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SIX: Buffalo Soldiers and the Defense of the West
Approximately twenty five thousand African
American men served in four all-black regiments, the Ninth and
Tenth Cavalry and the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth Infantry,
between 1866 and 1917. This chapter explores the varied experiences
of those "buffalo soldiers" in the West. In The 9th
and 19th Cavalry: First Years, First Officers, and First Recruits,
Ninth Cavalry, 1866, we see the initial issues and challenges
involved in the formation of these regiments. Buffalo Soldiers
at Fort Davis, Army Life in Nebraska: The Fort Robinson YMCA,
African American Families on the Military Frontier, and The
24th Infantry in Salt Lake City put forward various descriptions
of life at military outposts in the region. Black Soldiers and
the Opening of the Llano Estacado, Regimental Bands in New Mexico
Territory, and Black Troops and White Strikers in Idaho suggests
the significance of their presence in the West beyond the usually
advanced "pacification of Indians" role. Conversely,
that role is highlighted in Black Soldiers Rescue a New Mexico
Town. The ambivalent, contradictory relations between blacks
and Indians is suggested in the vignettes Isaiah Dorman at the
Little Big Horn, 1876 and Private W.A. Prather's Poem, while
the story of the first black officer to serve in the West is
profiled in The Henry O. Flipper Saga. In A Black Officer Speaks
at Stanford we get an opportunity to hear the attitude of one
African American soldier toward the major social issue for America's
black citizenry--the place of Booker T. Washington's philosophy
of accommodation in the campaign for the abolition of second-class
citizenship. Soldier-civilian conflicts are highlighted in The
Sturgis Episode, 1885 and The Houston Mutiny and Race Riot,
1917. Finally, The Fight at Carrizal depicts the last major
military engagement of the buffalo soldiers, ironically not
in the western United States but in Northern Mexico.
Terms for Week Six:
- Isaiah Dorman
- Edward Hatch
- Benjamin Grierson
- Fort Davis
- Emanuel Stance
- Llano Estacado
- Henry O. Flipper
- Charles Young
- Houston Mutiny
- Brownsville Affray
- Suggs, Wyoming
- Fort Robinson YMCA
- Mrs. James Brown
- Strugis, Dakota Territory
- Tularosa, New Mexico
- The Battle of Carrizal
- Burke, Idaho
THE NINTH AND TENTH CAVALRY: FIRST YEARS,
The following vignette profiles Edward Hatch
and Benjamin Grierson, the first commanding officers of the
Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments.
Early in August, 1866, General Grant telegraphed
General Philip Sheridan, commanding the Division of the Gulf,
and General William T. Sherman, commanding the Division of the
Missouri, to organize a regiment of Negro cavalry in their respective
divisions. The new regiments were designated as the Ninth and
Tenth United States Cavalry, and Grant recommended two officers
with brilliant Civil War records to command them--Colonel Edward
Hatch of Iowa and Colonel Benjamin Grierson of Illinois.
Edward Hatch, a...native of Maine, had gone
early to sea and then engaged in the lumber business in Pennsylvania.
In 1855 he moved to Iowa and was residing there when the war
came. He received appointment as a captain in the Second Iowa
Cavalry in August, 1861, and in less than a year was its colonel.
He took part in Grierson's famous raid of 1863, received citations
for gallantry and meritorious service at the battles of Franklin
and Nashville, and closed out the war as brevet major general
of volunteers. Able, decisive, ambitious, and personable, he
received Grant's unqualified endorsement to lead the Ninth Cavalry.
Benjamin Grierson was a most unlikely candidate
for a distinguished career as a cavalryman. Since the age of
eight, when a pony kicked him in the face and left a cheek scarred
permanently, he had been skittish of horses. A small-town music
teacher and an ardent admirer of Abraham Lincoln, he volunteered
immediately when the war came and sought a commission in the
infantry. But fate decreed otherwise and when his appointment
came through, he found himself a major in the Sixth Illinois
Cavalry. Despite an almost complete lack of military experience
and his dislike of horses, Grierson was soon promoted to colonel
and was selected by General Grant in April, 1863 to lead three
regiments of cavalry in a diversionary raid through Mississippi.
Grierson's six-hundred-mile, sixteen-day raid
through the Confederate heartland contributed materially to
Grants successful operations around Vicksburg, let the latter
to describe the raid as the most brilliant expedition of the
war, and made the easygoing, tolerant Grierson a national figure.
By the time of Appomattox he was a brevet major general of volunteers
and had the confidence of both Grant and Sherman. Mustered out
of the service in April, 1866, he gave brief thought to a business
career and then accepted the proffered command of the Tenth
Hatch and Grierson wasted no time in...organizing
their regiments. The former established headquarters at Greenville,
Louisiana, and the latter at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. From
the first, however, difficulty was encountered in procuring
experienced officers, for many of them refused to serve with
Negro troops. More than a few agreed with Brevet Major General
Eugene A. Carr that Negroes simply would not make good soldiers,
and took a lower rank in order to serve with a white regiment.
The dashing "boy general," George A. Custer, refused
a lieutenant colonelcy with the Ninth and wrangled the same
rank in the newly formed Seventh Cavalry--a decision that was
probably a stroke of good fortune for the Ninth and launched
Custer on the road to the Little Big Horn and a dubious niche
in history ten years later...
Source: William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers:
A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West (Norman, 1967),
FIRST RECRUITS, NINTH CAVALRY, 1866
The initial difficulties of recruiting a regiment
of soldiers from a recently enslaved population are profiled
in the vignette below. This account describes the first soldiers
who joined the Ninth Cavalry in Louisiana and the only mutiny
to occur in the regiment, an uprising in San Antonio in 1867.
Army recruiters, with great haste and little
judgment, concentrated their efforts in New Orleans and vicinity
and had little difficulty in enlisting the necessary numbers,
for in most instances they seemed to have winked at physical
qualifications. Many young Negroes were eager to enlist because
the army afforded an opportunity for social and economic betterment
difficult to achieve in a society all but closed to them. Thirteen
dollars a month was meager pay, but it was more than most could
expect to earn as civilians, and when food, clothing, and shelter
were added, a better life seem assured.
For whatever reason they enlisted in droves.
Nor were all of them from Louisiana. Kentucky contributed, among
others, farmer George Gray, doomed to die of tetanus in the
post hospital at Fort Clark, Texas, and laborer William Sharpe,
with an Indian arrow awaiting him on the rocky banks of the
Pecos River. Little Emanuel Stance, nineteen years old and scarcely
five fee tall, was a native of Charleston, South Carolina, with
a Medal of Honor in his future. From Virginia came Washington
Wyatt who would die at the hands of persons unknown in Austin,
Texas, before he reached his twenty-first birthday. And so they
came, farmers, teamsters, dyers, cooks, bakers, painters, waiters
and cigar makers, to enlist for five years in the Ninth Regiment
of Cavalry, USA.
