Who were the Buffalo Soldiers?

Co. I, 9th United States Volunteer Infantry fought in the Spanish-American War. Image Source: Library of Congress.

The “Buffalo Soldiers” were a group of African American soldiers who served in the United States Army following the Civil War. In 1866, Congress established six all-black regiments to help rebuild the country after the Civil War and to fight on the Western frontier during the “Indian Wars.” It was from one of those regiments — the 10th Cavalry — that the nickname Buffalo Soldier was born. They were the first African Americans allowed to serve in the military during peacetime and followed in the footsteps of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and others who fought in the Civil War.

1. The Buffalo Soldiers started in 1866

The Buffalo Soldiers were established in 1866 when Congress reorganized the Regular Army. Following the Civil War, the original regiments of the United States Colored Troops were disbanded. However, Senator Benjamin Wade added a provision to the Army Organization Act that provided for new African American regiments to replace the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and others. The bill was passed on passing on July 28, 1866, and allowed for six all-black cavalry and infantry regiments. These regiments were the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry. The soldiers who served in these regiments were primarily former slaves, as well as free African Americans who had been living in the North. 

Interesting Fact — The men who served in those regiments were the first African Americans allowed to serve in the United States Regular Army during peacetime.

Buffalo Soldiers, 25th Infantry, Fort Keough Montana
Buffalo Soldiers, 25th Infantry, Fort Keough Montana. Image Source: Library of Congress.

2. The name came from the Cheyenne

The Native American Indians living throughout the Great Plains who fought against those soldiers referred to them as “buffalo soldiers” because of their dark, curly hair, which resembled the mane of the buffalo, and their fierceness on the battlefield. Eventually, the nickname — which is believed to have come from the Cheyenne — became synonymous with all of the African American cavalry and infantry regiments that saw action in the West.

Interesting Fact — The men in the regiments rarely used the name themselves. However, they did accept it. The symbol of the buffalo was eventually incorporated into the crest of the 10th Cavalry Regiment.

3. The Buffalo Soldiers fought for the United States in several wars and conflicts

  • Red River War in 1874, against the Comanche and Kiowa tribes in Texas and Oklahoma.
  • The Great Sioux War of 1876, against the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes in Montana and the Dakotas.
  • The Nez Perce War in 1877, against the Nez Perce tribe in Oregon and Idaho.
  • The Bannock War in 1878, against the Bannock tribe in Oregon and Idaho.
  • The White Mountain Campaign in 1881, against the Apache tribes in Arizona and New Mexico, as part of the Apache Wars.
  • During the Spanish-American War, the Buffalo Soldiers served in the Battle of San Juan Hill and the Siege of Santiago in Cuba.
  • During the Philippine-American War, the Buffalo Soldiers fought against the Philippine Insurrection, participating in several notable engagements such as the Battle of Bud Dajo, Battle of Bud Bagsak, Battle of Mount Silay, and Battle of Pulang Lupa.

Interesting Fact — The Buffalo Soldiers earned 19 Medals of Honor from 1866 through the Spanish-American War. Among the recipients were former slaves, including Moses Williams, Augustus Walley, Henry Johnson, Isaiah Mays, Brent Woods, and Thomas Boyne.

4. Henry O. Flipper was the first African American to graduate from West Point

One of the most famous Buffalo Soldiers was Henry Ossian Flipper. In 1877, he became the first African American to graduate from West Point Military Academy. After he graduated, he was assigned to the 10th Cavalry, where he served as a 2nd lieutenant. Flipper rose to the rank of captain. Unfortunately, Flipper, like many of his fellow Buffalo Soldiers, faced discrimination and racism. He was accused of embezzlement in 1881, court-martialed, and found guilty. He was dismissed from the Army. Although he was pardoned by President Grover Cleveland in 1894, he was not reinstated to the Army. After his death in 1940, his family continued to work to have his reputation restored. They finally succeeded in 1999 when Flipper was granted a posthumous honorable discharge by the U.S. Army.

Interesting Fact — Flipper was the first African American to be commissioned in any branch of the U.S. military and was the first African American officer to command African American Soldiers when he assumed command of Troop A, 10th Calvary Regiment, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Henry O Flipper, Buffalo Soldier
Henry Ossian Flipper, circa 1877. Image Source: Wikipedia.

5. The Buffalo Soldiers were caretakers of the national parks

The Buffalo Soldiers were not only soldiers but also caretakers of the nation’s parks. From 1891 and 1913, the United States Army served as the administrator of Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park. The Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco during the winter months and then served in the Sierra Nevada Region during the summer months. While in the parks, their duties included fighting wildfires, apprehending poachers, stopping ranchers from illegally grazing their livestock on federal lands, and constructing infrastructure such as roads, and trails. 

Interesting Fact — They were often the first Americans to explore and map remote areas of the parks.

NOTE: The Buffalo Soldier regiments continued to serve in the military until it was desegregated by President Harry S. Truman on July 26, 1948.