The Buffalo SoldiersBuffalo soldiers on a mountain trail by Frederic Remington
To many black citizens, the Buffalo Soldiers were a symbol of hope for a better future. Professor Rayford Logan of Howard University commented: "Negroes had little, at the turn of the century, to help sustain our faith in ourselves except the pride that we took in the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry, the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry...They were our Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson."

The Black Units Are Formed

No one is quite certain why the Indians nicknamed the African American cavalrymen "buffalo soldiers." Some say it was because the men were rugged as buffalo and others that it was because the Indians saw a resemblance between the black soldier's hair and the buffalo's shaggy coat. It has also been pointed out that many black soldiers favored the long buffalo-robe coats. Although the name was primarily applied to the cavalry, it was sometimes extended to include the black infantry. The infantry, black and white, were given the dubious honorific of Walk-a-Heaps.

At the close of the Civil War, the U.S. Army formed regiments of black men, many of whom had served in the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.). The cavalry units were the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the infantry were the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st which several years later were consolidated into the 24th and 25th infantry units. Black infantry troops often fought side-by-side with the black cavalry.

From Slave to Medal of Honor Winner

Many of the original members of the African American units were former slaves who had served in the Union Army. Other emancipated slaves also saw the Army as a way to start a new life on the frontier. Men displaced by the Civil War could find food, shelter and some medical benefits in the military. Emanuel Stance, a former slave from Louisiana, joined the newly formed 9th Cavalry in New Orleans in October of 1866. He was soon on his way to San Antonio, Texas, with Company F. Because he was able to read and write, Stance quickly became an officer in his company, receiving the rank of corporal. Noncommissioned officers had to be literate in order to handle the paperwork that came with their positions.

After an action against the Kickapoo Indians in which he conducted himself valiantly, Corporal Emanuel Stance was recommended for and received the Medal of Honor, the highest award given by the U.S. military. He was the first African American to win that distinction in the post-Civil War period. Cited for valor in the Battle of Kickapoo Springs, Stance later saw action in the Victorio War against that Apache chief.

The Frontier Years

The buffalo soldiers served in the Indian Wars on the Plains and in the Southwest. They often distinguished themselves in spite of being issued old horses, scanty ammunition and faulty equipment. They were rarely guilty of drunkenness in a time and place where alcoholism was common. Their rate of desertion and court martial was much lower than that of white soldiers. During the period from 1880 to 1886 the 24th Infantry held the record for the lowest desertion rate in the entire United States Army. In 1888 the 24th and 25th Infantry were tied for the honor.

Buffalo soldiers around a campfire by Frederic Remington

Another indication of the esprit de corps of the black troops was the excellent bands they organized, which often encouraged good relations with the civilian populations by offering concerts and playing for parades and funerals, as well as providing dance music for church benefits. After 1880 the black regiments had African American chaplains who not only provided spiritual guidance but also often taught their soldiers to read and write, enabling them to gain an education and better prepare themselves for either military or civilian living. One chaplain who took his obligations to educate his men very seriously was Chaplain Louis Carter, who served for many years as Chaplain to all four of the early black regiments at Fort Huachuca. Carter instilled in his men feelings of their worth as soldiers and pride in their black heritage. After an impressive funeral in which hundreds of soldiers paid their last respects, Chaplain Louis Carter was buried at the Fort Huachuca Cemetery.

During the early years of their history the buffalo soldiers served mainly in Kansas, Texas and New Mexico. In 1885 several companies from the 9th Cavalry were detailed to Indian Territory to remove the Boomers--white homesteaders who were trying to stake illegal claims on Indian lands.

Buffalo Soldiers escorting Boomers out of Indian TerritoryThis drawing, based on a sketch by Remington, shows black cavalrymen and their white officer ejecting a disappointed family of Boomers from the Indian Territory. (Harper's Weekly, March 28, 1885.)