But they came too quickly and officers were
far too few to train, discipline, and educate so many green
recruits or vent to keep them busy at routine tasks. The men
were nearly all illiterate and filled with superstition. The
wildest rumor found ready ears and provoked constant unrest,
while the enforced idleness led to gambling, drinking, quarreling,
and fighting. [Prostitutes] swarmed about the camp along with
other undesirables. The cotton compresses in which they were
quartered became overcrowded and along with rations, poorly
cooked over open fires, led to illness and disease. Cholera
struck in October and November, killing twenty-three men and
spreading fear among the rest. Desertions became frequent and
morale slid toward the vanishing point.
Despite the difficulties and shaky discipline,
Hatch managed to organize all twelve companies of the regiment
by February 1867, though only eleven officers had reported for
duty at that time. Rumors of impending service on the frontier
were circulating among the men, and officers noted that some
of their neophyte troopers were becoming surly and unruly. Rumor
became fact in March when Hatch received orders to transfer
the regiment to Texas. Two companies, L and M, were to take
station at Brownsville on the Rio Grande while the remaining
ten companies were to encamp near San Antonio and undergo further
Marching orders had come much too soon. Hatch
had little more than an ill-disciplined mob on his hands and
the stage was set for violence and tragedy. En route to San
Antonio mutiny flared in K company and was suppressed only with
great difficulty. When the city was reached...friction developed
quickly between troopers and citizens. Clashes with police became
an almost daily occurrence. Serious trouble was only a matter
of time, and it came on April 9 as too few officers trove to
control their men. Mutiny broke out in A, E., and K companies,
and before order was restored Lieutenant Fred Smith of K was
forced to shoot two of his troopers.
Hatch placed the blame for the tragic affair
on a shortage of officers, and Captain W.S. Abert, Sixth Cavalry,
assigned to investigate the mutiny, sustained him, but added
that many of the men were "too light, too you and have
weak constitutions." He might have added that among the
villains in the piece were careless or indifferent recruiters
who had enlisted far too may many who were unfit for military
Source: William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers:
A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West (Norman, 1967),
BUFFALO SOLDIERS AT FORT DAVIS, TEXAS
The following account is a description of
Fort Davis, Texas, [named in 1856 after Secretary of War Jefferson
Davis], a "typical" outpost for buffalo soldiers.
Until it was surrendered at the beginning
of the Civil War, the first Fort Davis was a humble-enough post,
appreciated by those stationed there only because of its agreeable
climate and the resultant good health of the troops. Confederate
troops occupied the Fort briefly in the Civil War. Then, abandoned
for five years to the Indians and the winds, the huts and sheds
were almost totally in ruins when the U.S. Army returned in
1867 to reestablish some authority in the wilderness. the post-war
troops, assisted by civilian craftsmen, began a complete reconstruction
of the post. By the time the fort was abandoned in 1891, the
abode and stone buildings comprised one of the largest and most
imposing of the Army's establishments in the Southwest.
Those first regulars to return in 1867 might
have caused a stir had there been anyone to witness their arrival.
They were Negroes... Between 1867 and 1885 all the regular colored
units were stationed at Fort Davis at one time or another. From
the post's records a picture of the Negro in combat against
the Indian emerges, a picture that enlarged a number of times
includes the history of the colored regiments and their accomplishments
from the Mexican border to Dakota Territory.
The first Negro regiments to arrive at the
ruins of Fort Davis were six companies (troops) of the Ninth
Cavalry under command of the regiment's lieutenant colonel,
Wesley Merritt... The troopers soon found that the days of the
Trans-Pecos were long, hot, and dry. Their arduous labor at
construction of barracks and stables was broken occasionally
by long patrols and futile chases. While these trips were welcomed
for the change of pace they offered, the men of the Ninth learned
the frustrations of Indian fighting. By the time the soldiers
learned of the latest raid and made ready for the chase, the
wily Comanches or Apaches usually had made good their escape.
Usually, too, the Indians kept clear of the routine patrols,
preferring a slash at some undefended wagon train. The boredom
felt by the troops was broken rarely by direct contact with
One of the most important contributions of
the Negro infantry at Fort Davis was road building, a duty they
thoroughly detested. In the twisting canyons that led to the
fort, they constructed rock-walled roadbeds that still stand,
now weed-covered monuments that testify to back-breaking labor
and a high proficiency. but picks and shovels were a long way
from the alluring stories of the recruiting sergeant. The regimental
history of the Twenty-fifth Infantry summed up it Texas years
as "a continuous series of building and repairing of military
posts, roads and telegraph lines; of escort and guard duty of
all descriptions; of marchings and counter-marchings from post
to post, and of scouting for Indians which resulted in a few
The forts themselves were not much to look
at, especially in the 1870s. Despite popular conceptions they
were rarely stockaded and Indians never attacked them. Most
enlisted barracks were often mere hovels in the early post-war
years. Congress resisted authorizing construction funds for
forts that seemed to be closing down every few years as Indian
warfare shifted from one area to another. The post surgeon walked
through the barracks at Fort Davis, which was better than most
forts, one night at ten o'clock and found the squad rooms almost
suffocating due to the crowded conditions... The food remained
very much the same throughout the Indian wars: beef and bacon,
potatoes, beans, fresh vegetables from the post garden, bread,
and sometimes fruit or jam made up a typical ration. The post
surgeon at Fort Davis noted that "colored troops consume
much more of their ration than white troops."...
The reputation that the Negro soldier earned
at Fort Davis and throughout the West would outlast the trying
time. Today, Fort Davis is National Historic Site. Its structures
and its museum tell the larger story of its history of regiments
of both colors. But in the colorful exhibits and in the mute
barracks, the memory of the Negro soldier emerges--a Remington
print, brass insignia of the Twenty-fourth Infantry, a clear
bugle call echoing from the cliffs, and, always, the legacy.
Source: Erwin N. Thompson, "The Negro
Soldiers on the Frontier: A Fort Davis Case Study," Journal
of the West 7:2 (April 1968):217-233.
BLACK SOLDIERS AND THE OPENING OF THE LLANO ESTACADO
In the following account historian Paul H.
Carlson describes the role of Lieutenant Colonel William R.
Shafter and the men of his command, the 24th Infantry in opening
the Llano Estacado or Staked Plains to settlement. The following
are accounts of his expeditions into the region in 1871 and
From the time the first white men reached
the region with Coronado in the sixteenth century until well
into the second half of the nineteenth century, the Great Plains
were referred to as the "Great American Desert." The
description was applied particularly to the Llano Estacado portion
of the Southern Plains which, it was commonly believed, would
be uninhabited for hundreds of year if, indeed, it would ever
be suitable for civilization.
