We Can, We Will
Faced with the toughest assignments in the most remote locales, the Buffalo Soldiers knew how to get the job done.
By Jennifer Logan
The year was 1891. A young private shivered in the bitter cold of his tent, thankful for the warmth of his buffalo robe and the meager shelter the canvas provided against the blizzard-force winds and the snow piling up outside. He and soldiers from four other units of the 9th Cavalry had been stationed in the South Dakota Badlands since November to guard the Sioux reservations after the incident at Wounded Knee served a disastrous end to the Ghost Dance phenomenon (a short-lived religious movement that promised a new beginning free from suffering for all its Native American followers). One of his fellow troopers, Private W.H. Prather, had written a poem about the battle that had become quite popular among all the soldiers. Prather recited some lines to a new poem he was composing about their current assignment. “The rest have gone home, To meet the blizzard’s wintry blast. The Ninth, the willing Ninth, Is camped here till the last,” he wrote. “We were the first to come, Will be the last to leave. Why are we compelled to stay, Why this reward receive? In warm barracks, Our recent comrades take their ease, While we poor devils, And the Sioux, are left to freeze.”
Prather belonged to a remarkable group of men who lived on the outer limits of the western frontier almost a century and a half ago. Their courage, resilience and integrity are now the stuff of legend. Over time, they crossed hundreds of miles of rugged wilderness, creating infrastructure for commerce and keeping law and order on the frontier. They built forts, laid roads and telegraph lines, explored arid landscapes to map precious water sources, and protected travelers and settlers from outlaws’ thievery and the fury of displaced Native Americans.
Back then, these men were officially known as the 9th and 10th Regiments of Cavalry and 24th and 25th Regiments of Infantry, United States Army. Today, we know them as the “Buffalo Soldiers,” the name bestowed upon them as early as 1872, if not before, by Plains Indians, presumably in tribute to their tenacity and courage in battle. Men came from throughout the southern and Midwestern United States to enlist and served from Texas north to the Dakotas, and from the Indian Territory of Oklahoma west to Idaho and all states in between. So pervasive was their presence throughout the western United States that no story about the Wild West would be complete without acknowledging their singular legacy.
Black soldiers were not unheard of by any means when the Army was reorganized in 1866 to authorize six regiments (later consolidated into four) of black enlisted men. Thousands of African-Americans had fought in all major American conflicts, from the Revolutionary War onward. Before 1866, most African-Americans who fought for freedom alongside their white counterparts remained enslaved after war’s end. With their freedom and their service officially recognized after the Civil War, former slaves sought to make better lives for themselves by joining the Army to fight the Indian Wars. The men who became known as the Buffalo Soldiers recognized that they were not merely soldiers. Rather, they were vanguards of a new order and, as revealed in military records from the earliest days of the Indian Wars period until desegregation of the armed forces became final in the early 1950s, were highly motivated to succeed. Their exemplary conduct in service is a matter of record. Twenty-three African-Americans received the Medal of Honor for service in the Indian Wars and Spanish-American War — more than any other unit in the Army at that time.
For the most part, the public, and many military personnel, reacted to Congress’ decision to officially include blacks in the military with either amused disdain or outright hostility. In spite of the Civil War legacy of African-Americans as literally die-hard soldiers (southern blacks conscripted to fight in the war died by the thousands fighting for the men who enslaved them and thousands of northern freedmen died fighting to abolish the institution of slavery), many people at the time thought that black men did not have the spirit or the intellect to make good soldiers.
Those who fought with the black cavalry and infantry units realized those misgivings were baseless. The daring exploits of the 9th and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry fire the imagination. The regiments were involved in all the decisive engagements of the Indian Wars period, like the campaign against Apache leader Victorio along the Texas border, and the Ghost Dance Campaign in South Dakota. Pictures of daring, fortitude and skill are painted in the private letters and official reports of those most closely associated with them. In 1873, Francis M.A. Roe, an officer’s wife living at Camp Supply, Indian Territory, provides the earliest documented use of the term “Buffalo Soldier,” saying, “These ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ are active, intelligent, and resolute men; are perfectly willing to fight the Indians, whenever they may be called upon to do so, and appear to me to be rather superior to the average of white men recruited in time of peace.” Lt. Powhattan H. Clarke, who served with the 10th Cavalry in Arizona, swore that, “There is not a troop in the U.S. Army that I would trust my life to as quickly as this K troop of ours.” When he was ambushed en route to his destination in 1889, a U.S. Army paymaster later remarked, “I never witnessed better courage or better fighting than shown by these colored soldiers.”
