Buffalo soldiers' slow march to memory front


Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry or the 9th Cavalry, while stationed at Yosemite National Park in 1899. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

“There was a Buffalo Soldier, in the heart of America. Stolen from Africa, brought to America. Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival." Bob Marley.

Many of us will remember these words from Bob Marley's reggae hit single "Buffalo Soldier" but, the history of these soldiers is less well known in the public domain, perhaps deliberately. This is the story of a group of men that no one knew; nameless, faceless ghosts from the mists of frontier history, until recently.

During the Civil War (1861 to 1865) the United States government formed regiments known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT), composed of black soldiers and Native Americans. More than 30,000 of these troops died during the Civil War. The USCT was disbanded in the fall of 1865. In 1867, the regular army was set at 10 regiments of cavalry and 45 of infantry.

The army was authorised to raise two regiments of black cavalry and four regiments of black infantry who were mostly drawn from USCT veterans. However, in 1869 the infantry was cut to 25 regiments, reducing the black component two regiments. The black cavalry and infantry regiments comprised black enlisted soldiers commanded by white commissioned officers and black non-commissioned officers.

From 1866 to the early 1890s, these regiments served at a variety of posts in southwestern and great plains regions in what was known as the Indian Wars helping to expand occupied territory in the west. Between 1880 and 1881, portions of all four Buffalo Soldiers regiments were in New Mexico pursuing Victorio and Nana and their Apache warriors in Victorio's War.

The 9th cavalry spent the winter 1890 to 1891 guarding the Pine Ridge Reservation during the events of the Ghost Dance War and the Wounded Knee Massacre. In total only 23 Buffalo Soldiers received the Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars out of 416 medals awarded.

Although they were the principal frontline of defence along the expansive western front, the Buffalo Soldiers did not get the credit. Cavalry regiments were also used to remove "Sooners" (white settlers who occupied unassigned native land illegally) in the late 1880s and early 1890s.

The Buffalo Soldiers got their name from the very enemy they were fighting. It is said that the name came from the Red Indians who thought that the black soldiers were as brave and ferocious as the buffalo.

Some eight troops of the cavalry and one company of the infantry of the Buffalo Soldiers served in California's Sierra Nevada as the first black national park rangers. A lasting legacy of the soldiers as park rangers is the smokey Bear hat with its distinctive Montana peak (or pinch) which can be seen by several Buffalo Soldiers in photographs dating as far back as 1899.

After most of the Indian Wars ended in the 1890s, the Buffalo Soldiers continued to serve and participated in the Spanish-American in Cuba, where fivemore Medals of Honor were won, the Philippine-American War (1899-1903) and the Mexican Expedition (1916).

For many black people, it was a dream come true to be enlisted in the army. Thirteen hard cash dollars every month, regular meals, a uniform; a chance to be somebody. But they had to endure systemic racism from the very people they fought so gallantly for. White civilians in the areas where the troops were stationed often reacted towards them with violence. Buffalo Soldiers were attacked during racial violence in Rio Grande City, Texas, in 1899, Brownsville, Texas, in 1906, and Houston, Texas, in 1917.

The living conditions in the camps for blacks were among the most unhygienic. They were treated as second-class units, commanded by racist white officers, and often denied adequate supplies, clothing and food.

In 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the military, effectively ending the existence of the Buffalo Soldiers, marking the first piece of legislation that went against the societal norms implemented through Jim Crow laws.

General John J. Pershing (after whom the Pershing tank is named) became an instructor at the prestigious military college, West Point where he joined the tactical staff. Known for his respect of black soldiers during his service in the field, the white cadets called him "Nigger Jack" deriding him for the high standards that he demanded.

The first black commissioned officer to lead the Buffalo Soldiers and the first black graduate of West Point was Henry O. Flipper in 1877. However, the narrative that black people could rise to the same ranks as their white counterparts was not to be entertained and Flipper was given a dishonourable discharge on trumped up charges.

The history of the Buffalo Soldiers has been shrouded in mystery and was never taught in history books. Their courage, bravery and tactical prowess was incomparable. I know people say that they were fighting for the very people who had enslaved them and helping them rob the indigenous Indians of their land but as Bob Marley says, they were fighting for survival.

It was not until 1992 that General Colin Powell, the first black chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, dedicated a memorial at Fort Leavenworth in honour of "all black soldiers who have served this nation over its long history".

Just another episode in the story of how America was built on the sweat and blood of black people, yet we still have George Floyd incidents.