Change-makers in black history: Buffalo Soldiers

Buffalo Soldiers is the name given to the all-black regiments of the U.S. Army started in 1866. More than 20 Buffalo Soldiers received the highest Medal of Honor for their service –the highest number of any U.S. military unit. The oldest living Buffalo Soldier, Mark Matthews, died at the age of 111 in 2005.

Who are the Buffalo Soldiers?

African Americans have fought in military conflicts since colonial days. However, the Buffalo Soldiers, comprised of former slaves, freemen and Black Civil War soldiers, were the first to serve during peacetime.

Once the Westward movement had begun, prominent among those blazing treacherous trails of the Wild West were the Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. Army. Throughout the era of the “Indian Wars,” approximately 20% percent of the U.S. Cavalry troopers were Black, and they fought over 177 engagements. The combat prowess, bravery, tenaciousness, and looks on the battlefield, inspired the Indians to call them "Buffalo Soldiers."

Buffalo Soldiers participated in many other military campaigns: The Spanish American War, The Philippine Insurrection, The Mexican Expedition, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.

Though African Americans have fought with distinction in all of this country's military engagements, some of their most notable contributions and sacrifices came during the Civil War. During that conflict, more than 180,000 blacks wore the Union Army blue. Another 30,000 served in the Navy, and 200,000 served as workers on labor, engineering, hospital and other military support projects. More than 33,000 of these gallant soldiers gave their lives for the sake of freedom and their country.

Facing Racism

Despite demonstrating loyalty to the U.S. government, the Buffalo Soldiers endured a great deal of racial discrimination while participating in the Indian Wars. Ironically, the white settlers that they were charged to protect were repeatedly hostile toward them. Their hatred of blacks often manifested itself in the form of violence. Events that occurred at San Angelo, a town adjacent to the Tenth Cavalry’s post at Fort Concho, Texas, serve as a prime example of the kind of hostility that the Buffalo Soldiers had to endure.

San Angelo was home to many seedy cowboys, ex-Confederate soldiers, and pimps and prostitutes. Unfortunately, the disreputable inhabitants demonstrated their intolerance of blacks on several occasions. In one instance, Private Hiram Pinder of the Ninth Cavalry was shot and killed by a white gambler in a saloon. The townspeople helped the killer escape and he was never captured.

In addition to facing discrimination from civilians, the Buffalo Soldiers also encountered systemic prejudice within the military. For instance, black soldiers were always second to their white counterparts when equipment was distributed. White soldiers selected the most pristine weapons and best horses, leaving the Buffalo Soldiers with old rifles and worn-out mares. Furthermore, they were often forced to live in substandard housing infested with bugs and rodents.

The case of Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper serves as another notable example of how the Buffalo Soldiers were mistreated. In 1877 Flipper became the first black graduate of West Point, and he later became the first black commanding officer in the history of the U.S. Regular Army. After receiving his diploma, he passed on several military assignments before choosing to serve at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, with the Tenth Cavalry (Formed as a segregated African-American unit, the 10th Cavalry was one of the original "Buffalo Soldier" regiments and served in combat during the Indian War and Spanish-American War. The regiment was later relegated to non-combat duty and served in that capacity through World War II until its deactivation in 1944.). Even though he was an officer, Flipper never saw any significant combat and was instead relegated to performing menial tasks such as supervising the erection of poles for telegraph lines and maintaining law and order on the frontier.

Flipper’s military career ended prematurely after he was reassigned to Fort Davis, Texas, where he began a friendship with a white woman. The relationship generated resentment among several of the white officers, and the animosity toward Flipper heightened. His primary duty while stationed at Fort Davis was running the commissary and in July 1881, he was arrested after a discrepancy was discovered in his accounts. He was charged with embezzlement and conduct unbecoming an officer. During the ensuing court-martial, Flipper and his lawyers charged that disgruntled white officers had framed him by stealing the missing funds. Although the money was eventually returned and another prime suspect emerged, Flipper was still tried and found guilty of both charges. As a result, he received a dishonorable discharge from the army on June 30, 1882. Flipper was finally pardoned, by President William Jefferson Clinton, on February 19, 1999.

Much have changed since the days of the Buffalo Soldiers, including the integration of all military servicemen and women. The release of the movie "Glory", made by Tri- Star Pictures in 1989, demonstrated the first real interest in the part that Negroes played in our nation's military history, but the story of the Buffalo Soldiers remains one of unsurpassed courage and patriotism, and will be forever a significant part of the history of America.