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Borderlands: Buffalo Soldiers Defended Western Frontier 18 (1999)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Buffalo Soldiers Defended Western Frontier

Article first published in Vol. 18, 1999.

By Israel Medinaviles, Angelo Arriaga, Loray Moore and Jesus Saenz, with contributions by Imelda Castro and Myriam Frias

One hundred years after they were stationed at Fort Bliss and served the Southwest well as Indian Fighters, scouts, and defenders of the frontier, the "Buffalo Soldiers" finally have been recognized. On February 5, 1999, El Paso dedicated a 3,000-pound bronze statue of a black cavalry soldier at the Robert E. Lee entrance to Fort Bliss.

The impressive monument features the face of Ulysses Davis, local postal worker and the model for the statue. A committee to create the memorial raised $125,000 to fund the statue honoring these soldiers in the 9th and 10th Cavalry units that served at Fort Bliss between 1866 and 1899.

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Image caption: This bronze statue of a Buffalo Soldier on his horse is located at the Robert E. Lee entrance to Fort Bliss.   Photo by Danny Martinez

The Militia Act of July 17, 1862, allowed blacks to serve in the army. After many years of slavery in the United States, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation  on January 1, 1863, freeing all slaves. This document allowed the U.S. Army openly to recruit blacks for the 54th and 55th Regiments for the Civil War.

Retired Air Force Colonel Alan L. Gropman notes in his book Blacks in the Military that escaped slaves saw the military as a chance to gain freedom, and free black men saw an opportunity to better their lives. A major inducement for enlistment was the prospect of learning how to read and write, skills taught by the regiments' chaplains. By the end of the Civil War, approximately 180,00 blacks had served in the Union Army. Of these, 33,380 died.

On July 28, 1866, Congress passed legislation allowing black soldiers to serve as peacetime soldiers in the army. The enrollment of blacks in the military, along with the Union's victory in the Civil War, led to the formation of the Ninth Calvary in New Orleans, under the command of Colonel Edward Hatch. The Tenth Cavalry in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was led by Colonel Benjamin Grierson. Hatch and Grierson had problems finding white men to serve as officers. One who turned them down was then-Colonel George Armstrong Custer, who opted to take command of a lower-ranking all-white unit instead of a unit in the 9th Calvary.

These two regiments performed many special tasks that helped in the development of the western and southwestern regions of the United States, despite facing many conflicts with Indians, neglect from the Army and racism from the very citizens they helped protect.

The Buffalo Soldiers had endless problems finding presentable uniforms, functional weapons, food and other supplies. Perhaps the greatest indignity forced upon them were the pitiful, crippled discarded Civil War horses that they were assigned. In addition, food provided to the Buffalo Soldiers was often spoiled, thrown from moving trains and damaged to the point that its was no longer fit to eat.

Many citizens exhibited prejudice toward the Buffalo Soldiers, despite their involvement in creating roads, railways, and telegraph lines throughout Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas and Louisiana. Reporter Berger Copeman says black soldiers were frequently beaten in the streets and thrown out of barrooms. In another case, a recovering soldier on his way to the hospital reportedly said that he had to go 48 hours without food because service was refused to him on the train and at the train station.


Image caption: Ken Pollard in Buffalo Soldier uniform at the camp reenactment during fall 1996 at Hueco Tanks.   Photo by Angelo Arriaga

At least two theories exist about the name of these all black regiments. Some historians believe the Plains Indians gave the soldiers the name "Buffalo Soldiers" because of the similarity in the texture of the buffalo's fur and the soldier's hair. Another theory suggests the soldiers believed that they were given this name because the regiments' fighting spirit made them worthy opponents just like the buffalo. The soldiers accepted the comparison and kept the nickname.

Author Walter Lott Jr. says the Indians "saw these soldiers as furious fighters. Some of their survival was based on their eating plants and grazing the land for food and items to use as weapons, just like the buffalo." The soldiers adopted an emblem incorporating the buffalo, wearing it with pride.