Because it was void of timber, had only scattered
water holes, lacked adequate landmarks, and presented an almost
limitless "ocean" of waving grass, white men tended
to stay clear...and even Indians frequented the Staked Plains
only to hunt buffalo or to cross it... But it was [Colonel]
William R. Shafter who, with his black troops, provided most
of the reliable knowledge of the dreaded and barren Llano Estacado
and led the final assault against hostile Indians there...
 At the end of April  Shafter,
having been ordered to the trans-Pecos region, left with a small
escort for Fort Davis. Less than sixty days after assuming command
at the post, he with his diligent black troops, prompted by
a daring Comanche attack at Barrilla Springs resulting in the
theft of 44 horses and mules...[began] probing the untamed Llano
Estacado. With a command totaling eight-six officers and men,
Shafter and the hard-driving bluecoats turned a routine pursuit
of Indian horse thieves into a major exploration of the...southern
Staked Plains. For twenty-two days they followed Indian trails
which led through the torrid Sand Hill and onto the Llano Estacado
to a point southwest of present Hobbs, New Mexico, and thence
southwestward to the Pecos River. In al they covered some 417
grueling miles, suffering enroute from thirst, dust, sand, heat,
and other maladies of the region. During one stretch of seventy
miles they marched almost two days without water.
The immediate result of the scout proved revealing.
Shafter and his black troops discovered and destroyed an abandoned
Indian village... They captured about twenty horses and mules
and [an Indian woman] who informed them that the Comanches...Lipan
and Mescalero Apaches, long time enemies, had concluded a peace.
Lead, they found at the Indian camp, stamped with the trademark
of a St. Louis, Missouri firm, provided important evidence that
the Sand Hills was a place of barter for the Comancheros. Of
far more significance [was] the penetration into the Sand Hills
where it was generally believe that soldiers could not operate.
The expedition not only destroyed another Indian sanctuary,
but it brought back geographical knowledge necessary for future
* * *
 As the finale to the Red River War
Shafter with his black troops was to scout the Staked Plains...
The resulting expedition was the most thorough exploration of
that region to that time. For six months, June to December,
the Negro soldiers of his command criss-crossed the Llano Estacado
over a maze of trails, covering more than 2,500 miles... On
August 7, near present Lorenzo, Shafter with his men overtook
nine Comancheros, mounted, armed and with several pack mules.
Although the traders would say nothing as to the whereabouts
of Indians, Shafter took them into his service as guides. From
here he continued south...on the Yellowhouse stream within the
present city of Lubbock...heading into a region absolutely unknown
to Anglo and Negro Americans... Unquestionably this was a remarkable
scout., The command...fulfilled its orders to sweep the Plains
of Indians... The magnificent horse-and-buffalo days of the
proud Southern Plains Indians were gone forever... Indeed, the
next year, 1876, Charles Goodnight trailed a large cattle heard
from Colorado...into the Palo Duro Canyon, thus marking the
opening of the Staked Plains and the beginning of the...West
Texas Cattle industry...
Source: Paul H. Carlson, "William R.
Shafter, Black Troops, and the Opening of the Llano Estacado,
1870-1875," Panhandle-Plains Historical Review 47:(1974)1-18.
THE HENRY O. FLIPPER SAGA
When Henry O. Flipper received his commission
as a cavalry second lieutenant in 1877, he became the first
Negro graduate of the United State Military Academy at West
Point. Born of slave parents in 1856 at Thomasville, Georgia,
Flipper grew up in Atlanta. From West Point Flipper served in
Texas and New Mexico Territory between 1878 and 1882 when he
was court-martialed at Fort Davis, Texas and dismissed from
the U.S. Army. After leaving the Army Flipper spent thirty-seven
years as a civil and mining engineer in the Southwest and Mexico
and eventually became the first African American to gain prominence
in that profession. The account below comes from his memoirs.
In the spring of 1880 our troop...at Fort
Still were ordered to Fort Davis, Texas...to go into the campaign...against
Victorio and his band of hostile Mescalero Apaches, who were
on the war path in New Mexico, southwest Texas and northern
Mexico. We had to march over 1,200 miles. Before reaching the
Red River we came to a very deep creek that was flooded and
we could not cross. We waited...three days for the water to
go down but it showed no signs of falling. I suggested to the
Captain a way to get over and, after I explained it to him,
he told me to go ahead. I had all the wagons unloaded, took
the body from one and wrapped a tent fly around it, making a
boat of it. I then had a man swim across with a rope, each end
of which he tied securely to a tree. In this way I rigged up
a ferry on which we ferried over all our effects, the woman
and children and the swam the horses and mules. We then put
the wagons together and pursued our journey.
We proceeded on our way and finally reached
Fort Davis, then commanded by Major N.B. McLaughlin of my regiment,
a very fine officer and gentleman. We remained there just long
enough to get our quarters arranged and were ordered into the
field against the Indians. They had broken out in New Mexico,
had committed all sorts of depredations and had been driven
into Mexico by the 9th Cavalry, colored. They swung around into
Texas and we were sent against them. My Troop and "G"
Troop, 10th Cavalry, some of the 8th Cavalry, white, from Fort
Clark, Texas and the 9th Cavalry, were the troops in the field.
There was also a single company of Texas Rangers. We were ordered
to old Fort Quitman, an abandoned fort on the north bank of
the Rio Grande. Here I was made Camp Quartermaster and Commissary.
We did considerable scouting from here. Forty miles below us
on the river there was a...lieutenant and ten men. The Indians
surprised them one morning at day light and killed several of
them, got all their equipment, horses, etc. Two of the men,
in underclothing, reached our camp in the afternoon with the
news and Captain Nolan sent me and two men with dispatches to
Gen. [B.F.] Grierson at Eagle Springs. I rode 98 miles in 22
hours mostly at night, through a country the Indians were expected
to transverse in their efforts to get back to New Mexico. I
felt no bad effects from the hard ride till I reached the General's
tent. When I attempted to dismount, I found I was stiff and
sore and fell from my horse to the ground, waking the General.
He wanted to know what had happened and the sentinel, who had
admitted me, had to answer for me. One of the men unsaddled
my horse, spread the saddle blanket on the ground, I rolled
over on it and with the saddle for a pillow, slept till the
sun shining in my face woke me up next morning. I then rode
There were no troops at Eagle Springs where
the General was... He ordered the troops concentrated there
and we started for that place. Other troops were coming from
the opposite direction. The Indians attacked the General the
morning after I left. He and the half dozen men of the escort
with him got up in the rocks and stood them off till we could
arrive, a courier having been sent by him to hurry us. We came
in a swinging gallop for fifteen or twenty miles. When we arrived
we found "G" Troop had already come and the fight
was on. We got right into it and soon had the Indians on the
run. We lost...three men killed, a number wounded, among them,
Lt. Collady of "G" Troop and got 19 Indians. We buried
the soldiers where they fell... This was the first and only
time I was under fire, but escaped without a scratch...
