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Who Were The Buffalo Soldiers? 5 Things to Know

1. Who Were The Buffalo Soldiers?
The Buffalo Soldiers were a part of Army units created from legislation passed in 1866 not long after the end of the Civil War. The U.S. Congress enacted the Army Reorganization Act, and the law increased the size of the U.S. Army, but also created six all-black regiments that could serve during peacetime.

In addition to helping rebuild the nation after the Civil War, these regiments were mostly assigned to duty on the frontier. They helped protect settlers who were part of the nation’s westward expansion and they assisted in the establishment of national infrastructure, but they were also responsible for safeguarding newly protected federal lands that would go on to become the nation’s first national parks.

To answer the question ‘who were the Buffalo Soldiers?’ it is important to understand where their name came from. Sources vary, but some historians believe that the Buffalo Soldiers got their name from Native Americans who fought against the regiments on the western plains. The tribes said that the African American soldiers fought fiercely against them like a buffalo that was being hunted. Other researchers have stated that the Native Americans believed the hair and skin color of the African American soldiers resembled that of the buffalo. The name was revered, in either case, by the Buffalo Soldiers since the buffalo was a sacred animal in the Native American culture.

2. Who Were The Buffalo Soldiers In The Early Days?
One of the most well-known Buffalo Soldiers was Henry O. Flipper who was the first African American to graduate from West Point in 1877. He was commissioned a second lieutenant into the cavalry. He was the first non-white officer to lead Buffalo Soldiers when he joined the 10th Cavalry.

Unfortunately, due to racial issues of the time, Flipper, according to historians, was set up for a crime by saboteurs and eventually found guilty in a court martial, accused of conduct unbecoming and embezzling funds. He was discharged and he would spend the rest of his life trying to clear his name. President Bill Clinton eventually pardoned Flipper and today there is an award presented to West Point cadets who show perseverance during challenging times.

The question ‘who were the Buffalo Soldiers” cannot be answered without inclusion of Cathay Williams. Williams enlisted with the Buffalo Soldiers using the name William Cathay. She pretended to be male in order to serve, but her secret was discovered when she became ill and sought medical care, and doctors discovered she was a female after examination. She was eventually discharged from the U.S. Army, but she became the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. Army.

Similarly, the question ‘who were the Buffalo Soldiers” again, cannot be answered without mentioning Charles Young, who was the third African American graduate of West Point. He rose to prominence as a Buffalo Soldier and went on to become the first national park superintendent. He was also the first African American to reach the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army. It’s important to note that the Buffalo Soldiers served as stewards of the first national parks, protecting the lands from poaching, illegal logging, wildfires, and illicit cattle grazing. In addition, the Buffalo Soldiers built trails, roads, and erected telegraph lines.

3. Who Were The Buffalo Soldiers During The 1900s?
The Buffalo Soldiers served in a variety of campaigns in the southwest and on the Great Plains; more than 175 engagements. They fought against Pancho Villa and several Buffalo Soldiers earned the Medal of Honor in the decades-long war against Native Americans.

As the nation moved into a new century, the Buffalo Soldiers continued their brave service to the nation. They fought in the Spanish American War and in 1918 the 10th Cavalry fought in the Battle of Ambos Nogales where they helped cause the surrender of Mexican forces.

In World War I, segregation policies prevented many of the Buffalo Soldiers from serving in the American Expeditionary Force. The U.S. organized two divisions of segregated men, the 92nd Division and the 93rd Division. The 92nd used the name “Buffalo Soldiers” as their nickname and the 93rd would be known as the “Blue Helmets” because they donned the French helmets while serving with the French.

Much of the 92nd was relegated to logistics and support, behind the front lines and when both divisions arrived in France, General John Pershing sent the divisions to the French army to fight under French command. Some soldiers in the 92nd would see combat action in France and all of the 93rd would fight in combat. Corporal Freddie Stowers and Sergeant Henry Johnson both earned the Medal of Honor for their actions in 1918, but they did not receive the awards for many decades.

Near the onset of World War II, the remaining all-black cavalry regiments were disbanded and many of the troopers were placed into service roles around the U.S. Army. Then in 1942, the 92nd Infantry Division was reactivated and placed into service. Numerous awards for bravery in combat were presented to members of the division. The Medal of Honor was earned by John R. Fox and Vernon J. Baker in Italy in 1944. Both men would not receive the medal until 1997.

4.  Who Were The Buffalo Soldiers At West Point?
Many are not aware that the Buffalo Soldiers were highly experienced in horsemanship. Serving in the cavalry made them experts in riding and in 1907 they started training West Point cadets in military riding and mounted drill. It was a role they filled at the academy for 40 years.

Other American colleges at the time might have been asking ‘who were the Buffalo Soldiers?’ because the horsemanship detachment of the Buffalo Soldiers also represented West Point in several athletic competitions, playing baseball and football, to name a few of the sports.

