Buffalo Soldiers: In the Heart of America

Buffalo Soldiers: In the Heart of America

Saturday, February 1, 2014


Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment, shown here at Fort Keogh, Mont., in December 1890. Some are wearing robes made from buffalo hides.

When people remember the late Bob Marley, they don’t think of anything military. More than 30 years after his death, his smiling, dreadlocked visage still beams from countless T-shirts and posters. Savvy vendors often outline his famous face in the bright green, black and yellow hues that make up the flag of his native Jamaica. For many fans, Marley personifies Jamaica, and the first thing that comes to mind is certainly the driving reggae beat born and nurtured in the vibrant island nation. As we go about our daily routines, we often hear the infectious melodies of Marley’s greatest hits, such as “No Woman No Cry,” “Jammin’,” “Three Little Birds,” “Get Up, Stand Up” and “Is This Love?” One of rock legend Eric Clapton’s big smashes was a cover of Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” All these songs play regularly on the radio, the Internet, and in malls and elevators across our country. Bob Marley died in 1981, but like Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye and Jim Morrison, his musical influence remains very much alive.

Marley’s connection to the U.S. Army is stronger than you may know. It forms an interesting and worthy part of the soundtrack for Black History Month, which we celebrate across our posts, camps and stations throughout this month. One of the reggae superstar’s final favorites was recorded in 1980, just before his death (the cut was not released until 1983). Titled “Buffalo Soldier,” the haunting tune revolves around the rhythmic repetition of the lyric “Buffalo Soldier in the heart of America.” Though Jamaican, Marley found great resonance in the idea that former slaves and their children became superb troops for the U.S. Army on the frontier. Himself a military son, as his father served in the British Royal Marines, Marley told the tale as only he could. In so doing, he added more luster to the annals of six of America’s most famous fighting regiments.

The Buffalo Soldiers were among the best of the Army’s frontier Regulars. Impressed by the superb combat performance of the volunteers who made up the approximately 178,000 U.S. Colored Troops that served the Union cause in the Civil War of 1861–65, Congress authorized the formation of six Regular regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st Infantry. These regiments formed in 1866, and the four Infantry regiments were consolidated and reorganized to form the 24th and 25th Infantry in late 1869. Initially, the regiments were made up of white officers and sergeants. Eventually, blacks assumed leadership roles, mostly as NCOs, though some were commissioned. These regiments saw extended service in the long, hard campaigns against the Plains Indians.

Marley might be the only reggae singer to commemorate the Buffalo Soldiers, but he joined an already rich tradition. Popular images of “how the West was won,” including the story of the Buffalo Soldiers, tend to focus on the Cavalry. We certainly have seen this time after time in movies from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to Sergeant Rutledge (about a 9th Cavalry first sergeant) to Dances with Wolves. Long before Hollywood made a single film, the drama of “Horse Soldiers”—black and white—formed the narrative foundation of the gripping sketches and paintings of frontier artist Frederic Remington, the novels of soldier-author BG Charles King, and the romantic accounts of Elizabeth Custer, widow of the famous George Armstrong Custer of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. All three noted and praised the combat performance of Buffalo Soldier Cavalry troopers. Accordingly, when we refer to Buffalo Soldiers, the 9th and 10th Cavalry, like their white Cavalry brothers, benefit from a disproportionate share of the publicity, then and now.

We should keep in mind that on the desolate plains, mounted troopers had limits. Unlike lithe Indian ponies, big U.S. Cavalry horses needed grain fodder. Dry prairie grass didn’t suffice. “After the fourth day’s march of a mixed command, the horse does not march faster than the foot Soldier, and after the seventh day, the foot Soldier begins to outmarch the horse,” recounted COL William B. Hazen, an experienced commander. The 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments joked about their role as “walk-a-heaps.” They might not have gotten the glory, but in every essential campaign, black riflemen, too, served with distinction.

