Following the Civil War, the 54th Massachusetts – the most renowned of the Black regiments during the conflict – was disbanded. With the nation restored and slavery abolished, the country looked ahead to many changes. Simultaneously, Westward expansion continued, as Americans followed the “Manifest Destiny” doctrine. While migration to the western territories began as early as the start of the 19th century, new inventions and discoveries provided further hope for a bright future in the west. The Willamette Valley at the end of the Oregon Trail, the California Gold Rush, Pike’s Peak Gold Rush, and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad all gave promise to the idea that a better life resided west of the Mississippi River. The west was not, however, a land that would be unsettled without consequence.
Organizing the Buffalo Soldiers
Many hazards posed a threat to western newcomers. Among these were Native tribes who were unwilling to allow European-Americans to settle their land. Beginning as early as 1811, US soldiers and Native warriors from various tribes engaged in a series of violent battles across the west. These fights stretched from Texas north to Montana, and west to the Pacific coast. Sometimes, brutal massacres occurred at the hands of Natives on US citizens. Occasionally, US troops would slaughter Native civilians (as seen at Sand Creek, Colorado and Wounded Knee, South Dakota).
Westward expansion, however, was bound to happen. American citizens needed to be protected on the frontier as they drove west. Many US soldiers were sent to the west; among them were the first Black cavalry regiments, following the Army Organization Act of 1866. According to the History Channel, the 9th Cavalry Regiment was organized in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The following year, they were sent to San Antonio, Texas. There, they would “secure the road from San Antonio to El Paso,” which meant keeping the Natives in check at the hands of the US government. With both Natives and African-Americans under oppression by the government, how horrible it must have been to see one of the first all-Black regiments in the west being used to keep another oppressed group “in check.” A short while later, the 10th Cavalry Regiment was organized at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. They would soon be sent to protect the Pacific Railroad, but not before fighting several battles with Natives.
“We Can, We Will”
According to the History Channel, roughly 20% of the soldiers who fought in the Indian Wars were Buffalo Soldiers. Simultaneous to protecting American citizens on the frontier, the Buffalo Soldiers, with their motto, “We Can, We Will,” also fought poachers. They also helped put out wildfires. In 1898, the Buffalo Soldiers, alongside a notable group of Western fighters commanded by Colonel Theodore Roosevelt – the Rough Riders – fought at the Battle of San Juan Hill. The most well-renowned battle of the Spanish-American War, the Buffalo Soldiers served under both Roosevelt and Lieutenant John J. Pershing, who would later command US forces during World War I.
With Black Americans often being denied various rights, their service during the Spanish-American War was controversial to many Whites. According to the National Park Service, however, Lieutenant Pershing stated, “They fought their way into the hearts of the American people.” Colonel Roosevelt said, “No one can tell whether it was the Rough Riders or the men of the 9th who came forward with the greater courage to offer their lives in service of their country.” Though Roosevelt praised them here, he later issued a horribly racist statement: “Negro troops were shirkers in their duties and would only go as far as they were led by White officers.” During Roosevelt’s presidency a few years later, a major occurrence of racial injustice would occur, involving both Roosevelt and the Buffalo Soldiers.
In 1906, an incident of major racial strife would break out in the south Texas border town of Brownsville. One night, a white bartender was killed and a white police officer wounded. Almost immediately, the townspeople accused the Buffalo Soldiers, who were segregated at Fort Brown of the attacks. The soldiers, who maintained their innocence, refused to speak up on behalf of a crime they did not commit. Following an investigation by the US Army Inspector General, President Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 members of the Buffalo Soldiers on a “conspiracy of silence.” Though a few of them were later re-enlisted, most of them were no longer eligible for pensions, nor could they hold another federal civil service job. In the 1970s, another inspection was conducted into the matter. President Richard Nixon pardoned the Buffalo Soldiers. Nearly 70 years later, their names were finally cleared.
Remembering Our Heroic Black Soldiers
An unfortunate theme occurs in our nation’s history. This theme is one of Black Americans fighting and dying for their country, only to be shunned and terrorized at the hands of the public. In 1948, President Harry Truman signed the bill that desegregated the military. By the mid-1960s, all forms of segregation and racial discrimination were officially declared unconstitutional. How unfortunate it was to see Black heroes – whether the 54th Massachusetts, the Buffalo Soldiers, the Harlem Hellfighters, the Tuskegee Airmen, or any Black soldier or civilian – be mistreated because of the color of their skin.
The “Black Heroes” series was a pleasure to write, and I hope everyone reading has learned about both the hardships and victories experienced by some of America’s most gallant soldiers.
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