Source: Theodore D. Harris, ed., Negro Frontiersman:
The Western Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper, First Negro Graduate
of West Point (El Paso, 1963), pp. 15-17.
ISAIAH DORMAN AT THE LITTLE BIG HORN, 1876
Few episodes in western military history have
claimed as much attention as the Battle of the Little Big Horn
in 1876, where much of the 7th Cavalry, some 264 men including
General George Armstrong Custer, were killed. No one knows the
number of Sioux and Cheyenne who died in the battle, which was
clearly the worst defeat for the U.S. military during the post-civil
War period. Little known among the dead was an African American
scout and interpreter, Isaiah Dorman, who had worked periodically
for the Army in Dakota Territory since 1865, was hired in May,
1876, only the month before the Little Big Horn debacle. As
the vignette below shows, the Sioux were baffled at why this
man who been considered a friend of the Indians and who married
a young woman of the Santee Sioux band, had fought with the
soldiers. His saga suggests the blurred lines between friend
and foe in the West.
At about 3:00 p.m. on June 25, 1876, Major
Marcus A. Reno's abortive attack on the southern perimeter of
the great Sioux and Cheyenne camp had been repulsed. A number
of young warriors had faced the half-hearted Reno assault and
the Major and led, what he later deemed a charge, away from
his objective to the apparent safety of some bluffs on the east
side of the bloodied Little Big Horn. The hasty "charge"
resulted in several wounded, and a number of those who failed
to comprehend Reno's garbled orders were left behind.
The fighting then in this particular area--the
flat bottom land on the west bank of the river--had ceased.
As was their custom, the Sioux were edging along the timber
between the flat and the water's edge, in search of any wounded--as
well as the spoils of victory--that might be there for the taking...
A short distance behind...but for a different reason, rode the
great Hunkpapa medicine leader, Sitting Hull. He was there to
appraise the progress of the fight... His lodges had already
borne the brunt of Reno's short-lived, futile [charge]. That
proximity had also resulted in Sitting Bull's young men being
the first to return the fire.
Upon his approach to a dense growth of timber,
the Medicine man was brought quickly to attention by a squaw's
excited cry. "AI-eeee--come quickly, a wasicum sapa, and
he is still alive!" The Sioux word means "black white
man." Sitting Bull quickly dismounted. There on the ground,
clad in bloody buckskins, was indeed...one of the few Negroes
he had ever seen. The big, elderly colored man seemed mortally
wounded... The famed Sioux knelt beside the dying Negro. As
their eyes met they conversed briefly in the...Sioux tongue.
Sitting Bull ordered one of the squaws to the river for water.
She returned quickly with a dripping shawl and squeezed water
into the medicine leader's horned cup. The Negro drank a small
amount, smiled faintly at Sitting Bull, and slumped over dead.
Sitting Bull explained to the curious group
which now surrounded them: "This is Azimpi. I do not know
why he is here with the soldiers. He was always one of us. I
knew him as a friend, and once he was afraid of the white soldiers.
His woman is Sioux. When she learns that he has bone to the
Sand Hills she will mourn as the women of our lodges also mourn
for their braves killed today.
Following Sitting Bull's departure, squaws
quickly stripped the bloody buckskins from the man's body. One
old Indian suddenly became the owner of a white straw hat worn
by the dead Negro. His watch and a few other possessions were
stolen, but the desecration ended on this not. Out of respect
for Sitting Bull's friendly gesture to the dying man, they did
not scalp or otherwise mutilate his corpse. Instead, they vented
their pent-up fury by viciously hacking the bodies of other
soldiers found nearby...
Source: Robert J. Ege, "Braves of All
Colors: The Story of Isaiah Dorman Killed at the Little Big
Horn," in John M. Carroll, ed., The Black Military Experience
in the American West (New York, 1971), pp. 355-357.
BUFFALO SOLDIERS RESCUE A NEW MEXICO TOWN
The stereotypical image of the black soldier
in the West as an unwitting conqueror of Indians for white settlers,
has been critiqued by recent scholarship as overly simplistic
particularly since on occasion these troops protected Indian
people from marauding white men. Yet with all stereotypes, there
is some element of truth. Black soldiers did protect white settlers.
One of the most noted was Sgt. George Jordan of the Ninth Cavalry,
who in 1880 led a group of black troops in a desperate and ultimately
successful defense of Tularosa, New Mexico, against Apache Indians.
Part of that episode is described below.
On the eleventh of May I was ordered to Old
Fort Tularosa with a detachment of twenty-five men of the Ninth
Cavalry for the purpose of protecting the town of Tularosa,
just outside the fort. Besides our own rations we had extra
rations for the rest of the regiment which was pursuing Victoria’s
band of Apaches. On the second day out we struck the foothills
of the mountains, where our advance guard met two troops of
Mexican cavalry. The captain of one of them told me that it
would be impossible for me to get through with the small body
of men I had and advised me to return to the regiment. I replied
that my orders were to go through and that I intended to do
so, notwithstanding the fact that large bodies of hostiles were
still roaming about outside the Mescalero Agency. After leaving
our Mexican friends we pushed along with our wagon train bringing
up the rear, until that evening we struck the Barlow and Sanders
stage station, where we went into camp. At the station all was
excitement. The people were throwing up breastworks and digging
trenches in the expectation of an attack by the Indians. My
command, being dismounted cavalry, was pretty well exhausted
from our day’s march over the mountains and we were all
ready for a good night’s rest; but within an hour after
our arrival at the station, and just before sundown, a rider
from Tularosa came in and wanted to see the commander of the
soldiers. He told me the Indians were in town and that he wanted
me to march the men the remainder of the distance to save the
women and children from a horrible fate.
My men were in bad condition for the march,
but I explained to them the situation as the rider had put it
before me, and that I would leave it to them whether they wanted
to continue the march that night or not. They all said they
would go on as far as they could. We then had supper, after
which each man bathed his feet so as to refresh himself, and
at about 8 o’clock we started to the rescue. But our progress
was slow. Besides the poor condition of the men we were hampered
by our wagon train in that rough country. Once one of the wagons
was upset as the train was coming down a steep hill and we lost
valuable time righting it. About 6 o’clock in the morning
we came in sight of the town, and I deployed the men and advanced
quickly toward it, believing that the Indians were already there.
We stealthily approached the town and had gotten to within a
half mile of it before the people discovered us. When they recognized
us as troops they came out of their houses waving towels and
handkerchiefs for joy.
