Buffalo Soldiers, African American cavalry and infantrymen who fought on the American Western frontier.

Black soldiers served in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, although they were not allowed to enlist until the conflict's closing years. By the time the war ended, 12 African American soldiers had won the military's highest decoration, the Medal of Honor. For the next 40 years, black soldiers would play a crucial role in the violent, chaotic history of the frontier West.

In the years following the Civil War, the federal government turned its energies toward an often bloody campaign to relocate Native Americans. Most of the white settlers embraced the theory of "Manifest Destiny," and thus believed they had the right to all of the Indian territory. Despite a series of promises to compensate the Indian communities, the U.S. government broke several treaties and forced hundreds of thousands from their homelands. Not surprisingly, many Native Americans reacted to these invasions violently, and soon there was an all-out war. Adding to this near-constant armed conflict was a growing presence of cattlemen, cattle rustlers, and hardened criminals.

Among the troops on the Indian Wars' front lines were two all-black regiments the Ninth and Tenth U.S. Cavalry and four infantry divisions. The units, authorized by an 1866 act of Congress, filled up quickly with volunteers for whom the $13-a-month salary, with free room and board, represented a significant improvement over civilian life. Many were former slaves, and were being offered their first chance at education by the bill's stipulation that the army teach the soldiers to read and write.

The two black cavalry units represented 20 percent of the U.S. Cavalry at the time, and their military duties took them from the Mississippi River to the Rockies, from the Canadian border to the Rio Grande. White soldiers called them "brunettes" (when they didn't use racist slurs) but the Indians they had come to fight nicknamed them "Buffalo Soldiers," presumably referring to the black men's curly hair. Knowing that the buffalo was an animal the Native Americans respected and even worshipped, the black units adopted the name for themselves. In time, the Tenth Cavalry's official insignia would contain a buffalo.

The Buffalo Soldiers often found themselves in conflict with the white settlers they were supposedly there to protect. In one 1878 incident, white cowboys and black cavalrymen fought in the streets of San Angelo, Texas, after the murder of a Buffalo Soldier by a white cowhand in a local bar. Less violent tensions were also common. Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point and a lieutenant in the Tenth Cavalry, was court-martialed on trumped-up charges after white officers saw him riding with a white woman. As the historian William L. Katz notes, "It is ironic that these brave black soldiers served so well in the final and successful effort to crush American Indians, the first victims of white racism in this continent. But serve they did." Indeed, many did so with distinction. Twenty-three Buffalo Soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their heroism during the Indian Wars and the Spanish-Cuban-American War.

 

Contributed By:

Kate Tuttle