Black History Month 2018: The Legacy of Buffalo Soldiers

Old photograph of a regiment of buffalo soldiers

Despite a history saturated with discrimination and abuse from their fellow countrymen, black Americans have fought in every major war in US history, extending all the way back to the American Revolution itself. Early black servicemembers sacrificed a great deal to defend our country, paving the way for the black men and women that would fill military positions for years to come.

Among early military pioneers are the men who came to be known as “buffalo soldiers.” They served in many capacities, including fighting in multiple wars, serving as park rangers, and searching for Pancho Villa.

In this post, we’ll dive into some of the history of the buffalo soldiers and what their experiences mean for Americans today.

Predecessors of the Buffalo Soldiers: Black Civil War Soldiers

To provide a backdrop for the buffalo soldiers, it is helpful to understand some basic points about the experience of black servicemembers in the Civil War (which was the time period just before the organization of buffalo soldier regiments).

Thousands of black Americans served in the Civil War, almost exclusively for the Union. This was despite the Confederacy’s threats to execute or enslave black prisoners of war and kill or punish white commanders of black soldiers.

Not only was there opposition to African American soldiers from the Confederacy, but there were also harmful ideas about these soldiers within the Union itself. Many of the white officers didn’t think black men were capable of serving in combat positions, holding the opinion that blacks should only be involved in the war as carpenters, cooks, or other non-combat roles. This thinking revealed the persistence of a deeply entrenched racism.

What’s more, though the Emancipation Proclamation meant that black Union servicemembers were finally seen as an official part of the US, they were paid significantly less than white soldiers until 1864, when they were granted equal pay.

Charles Sumner summarized the experience of many black soldiers in the Civil War in a letter urging African American men to “enlist at once:” “Help to overcome your cruel enemies now battling against your country, and in this way you will surely overcome those other enemies hardly less cruel, here at home, who will still seek to degrade you.”

Yet, despite the cruelty faced at home and from the opposition, the 179,000 African Americans involved in the Civil War fought in many grueling battles. By the end of the war, 40,000 had died for the cause and 16 were awarded the Medal of Honor.

The Formation of the All-Black Regiments

In 1866, after the Civil War, Congress created the Army Organization Act. This reorganized the Army and created segregated regiments of African American men, including:

  • Two Cavalry Regiments: 9th and 10th
  • Four Infantry Regiments: 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st

The 38th and 41st Infantry Regiments were combined and became the 25th Infantry Regiment, while the 39th and 40th became the 24th Infantry Regiment.

The military wouldn’t be desegregated until almost a century later, in 1948.

Who Were the Buffalo Soldiers?

The History Behind the Name

When it comes to the origins of the “buffalo soldier” nickname, there is not one account that is agreed upon by historians as being completely accurate.

The most accepted explanation is that the name came from Native Americans, who saw a similarity between the curly, thick, dark hair of the buffalo and the hair of many of the black soldiers. Others think that it was because of either the warm buffalo robes worn by many of the soldiers or their fighting skills.

The soldiers apparently accepted the name. The 10th Cavalry even used the buffalo on their coat of arms.

Some writers talk about the “buffalo soldier” nickname as being “bestowed” upon black soldiers by Native Americans in the area as a name of great honor and significance. It is treated by these writers as though it is a title of deep respect—said to be given because of a Native American view of the African American soldiers’ exceptional bravery and fighting ability. These writers suggest a kind of “special bond” between the two groups.

Though it is true that many American Indian plains tribes had an important place for the buffalo in their respective cultures and this could have had to do with the nickname, it is important to understand that the above-mentioned speculations are just that—speculations—and in some cases, the phraseology is inaccurate and condescending to both Native Americans and black Americans.

Race relations between the two groups should not be construed to fit romantic views of the past. Relations were complex, including some racist mindsets held by people of both races toward the other.

Military Duties Performed by Buffalo Soldiers

The American western frontier has been popularized by many songs, movies, and artists. At the time of buffalo soldiers, American settlers were moving west and facing confrontations and battles with Native American tribes. There were also horse and cattle thieves and outlaws that made western life less than easy.

Buffalo soldiers spent much of their service fighting with tribes the American government deemed “hostile.” They engaged in battles with many tribes, including Comanches, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and others.

According to History.com, “20 percent of US Cavalry troops that participated in the Indian Wars were buffalo soldiers, who participated in at least 177 conflicts.”

Buffalo soldiers also captured outlaws and protected trains, stagecoaches, and cattle trains from thieves. They also went beyond fighting, helping survey and map western areas as well as working on multiple building projects.

After the Indian Wars were over, buffalo soldiers fought in both the Spanish-American War and Philippine-American War. Their participation in important battles, including the Battle of San Juan Hill, was critical, and their courage and bravery was praised by many other soldiers.

In addition, the buffalo soldiers also helped hunt for Pancho Villa in the Mexican Expedition of 1916-1917. And during the Mexican Revolution and First World War, they fought in the Battle of Ambos Nogales.

Non-Military Responsibilities after the Indian Wars

Though they still participated in various military operations as already described, the buffalo soldiers also helped fill a variety of roles after the Indian Wars were over.

For example, it’s a lesser-known fact that about 500 buffalo soldiers served as rangers in Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in 1899, 1903, and 1904. They fought poachers, timber thieves, and forest fires while garrisoned at the Presidio of San Francisco in the winters and the Sierra in the summers.

During this time period, in addition to protecting the national parks, some buffalo soldiers were also assigned a special mission to escort President Theodore Roosevelt during his West Coast tour of California in 1903. Though the President’s history with the buffalo soldiers was a complicated one, the appointment was an honor nonetheless.