Upon our arrival in the town we found that
only a few straggling Indians had gotten there ahead of us and
had killed an old man in a cornfield. The people gave us shelter,
and after we had rested up a bit we began making a stockade
out of an old corral, and also a temporary fort close to the
On the evening of the fourteenth while I was
standing outside the fort conversing with one of the citizens,
the Indians came upon us unexpectedly and attacked. This citizen
was telling me that the Indians had killed his brother that
very morning and wanted me to go out and attack them. I could
not do this, as my orders were to protect the people in the
town. It was then that the Indians surprised and fired fully
one hundred shots into us before we could gain the shelter of
the fort. As the Indians’ rifles began to crack the people
rushed to the fort and stockade, all reaching it in safety except
our teamsters and two soldiers who were herding the mules and
about five hundred head of cattle. The bloodthirsty savages
tried time and again to enter our works, but we repulsed them
each time, and when they finally saw that we were masters of
the situation they turned their attention to the stock and tried
to run it off. Realizing that they would be likely to kill the
herders I sent out a detail of ten men to their assistance.
Keeping under cover of the timber, the men quickly made their
way to the herders and drove the Indians away, thus saving the
men and stock. The whole action was short but exciting while
it lasted, and after it was all over the townspeople congratulated
us for having repulsed a band of more than one hundred redskins...
Our little detachment was somewhat of a surprise
to the Indians, for they did not expect to see any troops in
the town, and when we repulsed them they made up their minds
that the main body of the troops was in the vicinity and would
pursue them as soon as they heard of the encounter. The remainder
of the regiment did arrive the next morning, and two squadrons
at once went in pursuit, but the wily redskins did not stop
until they reached the mountains. There they had encounters
with the troops and were finally driven into Old Mexico.
Source: Walter .F. Beyer & Oscar F. Keydel,
Deeds of Valor, Vols. I & II (Detroit: Perrien-Keydel Co.,
PRIVATE W.A. PRATHER'S POEM
Historians have very little oral or written
testimony from the enlisted troopers in the four African American
Army Regiments. Thus we are forced to rely on a small number
of examples from various existing or recovered sources. One
such source is the poem composed by Ninth Cavalry Regimental
Poet W. A. Prather, following the Wounded Knee Campaign in South
Dakota in the winter of 1890-91. Most of the fighting ended
within a few days of the bloody confrontation between soldiers
and Sioux Indians which took nearly 300 lives. Subsequently
troops from the Sixth, Seventh, and Eight Cavalry were withdrawn.
However units of the Ninth Cavalry were stationed on the Pine
Ridge Reservation through the winter to guard against further
violence. Both the Indians and the black soldiers suffered through
the long, harsh Dakota winter which produced record snowfall
and temperatures as much as 30 degrees below zero, prompting
Pvt. Prather to write the untitled poem below.
All have done their share, you see,
Whether it was thick or thin
And helped to break the ghost dance up
And drive the hostiles in.
The settlers in this region
Can breathe with better grace
They only ask and pray to God
To make "John hold his base."
The rest have gone home,
And to meet the blizzard's wintry blast,
The Ninth, the willing Ninth,
Is camped here till the last.
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.
And cuss our luck
And wait till some one pulls the string.
And starts Short Bull
With another ghost dance in the spring.
Source: Army and Navy Journal 28:28 (March
THE STURGIS EPISODE, 1885
Black soldier-white civilian conflict was
unfortunately all to common a feature of the African American
military experience in the West. Citizens and soldiers clashed
at Fort Hayes, Kansas (1867) Suggs, Wyoming (1892), and numerous
times in Texas beginning with San Angelo in 1878 and ending
in the Houston Riot in 1917. In one of these episodes, approximately
20 men of the Twenty-fifth Infantry, angry over the recent lynching
of a fellow soldier by townspeople, lashed back by firing on
two saloons in Sturgis, Dakota Territory, on September 20, 1885.
One civilian was killed in the attack. It is briefly profiled
In the summer of 1880...companies A, D, H,
and K of the Twenty-fifth, numbering 12 white officers and 186
enlisted men, marched into Fort Meade, one-and-one-half miles
southeast of Sturgis, to begin their tour of duty... As was
true elsewhere in the West, the reaction of the Sturgis citizenry
when the soldiers of the Twenty-fifth marched into Fort Meade
was undoubtedly a mixture of apprehension and prejudice. Although
blacks were not totally absent from Dakota Territory (the territorial
census reported over four hundred blacks residing there, with
about one hundred scattered through the Black Hills region),
the sudden influx of a large number of black soldiers constituted
a great change in the previously all-white environment of Sturgis.
In spite of their apprehensions, soldiers
were soldiers to that certain class of enterprising businessmen
who seemed to be attracted to military posts. Nothing the opportunity
for commercial gain, the editor of a paper in nearby Deadwood
spelled it out plainly: "Scooptown has struck a boom. The
colored troops...have arove [sic], and times are lively, and
what is better than all, they brought money with them. To get
their money is the point they are all striving for, and every
inducement is held out that gives promise of success."
Catering to the trade of the nonwhite soldiers
was Abe Hill, an enterprising black civilian, who had opened
a house of entertainment during the early 1880s. His "Go
As You Please House" was located on the south side of Main
Street. He advertised that wines, liquors, cigars, and "all
kinds of Games" were available. To army authorities, Hill's
place was merely a bawdy dance house, "where the lower
classes of white and colored citizens and soldiers congregate
for their evening entertainment or debauch."
The most serious and violent episode involving
black soldiers in Sturgis occurred...on the night of September
19. In the course of the evening's activities at Hill's place,
Pvt. John Taylor had an altercation with Hill. Taylor, along
with several other members of his company, left the saloon,
openly threatening, "You will hear from us again tonight."
About 2:00 a.m. a group of twenty soldiers, armed with Springfield
rifles, appeared in front of Hill's place. After yelling a warning
for all soldiers to get out, the group opened fire... Inside
a cowboy named Robert Bell...was struck by a bullet after it
passed through a four-inch post... He died about twenty minutes
after being struck.
The local press had a field day with this
latest act of violence by black soldiers... Denunciations came
heaviest from the Sturgis Record: "Here are soldiers whom
we help support. They are placed at the post for our supposed
protection... What protection have we if [soldiers] are at liberty
to take government arms...and fire on unprotected people...
What difference can there be between that and an Indian raid?"
The Black Hills Times of Deadwood...attacked the black soldiers.
"There can be no excuse for such a set of bloodthirsty
wretches. Men who think of life so lightly are fit subjects
for a cannibal island..."
During the weeks following the incident, efforts
were made to minimize contact between soldiers and townspeople...
Meantime, the Sturgis citizens' [unsuccessfully] petitioned
for the removal of the Twenty-fifth Infantry... Ultimately,
relations between the black soldiers and the citizens of Sturgis
improved but never to any state or cordiality. In May 1888,
after being stationed eight years at Fort Meade, the four companies
of the Twenty-fifth Infantry were transferred to posts in Montana...
