With their origins in the American Civil War, regiments of black soldiers helped to save the Union and would go on to tame the American West, establishing a reputation for discipline and courage under fire.
In August 1862, US Senator James H Lane, working from his home in Lawrence, Kansas, determined to raise a unit of all-black soldiers to fight for the Union. Little did he know that the exploits of the 1st Kansas (Colored) Infantry, along with those of the 54th Massachusetts (organised in March 1863), would have a significant impact on American history and especially on the American West.
When, on 1 January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation officially freeing the slaves, part of that document read as follows: ‘such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed services of the United States’.
Abolitionists were delighted, and despite the initial reservations of many individuals in government, who doubted the value of black soldiers, this provision ushered in a new era for the American military.
Recruited at Fort Scott, Kansas, the 1st Kansas (Colored) Infantry was formed in January 1863 and consisted of a battalion of six companies. By May of that year, it had swelled by an additional four companies, all under the command of Colonel James Williams.
Nearly all the recruits were runaway slaves or former slaves, and not a great deal was expected of them. But their discipline and élan were quickly demonstrated in combat.
The Battle of Honey Springs
When Union Major-General James Blunt led a force into Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) to disrupt enemy supply-lines, he collided with Confederate General Douglas Cooper’s 1st Brigade, consisting primarily of soldiers of the Five Civilised Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole). The opposing sides clashed at the Battle of Honey Springs on 17 July 1863.
During this fight, the 1st Kansas Infantry displayed exceptional tenacity and resolve. As General Blunt would write afterwards:
I never saw such fighting as was done by the Negro regiment… The question that negroes [sic] will fight is settled; besides, they make better soldiers in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command.
Meanwhile, on the east coast, Massachusetts governor John Andrew authorised the formation of an all-black infantry unit to be designated the 54th Massachusetts Infantry.
While expectations were low, as few blacks resided in Massachusetts, the unit rosters quickly exceeded expectations as recruits flocked to the state from across New England and from as far as Indiana, Ohio, and even Canada. Among them were Lewis and Charles Douglass, sons of the famous abolitionist and public speaker Frederick Douglass.
Named as their commander was 25-year-old Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the scion of a staunch abolitionist family. Shaw had dropped out of Harvard to serve the Union and had seen extensive service at the Battles of Winchester, Cedar Mountain, and Antietam, where he had been badly wounded.
After assuming command in February 1863, Shaw drove the 54th hard in their training and worked tirelessly to ensure that their pay and equipment equalled that of their white comrades-in-arms. His efforts were rewarded and he was able to write to his father:
Everything goes on prosperously. The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me. They learn all the details of guard duty and camp service infinitely more readily than most of the Irish that I have had under my command. There is not the least doubt that we will leave the state with as good a regiment as any that has marched.
The Storming of Fort Wagner
Soon afterwards, the 54th was dispatched to take part in a second attempt to wrest the port of Charleston, South Carolina, from Confederate control. To do this, the 54th needed to seize the coastal position held by Fort Wagner.
It was a daunting objective, a fortification rising 30ft out of the sandy beach, constructed of sand and earth reinforced with palmetto logs, containing 14 pieces of artillery and 1,700 defenders, and surrounded by a water-filled moat and buried landmines.
On the evening of 18 July 1863, the 54th Massachusetts waited while Fort Wagner was bombarded by the Union navy. Shaw turned to his troops and said: ‘I want you to prove yourselves. The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.’
With these words, he led his 600 men in a desperate charge across the sandy beach and into the teeth of the Confederate defences. It was a forlorn hope. In the desperate fighting that followed, the 54th Infantry had 280 men killed, including Colonel Shaw, shot in the chest as he scaled the fort’s glacis.
The assault was a failure, but the spirit of the troops and the fierceness of the attack had solidified the reputation of the black American as a soldier.
During the Civil War, the nation’s highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor, was awarded to 23 black soldiers.
The American West
The 1st Kansas and 54th Massachusetts had acquitted themselves so well during the Civil War that, in 1866, the United States Army authorised the formation of all-black units in the Regular Army. These units, usually commanded by white officers, were the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments.
Posted to the American West, these units worked out of Kansas, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and the Dakota Territories, performing a wide variety of duties. They provided security for railroad survey and construction crews, guarded mail and stagecoach lines, and defended settlers and ranchers from the depredations of outlaws and hostile Native American tribes. It was a challenging environment, but one that showed these black volunteers off in spectacular fashion.
In September 1867, two hunters venturing into Cheyenne territory asked the army for an escort and were assigned Private John Randall of Troop G of the 10th Cavalry.
When scores of Cheyenne warriors attacked the small party, Randall fought like a demon. While the hunters fell in the fight, so too did 13 Cheyenne braves. But Trooper Randall held out until a relief party arrived. Though wounded some 11 times, he had done great damage to the Cheyenne, both physically and psychologically.
The Cheyenne carried with them a tale of a black warrior who, like a cornered buffalo, had continued to fight savagely, sustained many wounds, and had the black, curly hair of a buffalo. Thereafter, these black regulars would be known as ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ – a name they claim proudly to this day.