As prospectors and settlers moved into the Southwest the black regiments were right alongside them, campaigning against outlaws and Apaches. Brevet Major General Benjamin H. Grierson commanded the 10th Cavalry from their formation in 1866 until 1890, when he retired. In 1876 the 10th Cavalry was transferred from Fort Riley, Kansas, to Texas, where it joined the 9th Cavalry commanded by Colonel Edward Hatch. In 1886, during the Apache wars, Grierson's 10th pursued Geronimo and his renegade band into the Pinito Mountains of Mexico. The troops often passed through Fort Huachuca for supplies. Early in the 1890s the 9th Cavalry came to Fort Huachuca. In 1892 A, B, C and H companies of the 24th infantry were transferred from Fort Bayard, New Mexico to Fort Huachuca, and in 1896 Companies C and H of the 24th infantry were sent to the Nogales area to fight Yaqui Indians in the final stages of the Indian wars.

In addition to controlling the Indians of the Plains and the Southwest, the soldiers built roads, discouraged illegal traders who sold guns and alcohol to the Indians, policed cattle rustlers and formed escorts for stagecoaches carrying military payroll or other valuables.

Marching in the Desert with the Buffalo Soldiers by Frederic Remington

Marching in the Desert with the Buffalo Soldiers

In 1889 Frederic Remington published an account of his "Scout with the Buffalo Soldiers" in The Century, a popular quarterly. That account is available on this site as an abridged version in html and as a complete, illustrated version as an e-book. If you do not have the Microsoft e-book reader, you can download it free from the Microsoft website.

The Wham Paymaster Robbery of 1889

On May 11, 1889 a dozen men ambushed the two vehicles bearing the routine payrun through southern Arizona as it approached Fort Thomas, near the small Mormon settlement of Pima in Graham County. Paymaster Joseph Wham (pronounced Wahm to rhyme with bomb) was riding in an army ambulance with a driver and a clerk and the strongbox containing $28,345.10. Twelve black soldiers served as the escort between Fort Grant and Fort Thomas. The party was attacked in a narrow canyon of Cottonwood Wash. After a spirited defense the black soldiers had to take cover after eight of them were wounded by robbers who numbered a dozen or more.

An investigation and eyewitness identifications by the soldiers as well as by Major Wham resulted in the arrest and trial of seven suspects. All but one of the accused were Mormons living in the Pima area. The story of their trial is described in fascinating detail in a book called Ambush at Bloody Run by historian Larry Ball.

Since the robbers wore no masks or disguises the convictions should have been a foregone conclusion, but the attitude of the white jurors toward the black witnesses is testimony to the difficulties and prejudices faced by the Buffalo Soldiers day-in and day-out.

Larry Ball explains it:

...questions were probably calculated to arouse the racial prejudices of the white jurors and spectators. Most Anglos regarded blacks as lowly and emotional specimens of humankind, prone to panic in stressful situations. Few thought that they were capable of the discipline required of soldiers.... It must have unnerved white spectators when black soldiers demonstrated both a sense of duty and an appreciation of military standards. (p. 114.)

Although the testimony of the black eyewitnesses was critical to the government's case, its impact on the trial jury apparently was minimal. Given the racial prejudices of the day, white spectators were perfectly willing to laugh at the antics of the black witnesses, but refused to take their testimony seriously. (p. 117)

All eight of the soldiers wounded in the engagement eventually recovered from their injuries, and ten of the twelve received commendations from the federal government. On February 15, 1890 Sergeant Benjamin Brown and Corporal Isaiah Mays were awarded the Medal of Honor and eight privates received Certificates of Merit.

In the years between 1870 and 1890 many of the buffalo soldiers were honored for valor; with fourteen receiving the Medal of Honor. In more than three decades of service on the frontier, buffalo soldiers took part in nearly two hundred battles.

