After the Civil War, the U.S. government struggled to find a place for its Black troops in a smaller postwar Army. In 1866, the Army decided to form the 9th and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments to replace the U.S. Colored Troops. Black Americans, many Civil War Veterans and former slaves, signed up to join these regiments. At one point, these Black regiments comprised almost one fifth of the Army. These four regiments distinguished themselves during Westward Expansion—where they became known as “Buffalo Soldiers”—and Spanish-American War. Despite their performance, a nation struggling with racism failed to properly acknowledge their excellence for decades. The Buffalo Soldiers laid the groundwork for the advancement of Black Soldiers while leaving a lasting impact on the Army and society.
Once the Civil War ended, the Army’s primary postwar mission was to occupy and help rebuild the South, but it faced a problem. Civilians, especially in the South, refused to accept armed Black Soldiers. Unable to post Black regiments in the east, the Army could only station them west of the Mississippi River without risking revolt. At the same time, droves of Americans migrated west, following trading and rail routes built before the war. To help this expansion, the United States negotiated with and fought Native American tribes in a series of conflicts called the Indian Wars. The wars presented an opportunity: these regiments would help fill an immediate need for security in the Great Plains region and beyond. Black regiments played a key role as they protected settlers, established forts, charted new travel routes, guarded mail routes, and even drove cattle.
Though all four regiments served out west during the roughly 30 years of the Indian Wars, the 9th and 10th Cavalry saw most of the combat. The regiments fought more than 150 engagements against Native American tribes on the western frontier. During these battles, Black Soldiers earned 17 Medals of Honor for valor in combat and took part in high profile operations such as the capture of Billy the Kid and Apache Chief Geronimo. Their Native American foes recognized their abilities as well. Though the two groups warred with each other for more than 15 years, they built a lasting respect. The 10th Cavalry’s ferocity and tenacity earned them the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers” from their opponents. The 10th Cavalry adopted the buffalo as their regimental insignia and the nickname “Buffalo Soldier” became associated with all Black Soldiers serving at the time.
After major hostilities ended the Buffalo Soldiers continued to serve in the western United States. Prejudiced garrison commanders often abused their authority, particularly after Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s 1877 proposal to end racial categorization (a proto-integration) in the Army failed in Congress. Though many Black Soldiers saw Army service as a way to gain respect and equality, they often faced the same racism they had endured in the east. In the west, though, they had some power to fight back. The 10th Regiment (often with the support of their non-Black adjacent companies) had a particular reputation for protecting its own.
Saving the Rough Riders
All four regiments served during the War with Spain in 1898. By then, as the Army mustered all available forces to assault Cuba, the Buffalo Soldiers left the west as heroes rather than intruders. In Cuba on June 22, the 9th and 10th Cavalry found themselves fighting side by side with Col. Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. This pseudo-integration was Roosevelt’s salvation on June 24 at Las Guasimas after the Rough Riders attacked into a “kill zone” where Spanish riflemen pinned down the entire unit. The 10th Cavalry’s attack on the flank of Spanish defensive positions rescued the Rough Riders and made headlines in the United States. It was the first of several times the 10th Cavalry in particular, and Buffalo Soldiers in general, served as de facto “babysitters” to the reckless, novice Rough Riders.
Although made famous by the Rough Riders, the July 1, 1898 assault up San Juan and Kettle Hills would not have succeeded without the Buffalo Soldiers. The Spanish infantry were entrenched on the peaks of the San Juan Heights protecting Santiago. Geography and a lack of effective American artillery prompted Army commanders to rely on a frontal assault. In the relatively open terrain and with no ability to suppress the defender’s fire, only speed could reduce casualties. The 10th Cavalry and the 24th Infantry, on their own request, lead off the final charge to the peak of San Juan and Kettle Hills. The Rough Riders, assaulting up the smaller Kettle Hill, began their assault to support elements of the 10th Cavalry leading the charge.
Leading both the Rough Riders and several infantry battalions, the 10th Cavalry broke through the last line of Spanish defense at the crest of Kettle Hill. Sgt. George Berry took both the 10th and 3d Cavalry battle flags to the summit. The 10th lost 20% of its fighting force as the only unit to assault both high points in the San Juan Heights. Five cavalrymen from the 10th earned Medals of Honor for individual heroism. When commanders fell or were separated from their troops (the cavalry term for a company) the Black first sergeant stepped in and led their men to victory. The 24th Infantry Regiment, despite horrific losses, pushed aside several stalled regiments to continue the charge up San Juan Hill. After taking both hills by the afternoon of July 1 and beating off a counterattack, the Buffalo Soldiers joined in the siege of Santiago to bring the war in Cuba to a close.
“White regiments, black regiments, regulars, and Rough Riders, representing the young manhood of the North and the South, fought shoulder to shoulder, unmindful of race or color, unmindful of whether commanded by an ex-Confederate or not, and mindful only of their common duty as Americans.”
— 1st Lt. (later General of the Armies) John “Black Jack” Pershing commenting in November 1898 on the unity he witnessed during the campaign in Cuba while leading part of the 10th Cavalry.
Pershing hoped that shared experience in war would drive racial integration in the United States by showing the shared humanity and heroism of Black Soldiers. In the heat of battle, he knew, no Soldier cared what color skin the Soldier next to him was.
