Buffalo Soldiers

Exhibit Dates: August 2010-Present

In July 1866, congress passed legislation creating the African American cavalry units that would come to be known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Through video and historical photographs, this exhibit traces the rich history of this unique fighting force.


Buffalo Soldiers: Introduction

In 1995, the Museum opened a temporary exhibition based on the experience of African Americans in the Civil War. Preparation for this exhibition led to the compilation of the most comprehensive bibliography on the subject in existence and the creation of a documentary film on the subject. After the temporary exhibition closed, the Museum installed a permanent exhibit in its galleries to commemorate the important contributions of African Americans on the American frontier.


1866: Congress Creates the First Peace Time African-American Units

Over 180,000 African-Americans served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Of these, more than 33,000 died. After the war, the future of African-Americans in the U.S. Army was in doubt. In July1866, however, Congress passed legislation establishing two cavalry and four infantry regiments (later consolidated to two) whose enlisted composition was to be made up of African-Americans. The majority of the new recruits had served in all Black units during the war. The mounted regiments were the 9th and 10th Cavalries, soon nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers by the Cheyenne and Comanche. Until the early 1890s they constituted 20 percent of all cavalry forces on the American frontier.

The 9th and 10th Cavalries' service in subduing Mexican revolutionaries, hostile Native Americans, outlaws, comancheros, and rustlers was as invaluable as it was unrecognized. It was also accomplished over some of the most rugged and inhospitable country in North America. A list of their adversaries - Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Victorio, Lone Wolf, Billy the Kid, and Pancho Villa - reads like a "Who's Who" of the American West.

Lesser known, but equally important, the Buffalo Soldiers explored and mapped vast areas of the southwest and strung hundreds of miles of telegraph lines. They built and repaired frontier outposts around which future towns and cities sprang to life. Without the protection provided by the 9th and 10th Cavalries, crews building the ever expanding railroads were at the mercy of outlaws and hostile Indians. The Buffalo Soldiers consistently received some of the worst assignments the Army had to offer. They also faced fierce prejudice to both the colors of their Union uniforms and their skin by many of the citizens of the post-war frontier towns. Despite this, the troopers of the 9th and 10th Cavalries developed into two of the most distinguished fighting units in the Army.


The 9th Cavalry

On August 3, 1866, Gen. Phillip Sheridan, commander of the Military Division of the Gulf, was authorized to raise one regiment of "colored" cavalry that was to be designated the 9th Regiment. A recruiting office was established in New Orleans, Louisiana and later that fall, a second office was opened in Louisville, Kentucky. Of the original recruits, the majority came from these two states and were veterans of the Civil War. Enlistment was for five years, with recruits receiving thirteen dollars a month, plus room, board, and clothing.

Col. Edward Hatch was selected to command the new regiment. Hatch, who was a brevet Major General by the close of the Civil War, was an able and ambitious officer. He served admirably in this position until his death in 1889.

Recruitment of White officers proved to be a serious problem for both the 9th and 10th Cavalries. Despite enticements of fast promotion, many officers, including George Armstrong Custer and Frederick Benteen, refused commissions with African-American units. The following advertisement from the Army and Navy Journal illustrates the dilemma:

"A first Lieutenant of Infantry (white) stationed at a very desirable post.....desires a transfer with an officer of the same grade, on equal terms if in a white regiment; but if in a colored regiment, a reasonable bonus would be expected."

The 9th Cavalry was ordered to Texas in June of 1867. There it was charged with protecting stage and mail routes, building and maintaining forts, and establishing law and order in a vast area full of outlaws, Mexican revolutionaries, and raiding Comanches, Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Apaches. To compound their problems, many Texans felt that they were being subjected to a particularly harsh form of post-war reconstruction by Washington, and saw the assignment of the Black troopers as a deliberate attempt by the Union to further humiliate them. As such, the relationship between the troopers and locals was often at or near the boiling point. Despite prejudice and the almost impossible task of maintaining some semblance of order from the Staked Plains to El Paso to Brownsville, the 9th established themselves as one of the most effective fighting forces in the Army.

The 9th was transferred to the District of New Mexico during the winter and spring of 1875 and 76. Over the next six years they were thrust into what had been a 300-year struggle to subdue the fiercely independent Apaches. In 1874 - sparked by pressure from greedy contractors supplying the reservations, and by cattlemen, lumber men, and settlers hungry for Apache land - Washington approved a policy of concentrating the Apaches on a select few reservations.

