They served in battles on the Great Plains, Cuba, Mexico, the Philippines and France. They fought the Native Americans, protected American pioneers, took on ranchers to protect farmers, battled with Pancho Villa, protected our southern border, charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt, served under Black Jack Pershing, served as the first park rangers for our National Parks, inspired the Smokey Bear and Drill Instructor hat, had Bob Marley write a song about them and earned Medals of Honor along the way.
They also did all this in the face of extreme racism and prejudice from the people they served with, people they protected and the government who put them in harm’s way.
The Buffalo Soldiers first came into existence immediately after the Civil War. The Union Army had seen the bravery of African Americans in the war and set about creating units for them. In 1866, they drew up what would eventually be 2 Cavalry Regiments (9th and 10th) and 2 Infantry Regiments (24th and 25th)
The United States reduced the number of its soldiers to 25,000 at the end of the war, and African Americans made up 10% of the Army’s ranks. They were paid $13/month, which was the same as a white man who served (which was unheard of at the time). They were also prohibited from being stationed East of the Mississippi River as Congress and the Army feared reaction to black troops (especially in the South during Reconstruction) would not be civil.
So the newly formed units were sent West.
The origins of the name ‘Buffalo Soldier’ are contested to this day. Some believe they were given the name as a sign of respect from the Cheyenne or Comanche. Others say it was because they wore buffalo hide coats to keep warm on the prairie or because they fought with the nobility of a buffalo. Another legend that is less politically correct is that the Apaches saw the hair of the African American soldiers and likened it to a buffalo’s mane. In any case, the troops gradually adopted the name as their own and wore it as a badge of honor.
The first part of the history of the Buffalo Soldiers takes place during the Indian Wars. Americans were expanding out West and into direct conflict with the Native Americans who fought to maintain their lands. The Buffalo Soldiers had plenty of tasks outside of fighting. They built roads, protected mail carriers, enforced land settlement disputes, protected farmers from free-range cattlemen and fought the Native Americans.
Fighting over 177 engagements, the Buffalo Soldiers went up against the Apache, Comanche, Kiowas, Cree, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe Indians. They worked to keep Indians on reservations, protected settlers from raids, and protected settlers’ interests from as far north as Montana down to southern Texas. They also enforced settlement rules, making sure that land wasn’t (ironically) illegally taken by settlers.
In the midst of all this, the Buffalo Soldiers experienced extreme racist behavior from their fellow soldiers and the people they were protecting. African Americans, for a long time, could not become officers and command Buffalo Soldiers. White officers would sometimes refuse to take commands in Buffalo Soldier units, thinking it was beneath them. George Custer famously refused to command black troops convinced they wouldn’t fight (they came to his rescue later on). They were also subject to abuse from the very people they were protecting. White settlers would ask for help only to attack Buffalo Soldiers when they were the ones who were sent to help.
(Who knew Blazing Saddles was based on a true story?)
At the turn of the century, as the Indian Wars wound down, the Buffalo Soldiers were sent overseas as part of America’s foray into foreign affairs. They were sent to the Philippines to help put down insurrections and also fought in the Spanish-American War. When Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill, the Buffalo Soldiers charged alongside him. One of their 1st Lieutenants was a young man named Jack Pershing.
Cuba was not Pershing’s first command with the Buffalo Soldiers, nor would it be his last. Pershing was so impressed with the courage of the soldiers he commanded, he sought for other units to emulate their discipline and standards. Ironically when he ended up at West Point as an instructor and tried to enforce the same standards, he earned the despicable nickname N***** Jack. This was eventually softened to ‘Black Jack’ Pershing. Pershing would later command the Buffalo Soldiers on the border but bow to political racism when it came to the Great War.
After Cuba, the Buffalo Soldiers were sent to California. At the time, several National Parks had been established and there was a need to protect the lands. At Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, the Buffalo Soldiers became the first park rangers chasing after poachers, ejecting settlers and squatters, keeping illegal logging in check, and building infrastructure so that people could visit.
On a side note, the Buffalo Soldiers adopted the ‘Montana crease’ in their hats in Cuba. When they ended up at Yosemite the creased hats became synonymous with the park. The style was later adopted by park rangers, Smokey Bear, border patrol agents, highway patrolmen, and your ferocious drill instructor.
In the lead up to World War I, the U.S. at first took an isolationist role. That said, there was worry that the Germans would try to interfere with U.S. sovereignty. The Buffalo Soldiers were sent to the border with Mexico as the Mexican Revolution had caused instability on the border, and the U.S. was worried about Mexican and German interference with the border.
Back under the command of Black Jack Pershing, the Buffalo Soldiers chased after Pancho Villa after his incursion into New Mexico. They later battled Mexican forces and German military advisors in the Battle of Ambos Nogales in 1918.
Although successful in that battle, there was a bittersweet element to it.
The Buffalo Soldiers watched as Black Jack Pershing, one of their biggest advocates, took command of the American Expeditionary Force as they headed over to Europe to fight in the Great War.
The Buffalo Soldiers did not go. President Woodrow Wilson was openly racist and did not want them to fight alongside white soldiers. They were kept home, while segregated support units were sent to work behind the lines. It only added to the hurt when some of those support units were lent to the French to fight under their command.
In World War II, the reorganization of the Army led to the creation of the 92nd Infantry Division, the Buffalo Division. Other segregated units were organized, and many took on the name and traditions of the Buffalo Soldiers.
After World War II, the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers was instrumental in desegregating the Army. By the time the Korean conflict started, the descendant units of the Buffalo Soldiers were absorbed into other units as part of integration.
The legacy of the Buffalo Soldier cannot be denied. Given the opportunity to serve, African Americans came through time and time again, even in the face of racism and prejudice. The history of these men goes hand in hand in the expansion into the West, the establishment of our National Parks, protection of our borders and the fight for freedom.