Celebrate Black History Month: Buffalo Soldiers

I have a friend named Walt back home whose grandfather was a Buffalo Soldier. I only had the pleasure to meet his grandfather once and I didn’t have a conversation with him about his experiences. It is a regret I have yet to get over, as I love hearing history firsthand if possible. My friend’s family apparently had a long history of military service in historically known Black regiments. My own family has a more interesting background in military service though mostly I can say both sides were equally disinterested, except during WWII. Sure, we have service men and women, my second oldest brother being one of them, but for the most part, both sides are filled more with academics, civil service professionals, nurses and educators. I will admit that military service has personally never held much interest for me. The level of sacrifice required was not something I was personally interested in and the physical requirement would be more than I was willing to invest in, since I never outgrew my childhood asthma or heart murmur like my older brother. Also, for me there was my father’s influence on why military service was a bad idea, which shaped my views profoundly. However, regardless of my personal views, Black people have contributed greatly to the American military and have a long history of service to this country from its inception.

Who Were the Buffalo Soldiers?

When the Civil war broke out Black people, both men and women, wanted to be part of the fight for their freedom. Despite this desire, Black men were not given the opportunity initially to fight (this will be an ongoing theme in military history). Enslaved men while in bondage were forced to dig trenches, build fortifications and work in factories for the Confederacy. However, the Union military machine quickly concluded that without slave labor the Confederacy was at a major disadvantage, thus Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

As Union troops pushed forward into the south, newly liberated Black bondmen and women, seen as contraband by the military, began to follow these troops. Early on the Union had no official policy regarding how to handle Black people escaping plantations, and the decision was made by troop commanders on how to handle these individuals. However, the Union quickly realized no policy was problematic and began to employ these newly free Black men and women in similar labor roles that they had during their enslavement. We can imagine their disappointment.

During the summer of 1862, Congress had granted the official formation of Black troops with the Second Confiscation and Militia Act. This was the year prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, and both acts were similar to the proclamation. Coming after two years of fighting, massive casualties and heavy losses, attitudes shifted on Black military service out of need. It would not be until February 1863 however, that Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew issued the first call for Black men to enlist. That call would result in the formation of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, made famous by the movie Glory. I could go on about the valor and contributions of these Black men and women. Nonetheless, the most important take away from this is Black people proved that they would be able to handle the rigors and struggle of military service.

In 1866, Congress created 6 peacetime All Black military regiments but they would later combine that 6 to create 4 units, the 9th and 10th cavalry and the 24th and 25th infantry. These units were given the nickname Buffalo Soldiers, though how has been lost in history’s ether. These military men protected the interests of the American westward expansion, because their presence was very much unwelcome in the south. They built roads, were park rangers and sadly were often pitted against Native Americans, another group who were not seen equally as citizens in post-Civil War America. Twenty percent of the US military troops that engaged in the “Indian Wars” were Buffalo soldiers. Sadly, though they were military personnel, they suffered greatly often not being allowed to be a part of the western communities they protected and suffering internal racism from the army. Many White officers, like George Armstrong Custer, were disinterested in leading the regiments. However these men would serve their country with honor and are part of the story of the west just like Black cowboys. Buffalo Soldiers received medals for their efforts, had low desertion numbers, and the lowest number of court-martials, but we would need to look at the service records of those who were court-martialed with some suspicion as systematic racism may have played a role. However, the majority served with distinction, including graduates from West Point such as Lt. Henry O. Flipper and Colonel Charles Young. These troops continued to exist until 1948 when the military was desegregated.

National Parks

I don’t want to focus on the darker parts of that service - war and their suffering under the perils of institutional racism. What I would rather like to focus on is their legacy. From 1891 to 1913, the Army acted as administrators for the national parks Yosemite, which is about 3 hours from San Jose, and the Sequoia National Park, which is a little under 4 hours away from San Jose. These soldiers wintered at the Presidio and served the Sierra during the summer; they spent that time fighting fires, keeping poachers out, creating part of the infrastructure that we still use today and keeping grazing stock off park lands - the last being an issue that we still face today. They employed unique ideas such as putting livestock in one area and the rancher in another, as they often had to navigate a fine line in enforcing laws while being seen as lesser by that same system. Over 500 Black men served the parks between those periods.

We as Californians owe these men for being some of the first protectors of the natural beauty we have here. In these Covid-19 days being outside, far away from one another in nature, is one of the few activities we can still engage in. Although we have made progress regarding race, those early Black military pioneers of the west may be disappointed about how much has been accomplished, or even how few Black people visit the lands they protected with their lives because they feel unwelcome in those spaces.

Therefore, I challenge you the next time you can visit Yosemite, Sequoia National Park or you are near the Presidio take a moment to think about Buffalo soldiers. Walk the trails the Buffalo soldiers made and maintained. And if you are a Black person like me, go to a national park and remember the cost has been paid; you belong.

Buffalo Soldiers

Buffalo Soldiers, book cover
Buffalo Soldier Regiment History of the Twenty-fifth United States Infantry, 1869-1926, book cover
Buffalo Soldiers in the West A Black Soldiers Anthology, book cover
Cathy Williams From Slave to Female Buffalo Soldier, book cover