Unfortunately, the main reservation was at San Carlos, Arizona, a desolate wasteland despised by the Apache. The independent lifestyle and culture of the Apaches and their hatred of the San Carlos reservation insured the hostilities that were to come. The renegade Apaches that periodically fled the reservations were highly skilled horsemen with a superior knowledge of their ancestral lands. Under the command of skilled warriors like Skinya, Nana, Victorio, and Geronimo, the Apaches proved to be an illusive and worthy adversary for both the troopers of the 9th and later the 10th Cavalries. As 1881 came to a close, the battle-weary Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry had been serving continuously on the Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona frontiers for 14 years.

That November the headquarters of the 9th was transferred to Fort Riley, Kansas, with portions of the regiment assigned to Fort Sill, Fort Supply, and Fort Reno in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Over the next four years, the troopers were primarily concerned with the unpleasant task of evicting white settlers known as "Boomers," who were attempting to settle on Indian land. The 9th's unpopular duty continued until the regiment was transferred to Wyoming in June of 1885. From here companies were stationed at Fort Robinson and Fort Niobrara, Nebraska, and Fort Duchesne, Utah.

In 1891 the 9th was called on to assist in subduing the Sioux in what became known as the Ghost Dance Campaign. Once rulers of the northern plains, the Sioux were desolate and poverty stricken on their North and South Dakota reservations. In 1889 word spread of a messiah - a Paiute named Wovoka - who had seen through a vision that the ghosts of Plains Indians would return, bringing with them the buffalo herds slaughtered by the whites. The new "religion" swept through the Indians, alarming Dr. D. F. Royer, the newly appointed agent at the Pine Ridge reservation. Royer over-reacted, pleading for troops to protect him and his staff. By the end of November, one-half of the U.S. Army was concentrated on or near the reservations. The Army's show of force was intended to scare the Sioux into submission. However, many Indians, fearing a massacre, bolted from the reservations and fled into the Badlands. The subsequent actions of the Army to pacify and return the Sioux to their reservations culminated in the massacre of 146 men, women, and children at Wounded Knee on December 29th. The 9th played no role in the slaughter. This was to be their last campaign on the frontier.


The 10th Cavalry

The 10th Cavalry was formed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1866. Very high standards of recruitment were set by the regiments' commander and Civil War hero Benjamin Grierson. As a result, recruitment and organization of the unit required slightly over one year. By the end of July 1867 eight companies of enlisted men had been recruited from the Departments of Missouri, Arkansas, and the Platte.

Life at Leavenworth was not pleasant for the 10th. The Fort's commander, who was admittedly opposed to African- Americans serving in the regular army, made life as difficult as he could on the new troopers. Grierson sought to have his regiment transferred, and subsequently received orders moving the regiment to Fort Riley, Kansas later that summer. Within two months of the transfer, the final four companies were in place.

For the next eight years, the 10th was stationed at numerous forts throughout Kansas and Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). They provided guards for workers of the Kansas and Pacific Railroad, strung miles of new telegraph lines, and to a large extent built Fort Sill. Throughout this period, they were constantly patrolling the reservations in an attempt to prevent Indian raids into Texas. In 1867 and 68, the 10th participated in Gen. Sherman's winter campaigns against the Cheyennes, Arapahos, and Comanches. Units of the 10th prevented the Cheyenne from fleeing to the northwest, thus allowing Custer and the 7th Cavalry to defeat them at the decisive battle near Fort Cobb, Indian Territory.

In 1875, the 10th Cavalry moved its headquarters to Fort Concho in west Texas. Other companies were assigned to various forts throughout the area. The regiment's mission in Texas was to protect mail and travel routes, control Indian movements, provide protection from Mexican revolutionaries and outlaws, and to gain a knowledge of the areas terrain. The regiment proved highly successful in completing their mission. The 10th scouted 34,420 miles of uncharted terrain, opened more than 300 miles of new roads, and laid over 200 miles of telegraph lines. The scouting activities took the troops through some of the harshest and most desolate terrain in the nation. These excursions allowed the preparation of excellent maps detailing scarce water holes, mountain passes, and grazing areas that would later allow for settlement of the area. These feats were accomplished while having to be constantly on the alert for hit-and-run raids from the Apaches. The stay in west Texas produced tough soldiers, who became accustomed to surviving in an area that offered few comforts and no luxuries.

