deployed to the Pacific in April 1942 as an independent regiment, among the first American forces to fight in the Pacific, ending the war occupying Okinawa. In 1949, it was transferred to Japan and became a permanent part of the 25th Infantry Division. Thus, the regiment was among the first to arrive in Korea in the summer of 1950, where it compiled a mixed record. Two members were awarded Medals of Honor posthumously for extreme bravery, but segregation, abuse, and inadequate replacements caused the unit to falter. The division commander wanted to disband the regiment, but his desires were superseded by General James Gavin, Douglas MacArthur’s replacement, who believed in integration. Thus, three years after President Truman directed the integration of the armed forces, the army’s last major segregated combat unit ceased to exist.
During ninety-five years of exemplary service to the country that abused them as second class citizens, the Buffalo Soldiers proved that they were made of sterner mettle than the bigots who persecuted their race.
The chapter I have added to my second edition contains multiple examples of their profiles in courage.