The History Cat Classroom
The Buffalo Soldiers
The year is 1866. Emanuel Stance, a recently freed slave from Louisiana, is setting off on a path to freedom given to him by the recently passed Thirteenth Amendment. Stance probably greeted his new found freedom with that same mixture of elation and anxiety that four million other ex-slaves were experiencing. This long-oppressed group now had the freedom to walk off the plantations that had kept them in bondage. But, freedom was just the beginning. These men and women were not U.S. citizens, they had no rights, no money, and few could even read or write their own names. Their economic futures were limited to working as a servant or laborer at lower wages than whites. If they had skills they could start a small business, or they could become sharecroppers for their former masters.
To men like Stance, none of these options were appealing. So, in October, 1866 Stance did something that made history. He joined the 9th Calvary of the United States Army, the first of four all-black Calvary peacetime units known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
Legend has it that the nickname ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ was given to the 10th Calvary in 1877 by the Comanche Indians who were impressed by their bravery and fighting skills. Others point to a Cheyenne legend that told of the bravery of Troop G of the 10th Calvary who was assigned to protect two civilians going on a hunting trip in Oklahoma.
Whatever the story, their nickname stuck. The duty of the Buffalo Soldiers, like all troops sent to the western territories, was to keep the peace between the settlers who were staking claim to Indian land and the Indian tribes who were trying to stop them.
Members of the 9th U.S. Calvary.
Picture taken sometime around 1880
PBS: This is Us- Buffalo Soldiers
Every year since the 1850s settlers came by the tens of thousands and staked their claim to land already home to Native Americans. These settlers simply built their rough houses, plowed up the grasslands, and began fencing off the plains. We probably don’t need to convince you that this sort of neighborly behavior caused a lot of conflicts between the two groups. Caught in the conflict were the men like Emanuel Stance and other soldiers whose job it was to keep the peace. When outlaws robbed a stage coach the Buffalo Soldiers were among those sent to apprehend the fugitives. When settlers headed west it was the enlisted men of the U.S. Army who built forts that served as stopping points and safe havens. When a hostile band of Comanche, Sioux, or Cheyenne Indians attacked a settlement or farm the U.S. Army was sent out to protect the settlers and drive off the attackers. On more than one occasion the men of the 9th and 10th Calvary were sent out on a search and rescue mission. Take the following story for example.
One day in April, 1870, the 9th Calvary who had been given the task of rounding up a band of Apache who had been fighting with settlers near Fort McKavett, Texas. These men soon found themselves facing a much greater enemy. But rather than turning back, their commander, Emanuel Stance, gave the order to charge straight into death. This unexpected move caused the Apache to break formation and flee. For their bravery, Stance received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Stance was one of eighteen African-Americans to receive this high honor during their service in the Indian Wars.
Despite their contribution to opening the west to American settlement, the black men of the so-called Buffalo regiments found themselves in a weird position. Racism was far too commonplace and racial segregation in post-Civil War America was becoming a way of life in many states. Even though they served their country like any other soldier black servicemen found themselves assigned to the most difficult tasks with rifles and horses that were inferior to those issued to white soldiers. Often black soldiers were forbidden from using facilities in the forts they helped to build.
To be a black man in the U.S. Army meant having to work harder than anyone else to prove the racists wrong. Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a white officer of the 10th Calvary, often went to bat for the soldiers under his command. He constantly complained to the Army about the poor treatment his soldiers received. He even complained about their official name “The 10th Colored Calvary”. Instead, Grierson demanded that they be called simply the Tenth Calvary.
The men of the 9th and 10th Calvary often faced hostility from the white population they were protecting. In 1870, a white settler shot and killed Private Boston Henry who was stationed in Fort McKavett, Texas. After the murderer was captured an all-white jury found him not guilty. Racism reared its ugly head again in 1881 when Private William Watkins was shot in the head by a white rancher for refusing to sing. Again, an all-white jury found him not guilty.
To us modern folks it seems ironic that a people so long oppressed by American society took part in a chapter of history that denied Indians their land, freedom, and culture. But it might be more helpful to forget about seeing history along purely racial lines. History is complicated; the Buffalo soldiers were tasked with protecting settlers both black and white. They also helped to remove illegal settlers in Indian Territory (aka Oklahoma) known as Boomers. Among the tens of thousands of Boomers were hundreds of black families looking to take advantage of the situation and force their way on to land that they were forbidden by U.S. law from settling. But one thing is certain, the Buffalo soldiers served their country throughout many important conflicts such as the Spanish-American War and World War I, World War II up until the 1950s when the entire U.S. Army was integrated.
The song 'Buffalo Soldier' was written by Bob Marley and Noel Williams in 1980. Listen to the words of the song as it tells the story of the first African-Americans to serve during peacetime.