July 28 marks the annual celebration of Buffalo Soldiers Day, a commemorative holiday that celebrates the contributions of the first army regiment comprised of African American soldiers. Following the U.S. Civil War, African American soldiers were deployed on the Western frontier to protect settlers and battle Native Americans encroaching upon the territory.
In 1866, Congress passed the Army Organization Act, which formalized the creation of six all-Black U.S. Cavalry and infantry units, according to History.com. Under the legislation, African American men were granted the constitutional right to enlist in the army. The Buffalo soldiers were split into two regiments, the 9th and 10th cavalries. Army.com estimates that over 180,000 African American men served with the special military units.
“The Buffalo Soldiers adjusted the way America and the U.S. military viewed race,” Sgt. Maj. Quincy Rice of the Military Surface Deployment Distribution Command’s directorate of operations sergeant major told the website during an interview. “They proved to be courageous and well-disciplined Soldiers.”
Why were the troops called Buffalo Soldiers?
Some historians speculate that the African American troops were called Buffalo Soldiers because of the courage and bravery they exhibited while fighting in battle. Others believe the term pays homage to robes they wore during combat, which were made from the skin and hair of buffalo, presumably to keep them warm in cold temperatures. Some history buffs predict that the term could have carried negative connotations about the soldiers, possibly referencing their skin and hair. Whatever the case, in today’s society, “Buffalo Solider” is seen as a commendable phrase and one that comes with incredible honor to the legacy of the troops who fought to protect our country.
What were their duties?
In addition to protecting the Western Frontier, Buffalo Soldiers helped to control the Native Americans of the Plains. They also captured cattle rustlers and thieves and assisted in protecting stagecoaches, wagon trains, and railroad crews along the Western Front. The Soldiers helped to build roads, all while facing “challenging terrain, inadequate supplies, and discrimination,” History.com notes.
“The pain and disrespect the Buffalo Soldiers and all Soldiers of color faced years ago in the Army paved the way for Soldiers today to blossom into leaders that were never seen before,” Sgt. Rice said of the troops’ tenacity. “The hard work of the Buffalo Soldiers laid down a stable foundation for minority Soldiers to manage their aspirations of greatness with full confidence and ingenuity to serve at the highest levels of the U.S. military.”
While some fought in combat, other soldiers fought to protect National Parks across the United States. Soldiers were deployed near Yosemite and Sequoia National Park to help combat wildfires and poachers. According to the National Park Service, buffalo soldiers lodged at the Presidio army post in San Francisco during the winter and served as park rangers in the Sierra Nevada in the summer.t
What were the 9th Cavalry’s responsibilities?
The 9th Cavalry assembled in New Orleans between August and September of 1866. Soldiers went through intense training during the winter and were ordered to serve in San Antonio, Texas, a year later. While there, the soldier’s mission was to protect the road from San Antonio to El Paso and to “maintain order” among Native Americans, who allegedly, at the time, were frustrated with life on the Indian Reservation due to broken promises by the federal government. Soldiers were issued the difficult task of removing some tribes from the area, all while they too were subjected to discrimination from the U.S. government.
The formation of the 10th Cavalry
Based in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the 10th Cavalry formed in 1867 with the task of protecting the Pacific Railroad, which was under construction at the time.
While deployed in the area, some troops fought hundreds of Cheyenne in two separate battles near the Saline River. The 38th infantry Regiment was also present during the intense battle. Historians believe the Buffalo Soldiers were triumphant during the fight despite having inferior equipment and being greatly outnumbered.
Colonel Charles Young, only the third African American graduate of the United States Military Academy, led the Buffalo Soldiers with distinction in the Ninth and Tenth U.S. Cavalry and was the first African American to achieve the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army.
A native of May’s Lick, Kentucky, Young was born to enslaved parents in the south. He graduated from high school with honors and became an elementary school teacher two years before taking his entrance exams for the United States Military Academy at West Point, according to CNN.
The dedicated soldier’s military journey was not easy. Young faced discrimination from instructors and fellow cadets while obtaining his army certification, but he persevered. He became the third Black graduate from the institution in 1889, following in the legendary footsteps of Henry Ossian Flipper and John Hanks Alexander.
Young served as a second lieutenant and was assigned to the Ninth Cavalry in Fort Robinson, Nebraska, and Fort Duchesne, Utah, a regiment of the “Buffalo Soldiers.” The incredible soldier, who in April was posthumously promoted to brigadier general, made history in 1903 when he became the first Black national park superintendent. Young also became the first Black military attaché to be stationed in the Dominican Republic and was appointed military attaché in Liberia in 1912. In between his duties, Young often taught military sciences at Wilberforce University in Ohio. He also helped train Black soldiers during World War I and in 1920.
Young passed away on January 8, 1922, after he became ill following a research expedition in Nigeria. His legacy now lives on at The Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument, which was established in 2013 in Wilberforce, Ohio, to commemorate his passion and dedication to the force.
“No one ever knew the truth about the Hell he went through at West Point,” Civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois, who was a close friend of Young, wrote in an edition of the NAACP’s “The Crisis” publication a month after he died. “He was one of the few men I know who literally turned the other cheek with Jesus Christ,” DuBois continued. “He was laughed at for it and his own people chided him bitterly, yet he persisted. When a white Southern pigmy at West Point protested at taking food from a dish passed first to Young, Young passed it to him first and afterward to himself. When officers of inferior rank refused to salute a ‘n***er,’ he saluted them. Seldom did he lose his temper, seldom complain,” he added.
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