African-Americans have fought in military conflicts since colonial days. However, the Buffalo Soldiers, comprised of former slaves, freemen and Black Civil War soldiers, were the first to serve during peacetime.
Once the Westward movement had begun, prominent among those blazing treacherous trails of the Wild West were the Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. Army. These African-Americans were charged with and responsible for escorting settlers, cattle herds, and railroad crews. The 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments also conducted campaigns against American Indian tribes on a western frontier that extended from Montana in the Northwest to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in the Southwest. Throughout the era of the Indian Wars, approximately twenty percent of the U.S. Cavalry troopers were Black, and they fought over 177 engagements. The combat prowess, bravery, tenaciousness, and looks on the battlefield, inspired the Indians to call them "Buffalo Soldiers." Many Indians believe the name symbolized the Native American's respect for the Buffalo Soldiers' bravery and valor. Buffalo Soldiers, down through the years, have worn the name with pride.
African-Americans have fought with distinction in all of this country's military engagements. However, some of their most notable contributions and sacrifices came during the Civil War. During that conflict, more than 180,000 African-Americans wore the Union Army blue. Another 30,000 served in the Navy, and 200,000 served as workers on labor, engineering, hospital and other military support projects. More than 33,000 of these gallant soldiers gave their lives for the sake of freedom and their country.
Shortly after the Civil War, Congress authorized the formation of the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry Regiments: Six all Black peacetime units. Later the four infantry regiments were merged into the 24th and 25th Infantries.
In countless skirmishes and firefights, the troopers won the respect of the Plains warriors who named "Buffalo Soldiers." African-Americans accepted the badge of honor and wore it proudly.
At least 18 Medals of Honor were presented to Buffalo Soldiers during the Western Campaigns. Similarly, 23 African-Americans received the nation's highest military award during the Civil War.
As a Buffalo Soldier, Sergeant Henry Parker, and the U.S. army were a part of the Plains Indian's nightmare. As an American soldier, he served his country under the worst of conditions, showing the courage and bravery that has been the tradition of all fighting men, no matter their cause, no matter their sacrifice. It should be noted, that Regimental returns show that the Buffalo Soldiers were not involved in Indian massacres, though they were camped near the sites of two incidents and assisted those who survived. It is this author's stated belief, that the Buffalo Soldiers did not mistreat Native-Americans and were not responsible for their removal from reservations.
After escaping from his slavemaster in Apton Valley, Kentucky, great-grandfather joined the 101st Regiment United States Colored Infantry, at 18 years of age. He served three years as a private in the Civil War. Action was seen at White's Ranch, Boyd's Station and Stevenson's Gap, and at Scottsborough and Larkinsville, Alabama.
Henry Parker enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry on May 18, 1867 in Memphis, Tennessee by Captain Davis for a period of five years. He was 21 years old and listed his occupation as a groom. His description included black eyes, black hair and a complexion listed as mulatto. Henry's height was recorded as 5'9 1/2". He was assigned to Company D of the Tenth U.S. Cavalry and was discharged on May 18, 1872 at Ft. Sill, Indian Territory * as a private. Fort Sill ca. 1827-1876.
Remarkably, he never reported for sick call during the first two years and four months of service.
On June 6, 1872, Henry Parker re-en1isted in the army at Fort Sill for another five years. His height, however, was now listed as 5' 11 1/2". He was again assigned to Company D of the Tenth U.S. Cavalry. When discharged at Fort Concho, Texas on June 6, 1877, Henry Parker was a sergeant, a member of the "Color Guard" with his character listed as "Excellent".
In every major war, throughout the history of the United States, from the American Revolution through the Indian Wars, Native-Americans and African-Americans have fought with and against each other. This scenario prevailed during the Civil War. Some tribes fought for the South, such as the Cherokees while others assisted the North like the Seminoles.
Slaves and the black soldiers, who couldn't read or write, had no idea of the historical deprivations and the frequent genocidal intent of the U.S. government toward Native Americans. Free blacks, whether they could read and write, generally had no access to first hand or second-hand unbiased information on this relationship. Most whites who had access often didn't really care about the situation. It was business as usual in the name of "Manifest Destiny". Most Americans viewed the Indians as incorrigible and non-reformable savages. Those closest to the warring factions or who were threaten by it, naturally wanted government protection at any cost.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, the government was fighting the Indians in the west. It withdrew most of its men and resources from the Indian wars, to concentrate on ending the rebellion. At the end of the Civil War, 186,000 black soldiers had participated in the war, with 38,000 killed in action. Southerners and eastern populations did not want to see armed Negro soldiers near or in their communities. They were also afraid of the labor market being flooded with a new source of labor. General employment opportunities in these communities was not available to blacks, so many African-Americans took a long hard look at military service which offered shelter, education, steady pay, medical attention and a pension. Some decided it was much better than frequent civilian unemployment. Of course in some quarters, it was thought this is an good way of getting rid of two problems at the same time.