The Battle of the Saline River
The performance of the Buffalo Soldiers during the Indian Wars is legendary. In August 1867, Company F of the 10th Cavalry, under the command of Captain George Armes, was dispatched from Fort Hays, Kansas, to intercept a war party of Cheyenne warriors who had slaughtered a railroad survey party.
The unit ran into the Cheyenne, who numbered more than 400 mounted warriors. Quickly forming a hollow square, the Buffalo Soldiers fought off repeated charges by the Cheyenne, expending more than 2,000 rounds of ammunition. They then conducted a fighting withdrawal to Fort Hays, having lost but a single man killed in action.
Captain Armes was effusive in praise of his troopers at what would be designated the Battle of the Saline River, noting their ‘devotion to duty and coolness under fire’, and remarking, ‘It is the greatest wonder in the world that my command escaped being massacred.’
In September of the following year, Colonel George ‘Sandy’ Forsyth and his party of white scouts ran into a huge war party of Cheyenne and Lakota warriors led by Roman Nose.
Scrambling through the Arikaree River, they threw up hasty defences on a sandbar that would later be called Beecher Island. Wave after wave of warriors charged Forsyth’s position, as he and his scouts fought desperately to hold them off.
On the second day of the siege, two men slipped away to go for help. Forsyth and his scouts continued to fight for a full week before Captain Louis Carpenter arrived with two troops of the 10th Cavalry and beat off the attacking warriors.
The very next month, the same two troops of the 10th sallied out to engage 500 Cheyenne in a successful action that would see Captain Carpenter awarded the Medal of Honor.
Probably the most notable commander of Buffalo Soldiers was the intrepid cavalryman Colonel Benjamin Grierson. He was a tough and energetic soldier famous for the Civil War raid that cut off Vicksburg from the east (an amazing feat, this raid is the subject of John Ford’s famous film The Horse Soldiers).
Grierson, despite the prejudice against black soldiers of many fellow officers, was justly proud of his Buffalo Soldiers, who were often referred to as ‘Grierson’s Brunettes’.
Grierson and his troopers would see action against thousands of hostile warriors – Cheyenne, Lakota, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, and Yacqui. In the fierce contest for the American South West, the Buffalo Soldiers performed extremely effectively.
When in 1879 Apache war leader Victorio broke out of the San Carlos Reservation, initiating Victorio’s War, Grierson’s Buffalo Soldiers rode out in response. In desolate countryside and suffocating heat, the 10th Cavalry succeeded in pursuing and blocking the Apache at every point, finally forcing the exhausted warriors across the Rio Grande, where they were ultimately cornered and destroyed by Mexican troops.
They were called on again in 1885, when Geronimo went on the warpath. They pursued his band relentlessly until his surrender in 1886.
The Buffalo Soldiers’ last engagement against the Apache came in 1890, the same year in which the United States Government announced the official closing of the frontier. Throughout this period, another 18 Medals of Honor were awarded to black soldiers.
The Spanish-American War
Nor did the Buffalo Soldiers’ influence fade with the closing of the frontier. When, in February 1898, the battleship USS Maine exploded in the harbour of Havana, Cuba, the 10th Cavalry was called out of quarters at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and sent to Tampa, Florida. From there they deployed with the rest of the US Fifth Corps to play their part in the Spanish-American War.
Landing in the rough surf at Daiquiri, Cuba, the 10th Cavalry found that, like their colleagues the ‘Rough Riders’, they had been given no horses for the campaign. Poor planning and incompetent loading by the War Department had combined to turn crack cavalry units into infantrymen.
Shrugging off this setback in the bug- infested, sweltering heat of the tropics, they moved out to do their part in what an American ambassador would later describe as a ‘splendid little war’.
On the morning of 1 July 1898, the 10th Cavalry and Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders charged headlong up Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill on the outskirts of Santiago, Cuba. The fighting was vicious and intense, but the well dug-in Spanish troops were no match for their enthusiastic American assailants. By early afternoon, the fight was over, with the Rough Riders and the Buffalo Soldiers victorious.
The performance of the 10th Cavalry was a point of particular pride for one of its officers, who would write glowingly about his soldiers. That officer was Captain John J Pershing, who would go on to command all American forces in World War I. It was during his time with the 10th Cavalry that he acquired the nickname ‘Black Jack’ – for his command of black soldiers.
Despite the objections of the overtly racist President Woodrow Wilson, Pershing insisted on being accompanied by his faithful black troops in the campaign against Mexican bandit chieftain Pancho Villa. Buffalo Soldiers would receive four Medals of Honor for that action alone.
The 10th Cavalry saw further service in the Philippines and along the Mexican border. They were eventually integrated into the 2nd Cavalry Division, and continued to serve with distinction until their official deactivation in May 1944.
Contrary to the prejudice and low expectations of far too many Americans, black soldiers invariably displayed uncommon discipline and impressive valour wherever they served their nation. Frank Knox, a Rough Rider who stormed San Juan Hill alongside them, may have said it best when he observed: ‘I never saw braver men anywhere.’ •
Fred J Chiaventone is a military historian, retired cavalry officer, and Professor Emeritus for International Security at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College.
Images: Wikimedia Commons.