Balancing the honor and complications of their position was a hallmark of the buffalo soldiers during this time. According to the National Park Service, “They occupied one of the lowest rungs of the social ladder; a fact which served to undercut the authority of any black man who served in any position of power. Yosemite and Sequoia’s Buffalo Soldiers had to be simultaneously strong and diplomatic to fulfill the duties of their job but to avoid giving offense.”

Despite all of these complications, serving as a buffalo soldier was still a desirable assignment. In fact, according to History.com, buffalo soldiers had the lowest desertion and court-martial rates of all regiments at the time.

In addition, twenty-three of them won the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is the highest decoration in the US military and is awarded to soldiers that demonstrate valor in action.

Edward A. Johnson, a New York State Legislator, said in 1917, “Let it be said that the Negro soldier did his duty under the flag whether that flag protects him or not.”

The Reaction of Whites

Buffalo soldiers had to surmount many forms of racism to serve the United States. According to Smithsonian Magazine, they “often faced extreme racial prejudice from the Army establishment.”

The men served under officers who were usually white. As stated by Smithsonian, “Many officers, including George Armstrong Custer, refused to command black regiments, even though it cost them promotions in rank.” John Smith, a descendant of Custer, is quoted saying, “He [Custer] said they wouldn’t fight, that they were afraid and that they’d run.”

On a positive note, though, there were some black officers as well, like the famed Henry O. Flipper. He was West Point’s first African American graduate.

Officers weren’t the only people who held racist ideas about black soldiers. Civilians around the areas where the buffalo soldiers were stationed often struggled to accept African American soldiers, treating them badly or even reacting violently. Some towns, when requesting military presence in their towns, included a request that those servicemembers not be black.

However, other towns, despite the racism of the time, enjoyed their company, with both the soldiers and the citizens participating in community events like concerts or parades.

And some officers, such as John J. Pershing, felt differently as well. He said of buffalo soldiers, “They fought their way into the hearts of the American people.” For his view on the soldiers, Pershing was called “Black Jack,” a name journalists gave him because his initial nickname from other soldiers included a racial slur.

And Frank Knox, one of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders who fought with them in the Battle of San Juan Hill, said of them, “I never saw braver men anywhere.”

Coming Home

According to the National Museum of African American History & Culture, when the buffalo soldiers returned home, some “were able to get better jobs, own property, and gain access to higher education. At the same time, some returning Buffalo Soldiers were lynched. African Americans realized that even their sacrifices for the war had not yet made them equal citizens.”

The Military Then and Now

The military remained segregated until 1948, when President Truman made an executive order that integrated the military. The order was completely fulfilled in 1951, by which time all buffalo soldier regiments were disintegrated.

Though there is certainly a temptation of some to say that racism in the military ended when military segregation ended, there are still battles for equality. For example, in late October of 2011, Private Danny Chen, a Chinese-American, committed suicide after enduring racial slurs and physical abuse from other soldiers.

A more systematic issue was changed in recent years, in response to a 2014 complaint by the Congressional Black Caucus. The Army had just banned styles like twists or dreadlocks, resulting in many black servicewomen having to buy expensive chemical treatments (many of which can be hard to get when deployed) every few weeks to stay within regulations.

After a negative response to the changes, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the military to review its policies for hairstyles commonly worn by black women. Different branches of the military changed their hairstyle rules to allow these hairstyles.

Continued Racism in the Military

As far as numbers go, the representation of diverse races in the military is better than it has been in much of US history, though there is still room for improvement, particularly when it comes to representation in higher-ranking positions.

In the 2017 Congressional Research Service Report, this discrepancy was made clear:

  • 87.6% of Active Duty General/Flag Officers (O-7 and above) are white, though whites make up 76.6% of the US population
  • 8.2% of Active Duty General/Flag Officers (O-7 and above) are black, despite being 13.7% of the US population

When compared to the percentages of each race in the US population, this report showed that, overall, white servicemembers (both active duty and selected reserve members) are underrepresented while blacks are overrepresented. However, as the numbers above demonstrate, instead of mirroring this fact at higher ranks, blacks become underrepresented while whites are overrepresented. This switched representation for higher ranks is alarming, as it demonstrates a trend where black servicemembers are not being promoted at the same rate as their white counterparts.

In addition, another recent report says that “black service members are substantially more likely than white service members to face military justice or disciplinary action. These disparities have not improved, and in some cases have increased, in recent years.”

Together, these two reports, in addition to other findings, suggest that racism is far from being solved in the US military.

How US Citizens Can Help End Military Racism

In response to racial violence in the US, military leaders continue to speak about the military values of equality and non-racism.

However, it’s up to all of us, as individuals and as a country, to uphold to these values and examine our military’s complex past with our present shortcomings in mind, learning from and working to solve the problems faced by many minority servicemembers today.

Ultimately, all servicemembers are sacrificing their time and their lives in preserving the freedoms of our country.

The Lasting Legacy of Buffalo Soldiers

The last buffalo soldier, 1st Sergeant Mark Matthews, died in 2005 at 111 years old. In 1992, President George Bush made July 28th Buffalo Soldiers Day to honor the regiments’ service to this country.

It’s a complicated legacy, since much of it is built on the conquering of Native American tribes for westward expansion. However, forceful expansionism was the way of the US government at the time, and the buffalo soldiers served their country valiantly as part of its military.

The soldiers also served despite racism and inequality at a time that the US was very unfriendly and dangerous to them. Their pioneering in the armed forces is important to all military members today who, thanks to the buffalo soldiers, benefit from a more diverse and inclusive service.

May we not, through our historical look at racism and those who have fought against it, fall into thinking that it is a thing of the past. May we always honor the legacy of the buffalo soldiers.

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