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Buffalo Soldiers


SPECIAL NOTE: In honor of the African American holiday today, Juneteenth, Notes from the Frontier is reposting our blog on Buffalo Soldiers. The holiday commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. It is not widely known that African Americans played very important roles in our wars and in the settling of the West. Some historians claim that nearly a third of all cowboys were black! Yet, Hollywood and history books have often glossed over this fundamental fact.

African-Americans have served valiantly in EVERY major American war. More than 200,000 served in the Civil War. Because black soldiers had demonstrated such bravery in the Union Army, in 1866 Congress moved to create black army units. The first were 9th and 10th cavalry and 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st infantry.

Buffalo soldiers served west of the Mississippi, mainly to protect settlers moving West and fight in Native American conflicts. (This is ironic, since many historians maintain the majority of U.S. blacks have some Native American ancestry! More on this in a later post.) Soldiers enlisted for five years and $13 a month--much more than they could earn as a civilian.

Buffalo soldiers had a higher rate of serving with distinction than white ranks and the lowest military desertion and court-martial rates in the military at the time. The troops were originally led by white officers, but Henry Ossian Flipper, born a slave but the first African-American West Point graduate in 1877, also became the first black officer to command the 10th Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers.

The name, "Buffalo Soldiers," is steeped in lore and came from Native Americans. The most common theory is Apaches named the 10th Cavalry in 1871 for their ferocity in battle. Another theory is that the soldiers' black curly hair and dark visage were like that of charging buffalo. The third: from the thick buffalo coats they wore in the brutal winters of the frontier.

Buffalo soldiers were the first U.S. forest rangers and fought wildfires in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. In fact, America's iconic Smokey the Bear was actually patterned after World War I Buffalo Soldiers!

President Truman integrated the armed forces in the 1940s and 50s. The last all-back units were disbanded in the 1950s. The oldest living Buffalo Soldier, Mark Matthews, died in 2005 at 111 years old.

In 1992, Congress made July 28th Buffalo Soldier Day. A monument commemorating their service was built at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, and was dedicated by General Colin Powell.

PHOTOS: (Top) Painting by American military artist, Don Stivers. (Bottom left) First black officer of the Buffalo Soldiers and first African-American West Point graduate, Henry O. Flipper. (Bottom right) The Buffalo Soldiers famous 10th cavalry, about 1898. In the top row, far right with bandana stands Augusta Walley, a former slave from Maryland, who earned the Medal of Honor in 1898.

You may also enjoy these related posts:

-The First Black Frontier Filmmaker

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"Buffalo Soldiers" originally posted May 21, 2019 on Facebook

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