Who were the Buffalo Soldiers?
The Buffalo Soldiers were African Americans who fought during the Civil War; they were runaway slaves, ex-slaves and freedmen. They joined the Army as an alternative to being tracked and returned to slavery, to being mistaken for slaves and captured, to fight against slavery, and as a way to earn a living. They formed all-black units because no one would work with them, and with training, they proved themselves to be disciplined and reliable even with the prejudice, poor treatment, and the worst equipment.
Many white troops and officers didn’t want them in their unit, like George Custer, who refused to command them, to his detriment. But, the African American units had the lowest desertion rate and disciplinary actions in the army. They were so good at what they did that after the Civil War Congress passed the Army Organization Act in 1866, creating the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th, and 25th Infantry as official army units with white officers at first. But, soon they had their own officers, like Henry O. Flipper and Charles Young, the first African American Colonel in the American Army.
The Buffalo Soldiers were posted west of the Mississippi River because many whites did not want blacks with guns in their areas. So they were assigned to police and protect the West by guarding the pioneers, helping build the railroads, protecting the Pony Express relaying the US mail. They guarded and protected Wells Fargo gold shipments and the Butterfield stagecoach passengers, lines and stations.
They served in many skirmishes with the Native Americans during the Indian Wars; Apaches, Comanches, Cheyenne, Kiowas, Arapaho, and other tribes. During these battles the Indians found the African American troops to be ferocious and tenacious fighters, honorable in battle, protective of their units which reminded them of the buffalo they so depended upon; that along with their woolly looking hair made them dub these soldiers “Buffalo Soldiers”. Over the years, the name stuck and the 9th, 10th cavalry and the 24th, and 25th infantry carried the name with pride.
Buffalo Soldiers and the Mustang
The Buffalo Soldiers fought Native Americans for years in various skirmishes and wars, coming close to many tribes, learning how they trained their horses, mustangs they gathered from the wilderness, desert, and the mountains. They watched how the Indians gentled their horses for riding and learned to work with their own mustangs. Since the African Americans got the worst equipment and mounts, they had to learn to repair their gear and break their mounts to ride.
They trained their horses so well, they were soon tasked with working with the army’s “green-broke” mounts that they got from nearby ranchers, or that were rounded up while on the go. Gentling the mustangs as they could, using some of the methods they learned from the Indians. If they were near a large enough body of water, they would use the method of riding the horses into the water and riding until the horse got too tired to buck or he followed the reins. They also used the method of blowing into the
horse’s nostrils to give him the soldiers’ scent and they bonded. Buffalo Soldiers were excellent with the horses and became farriers and trainers for the army mounts.
Can Bicycles Work?
The 25th Infantry was stationed at Ft. Missoula in Montana in 1897 where their commanding officer was 25-year-old James Moss, who was white and fresh out of West Point and he had the idea that bicycles would be less expensive, and more effective than horses. To test his theory, he convinced his commanding officer to let him ride bicycles to St. Louis. So, he and 20 soldiers from the 25th Infantry, plus an army surgeon and a reporter from Ft. Missoula, made a bicycle trek from Ft. Missoula, Montana to St. Louis, Missouri, a ride of approximately 1900 miles; taking them about 41 days.
The soldiers had to carry their food, ammunition, camping gear, and extra clothing on their handlebars, plus a ten pound gun on their back, the bike itself weighed close to 60 pounds. The dangerous trek led them through the Rocky Mountains; with bad weather, roads that were barely usable, areas that they had to carry their bicycles through, questionable, sometimes really unsafe water sources, some of which made them desperately ill.
Even though they had a food drop every 100 miles or so, the quartermaster often misjudged the rations, sending enough for 4 days instead of the 6 or more days they needed, so the soldiers went hungry at times. So it was a treacherous journey through the Rockies, but the Buffalo Soldiers acquitted themselves well even taking care of injuries and repairs on their own equipment.
They proved the bicycle was a viable option to horses because they could travel almost 2 times faster than the cavalry, at about 1/3 of the cost, the bikes were silent, and in some ways easier to take care of, which meant the experiment was a success.
There was a huge crowd waiting to welcome them when they reached St. Louis, despite the prejudice of the time, but the Spanish American War broke out and the army sent the 25th Infantry to Cuba and the bicycle experiment fell to the wayside. However, the Buffalo Soldiers went on to charge San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt and help win the Spanish-American War.
Who Were The Buffalo Soldiers-Women Too?
The Buffalo Soldiers as you can see were very active throughout the west and the southwest. They were ex-slaves, freedmen, and runaway slaves, and even one woman.
Cathay Williams, known as William Cathay, was originally a slave and pressed into serving the army as a cook and laundress. She was around the soldiers so she knew how they worked. She didn’t want to be dependent on anyone or be a burden on family, so she did what many ex-slaves did, she joined the army, but, since there were no women in the army at the time, she disguised herself as a man.
The physical exam then was not as thorough as it is now, so the doctor didn’t realize she was not a man and passed her. She performed regular army duties and stayed in after the civil war so she was in the army for 2 years, in the 38th Infantry which later became part of the Buffalo Soldiers before she became ill and was admitted to the Army hospital where the doctor who treated her in the hospital discovered she wasn’t a man and told her commanding officer who discharged her.
After her discharge from the army, she worked as a cook and seamstress. She got married, but that did not last long. Her years in the service began to catch up to her, and she became sickly and died probably around 1893 or 94.
In 2016 there was a bust of her placed in the garden of the Richard Allen Cultural Center, in Leavenworth, Kansas, honoring her as the first female in the US Army, and the only known female Buffalo Soldier. In 2018, the Private Cathay Williams bench was unveiled in the Walk of Honor at the National Infantry Museum.
The All African American army troops known as the Buffalo Soldiers have traveled an illustrious path from slavery to conspicuous valor with dignity, integrity, and courage. They fought prejudice and poor treatment, the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War; they helped settle the west by protecting the settlers, the US Mail, the stagecoach line, and Wells Fargo gold line. They rode bicycles through the Rocky Mountains. Out of necessity, they caught and trained their own mounts, using the mustangs that roamed the desert, plains, and mountains.
I could go on and on and on about the Buffalo Soldiers, but I hope this small piece of history gives you enough to answer the question of “Who were the Buffalo Soldiers”? If you have further questions or want more hands-on info, visit the Buffalo Soldier Museum at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona, where we went while on Buffalo Soldier Quest, riding mustangs through the desert from El Frida, AZ to Tucson, AZ; The National Buffalo Soldier Museum in Houston, Texas; the Buffalo Soldier Museum in Tacoma, Washington; or the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. You can also contact a Buffalo Soldier re-enactor group of which there are several.
Thank you for sharing a trip back to the wild west. I hope you will join me on other journeys