By Joan Brown Wettingfeld
One of the most interesting stories in our military history is that of the role of the Buffalo Soldiers. These black soldiers had fought in George Washington’s army and served as well with Andrew Jackson in 1815. But later, the first black regiment in service was not organized or authorized by Congress until June 1866. They were to play an important part in the history of the West and were known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.”
For more than 20 years, their regiments, the 9th and 10th Cavalry, were to serve on the frontier covering the area from Montana to Texas, along the Rio Grande to New Mexico and Arizona and the area from Colorado to the Dakotas. Over time, the Buffalo Soldiers became a generic term for black soldiers.
Sixteen months after the end of the Civil War, Section III of an act of Congress authorized the formation of two regiments of cavalry composed of “colored men.” Both regiments were under the leadership of Cols. Edward Hatch and Benjamin Grierson and were trained and equipped to begin a long and proud military history on the Western frontier.
The name Buffalo Soldiers, given to the corps of these black cavalry men, was done so by the Plains Indians — but the reason for this is uncertain. Many stories give a variety of answers, none of which have been truly verified. Some say the reference may be to the stamina and courage noted in the wounded buffaloes of the range, thus reflecting the same fighting spirit of the Buffalo Soldiers, which the Indians noted in battle.
When the Buffalo Soldiers were not in combat with the Arapahoe, Kiowa, Comanche or Apaches or fighting other enemies, they were actively engaged in building roads or constructing forts and locating water holes, installing telegraph lines, escorting wagon trains and leading, among many other important tasks, cattle drives. Their assistance was needed in many an instance and was much appreciated by the pioneers they served and protected. They protected settlers from the more aggressive Indians and outlaws in the area and on some occasions Mexicans.
The Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry were also called upon to assist Gen. John J. Pershing during the search in Mexico for Pancho Villa.
What has been called “the Glorious Past” of the Buffalo Soldiers came to an end with the retirement of the last of the horse cavalry regiments in 1944. Several of the Buffalo Soldier cavalry were awarded Congressional Medals for their service.
The Buffalo Soldiers are worthy of interest for their story and our attention to the services they provided to our nation. Their motto was “We Can; We Will.”
Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.