In the summer of 1867, the 9th Cavalry Regiment moved to Fort Davis and Fort Stockton, ordered to protect the mail and stage route between San Antonio and El Paso. Soldiers also maintained law and order on the Rio Grande, fightin both Mexican American bandits.

The motto of the 9th Cavalry, "We can, We will," reflected their determination. The Buffalo Soldiers opened new roads, mapped new parts of the West and pinpointed water holes, making travel through the area safer. Other duties included searching for cattle thieves, escorting stages, protecting river crossings, and guarding supply wagons, cattle herds, and, later the railroads.

For a time, the 10th Regiment was the only military force in west Texas. Exploring much of Texas, they also patrolled Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. Copeman says that the Tenth Cavalry was so dedicated that the rate of desertion "steadily declined until it was singled out as the lowest of any regiment in the army."

For over two decades, the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments fought Indians on the Western frontier against some of the most famous Indian warriors in history, including the Apache leaders Victorio, Geronimo and Nana. A primary task was trying to a put a stop to Victorio and his band of renegade Apaches. Victorio eventually weakened the Ninth Cavalry to the point they were forced to ask for reinforcements from the Tenth Regiment. After many unsuccessful attempts to stop Victorio, the Buffalo Soldiers united to prevent the Apaches' hit-and run strategy of attack. Finally in 1880, Victorio was chased again into Mexico and killed by a Mexican Cavalry unit.

The Buffalo Soldiers also deterred small bands of hostile Indians who constantly attacked during the building of telegraph lines and roads. Among the other tribes Buffalo Soldiers fought against were the Comanche, Ute, Kiowa, Shoshone, Cheyenne, Bannock, Kickapoo, Sioux and Blackfoot. At times the soldiers were outnumbered, but they gave pursuit anyway. On one occasion, a unit of 90 soldiers lost only three men when they were attacked by 700 Cheyenne Indians. The Buffalo Soldiers also pursued Geronimo until he surrendered to General Nelson Miles on September 4, 1886.

The 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments of Buffalo Soldiers were organized in 1869 and transferred to the Southwest to protect the frontier. Historian Marvin Fletcher writes that shortly after their arrival, a small group form the 24th Infantry and the 9th Cavalry was attacked by bandits in Arizona as the soldiers guarded an army payroll wagon. Despite being pinned down with several wounded, the black soldiers' bravery was so "exceptional" that the paymaster sent a letter of praise to his superiors.

In 1877, the Ninth Regiments was asked to move to El Paso and restore peace in the notorious Salt War. They subsequently helped reestablish an old fort that is known today as Fort Bliss.

Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point and Army officer, joined the Tenth Cavalry. He settled in El Paso after he was discharged from the army. Flipper led the way for blacks to become officers in the Army, including John Hanks Alexander, the second black Army officer, who joined the Ninth Cavalry.

By the end of the 19th century, the black infantry and cavalry had earned 17 medals for honor. Despite the accomplishments of these soldiers, it was not until President Truman called for equal opportunity within the armed forces that the Army was desegregated.

On July 25, 1992, a bronze statue of mounted Tenth and Ninth Cavalry troopers was unveiled at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. El Paso recognized the endeavors of the Buffalo Soldiers on July 27, 1992, in a ceremony dedicated to the Buffalo Soldiers who were buried in Fort Bliss National Cemetery. That same day the House of Representatives proclaimed July 28 as "Buffalo Soldier Day."

Other groups are trying to educate the public about these worthy soldiers. The San Antonio Buffalo Soldiers Association makes youngsters aware of the soldiers' sacrifices and heroism. The group's President, Bill Gordon, says their mission is "not to dwell on how the men were treated. We want to emphasize the great achievement and pride in spite of it." And local artist Bob Snead has donated 25 paintings depicting the Buffalo Soldiers to the city of El Paso.

The exclusion of the Buffalo Soldiers from American history is finally being remedied. Even Hollywood has caught on. Older films depict the heroism of mostly white American soldiers during the 1800s as the West was being developed. But history reveals that some 20 percent of these soldiers were black. A recent movie about the Buffalo Soldiers starring Danny Glover has begun correcting the record in popular culture.


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