Buffalo Soldiers originally were members of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army, formed on September 21, 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The nickname was given to the “Negro Cavalry” by the Native American tribes they fought; the term eventually became synonymous with all of the African-American regiments formed in 1866: 9th Cavalry Regiment, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 24th Infantry Regiment & 25th Infantry Regiment.
Although several African-American regiments were raised during the Civil War to fight alongside the Union Army (including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the many United States Colored Troops Regiments), the “Buffalo Soldiers” were established by Congress as the first peacetime all-black regiments in the regular U.S. Army. On September 6, 2005, Mark Matthews, who was the oldest living of the original Buffalo Soldiers, died at the age of 111. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Sources disagree on how the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers” began. According to the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, the name originated with the Cheyenne warriors in the winter of 1877, the actual Cheyenne translation being “Wild Buffalo.” However, writer Walter Hill documented the account of Colonel Benjamin Grierson, who founded the 10th Cavalry regiment, recalling an 1871 campaign against Comanches. Hill attributed the origin of the name to the Comanche due to Grierson’s assertions. Some sources assert that the nickname was given out of respect for the fierce fighting ability of the 10th cavalry. Other sources assert that Native Americans called the black cavalry troops “buffalo soldiers” because of their dark curly hair, which resembled a buffalo’s coat.Still other sources point to a combination of both legends.The term Buffalo Soldiers became a generic term for all African-American soldiers. It is now used for U.S. Army units that trace their direct lineage back to the 9th and 10th Cavalry units whose service earned them an honored place in U.S. history.
In September 1867, Private John Randall of Troop G of the 10th Cavalry Regiment was assigned to escort two civilians on a hunting trip. The hunters suddenly became the hunted when a band of 70 Cheyenne warriors swept down on them. The two civilians quickly fell in the initial attack and Randall’s horse was shot out from beneath him. Randall managed to scramble to safety behind a washout under the railroad tracks, where he fended off the attack with only his pistol until help from the nearby camp arrived. The Indians beat a hasty retreat, leaving behind 13 fallen warriors. Private Randall suffered a gunshot wound to his shoulder and 11 lance wounds, but recovered. The Cheyenne quickly spread word of this new type of soldier, “who had fought like a cornered buffalo; who like a buffalo had suffered wound after wound, yet had not died; and who like a buffalo had a thick and shaggy mane of hair.”
During the American Civil War, the U.S. government formed regiments known as the United States Colored Troops, composed of black soldiers. After the war, Congress reorganized the Army and authorized the formation of two regiments of black cavalry with the designations 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry, and four regiments of black infantry, designated the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st Infantry Regiments (Colored). The 38th and 41st were reorganized as the 25th Infantry Regiment, with headquarters in Jackson Barracks in New Orleans, Louisiana, in November 1869. The 39th and 40th were reorganized as the 24th Infantry Regiment, with headquarters at Fort Clark, Texas, in April 1869. All of these units were composed of black enlisted men commanded by both white and black officers. These included the first commander of the 10th Cavalry Benjamin Grierson, the first commander of the 9th Cavalry Edward Hatch, Medal of Honor recipient Louis H. Carpenter, the unforgettable Nicholas M. Nolan, and the first black graduate of West Point, Henry O. Flipper.
From 1866 to the early 1890s, these regiments served at a variety of posts in the Southwestern United States and the Great Plains regions. They participated in most of the military campaigns in these areas and earned a distinguished record. Thirteen enlisted men and six officers from these four regiments earned the Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars. In addition to the military campaigns, the “Buffalo Soldiers” served a variety of roles along the frontier from building roads to escorting the U.S. mail. On 17 April 1875, regimental headquarters for the 9th and 10th Cavalries were transferred to Fort Concho, Texas. Companies actually arrived at Fort Concho in May 1873. At various times from 1873 through 1885, Fort Concho housed 9th Cavalry companies A–F, K, and M, 10th Cavalry companies A, D–G, I, L, and M, 24th Infantry companies D–G, and K, and 25th Infantry companies G and K.
A lesser known action was the 9th Cavalry’s participation in the fabled Johnson County War, an 1892 land war in Johnson County, Wyoming between small farmers and large, wealthy ranchers. It culminated in a lengthy shootout between local farmers, a band of hired killers, and a sheriff’s posse. The 6th Cavalry was ordered in by President Benjamin Harrison to quell the violence and capture the band of hired killers. Soon afterward, however, the 9th Cavalry was specifically called on to replace the 6th. The 6th Cavalry was swaying under the local political and social pressures and was unable to keep the peace in the tense environment.
