Who Were the Buffalo Soldiers?

The Buffalo Soldiers were an army regiment of the United States made up primarily of African Americans.

Mar 18, 2024By Matt Whittaker, BA History & Asian Studies

 

Created in 1866, the Buffalo Soldiers were the first regular African American Army units. A special Congressional act allowed for their formation, lifting a previous ban. Four regiments were created to serve in the West. These men served with distinction, earning respect from their foes and friends, and fighting racism.

 

The Early Years

Buffalo Soldiers 25th Infantry Source: Library of Congress
Buffalo Soldiers 25th Infantry Source: Library of Congress

 

Many Buffalo Soldiers that joined were ex-slaves, often illiterate and poor. All enlistments lasted five years, with soldiers receiving $13 monthly, food, and some education. Most officers were white. These regiments served in the West, stationed at forts to battle the Native tribes. Lesser-known responsibilities included protecting settlers, cattle drives, and mail routes. All four African American regiments served at forts scattered over the West, from Fort Walla Washington to Fort Apache, Arizona.

 

First of the Deployments

10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Source: National Park Service
10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Source: National Park Service

 

By 1867, the first Buffalo regiments traveled quickly, entering the Indian Wars. From then to the early 1890s, the Buffalo Soldiers fought in most of the campaigns. Around twenty percent of all U.S. Army soldiers participating were African American. The regiments tangled with famous tribes such as the Apache, Comanche, and Sioux from the Great Plains to the hot Arizona deserts. The nickname of the Buffalo Soldiers may have come from the Plains Tribes, who thought the soldiers’ hair resembled buffalo manes. The formidable warriors respected the Buffalo Soldier’s toughness, similar to their namesake.

 

The 1870 Battle of Kickapoo Springs exemplified their bravery—the 9th Cavalry’s Troop F, led by Sgt. Emanuel Stance, searching for two kidnapped children, came across Native American rustlers. They charged in firing, and their foes retreated. The soldiers charged into two more groups the next day, scattering them with volleys. For his actions, Sgt. Stance won the Buffalo Soldiers’ earliest Medal of Honor, the first of eighteen. 

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Off to War

Buffalo Soldiers San Juan Hill Source: Wikimedia Commons
Buffalo Soldiers San Juan Hill Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Not long after, the1898 Spanish-American War erupted. The U.S.S. Maine had exploded, causing tensions between the U.S. and Spain. The U.S. declared war soon after. The U.S. Army always remained small between major wars and the war needed experienced soldiers. All four Buffalo Soldier regiments went–the 9th and 10th Cavalries and the 24th and 25th Infantry – 15,000 soldiers in total.

 

The Buffalo Soldiers fought in most battles, including the Battle of San Juan Hill. Along with Roosevelt’s famous “Rough Riders,” the units charged dismounted up the hill in a hail of artillery and rifle fire—many units mixed from the relentless strain. But a unit from the 10th Cavalry reached the top first but lost twenty percent of its men. Also, future General of the Army Pershing served in the 10th Cavalry, earning the nickname “Black Jack” Pershing. In his reports, he commended the Buffalo Soldiers for their bravery.

 

The Buffalo Soldiers, being experienced soldiers, next deployed to the Philippine-American War to fight guerrillas from 1899-1903. Though they fought, some African American soldiers had mixed feelings about the conflict, witnessing racism against the Filipinos. This and lousy treatment made thirty Buffalo Soldiers desert; before this, the Black regiments historically had the lowest desertion rate in the U.S. Army.

 

New Assignments

U.S. Army Punitive Headquarters Source: Library of Congress
U.S. Army Punitive Headquarters Source: Library of Congress

 

The Black regiments were reassigned to different Western forts, keeping the peace and patrolling. One not well-known role given was Park Ranger. Besides catching poachers or chasing timber thieves, the 9th Cavalry built trails in Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks. The characteristic hat now worn by Park Rangers was modeled after the Buffalo Soldiers’ hats. One experimental unit even rode bicycles across the West.

 

Up to and Into World War I

us military intervention mexican expedition 1916
US military forces in northern Mexico during the punitive expedition to capture Mexican rebel Pancho Villa. Source: The United States Army

 

America entered World War I only after Germany offered to ally with Mexico. Before this, war nearly occurred between Mexico and the U.S. after Mexican revolutionaries raided across the border, killing and looting. An expedition under “Black Jack” Pershing attempted to capture Pancho Villa, their leader. The 10th Cavalry participated, the only Buffalo unit to do so. Despite their history, the original Buffalo Soldier regiments stayed in the U.S. during the Great War. New Black divisions deployed instead. Many protested even this, but wars need manpower.

 

A Constant Foe

1917 Court Martial of Buffalo Soldiers Source: Library of Congress
1917 Court Martial of Buffalo Soldiers Source: Library of Congress

 

Prevalent racism threw up obstacles against the Buffalo Soldiers from the get-go. Congress had to vote to create all four regiments- the U.S. Army was segregated. White officers refused to command such troops, either because of prejudice or professional stigma. Across the West, Buffalo Soldiers faced Jim Crow laws, violence, and hatred. Sometimes, their frustrations boiled over. The Buffalo Soldiers created a proud history, one that defied racism, showing that Black soldiers could serve and fight. The U.S. military finally desegregated in 1948, partly because of their efforts.

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By Matt WhittakerBA History & Asian StudiesMatt Whittaker is an avid history reader, fascinated by the why, how and when. With a B.A. in History and Asian Studies from University of Massachusetts, he does deep dives into medieval, Asian and military history. Matt’s other passion besides family is the long-distance Zen-like runs.