The legend of the Buffalo Soldiers, as is often the case with legend, doesn't always line up with historical record. What we may want to believe, what some historians may have led us to believe, certainly makes for a nice story: Brave young black soldiers, recently freed from the shackles of the Civil War, face off against proud Native Americans in a grudging showdown of mutual respect and admiration.
Nice tale, sure. But that's not the way it went down at all. The black soldiers, indeed, fought countless bloody battles with Native Americans in the years following the Civil War, during what historians now label the Indian Wars. But any link between the two groups most likely had less to do with respect and admiration than sheer, utter survival.
Still that period immediately post-Civil War was notable for a couple of reasons. One, it can accurately be pointed to as the birth of the Buffalo Soldiers, though the name "Buffalo Soldiers" didn't catch on for decades. And second, those years provided further proof that black soldiers belonged in, and could excel in, the military.
"I'm a retired Army officer, so I've always seen the Army as a vehicle for blacks to prove themselves and forward civil rights. The military has always been several steps ahead of civilian society [in that regard]," says Brian G. Shellum, now a historian and author. "I think it's been an important part of the Civil Rights movement. And I think the Civil Rights movement saw the Army as a vehicle for upward mobility."
Who Were the Buffalo Soldiers?
During wartime, Congress federalizes volunteer and militia units (now called the national guard) from the states to fight next to Regular Army units. Black soldiers had fought and died on American soil as far back as the Revolutionary War in this capacity, Shellum explains, but it wasn't until the Civil War that large numbers of blacks were organized into regiments. Their showing in that conflict — almost 170,000 fought (about 10 percent of the total force of the Union), some 36,000 died, and 16 were awarded the Medal of Honor — prompted the U.S. government to allow blacks to enlist in the standing, peacetime army (the Regular Army), after the War Between the States.
In 1866, two cavalry and four infantry regiments were filled with black volunteers, many former slaves. The infantry regiments were combined a few years later, and the four all-black regiments of the U.S. Army — the ones that eventually would become known as Buffalo Soldiers — were solidified. They were the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 24th and 25th Infantry, comprising more than 2,500 men.
After their formation and training, the "colored troops" in the "Negro" regiments were dispatched to places like Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Montana and South Dakota. Some even ended up in Alaska. They built roads and military posts, strung telegraph lines, provided security for settlers and held back white marauders, and fought (among others) the Comanche, Apache, Cheyenne, Kiowah, Ute and Sioux tribes.
"They were young men, and young men always want to have a little adventure," Shellum says of the black soldiers. And it was really the only profession in which blacks were treated with some form of equality to their white counterparts. "They got equal housing, they got equal pay, they got equal medical treatment — most African Americans at the time didn't get hardly any decent medical care — they could retire at the end of so many years ... it was a rare thing, at that time, to get officially equally treatment.
"Socially, it was a different matter," Shellum says.
Deep-rooted Racism After the Civil War
Socially, the black soldiers fought deep-rooted racism from within their own ranks and from above. A long-held belief that black soldiers needed white leadership meant that, upon the formation of the new black regiments, only white officers were in charge. And many white officers — notably, one George Armstrong Custer, who in 1876, as head of the 7th Cavalry, met his death in the massacre at Little Big Horn — refused to take charge of black troops. This overt racism "limited their occupational mobility, caused humiliation, and sometimes put them at personal risk," wrote historian Frank Schubert.
Still, through all those battles, the black soldiers earned a measure of respect, if not from their enemy, at least from their superiors and fellow troops. Black soldiers had a lower-than-average desertion rate, a lower dishonorable discharge rate, a higher reenlistment rate and were considered to have good esprit de corps, Shellum says. In the 20 years between 1870-90, 18 black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Eventually, three black West Point graduates joined the Buffalo Soldiers as officers, the first being Henry O. Flipper in 1877. The last, Charles Young, joined the 9th Cavalry after his graduation in 1889 and went on to a long, decorated career in which he mentored several other black officers.
How'd They Get That Name?
The buffalo holds a revered status among Native Americans, so it may be understandable that when they first called black troops Buffalo Soldiers, some might have assumed that it was an acknowledgement of their opponents' fighting spirit and bravery. Some legends, too, say the buffalo-hide coats that some soldiers wore may have contributed to their eventual nickname.
But the label had nothing to do with bravery or outerwear. As much as historians can ascertain, it was the soldiers' dark skin and curly hair — two characteristics of the bison — that earned them the name.
It was definitely not a term of respect or reverence.
"I think the view of Native Americans was that the Buffalo Soldiers were just black-skinned, blue-clad soldiers," Shellum says, "trying to take away their way of life."
The Buffalo Soldier Legacy
With a 21st century viewpoint, it's perhaps too easy to envision a kind of simpatico connection between two horribly oppressed groups of people; blacks, ripped from their homes in Africa, and Native Americans, stripped of their lands by merciless newcomers.
No such connection ever has existed.
"I get the question every time I go out and I talk about Buffalo Soldiers in groups. There are these people who want to have this romantic idea that blacks and Native Americans had some bond. That's not true," Shellum says.
In fact, the opposite may be true.
"There is no greater source of tension between Native Americans and African Americans than in the disparate recollections of the 'Buffalo Soldiers,'" Quintard Taylor, a Professor Emeritus of American history at the University of Washington in Seattle, said in a presentation there in 2004.
Still, because of their efforts on the American frontier and in other wars — the 10th Cavalry officially incorporated the buffalo into its logo in 1911, and some version of Buffalo Soldiers fought in every war through World War II — the soldiers are now recognized as an integral part of Army history and often have been honored, including with monuments and a postage stamp, an annual ceremony and their own national museum.
The Buffalo Soldiers era came to an end in 1948, when President Harry Truman signed an order officially desegregating the military.