Buffalo Soldiers

Canyon at Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site.

February 2 – 15, 2019.

In a prior post, I wondered why a canyon in Texas would be named after a Florida Indian tribe. Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site was named after the Seminole, the only tribe never to surrender to the U.S. government. But this canyon is named for a specific group associated with the tribe — Black Seminoles who served here at Fort Clark.

In the late 1600s, slaves started fleeing South Carolina for Florida, which was loosely under Spanish control. There they developed a relationship with the Seminole Tribe. They became superior trackers. After the Civil War, they came west to help track bands of Native Americans who were denying settlers of European descent their “Manifest Destiny” to occupy the West.

The Black Seminoles were not the only African American servicemen. Many blacks joined the military in 1866. Six segregated regiments were created. These cavalry and infantry troops built western forts, strung telegraph wire, and provided protection for railroad crews and settlers. They quickly gained the respect of Native Americans. In deference to their tight curly hair and willingness to fight to the death they became known as Buffalo Soldiers.

In addition to Seminole Canyon, we’ve visited Fort Davis in Texas and Fort Verde in Arizona. Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at both of these forts in the 19th century. At Fort Verde, there was a Buffalo Soldier festival when we went. We also visited the Buffalo Soldier Museum in Houston, Texas. We’ve heard tales that were new to us. We thought we’d share them.

Our first story is about one-time Atlanta resident Henry Ossian Flipper. Flipper, who was born into slavery, chose to join four other black cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The Africans were universally despised and frozen out of social activities. In 1877 Flipper was the first to graduate, commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the 10th Cavalry, commanding Buffalo Soldiers. The hazing didn’t stop.

In 1881 Flipper was serving as quartermaster when a new Colonel assumed command. Flipper was immediately dismissed as quartermaster but “asked” to keep watch on the quartermaster’s safe. He was court-martialed after a shortage of funds was found. He was found innocent of the charge, but was then found guilty of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman”. He was dishonorably discharged.

He worked as a civil engineer, and eventually retired in Atlanta. He volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War, but his request was ignored. In 1976 the military reviewed his case and found the original sentence “unduly harsh and unjust”. He was Honorably Discharged, effective June 30th, 1882.

Family of a Black Seminole scout.
Red stars on the map show where Buffalo Soldiers were garrisoned.
Black Seminole scouts at Fort Clark.
Buffalo Soldier reenactor at Fort Verde State Historic Park in Arizona explains that the average cavalryman weighed 160 lbs. and carried about 200 lbs. of gear.
How to load a “cap and ball” Colt 45. The demonstrator says he can load six rounds into the revolver in about 30 minutes. Each chamber is loaded from the front with powder, ball and wadding. Then a percussion cap is carefully inserted into the back of each chamber. It was common for soldiers to carry up to four loaded guns because they took so long to reload.
Display of Buffalo Soldier gear.
Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper, first black graduate of West Point.
Enlisted men’s’ barracks at Ft. Davis National Historic Site.
Officers’ Quarters at Ft. Davis.
Foundation of the chapel and meeting hall at Ft. Davis. This is where Lt. Flipper’s court-martial was held.

Speaking of the Spanish-American War, remember Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill? Well, Teddy led the charge up nearby Kettle Hill. When he got to the top he saw that Buffalo Soldier Sgt. George Berry was planting the U.S. flag atop San Juan Hill. Roosevelt tried to join the action at San Juan but was ordered to go back and hold Kettle Hill.

Here’s what (then 1st lieutenant) “Black Jack,” Pershing said of the battle: “White regiments, black regiments, regulars and Rough Riders [i.e. volunteers], representing the young manhood of the North and the South, fought shoulder to shoulder, unmindful of race or color, unmindful of whether commanded by ex-Confederate or not, and mindful of only their common duty as Americans”.