Unrest on the Border

As the Indian wars drew to a close, many forts in the Southwest were shut down. In 1890, General Grierson, then the Commander of the Department of Arizona, recommended that Forts Mohave, Verde, Thomas and McDowell be closed. Since medical records showed that Fort Huachuca was the healthiest post in southern Arizona, it remained open as an outpost against lawlessness and disturbances at the border.

Pancho Villa (4th from left) and his generals

General Villa, Mexican bandit. 1. General Fierro. 2. General Villa. 3. General Ortega. 4. Colonel Medina., ca. 1913, NARA #533444

A period of strife and revolt in Mexico resulted when Porfirio Diaz, the dictator of Mexico for thirty years, was forced to flee into exile by revolutionary forces led by Francisco Madero. After Madero was assassinated in 1913, the situation in Mexico degenerated into virtual civil war. The U.S. found itself trying to maintain an uneasy neutrality as battles between provisional governments and rebellious factions constantly threatened to spill over the border, endangering American citizens and creating a state of anarchy in a country which had no effective law enforcement. After Venustiano Carranza and Francisco "Pancho" Villa joined forces and overthrew the Huerta regime, Villa changed sides again and led an uprising against his former chief. Villa then took to the mountains in the north with his personal army to pursue his vendetta against the United States.

Villa bandits who raided Columbus, New Mexico, caught by American soldiers in the mountains of Mexico and held, in camp near Namiquipa, NARA photo #533443 (April 27, 1916., 1916 - 1917)

Chasing Pancho Villa

Cartoon Uncle Sam saying "I've had about enough of this!"In addition to the troops at Fort Huachuca, black soldiers at this time were patrolling the Mexican border from temporary camps such as Camp Stephen D. Little at Nogales and Camp Harry T. Jones at Douglas. The Newell Cantonment at Naco was created in response to Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916. On March 9 more than a thousand Villistas rode into that American town, starting fires and killing nineteen American citizens. An agreement between American President Woodrow Wilson and Mexican President Venustiano Carranza permitted both nations to pursue bandits across the border. This cartoon from the National Archives has Uncle Sam leaping over the border fence saying "I've had about enough of this!" as Pancho Villa scampers off.

General Pershing with Lt. Collins in Mexico, NARA photoThe Punitive Mission ordered by President Wilson was conducted by General John J. Pershing. Pershing had earned his nickname, 'Black Jack,' by leading black regiments early in his career, and throughout his life he continued to have a high regard for the black regiments. Among the troops sent across the border into Mexico were the 24th and 25th Infantry and the 10th cavalry. Pancho Villa was a wily guerilla fighter and not easy to hunt down in the Sierra Madre Mountains of northern Chihuahua. The expeditionary forces spent the summer and fall of 1916 marching and counter-marching in the difficult terrain. In February of 1917 they were recalled to American soil.

The Pershing mission was historic in being the last time independent horse cavalry went into action against an enemy. After 1916 the era of the horse soldier was gone forever, but among those who served in the Mexican expedition was a young cavalryman named George S. Patton who foresaw the day when motor vehicles would replace horses.

Charles Young, courtesy National Park Service, Historic Photo CollectionAmong the black leaders on Pershing's mission was Charles Young. Born in Kentucky in 1864, Young continued a military tradition started by his father, who had served in the Colored Artillery during the Civil War. Young graduated from West Point and served in military reconnaissance, intelligence and training in Haiti, the Philippines and Liberia. His first assignment with the 10th Cavalry was in 1915 as a Major. In Mexico he led the 2nd squadron against Pancho Villa's rebels at Agua Caliente. Young became a colonel in September 1916 and commanded Fort Huachuca in 1916-17. He retired from active duty in 1919 and died in 1922. Charles Young was the first African American to achieve the rank of Colonel. Photo from the National Park Service Historic Photo Collection.

