The United States Congress passed a law in 1992 designating July 28 Buffalo Soldiers Day commemorating the 1866 founding of the first regular regiment of African American soldiers. Though 180,000 African Americans were soldiers in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, there was no provision allowing Blacks to serve in the peacetime army of the United States. Many of these men fought bravely and served their country with distinction.
In 1866, Congress passed legislation allowing African Americans to enlist in the country’s regular peacetime military. This allowed for the creation of the 9th and 10th cavalry units and later the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st infantry units composed of African American soldiers under the command of white officers. The infantry units were later combined to form the 24th and 25th infantry units. These soldiers received $13 per month plus room and board and clothing. With limited job opportunities after the war, many African Americans enlisted.
The Buffalo soldiers engaged in military campaigns on the Plains and across the Southwest against Native American tribes hostile to white settlers. In addition to protecting settlers, the Buffalo soldiers protected wagon trains, stagecoaches, the U.S. Mail, captured horse and cattle thieves, and built roads.
How the African American cavalry and infantry units came to be called the Buffalo soldiers is a matter of speculation because several similar stories exist about the name. Cheyenne and Comanche tribes are both credited with calling the soldiers “wild buffalo” because their dark curly hair looked similar to the hair on a buffalo. The buffalo is also a revered animal among Native Americans and the name was extended to the soldiers out of respect for the way they fought which was tough, but fair. The 10th Cavalry incorporated the figure of a buffalo on its coat of arms.
Henry O. Flipper was not the first Black cadet to attend West Point Military Academy, but he was the first Black to graduate from there in 1877. Flipper was also the first African American to command a unit of the Buffalo soldiers.
When the Indian Wars ended in the late 1890’s, the Buffalo soldiers went on to fight in Cuba in the 1898 Spanish American War. They participated in General John Pershing’s 1916-1917 pursuit of Mexican revolutionary Poncho Villa and served as some of the first park rangers in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Their park duties included confiscating firearms, stopping poachers, fighting wildfires, ending illegal grazing of livestock on federal lands, and stopping thefts of timber and other natural objects. They also oversaw the construction of roads, trails, and other infrastructure.
During World War II, Ft Huachuca was the home base of the Black 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions. Soldiers from the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments were moved into service-oriented units after their units were disbanded. The 92nd Infantry Division, the "Buffalo Division", served in combat during the Italian campaign. The 93rd Infantry Division which included the 25th Infantry Regiment served in the Pacific theater.
In 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive order eliminating racial segregation and discrimination in the American armed forces. The last all-black infantry unit to serve in combat, the 24th Infantry, served in Korea and was disbanded in 1951. In December 1951, the last units of Buffalo soldiers were disbanded.
Mark Matthews, the nation’s oldest living Buffalo soldier, died at the age of 111 in Washington, D.C. in 2005. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Twenty-two Buffalo soldiers are Medal of Honor recipients. Monuments to the Buffalo Soldiers are in Kansas at Fort Leavenworth and Junction City. In July 1992, Colin Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was guest speaker for the unveiling of the Fort Leavenworth monument. The Buffalo Soldiers Museum is located in Houston, Texas.
Sources for this article: www.nationaldaycalendar.com