Battle, nevertheless, was a rare event in the life of a Buffalo Soldier. All regiments spent a great deal of their time in border patrol and scouting, and escorting mail and stagecoaches along roads such as the well-traveled San Antonio-El Paso route that weaved its way through the perilous deserts and mountains of west Texas most favored by outlaws and warring Native Americans. They constructed buildings at various forts. Mazique Sanco, who was stationed in Texas with the 10th Cavalry at Fort Concho in the 1880s, recalled hauling lumber all the way from San Antonio to help finish the buildings at the fort. William Davis, with Company G of the 24th Infantry sent to Fort Stockton, Texas remembered that, “all we did was build adobe houses.” One of the greatest achievements of the Buffalo Soldiers in Texas was 92 miles of telegraph line erected by the 25th Infantry while stationed at Fort Davis. The line connected the fort to Eagle Springs, near present-day Sierra Blanca, Texas, and was a vital communication link during the Victorio Campaign.
Assigned to the most remote posts on the frontier to minimize the potential racial tension that might arise from close proximity to white and Hispanic-dominated settlements, the Buffalo Soldiers were faced with far more arduous and thankless orders than white regiments. Their officers recognized the extra burden the African-American units had to bear, and sympathized. Colonel George Andrews, officer for the 25th Infantry stationed in Texas at Forts Davis, Stockton, Quitman and Bliss, described their situation to his superiors in an attempt to win them reassignment to a more favorable locale. “I do not hesitate to state that the duties devolved upon the Regiment, during this long stay in one locality, have been onerous in the extreme, more so than that of any other Infantry regiment serving in this Department,” he wrote in 1880. “The amount of labor performed by the companies of the Regiment, during the past year in building roads, is well-known to the Department Commander to have been Herculean … I have good reasons for believing that both officers and men are becoming discouraged and disheartened … In a word, the regiment as a whole feels that it is no longer a body of soldiers, but ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ ostracized and ignored by all.”
Most officers desired official recognition for the troops in appreciation for the circumstances they faced in the field. In 1872, General Augur remarked, “The labor and privations of troops in this Department are both severe. The cavalry particularly are constantly at work, and it is a kind of work too that disheartens, as there is very little to show for it. Yet their zeal is untiring, and if they do not always achieve success they always deserve it.” General Ord summarized a report on the activities of the 10th Cavalry by saying, “I trust that the services of the troops engaged will meet with that recognition which such earnest and zealous efforts in the line of duty deserve. They are entitled to more than commendation … I beg to invite attention to the long and severe services of the 10th Cavalry, in the field and at remote frontier stations, in this department.”
In addition to undesirable assignments and demanding field labor, African-American regiments were also the most poorly equipped in the Army. In fact, the outlaws and Native American fighters they were pitted against were always better armed and mounted than the Buffalo Soldiers. Former Buffalo Soldier William Branch commented on this disparity as he described the circumstances of a battle against the Cheyenne at Fort Sill, “We started the attack. The Cheyenne had Winchesters and rifles and repeaters from the government … We had the old-fashioned muzzleloaders.” After a vicious fight, “we disarmed the Cheyennes we captured, and turned their guns in to the regiment.” Madison Bruin, who was part of the 10th Cavalry stationed in Texas in the 1870s, recalled “I had three horses in the cavalry. The first one played out, the next one was shot down on campaign and one was condemned.”
Yet in spite of these challenges, African-American regiments boasted the fewest desertions and disciplinary measures in the entire Army. What Major A.P. Morrow said of the 9th Cavalry in 1870 was echoed by many other officers in the following decades: “I cannot speak too highly of the conduct of the officers and men under my command, always cheerful and ready, braving the severest hardships … without a murmur. The Negro troops … [know] no fear and [are] capable of great endurance.” Chaplains, officers and others connected with military life recognized that what drove the African-American soldiers to prove themselves to such epic proportions was their desire not only to overcome the negative stereotypes and racial discrimination that faced them everywhere, but to help lift up all blacks by their example. Perhaps none appreciated their drive better than the chaplains who provided moral support and basic education to the black troopers, most of whom entered service illiterate. Chaplain George C. Mullins, stationed with the 25th Infantry at Fort Davis, in 1877, understood why African-American soldiers, above all others, strove for excellence at every opportunity. “The ambition to be all that soldiers should be is not confined to a few of these sons of an unfortunate race,” he stated poignantly. “They are possessed of the notion that the colored people of the whole country are affected by their conduct in the Army.”
Behind the extraordinary record of the Buffalo Soldiers was a collective will, a strong drive to achieve the higher purpose of equal opportunity for all African-Americans. Although seldom rewarded for their efforts during their time, the powerful legacy they created gives strength to our national myth-ology and is memorialized in books, movies, music, art, and countless living history organizations throughout the nation. Their story is both instructional and inspirational. Perhaps the theme of the Buffalo Soldiers’ moving story is best summarized by the humble and resolute motto of the 9th Cavalry: “We Can, We Will.”
For more information about the Buffalo Soldiers and the upcoming Heritage Trail kick-off, visit <Community Education Outreach Programs - Texas Buffalo Soldiers>.