The Buffalo Soldiers responded within about two weeks from Nebraska, and moved the men to the rail town of Suggs,Wyoming, creating “Camp Bettens” despite a racist and hostile local population. One soldier was killed and two wounded in gun battles with locals. Nevertheless, the 9th Cavalry remained in Wyoming for nearly a year to quell tensions in the area.
After most of the Indian Wars ended in the 1890s, the regiments continued to serve and participated in the 1898 Spanish-American War (including the Battle of San Juan Hill) in Cuba, where five more Medals of Honor were earned. The regiments took part in the Philippine-American War from 1899 to 1903 and the 1916 Mexican Expedition. In 1918 the 10th Cavalry fought at the Battle of Ambos Nogales in the First World War, where they assisted in forcing the surrender of the federal Mexican and German forces. Buffalo soldiers fought in the last engagement of the Indian Wars; the small Battle of Bear Valley in southern Arizona which occurred in 1918 between U.S. cavalry and Yaqui natives.
Another little-known contribution of the Buffalo Soldiers involved eight troops of the 9th Cavalry Regiment and one company of the 24th Infantry Regiment who served in California’s Sierra Nevada as some of the first national park rangers. In 1899, Buffalo Soldiers from Company H, 24th Infantry Regiment briefly served in Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park and General Grant (Kings Canyon) National Parks.
U.S. Army regiments had been serving in these national parks since 1891, but until 1899 the soldiers serving were white. Beginning in 1899, and continuing in 1903 and 1904, African-American regiments served during the summer months in the second and third oldest national parks in the United States (Sequoia and Yosemite). Because these soldiers served before the National Park Service was created (1916), they were “park rangers” before the term was coined.
A lasting legacy of the soldiers as park rangers is the Ranger Hat (popularly known as the Smokey Bear Hat). Although not officially adopted by the Army until 1911, the distinctive hat crease, called a Montana Peak, (or pinch) can be seen being worn by several of the Buffalo Soldiers in park photographs dating back to 1899. Soldiers serving in the Spanish American War began to recrease the Stetson hat with a Montana “pinch” to better shed water from the torrential tropical rains. Many retained that distinctive “pinch” upon their return to the U.S. The park photographs, in all likelihood, show Buffalo Soldiers who were veterans from that 1898 war.
One particular Buffalo Soldier stands out in history: Captain Charles Young who served with Troop “I”, 9th Cavalry Regiment in Sequoia National Park during the summer of 1903. Charles Young was the third African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy. At the time of his death, he was the highest ranking African American in the U.S. military. He made history in Sequoia National Park in 1903 by becoming Acting Military Superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks. Charles Young was also the first African American superintendent of a national park. During Young’s tenure in the park, he named a Giant Sequoia for Booker T. Washington. Recently, another Giant Sequoia in Giant Forest was named in Captain Young’s honor. Some of Young’s descendants were in attendance at the ceremony.
In 1903, 9th Cavalrymen in Sequoia built the first trail to the top of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. They also built the first wagon road into Sequoia’s Giant Forest, the most famous grove of Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park.
In 1904, 9th Cavalrymen in Yosemite built an arboretum on the South Fork of the Merced River in the southern section of Yosemite National Park. This arboretum had pathways and benches, and some plants were identified in both English and Latin. Yosemite’s arboretum is considered to be the first museum in the National Park System. The NPS cites a 1904 report, where Yosemite superintentent (Lt. Col.) John Bigelow, Jr. declared the arboretum “To provide a great museum of nature for the general public free of cost …” Unfortunately, the forces of developers, miners and greed cut the boundaries of Yosemite in 1905 and the arboretum was nearly destroyed.
In the Sierra Nevada, the Buffalo Soldiers regularly endured long days in the saddle, slim rations, racism, and separation from family and friends. As military stewards, the African American cavalry and infantry regiments protected the national parks from illegal grazing, poaching, timber thieves, and forest fires. Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson researched and interpreted the history in an attempt to recover and celebrate the contributions of the Buffalo Soldiers of the Sierra Nevada.
On March 23, 1907, the United States Military Academy Detachment of Cavalry was changed to a “colored” unit. This had been a long time coming. It had been proposed in 1897 at the “Cavalry and Light Artillery School” at Fort Riley, Kansas that West Point Cadets learn their riding skills from the black non-commissioned officers who were considered the best. The one hundred man detachment from the 9th Cavalry served to teach future officers at West Point riding instruction, mounted drill and tactics until 1947.
In total, 23 “Buffalo Soldiers” received the Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars.
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