5. Who Were The Buffalo Soldiers In History?
A common misconception is that a soldier is only considered a Buffalo Soldiers if they were a part of the six original African American cavalry units founded in 1866. In reality, the Buffalo Soldiers got their start in 1866, but all-black Army units would exist until 1948 when President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order and ended military racial segregation. The remaining all-black Army units were dissolved in 1951.

Buffalo Soldiers as a term would be applied to any African American soldier who served in any of the all-black Army units with lineage to the original cavalry units founded in 1866. Eventually, the term would apply to African American soldiers who served in any of the all-black units.

Who were the Buffalo Soldiers? Brave, resilient, visionaries who fought for their right to serve, and then served their nation well.

Buffalo Soldiers Day: Celebrating Black History

The History Behind Buffalo Soldiers Day
The contributions of African Americans to the defense of the United States were overlooked for hundreds of years. In recent decades, American history has shifted and it has started to tell the story of the African American soldier not because the United States is rewriting its history, but because America is finally including the narratives of all Americans.

Over the years, we’ve learned about the bravery of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the African American U.S. Army unit that fought in the Civil War and secured their place in history by leading a failed, but extraordinarily valiant assault on Fort Wagner in 1863. We also know about the Tuskegee Airmen, the African American airmen of the U.S. Army Air Forces who flew in World War II and destroyed hundreds of enemy planes in Europe. And while we know about the Buffalo Soldiers, most of us are not really aware about the depths of their contributions to our country and our American culture.

Not long after the Civil War ended, and units like the 54th Massachusetts Regiment were disbanded, Congress passed the Army Reorganization Act in 1866 which doubled the size of the U.S. Army and added six all-African-American regiments to the military. More than 180,000 African Americans served, according to the U.S. Army. Three years later the six segregated regiments were consolidated into the 9th and 10th Calvary, and into the 24th and 25th Infantry. These units would become what we know today as the Buffalo Soldiers.

In their early years, the Buffalo Soldiers were responsible for supporting westward expansion of the United States. They protected settlers and helped build roads and national infrastructure. The Buffalo Soldiers also frequently clashed with Native Americans on the plains and it was during these skirmishes that the Buffalo Soldiers earned their nom de guerre and reputation. 

Historical sources differ, but some state that the African American soldiers were called the Buffalo Soldiers because the Cheyenne warriors who fought them considered them fierce in battle, much like a buffalo when it is being hunted. Other sources state that the Cheyenne tagged them as Buffalo Soldiers because they thought the soldiers’ hair was similar to the fur between the horns of the buffalo. Others believe they were called Buffalo Soldiers because their skin color resembled the color of buffaloes. Whatever the reason, the name stuck.

Buffalo Soldiers and National Parks
The first National Park, Yellowstone, was created in 1872, but by the 1890s, three national parks existed and needed protection from illicit logging, cattle grazing, fires, and hunting. The U.S. Army was tasked with the mission to protect the national parks and the Buffalo Soldiers, assigned to the western United States, were given the task.

According to the National Park Service, the well-recognized park ranger hats of today were actually inspired by the hats worn by the Buffalo Soldiers. In addition, former leaders of the Buffalo Soldiers are recognized as some of the national parks’ first superintendents.

Needless to say, Buffalo Soldiers Day is recognized at national parks.

Buffalo Soldiers Day
Buffalo Soldiers Day is July 28 and marks the formation of the first Army regiments comprised of African American Soldiers. In 1992, Congress passed a law designating July 28 as Buffalo Soldiers Day.

Today, Buffalo Soldiers Day is recognized to acknowledge the contributions of the Buffalo Soldiers. Buffalo Soldiers Day has helped raise awareness of the brave men, and one woman, Cathay Williams, of the Buffalo Soldiers. Williams enlisted as William Cathay and served in the infantry until being discovered and later honorably discharged. She was the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. Army and she is the only woman to serve in uniform as a Buffalo Soldier.

Buffalo Soldiers Day has also given Americans the opportunity to learn about how the Buffalo Soldiers fought alongside of Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. Buffalo Soldiers Day has helped teach Americans that the Buffalo Soldiers served in the Philippines and fought against Pancho Villa during the Mexican Punitive Expedition.

Buffalo Soldiers Day Reflections
In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order eliminating racial segregation in the U.S. military and the last African American units were disbanded during the 1950s, but while they existed, Buffalo Soldiers earned Medals of Honor and participated in numerous campaigns. From their ranks emerged great military leaders including Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., Charles Young, and former slave Henry Flipper, the first African American to graduate from West Point.

It is fitting that in July 1992, the first time Buffalo Soldiers Day was commemorated, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell dedicated the National Buffalo Soldier Monument at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to honor the exceptional legacy of these great soldiers.