The Cheyenne gave the black troops their nickname, the one that fascinated Marley. The Indians honored them for being as tough and powerful as the noble North Amer-ican bison so revered by the Great Plains tribes. Buffalo Soldiers fought in almost every major Indian operation, including offensives against the Cheyenne, Sioux, Comanche and Apache. Twenty-three Buffalo Soldiers earned Medals of Honor, according to former DoD historian Frank N. Schubert. The Buffalo Soldier regiments consistently had the least straggling, the lowest desertion rate and the best discipline on the frontier. The irascible GEN William T. Sherman, notably stingy with praise, declared in 1874: “They are good troops, they make first rate sentinels, are faithful to their trust, and are as brave as the occasion calls for.” By any measure, even among the many storied formations of that era, the Buffalo Soldiers were truly elite.

The Buffalo Soldiers added to that heritage in the Spanish-American War. As Marley sang, “troddin’ through San Juan in the arms of America,” black Infantry and Cavalry both served. On July 1, 1898, riflemen of the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments joined the advance that seized the Spanish blockhouses at El Caney. The same day, when COL (later President) Theodore Roosevelt led his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill, the 10th Cavalry on his flank got there first. A handful of black soldiers earned Medals of Honor in the brief Cuban campaign.

Despite this hard-earned and well-known reputation for individual and collective courage and discipline, black men in uniform endured all too many discriminatory outrages. Black soldiers were good enough to keep their fellow citizens safe from renegade depredations but were not accepted in civil society between campaigns. In the former Confederate state of Texas, in particular, certain towns refused to allow black soldiers to stay in hotels, drink in saloons or eat in restaurants. Any interaction with white women, even the most polite conversation on the street, drew special ire from local sheriffs. Disturbances in Rio Grande City (1899), Brownsville (1906) and Houston (1917) followed a distressing pattern: provocations of off-duty soldiers, alcohol, fisticuffs, gunplay, planted evidence, then wholesale accusations of blacks in uniform. Attempting to curry favor with Texas politicians after the Brownsville fracas, President Theodore Roosevelt approved the dishonorable discharge of 167 men of the 25th Infantry Regiment, many of whom had fought alongside the chief executive in Cuba. Evidently, Jim Crow enlisted, too: He wasn’t welcome in the Buffalo Soldier ranks, but there he was, decade after decade.

Ignorance and bias outside the service persisted far too long. Inside the Army, however, the word got around. Good leaders sought duty with these veteran regiments. Among those who commanded Buffalo Soldiers were these luminaries: BG Benjamin Grierson, the commander portrayed by John Wayne in The Horse Soldiers; Ranald S. Mackenzie, a hard-bitten colonel who became one of the few brigadiers among the frontier Regulars; and a young lieutenant named John J. Pershing, who earned the nickname “Black Jack” and, later, leadership of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. LT Henry O. Flipper, 2LT John H. Alexander and COL Charles Young, the first three black West Pointers, all led Buffalo Soldiers. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the first black brigadier general, rose from the ranks as a Buffalo Soldier. GEN George S. Patton’s longtime enlisted aide, MSG William George Meeks, was also a veteran Buffalo Soldier. Patton’s respect for Meeks and the Buffalo Soldiers was long-standing. Army leadership placed a Cavalry detachment at the U.S. Military Academy in 1907. As a cadet, Patton learned horsemanship at West Point from 9th Cavalry troopers. By the general’s direction, the senior enlisted pallbearer at his funeral in 1945 was Meeks. Apropos of Marley’s words, Meeks stood for approximately 1.2 million black men and women who served in World War II. “Buffalo Soldier, win the war for America.” Indeed they had.

As well as duty in both world wars, the Buffalo Soldier regiments served in Korea, Vietnam and beyond. They have been fully integrated since the Korean War. Today, their ranks include men and women from every ethnic community that makes up America, but the heritage rings true. Three of these four regiments remain on active duty. The 9th Cavalry has squadrons in the 1st Cavalry Division. The 10th Cavalry furnishes squadrons in the 4th Infantry Division. The 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry serves with the 25th Infantry Division. Elements of all three Buffalo Soldier regiments served with distinction in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

When Marley sang of the Buffalo Soldiers, he saluted tough men who won the West. They stood tall under fire, and they stood strong against prejudice—“fighting on arrival, fighting for survival,” in Marley’s words. Their stirring deeds underscored the prediction of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on Earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.” In that struggle, and in many a battle, the Buffalo Soldiers proved to one and all that they belonged just where Marley put them—in the heart of America.