When Congress reorganized the peacetime regular army in the summer of 1866, it had taken the above situation into account. It also recognized the military merits of black soldiers by authorizing two segregated regiments of black cavalry, the Ninth United States Cavalry and the Tenth United States Cavalry and the 24th, 25th , 38th , 39th, 40th and 41st Infantry Regiments. Orders were given to transfer the troops to the western war arena, where they would join the army's fight with the Indians. In 1869, one year after the discharge of Cathay Williams, the female Buffalo Soldier in disguise, the black infantry regiments were consolidated into two units, the Twenty-fourth United States Infantry and the Twenty-fifth United States Infantry. All of the black regiments were commanded by white officers at that time.
Black soldiers who fought in the Indian Wars, fought their opponents as they have done throughout this country's military history. They fought to win and to give their lives if necessary, for their personal beliefs. They wanted to gain the respect and equality they never saw as slaves and rarely received as freedmen. So, they continued on as soldiers. They were sadly mistaken in thinking they would gain these components of freedom, in a country built in-part by their enslavement and which still held deep racial and cultural prejudices.
As soon as these soldiers were relocated into their hostile environments, they were engaged in life and death struggles. They were under fire. Friends were killed and their oath to keep the peace, put to the test by Indians, settlers and those outside the law. Though they guarded railroads and telegraph lines, stagecoaches, arms shipments, towns, homesteads, whites and Indians, they never knew when they would be ambushed by foes or the very townspeople they were protecting! Not infrequently, just by entering a town or saloon, shoot-outs occurred. There was also the occasional sniper, waiting for a kill. Those that murdered troopers were never punished for their crimes, even when there were witnesses. The troopers always responded with a deadly intent of their own. When investigated by the military, those troopers found guilty were punished accordingly, but not always justly.
After arriving at their posts the alternatives to soldiering were: desert to all white communities, where they were regarded with hateful scorn and risk imprisonment. Death and torture at the hands of the Indians or possible death by exposure to the killing heat and freezing cold. Though the Buffalo Soldiers did their duty in carrying out the government's version of law and order on the frontier west, many influential blacks such as Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce, continually spoke out for the Indians and against the United States treaty making and treaty breaking policies.
Segregation in the Military
The army supported segregation. It maintained separate facilities where possible. The Buffalo Soldiers built many forts whose facilities at times they couldn't use. At Fort Concho for example, there were separate rooms for educational purposes, etc. The necessities of military life forced white and black troops together, breaking down long standing prejudices. Lieutenant Charles J. Crane always believed in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon and resented his appoint to the Twenty-third Infantry. But in his autobiography he wrote he was happy with the assignment.
So brave and courageous were these men that their legendary Indian foes called them Buffalo Soldiers. Their commanding officer, Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson of Civil War fame, said the name was given because the Indians respected a brave and powerful adversary, which relates directly to their much revered buffalo. Others say it was due to the similarity of the soldier's hair to that of the hair surrounding the buffalo's head.
The Tenth had the lowest desertion rate in the army, though their army posts were often in the worst country in the west. Official reports, show these soldiers were frequently subjected to the harshest of discipline, racist officers, and poor food, equipment and shelter. White regiments were supplied with silk-embroidered banners. The Tenth's regimental standard had to be homemade and was tattered and worn. The government did not send them a regulation flag until many, many years later. In spite of these deprivations, the morale of these soldiers remained high. Some white commanding officers were proud to lead these men and publicly expressed their feelings. In the end 20 black soldiers of the Ninth and Tenth Companies won the Medal of Honor, the highest award this country gives for the most outstanding performance under enemy fire.
Buffalo Soldiers originally were members of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army, formed on September 22, 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The nickname was given to the "Negro Cavalry" by the Native American tribes they fought; the term eventually became synonymous with all of the African-American regiments formed in 1866:
Although several African-American regiments were raised during the Civil War to fight alongside the Union Army (including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the many United States Colored Troops Regiments), the "Buffalo Soldiers" were established by Congress as the first peacetime all-black regiments in the regular U.S. Army.
On September 6, 2005, Mark Matthews, who was the oldest living Buffalo Soldier, died at the age of 111. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.