Oldest Buffalo Soldier dies at age 111
Retired 1st Sgt. Mark Matthews, one of the last of the Buffalo Soldiers, died Sept. 6, 2005 at age 111. Sgt. Matthews, fascinated by the idea of soldiers riding horses, enlisted at age 16 and was sent to Fort Huachuca. During his posting there he served in the 1916 punitive expedition to Mexico, chasing the elusive Pancho Villa. In 1931, he was assigned to Fort Myer, where he trained recruits in horsemanship. He retired from the Army in 1949 and lived the rest of his long life in Washington, D.C. (Excerpted from an article in Army News, Sept. 16, 2005)

For information about the role of the National Guard in the border conflict of 1916 see The National Guard on the Border

The Fort Huachuca Historical MuseumWe support the Fort

Note: Since Fort Huachuca is an active military installation, access may be limited when military actions are in progress. Two forms of picture identification are necessary to enter when a security alert is in force.

For those interested in learning more about the buffalo soldiers, the Fort Huachuca Historical Museum in Sierra Vista is a must-see attraction. The historic 1892 wood-frame building which houses the museum was part of the Old Post and served over the years as bachelor officers' quarters, chapel, officers' club and post headquarters. In 1960 it was opened to the public as a museum. Visitors should enter the post through the Main Gate at the west end of Fry Boulevard in Sierra Vista. To request admission to the fort it is generally necessary to present a valid driver's license, picture id, auto registration and proof of vehicle insurance. The soldier at the gate can provide directions to the Museum and other points of interest on the Fort. Fort Huachuca is an active military installation and at times some areas may be closed to the public, but as a rule the museum is open from 9-4 weekdays and 1-4 on weekends.

The displays on the ground floor include an audiotaped greeting from "Captain Samuel M. Whitside" seated at his roll-top desk, displays of uniforms of various periods, and an exhibit paying tribute to Chaplain Carter and to the black soldiers who trained at the Fort during World War II. The second floor features a memorable exhibit titled "The Black Military Experience in the American West." There are also complete period rooms which provide a glimpse at the way the ordinary soldiers and their families lived on the post in frontier times.

In addition to art, crafts and souvenirs, the Museum Gift Shop stocks an interesting collection of books about the Southwest, including information about Fort Huachuca, the Indian Wars, and the Buffalo Soldiers.

Information online:

Remington, Frederic. "A Scout with the Buffalo Soldiers" from The Century: a popular quarterly, Volume 37, Issue 6, April 1889.

Photo credit for Charles Young photo: National Park Service, National Park Historic Photo collection.

Recommended reading:

Ball, Larry. Ambush at Bloody Run: The Wham Paymaster Robbery of 1889. Tucson: The Arizona Historical Society, 2000.

Finley, James P. The Buffalo Soldiers of Fort Huachuca, volumes 1-3. Fort Huachuca: Huachuca Museum Society, 1993.

Leckie, William H. The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.

Leckie, William H. and Shirley A. Unlikely Warriors: General Benjamin Grierson and His Family. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.

Rolak, Bruno J. "History of Fort Huachuca, 1877-1890," The Smoke Signal, No. 29, Spring 1974. Tucson: Tucson Corral of the Westerners. (Generally available for purchase at the Museum store.)

Schubert, Frank N. Voices of the Buffalo Soldier. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003. (These first-hand accounts include letters, periodicals, and military documents.)

Stovall, Taressa, The Buffalo Soldiers. African American Achievers Series for young readers.

Wallace, Andrew. "The Sabre Retires: Pershing's Cavalry Campaign in Mexico, 1916," The Smoke Signal, No. 9, Spring 1964. Tucson: Tucson Corral of the Westerners.

Some of these publications are also available from the Huachuca Museum Society, P.O. Box 0673, Fort Huachuca, Arizona. 85613. The Gift Shop phone number is (520) 458-4716.

Voices of the Buffalo Soldier
Voices of the
Buffalo Soldier
by Frank N. Schubert
Buffalo Soldiers movie starring Danny Glover
The Buffalo Soldiers
VHS Video
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