The 10th Cavalry played an important role in the 1879-80 campaign against Chief Victorio and his renegade band of Apaches. Victorio and his followers escaped from their New Mexico reservation and reeked havoc throughout the southwest on their way to Mexico. Col. Grierson and the 10th attempted to prevent Victorio's return to the U.S., and particularly his reaching New Mexico where he could cause additional problems with the Apaches still on the reservations. Grierson, realizing the importance of water in the harsh region, decided the best way to intercept Victorio was to take control of potential water holes along his route.

The campaign called for the biggest military concentration ever assembled in the Trans-Pecos area. Six troops of the 10th Cavalry were assigned to patrol the area from the Van Horn Mountains west to the Quitman Mountains, and north to the Sierra Diablo and Delaware Mountains. Encounters with the Indians usually resulted in skirmishes, however the 10th engaged in major confrontations at Tinaja de las Palmas (a water hole south of Sierra Blanca) and at Rattlesnake Springs (north of Van Horn). These two engagements halted Victorio and forced him to retreat to Mexico. Although Victorio and his band were not captured, the campaign conducted by the 10th was successful in preventing them from reaching New Mexico. The 10th's efforts at containment exhausted the Apaches. Soon after they crossed the border, Victorio and many of his warriors were killed by Mexican troops on October 14, 1880.

In 1885, the regiment was transferred to the Department of Arizona. Once again the 10th was involved in the arduous pursuit of renegade Apaches under the leadership of Geronimo, Mangus, and the Apache Kid.

After twenty years of service in some of the most undesirable posts in the southwest, the regiment, now under the command of Colonel John K. Mizner, was transferred to the Department of Dakota in 1891. The regiment served at various posts in Montana and Dakotas until 1898.


Daily Life on the Western Frontier

Daily life for the troopers of the 9th and 10th Cavalries was harsh, but, for the most part, it was similar to that of their White counterparts. During the 1860s and 70s, the frontier forts resembled little more than rundown villages, and the enlisted men's barracks were often poorly ventilated, vermin infested hovels. The only bathing facilities usually consisted of the local creek. As a result, diseases such as dysentery, diarrhea, bronchitis, and tuberculosis were a common problem. Rations throughout the Indian campaigns consisted mainly of beef or bacon, potatoes, beans, fresh vegetables from the post garden, and sometimes fruit or jam. The work week was seven days, with the exception of the fourth of July and Christmas. The monthly pay for a private was a meager $13 (reduced from $16 in 1871).

When available, many of the African-American troopers availed themselves of after-hours schools established to alleviate the illiteracy mandated by slavery. The schools were normally run by chaplains assigned to the Black units, in part for this purpose. Other leisure activities were sparse, especially for the African-American troopers stationed in west Texas. Only a small percentage of enlisted men were able to bring their wives with them to the frontier posts. The small villages which grew up around the forts were usually little more than a collection of saloons and gambling parlors, inhabited by some of the more unsavory characters on the frontier. Here, partially due to the federal government's harsh reconstruction policies, racial prejudice by both local citizens and law officers was severe. When disputes arose among Buffalo Soldiers and locals, the local law and juries consistently sided against the troopers.

The most serious problem faced by the Army during the Indian War period was desertion. In 1868, the desertion rate for enlisted personnel was approximately 25 percent. Desertions among White regiments were roughly three times greater than those among Black units. Also, both African-American cavalry and infantry regiments had lower rates of alcoholism than their White counterparts. While in the field, both the troopers and their horses faced not only hostile Indians and outlaws, but also extended patrols of up to six months and covering more than 1,000 miles. Adding to their ordeal was the scarcity of water and the extremes of weather common to the southwest.

When not on patrol, the Buffalo Soldiers were engaged in endless drills, parades, and inspections. At Fort Davis in 1877 a dress parade, complete with the post band, was held each evening except for Saturdays. Regarding the African-American troopers, the Post Surgeon noted that: "the troops seemed especially proud of their uniform and of their profession as soldiers."