Source: Thomas R. Buecker, "Confrontation
at Sturgis: An Episode in Civil-Military Race Relations, 1885,"
South Dakota History 14:3 Fall 1984):238-259.
REGIMENTAL BANDS IN NEW MEXICO TERRITORY
In the account below historian Monroe Billington
describes the role of black regimental bands in the "public
relations" efforts of the military in the West.
If a regimental band was available, it added
a special flavor to both formal ceremonies and informal events.
Being in the band had advantages over being a regular cavalryman:
an enlisted man who could play a musical instrument enjoyed
the diversions afforded by military ceremonies, Fourth of July
celebrations, weddings, parties, grand openings, serenades,
and political rallies. Some of these events even gave the musician
an opportunity to make trips away from the post, providing as
escape from some monotonous garrison life.
When two companies of the Ninth Cavalry arrived
at Fort Union in early 1876, the regimental band, composed of
about twenty musicians, accompanied them. In June  the
music committee of the city of Santa Fe invited the band to
its Fourth of July celebration, announcing that it had appropriated
$100 for its services for that occasion... During that time
the band entertained frequently in and around Santa Fe. The
highlight of its performances occurred in October 1880, when
it played for President Rutherford B. Hayes during his visit
to New Mexico's capital city. On his transcontinental journey,
Hayes became the first U.S. president to visit New Mexico...
As Hayes stepped from the train, the crowd of people lining
the platform of the depot gave three cheers and the band struck
up "Hail to the Chief." Then the band led the large
carriage procession into Santa Fe.
Acting Governor W.C. Ritch received the president
at the Santa Fe Plaza pagoda across the street from the historic
Palace of the Governors, the band playing "Hail Columbia"
as the president and the governor met... Prior to and during
a reception for the presidential party that evening, the band,
under the direction of Professor Charles Spiegel, gave a concert
in the pagoda. It rendered "beautiful and appropriate selections,
especially noteworthy among which was potpourri of national
melodies of different nations, arranged by Prof. Spiegel."
Following an exceedingly well-performed introduction of "Hail
Columbia," the band played "What is the German Fatherland,"
the Russian national anthem, the "Marseillaise," and
"America." This part of the program ended with "Yankee
Doodle" with variations. The evening's remaining selections
were "made with taste, and rendered in a manner reflecting
greatly to the credit of the Professor and all members of his
band." Playing for the president of the United States no
doubt was once-in-a-lifetime experience for the members of the
Ninth Cavalry band...
Fort Bayard had a barrack specifically set
aside for the regimental band. It has facilities for nineteen
men, the usual number of musicians in the Twenty-fourth Infantry
band, which was stationed there for over eight years. The army
provided the Twenty-fourth's band with instruments and kept
them in good repair... Excused from many other duties, band
members spent considerable time in marching drills and practicing
The Twenty-fourth's band at Fort Bayard performed
at a number of official ceremonies. For example, in April 1891
it marched ninety-six miles to and from Deming, where its members
spent nearly a week waiting for and then playing for President
Benjamin Harrison, who was moving through the territory... Within
a few days after it arrived at Bayard in 1888, Silver City leaders
engaged it to play at the Fourth of July celebration. The city's
newspaper editor wrote of the band: "[It] is one of the
largest and best in the service. The musicians are all colored.
The drum major stands six feet four inches, and is a show by
himself." Two years later it entertained delegates to the
territory's Democratic convention in Silver City...
Source: Monroe Lee Billington, New Mexico's
Buffalo Soldiers, 1866-1900 (Niwot, Colorado, 1991), pp. 116-120,
THE TWENTY-FOURTH INFANTRY IN SALT LAKE CITY
Historian Michael J. Clark describes history
of the 24th Infantry at Fort Douglas, Utah, part of which appears
Few people know that...overlooking Salt Lake
City and touching the boundaries of the University of Utah,
more than six hundred black people--soldiers of the United States
Twenty-fourth Infantry, wives, children, and others--lived,
worked, and attended school for almost four years in one of
the most attractive locations in the western United States.
Twenty-one graves in the little Fort Douglas cemetery, with
weatherworn markers...serve as quiet reminders that black people
exceeded the geographical boundaries historians have generally
assigned them…The arrival of the Twenty-fourth Infantry
in Salt Lake City more than doubled Utah's black population...
One may speculate that Utah's total black population, civilian
and military, exceeded eighteen hundred in the fall of 1896
and reached twenty-three hundred in 1898 after the Twenty-fourth
returned from the Spanish-American War... Individuals present
the story of the Twenty-fourth. Solomon (Black Sol) Black, for
example, claimed "to have been the youngest soldier in
the late war [Civil War]." Born in Rome, Georgia on August
10, 1854, [he] enlisted in the black Forty-forth Infantry at
the age of twelve...and served as a fifer and drummer boy until
he was discharged on April 30, 1866. Four years later he enlisted
in the Twenty-fourth Infantry and completed six enlistments
before retiring on May 1, 1897... After leaving Salt Lake City,
he returned to Texas, married Emily Drake who was twenty-five
years his junior. He died on December 11, 1932, at the age of
seventy-eight and was buried in the National Cemetery...
Another infantryman, Parker Buford, served
thirty years in the Twenty-fourth. He was born in Giles County,
Tennessee, January 30, 1842. Buford's son, James J. Buford,
also served in the unit. In 1898 the Buford family lived on
the perimeter of Fort Douglas at 333 South 13th Street. A number
of other black families lived in the general area. Discharged
from the army in 1898, the elder Buford continued to live in
Salt Lake City until his death in 1911. He is buried in the
Fort Douglas cemetery... According to newspaper reports, the
new residents of Fort Douglas were pleased with their assignment
and "gratified at having been transferred from Texas to
the promised land." Members of the unit apparently wanted
the people of Salt Lake City to have a good impression of them,
for as one member of the regiment stated: "I do not say
this from conceit, but you will find our regiment better behaved
and disciplined than most of the white soldiers. It is not an
easy matter to get 600 men together without there are one or
two unruly fellows among them."
The arrival of the Twenty-fourth was not without
its impact upon the city's black community. When the soldiers
arrived on the Union Pacific, it was reported that "almost
every colored resident in the city met them at the station."
There would be greater contact between the fort and the black
citizens of the city in the months to come... There was [also]
considerable talk about its band that over a three-year period
would entertain thousands of Utah's citizens, "its crack
drilling," and the ability of many of its members in athletics,
both track and baseball... Almost nineteen months after the
regiment's arrival in Utah the routine of post life at Fort
Douglas was interrupted by speculation that should it become
necessary to send troops to Cuba, "the four "colored
regiments" would be the first to depart for the war zone.
The rumor was accurate... Interest in the movement of the troops
was intense throughout the city... The Twenty-fourth [left]
on April 20,  and the newspapers estimated that "15,000
to 20,000 people were on and about the [train] depot ground.