Stepping Forward, Leaping Backward
After serving in Cuba, the regiments deployed to the Philippines in 1900 to suppress an insurrection as the United States assumed colonial control from Spain. While America at large offered little support to this war, the Buffalo Soldiers applied themselves to this campaign with their characteristic fervor. The 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments entered the early battles with equipment and supplies left over from their time in Cuba. Even without a chance to refit, the 25th seized the first major stronghold at O’Donnell on the island of Luzon.
As Buffalo Soldiers returned from the Philippines, though, the narrative had begun to shift in popular memory. Seeking to glorify his Rough Riders, Roosevelt downplayed the role of Black Soldiers in Cuba. “Black Jack” Pershing’s vision of Cuba marking a new unity between the races crumbled in the face of prejudice among politicians and senior military leaders in Washington. Some units made their presence felt in other ways, ignoring the racism. Several troops from the 9th Cavalry and a company from the 24th Infantry Regiment served as park rangers in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks before the establishment of the National Park Service. In 1903 Capt. Charles Young, the third Black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, became the first Black superintendent of a National Park when he became the Military Superintendent of Sequoia National Park. The Buffalo Soldiers’ symmetrical “Montana Peak” to the Stetson hat, a relic from Cuba, became a lasting uniform legacy for the Park Rangers.
After the Philippines, the Army often assigned Buffalo Soldiers to train or work alongside known racists. The dangers of this situation became clear in Brownsville, Texas, after weeks of harassment by local militia. When unknown persons fired weapons into the town the night of August 13, 1906, the mayor blamed a battalion from the 25th stationed at Fort Brown. The Army discharged the entire battalion despite testimony by several officers, including the regiment’s commander. President Theodore Roosevelt instructed the War Department to discharge “without honor” all 176 Soldiers present at Fort Brown that night, including six Medal of Honor awardees. The Senate launched an investigation of the matter after demands by Army officers and other activists such as Booker T. Washington. Further investigation made it clear that the townsfolk had operated on an assumption of guilt for the 25th. Legislative pressure forced the War Department to allow several Buffalo Soldiers to return a few years later. In 1972, President Richard Nixon directed the Army to change all the discharges to “honorable” to right the wrong.
Sidelined by Wilson
The election of President Woodrow Wilson in 1912 made matters worse for the Buffalo Soldiers. As Jim Crow and segregation returned in force within the federal government, the 9th and 10th Cavalry remained on the U.S.-Mexican border. Buffalo Soldier cavalry participated in General Pershing’s hunt for Pancho Villa, Mexican revolutionary who attacked Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916. On the hunt, the 10th continued its habit of riding to the rescue when it saved the embattled 13th Cavalry from an ambush by 600 Mexicans. Despite their invaluable service in the west and overseas, Buffalo Soldiers continued to face racism and segregation going into World War I. When America entered the war, President Wilson kept the Buffalo Soldiers from serving in Europe. He created the Black 92d and 93d Infantry Divisions but intended them as laborers, not combat troops. The Buffalo Soldiers still made their presence felt as their noncommissioned officers formed the leadership backbone of Black units sent with the American Expeditionary Force under Pershing.
World War II and Beyond
The Army reorganized in the interwar period and turned the 9th and 10th Cavalry from combat units into support units. The 25th Infantry Regiment remained with the 92d and 93d Infantry Divisions in Arizona. When the United States entered World War II, the 25th Infantry Regiment deployed to the Pacific Theater. They began the war by joining the Americal Division to drive the Japanese off of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. Following refit and a tour defending captured bases in New Guinea, the 25th moved to Morotai Island. There they ensured American control over a key logistical node in the region. The 25th’s efforts provided a staging point for the Australian army to launch its Borneo campaign. On August 2, 1945, the 25th captured Colonel Kisou Ouchi, commander of Japanese forces on the island. Ouchi was one of the highest-ranking Japanese officers captured during the war.
President Truman abolished segregation in the military with Executive Order 9981 in 1948 and the 24th Infantry Regiment joined the 25th Infantry Division. Unlike the Triple Nickles with the 82d, the 24th remained a predominantly Black regiment through the Korean War. The 24th participated in every phase of the war from the Pusan Perimeter defense to the final counter-offensive. Though the Army still had some segregated units during the Korean War, it had fully integrated by the Vietnam War.
The story of the all-Black Buffalo Soldiers came to a close as they achieved full recognition as Soldiers, not segregated Black Soldiers of questionable quality, and full integration into the Army. Decades of service built a reputation and a record of meritorious service that could not be ignored by the United States and the Army. Each generation earned respect with their actions and service, wearing away prejudice. Today, the Army has preserved the heritage of these regiments by incorporating battalions in each lineage into modern-day brigades and divisions. The 9th Cavalry regiment has integrated into the 1st Cavalry Division, the 10th into the 4th Infantry Division, and the 24th into the 25th Infantry Division. The 10th Cavalry in particular carries forward the name of “Buffalo Soldiers.” These elements carry on the memory of the Buffalo Soldiers and honor their pioneering legacy by adding new accomplishments to the units’ history.
Graduate Historic Research Intern
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