Who Were The Buffalo Soldiers

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.

Conclusion

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

Pat.

10 thoughts on “Who Were The Buffalo Soldiers”

  1. Hi Pat, what a truly interesting and informative post. To my shame I have never heard if the Buffalo soldiers, and didn’t learn about them in History at school either ( I’m British, so this may be why).
    Either way, you are a beautiful writer and you brought to life the story behind these amazing people, making it an absorbing read. That’s a real talent and the greatest way to teach people is through keeping them interested. Really impressive. I will be reading more if your posts in order to educate myself further about history.

    1. Hi Stefani,

      Apologies for taking so long to get back to you; I have been having a computer challenge.

      That said, thank you for your beautiful comments. No need to be ashamed, some Americans do not know about the Buffalo Soldiers. They are a passion of mine because I love the old west; the cowboys and Indians; riding the range and the mustangs. Also because I am African American and learned about them after I graduated from high school when Black History Month was initiated. They were a part of the old west.

      I will be posting more about mustangs, the west, and the Buffalo Soldiers. I am also writing a book in which they all will be a part of.

      Thank you again for your comments, I am looking forward to reading your posts, too.

      Pat

  2. Thanks for explaining what Buffalo Soldiers are. All I knew about them was the line from that Bob Marley song. But there is a lot more to it than that. I think its sad what they do to the horses though. I don’t believe any human has the right to “break” any horse or any other species. It sounds cruel and inhumane. I hope it stops, and I’d rather not hear about it, either. 

    1. Hi Edward,

      I know it sounds that way, but that is why I used a “gentling” method; it doesn’t break the horse’s spirit, it builds bonds which is easier on you as the rider and the horse and a lot of the Buffalo Soldiers used a gentling method as well.  It is a method that is expanding, so it is getting better.

      Thank you for your comments.

      Pat.  

  3. Yea, I think I must’ve heard the word “Buffalo soldiers” from one of Bob Marley’s songs. Wow, they have such a great history from grass to grace. How they have shown courage and fought for themselves in the military even though they were rejected. I hope there is an adaptation, either a book or a movie of the Buffalo soldiers. Do you know if there is any?

    1. Hi Henderson,

      Yes, they were resilient.  They fought their way into history by helping to settle the west; from protecting the pioneers, to guarding the Pony Express, to fighting in the Indian and Spanish Wars.

      Yes, there are a couple of movies that were really good:  Buffalo Soldiers (1997) with Danny Glover; and even though the 54th Massachusets Infantry were not technically Buffalo Soldiers, they were the first all-black volunteer infantry unit in the Civil War.  Both of these movies portray the Buffalo Soldiers fairly.

      As for books, try “New Mexico’s Buffalo Soldiers 1866-1900” by Monroe Lee Bellington, and “The Forgotten Heroes: The story of the Buffalo Soldiers”. by Clinton Cox.  Both of these books are available on Amazon.  Enjoy.

      Thank you for your comments, if you have further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

      Pat

  4. What a thoroughly interesting read!  Thank you!  I can honestly say I read it from start to finish and learned something new today!

    I was aware that African Americans fought in wars and had a place in the armies.  I had no knowledge whatsoever of the Buffalo Soldiers until coming across your article!  What a bunch of tenacious, resilient people!

    1. Thank you for your comments, I’m glad you enjoyed the post.  Yes,  they were resilient and made their place in helping to settle the west; protecting the wagon trains, and fighting the Indian wars.  Even in World War II. 

      Pat 

  5. What an absolutely fascinating read! I greatly appreciate you sharing this story about the Buffalo Soldiers. After reading your post I couldn’t help but to what to learn more. I will make sure to bookmark your website. I love history and especially history during the Civil War timeframe. It’s clear how passionate you are about the Buffalo Soldiers as well, I hope that you continue to provide information about them. It was interesting how they go their name too. Thank you again!!

    1. Hi Randi, 

      Thank you for your comments.  Yes, I love History too, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the Buffalo Soldiers.  I worked for a company that took care of troubled youth and as part of their treatment, we would do Buffalo Soldier quests which included African American, Hispanic, Caucasian and Native American teens.  Part of their education was to loosely trace the footsteps of the Buffalo Soldiers on horseback through Arizona, as we learned about them in classes.  The troops also performed as a drill team in parades and events, such as honor guards for Colin Powell in DC, school events for children, teens and adults to educate and entertain.

      So Again, thank you for your comments.  I will write more about them as I get into Arizona history.  And I’m in the process of writing a novel in which they play a large part.  

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