Included in that throng were wives, children, and girl friends
who "sat for hours under the trees with their soldier lords
and sires." Ladies, reported the Salt Lake Tribune who
did not like to ride on streetcars with black soldiers were...shaking
hands with these same soldiers... Generally speaking, suspicion
and uncertainty [between soldiers and civilians] gave way to
confidence and resolution, stereotypes to a tenuous familiarity...
Black soldiers...became improbable ambassadors...in the "Great
Source: Michael J. Clark, "Improbable
Ambassadors: Black Soldiers at Fort Douglas, 1896-99,"
Utah Historical Quarterly 46:3 (Summer 1978):282-301.
AN EX-SOLDIER COMMUNITY ON THE TEXAS FRONTIER
The following is a brief description of the
mostly ex-soldier African American community around Fort Griffin,
West Texas in the 1870s.
Between the predominantly white military and
civilian societies, African Americans formed an almost unnoticed
subculture... Yet they were there, and in significant numbers.
They did not comprise a single, separate community, but instead
represented a subordinate class beside each body of Anglos.
The buffalo soldiers, the most visible group, were only temporary
residents. They closed ranks within their respective companies,
of course, and fraternized with black civilians. A number of
them remained in the Clear Fork country after their enlistments
expired. Former buffalo soldiers and others, in fact, established
a small enclave among their white neighbors at the base of Government
Hill. Other black persons resided at the post or were scattered
throughout the countryside. Their lack of a community focus
obscured the fact that in 1870 nearly a hundred African Americans
lived in the Clear Fork country--and this was before the first
buffalo soldier had arrived.
The occupations of African Americans varied.
Officers' families at Fort Griffin employed black and mulatto
women exclusively as domestic servants. Some worked for single
officers, too, but more often unmarried men of rank hired grooms.
This domestic class, along with their children, were normally
listed as members of their employers' households. The census
taker also noted that black men typically listed "laborer"
as their occupation. They performed tasks such as hauling wood,
helping contractors, and working for anyone who would pay them
wages. A few developed specialties. John Carter became a butcher
and Milton Sutton a carpenter, and young Tennessean James Romey
founded a school for black children. Others, such as Floyd King
and Alfred Smaldin, raised stock and planted gardens in the
countryside, and about a dozen worked for cow hunters. Like
most Anglo herder folk, the rural blacks hailed from the South
As elsewhere in Texas, African Americans endured
the prejudice and humiliation of second-class citizenship. Colonel
Buell, who was sensitive to racial animosities, was apprehensive
about committing his black troopers to patrol for white outlaws.
He had feared that some of them would be killed, "for a
Texas cattle or horse thief hates a colored soldier." The
scarce and scattered numbers of African Americans, however,
did not invite the extreme forms of protest that carpetbaggers,
scalawags, and soldiers in the interior encouraged. Anglo settlers
nevertheless remained on guard in the event that black soldiers
and civilians should unite and become unruly. An occasional
crime reinforced their suspicions, as in 1873, when a buffalo
soldier was apprehended for stealing sixty-five dollars from
T.E. Jackson's store. Another man in the same unit accosted
an officer who was escorting two women from a church service;
after striking him on the head with a stone, the assailant fled
into a patch of high weeds and fired several errant shots at
them. Once black soldiers became civilians, however, their aggressions
Source: Ty Cashion, A Texas Frontier--The
Clear Fork Country and Fort Griffin, 1849-1887, (Norman, 1996),
BLACK TROOPS AND WHITE STRIKERS IN IDAHO
After the Wounded Knee episode in 1890, African
American soldiers in the West assumed a new responsibility in
the growing labor struggles of the region. Between 1892 and
1900 elements of various black regiments confronted striking
miners in northern Idaho (twice), elements of Coxey's Army in
Montana, and striking railroad workers in Colorado. When 1,000
miners in the Coeur D'Alene silver mining district rioted and
shut down the mines in northern Idaho in April, 1899, black
and white soldiers were called out to restore order to Idaho
in April, 1899. Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg declared "an
insurrection in Shoshone County" and called upon the soldiers
to assist law enforcement officials in a "sweep" of
suspect labor sympathizers. The following vignette, taken for
a contemporary account of one sweep in Burke, Idaho, describes
the role of the black soldiers.
On Saturday, April 29, nearly one thousand
[striking] miners from Canyon Creek, masked and armed with rifles
and revolvers, stole a Northern Pacific mail-train at Burke.
They placed on board three thousands pounds of dynamite and...descended
on Wardner. The employees of the mine and mill had been warned
of the attack and fled in time to escape the mob. The men then
[planted the dynamite at the mill]. There were six explosions
which could be heard twenty miles away. The wreck of the mill
and all it contained was complete. Three hours after reaching
Wardner the rioters returned to Burke on their stolen train...
As nearly all of the Idaho militia is in the
Philippines, Governor Steunenberg called for Federal aid. General
Merriam was ordered [by President McKinley] to proceed to Wardner
with a force of about 650 regulars... At Burke, the headquarters
of the dynamite conspirators, every man in the town was captured.
Two companies of soldiers, dispatched on a special train to
that point, did the work with uncommon thoroughness. The town
stretches out for about a mile at the bottom of a steep canyon.
Guards were stationed on the walls of the gorge to prevent the
escape of fugitives, and then the soldiers made a house-to-house
search. At the shafts other soldiers were detailed to seize
the miners as they came off shift. In the business portion of
the single long street, merchants and clerks were taken from
their shops. Cooks and waiters were captured in the kitchens,
and guests as they sat at table. The postmaster, the superintendent
of the public schools, doctors and lawyers, were all alike "rounded
up"--a grand total of two hundred and forty-three persons.
Oft this number thirty succeeded in proving their innocence
forthwith, and were released. The others were herded into a
trail of box-cars, and so conveyed to Wardner to await a hearing.
By Governor Steunenberg's directions, Sheriff
Young was arrested, and other county officials were practically
compelled to resign. The sheriff, who owed his election to the
miners' union party, rode down to Wardner on the stolen train
which carried the rioters and their dynamite...
It is interesting to note that the miner's
union is controlled by Swedes and Italians, with a sprinkling
of Finns and Cornishmen. Out of one hundred and thirty-two prisoners,
only twenty-six claimed to be natives of the United States.
The rest were all evidently and confessedly foreigners. That
a long period of lawlessness, during which both life and property
have been insecure, had finally convinced the people of the
Coeur d'Alenes of their inability to control this reckless element
appears in the statement of our correspondent. "The residents
of Wardner," he writes, "are anxious to have martial
law maintained and a permanent military post established here..."
The men who secured the leadership in the
union during the strikes of 1892 have held sway ever since,
and dynamiters have terrorized the district, even committing
murder with impunity. "It has been a weekly occurrence
for them to 'run men down the canyon' at the point of guns."