Roosevelt was a bit of a glory hound. His publicist went to war with him. It was said that Teddy could never attend a wedding without wishing he were the bride or a funeral without wishing he was the corpse. So, while he initially praised the Buffalo Soldiers, it was clear that he wanted he and his Rough Riders to have credit for the victory. In a few short years, he even forgot they were praiseworthy, saying “Negro troops were shirkers in their duties and would only go so far as they were led by white officers”.

In 1906 Buffalo Soldiers were garrisoned in Fort Brown near Brownsville, Texas. Brownsville was like many western towns. It welcomed the support the Buffalo Soldiers provided but didn’t welcome the soldiers themselves. Shots were fired in town. A bartender was killed and a police officer wounded. The town decided that soldiers at Fort Brown were responsible.

There was an investigation, but no trial. Teddy Roosevelt (President now) had all 167 Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Brown discharged without honor, pensions, or the possibility of getting civil service jobs in the future. In 1972 the Army investigated and found the men innocent. President Nixon had them pardoned and awarded honorable discharges (without back pay).

The notion of white supremacy in the armed forces persisted through WWI and WWII. Buffalo Soldiers continued hoping that if they fought and died defending the country they would be treated as equals. They continued coming home to segregated public services. Finally, in 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 abolishing discrimination in the armed services based on race. Maybe the Buffalo Soldiers were correct. It’s easier to discriminate at a lunch counter than on the battlefield. The armed forces were ahead of the rest of the country in recognizing their rights.

Stylized detail from a beaded Mardi Gras suit at the Buffalo Soldier’s National Museum commemorating the relationship between Buffalo Soldiers and Native Americans. Here a pair mans a Gatling gun. Gatlings required a crew of six men. Custer didn’t bother to take any with him to Little Big Horn. But they provided effective cover for the charge up San Juan Hill.
In 1897 Lieutenant James Moss convinced his superiors to allow an experiment. He was sure that the Army could travel faster than marching and more economically than on horseback. His solution — bicycles! After some short excursions, he led Buffalo Soldiers for 40 days on a 1900 mile trek from Missoula, MT to St. Louis, MO. They rode 32 lb. bikes, and averaged 50 miles a day in extremely rough conditions. Sidelined by the onset of the Spanish-American War, pedaled bikes fell by the wayside. Later the Army did embrace motorcycle travel, though.
Today around 5,000 active and retired veterans and law enforcement members make up the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club. The club is a national service organization. Bikers from the club gave presentations at the festival we attended at Fort Verde State Park.
Female Buffalo biker tells the story of Cathy Williams.
Cathy Williams was born into slavery. At the end of the Civil War, she changed her name to William Cathay and enlisted as a Buffalo Soldier. She served almost two years of her three-year hitch before a doctor discovered she was a woman. She was honorably discharged. She applied for a pension in her mid-40s but was denied. She died soon afterward.
Also born a slave, Isaiah Mays was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1880 for valor during the Wham Paymaster Robbery. He was denied a pension, though, and died in the Arizona Territorial Insane Asylum at age 67.

That’s all of our stories for now. Quick, send a song title so I can get rid of my Bob Marley earworm:
Woe yoe yoe, woe woe yoe yoe
Woe yoe yeo yo, yo yo woe yo woe yo yoe

6 thoughts on “Buffalo Soldiers

  1. I guess now you’re on the trail of the Buffalo Soldiers! 🙂 Interesting stuff. I find it so awful that all those people were denied pensions after putting their time and work in. Life was extremely unfair for blacks back then. Yikes! Not that I didn’t know that, but it remains surprising and boils my blood, every time I hear, see, or learn more about it.

    1. And, thanks. Now I have that song in my head as well. “Buffalo Soldier…” The solution: read the name of your blog and that replaces it. 🙂

    2. The thing I hate is that most people don’t even know about this part of this country’s history. I had heard of the Buffalo Soldiers before but had no idea they were stationed in so many places and had no idea about their accomplishments. Of course, the way the were treated isn’t surprising – but I think that probably most people today don’t even know their contribution to this country and in this “enlightened” age that is truly shameful.

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