By electing county officers from their own ranks, they provided
for their own safety, and so completely have grand juries been
intimidated that no juror would think of calling the murderers
to account without accepting the risk of assassination for himself.
When a man who...had been killed by the dynamiters was found
in the road with an axe in the back of his head, the coroner's
jury returned a verdict of suicide!
Source: "The Wardner Riot," Harper's
Weekly, 43:2213 (May 20, 1899):498.
ARMY LIFE IN NEBRASKA: THE FORT ROBINSON YMCA
Black soldiers in the West, even more than
their white counterparts, were isolated from the region's social
and cultural life. In response, they created diverse educational
and social institutions as alternatives to the saloons and brothels
which many people both inside and outside the military considered
the only organized activity necessary for off-duty soldiers.
In the following vignette we see the efforts of Tenth Cavalry
soldiers at Fort Robinson, a western Nebraska military outpost,
to develop themselves through the post YMCA during the first
decade of the 20th Century.
When the Tenth Calvary arrived at Fort Robinson
in the spring of 1902 for a five-year tour of duty, it already
had its regimental branch of the YMCA. Chaplain William T. Anderson
and some of the enlisted men had created the organization in
1900 when the regiment garrisoned several Cuban towns following
the Spanish-American War. Chaplain Anderson, who was born a
slave in pre-Civil War Texas and became a medical doctor and
author as well as an African Methodist Episcopal clergyman,
often spoke proudly of the efforts of the YMCA in his monthly
Members met on Wednesday evenings, both in
Cuba and later at Robinson. Meetings at Fort Robinson first
took place in the antiquated post amusement hall, which also
served as post chapel and schoolroom. Later, the men met in
the post gymnasium, completed in 1904. According to S.J. Willoughby
of A Troop, programs were "nearly always along literary
lines," and included recitations, musical presentations,
essays and debates. Willoughby boasted that the intellectual
efforts of the men "compared favorably with those in may
college literary societies."
The quality of the programs may have been
one of the reasons for the Y.M.C.A.'s great popularity. Chaplain
Anderson noted in late 1902 that 450 of the garrison's 544 enlisted
men were members, and as many as 342 soldiers attended a single
Wednesday meeting at the fort. Attendance was not always high,
however, and fluctuated considerably over the years due to adverse
weather conditions and various military duties, such as guard
and fatigue. Infrequently military operations such as the Ute
expedition of 1906, forced YMCA activities to halt temporarily...
Some of the programs focused explicitly on
the problems of black Americans. Essays such as the one presented
by Beverly F. Thornton, the 44-year-old Alabaman who was a cook
in K Troop, show that physical and occupational distance from
the black civilian community did not isolate the troops emotionally
or intellectually. Thornton exhorted forty-six of his colleagues
at the January 4, 1905, meeting to the assiduous practice of
thrift. He argued that in order for Afro-Americans to become
a "respected people," each man had to diligently place
a portion of his income aside. Regular saving, he said, would
form a buffer against servitude in times of want. Those who
failed to save inevitably became servile: When they faced acute
distress they would be able to "neither command their time
nor choose how or where they should live."
Corporal Joseph Wheelock of K Troop also read
a paper which emphasized race consciousness. His essay, entitled,
"Our Own Editors and Publishers," strongly urged his
fellows to patronize race magazines and newspapers. Wheelock
alerted his audience to the available periodicals and bluntly
asserted the alternative to loyal support in a pair of rhetorical
questions: "Do we by our papers and magazines from other
people whose greatest aim is to show us in the worst possible
form to the world? Do we patronize the man who at the times
is ready to minimize our true manliness?
The YMCA served the men of the Tenth at Robinson
with other programs as well... Mrs. Henry Highland Garnett,
widow of the famed abolitionist and clergyman, addressed 118
men in August, 1904. However...she could not elicit...nearly
as much interest as a "Jubilee Concert" attended by
over three hundred soldiers in January, 1903... Wherever they
were stationed in the West, the black regulars acted in concert
to meet needs with which the Army did not cope... The YMCA and
other groups reveal...that the men regarded their connection
to a general Afro-American community as a highly significant
one, which the vigorously sought to preserve and enhance.
Source: Frank N. Schubert, "The Fort
Robinson Y.M.C.A., 1902-1907: A Social Organization in a Black
Regiment," Nebraska History 55:2 (Summer 1974):168-172.
A BLACK OFFICER SPEAKS AT STANFORD
Through much of U.S. military history, officers
serving in the armed forces have rarely commented publicly on
social issues of the day. One exception to this tradition appears
below in the form of an excerpt from a speech by Capt. Charles
Young, Ninth Cavalry, at Stanford University. In December, 1903
Young was the main speaker at the periodic campus student assembly
which discussed, among other issues including the recent diphtheria
outbreak on campus and the "deadheads," the college
men who apparently watched Stanford's athletic contests but
who refused to provide financial support for such programs.
Following his introduction by Stanford University President
David Starr Jordan, Young described the attitudes and aspirations
of younger African Americans at the time which he called the
"standards and ideals of new negrodom." Young expressly
drew distinction between the views of that generation and those
of Booker T. Washington who was then the leading African American
spokesman. Part of the speech appears below.
I desire, first of all, to thank you for the
opportunity which has been given me to stand before you. I shall
try to acquaint you with a few of the standards and ideals of
new negrodom. At present I cannot but feel that the higher interest
of my people are going netherward, and that the white people
of the coming era are not an inch behind. When one part of the
body is diseased, it reacts on the whole. We are part and parcel
of the body politic of the United States, and to cure the disease
you have offered amalgamation, deportation, bodily extermination,
With all that is claimed for industrialism
and with due honor to Mr. Booker T. Washington, I fee that what
is proposed for the negro in that direction will not do the
work. When the black man has learned the industrial trades and
seeks work, he runs into the unions, where he his told that
no negroes need apply. The white employer would employ him but
is afraid; he knows the negro is entitled to work but he cannot
give it to him.
We are urged to give up our claims to higher
education. Tuskegee could not exist without higher education.
Contact with men of brain, of high ideals, is essential. Even
though our race has produced great painters and sculptors, such
as Dunbar, we are urged to give up all these things in order
that we may survive. What does survival mean? We know what it
is to eat our own hearts; we know what it is to stifle our ideas.
We also know what it is to do things right; to have the finger
of scorn pointed our way because we do not come up to the white
History tells us of no race that has given
up its best and highest ideals that has amounted to anything.
When we are told to give up our highest ideals, our hearts tell
us not to do it. The example of the white man tells us the same
thing. We are not going to do it. And this is not the 'sassy
nigger' that says this. It is the revolt of black American manhood.
All we ask is that the educated men and women
of our universities be kind and magnanimous toward the negro.
My people have already been greatly helped by your people. The
people of the South have greatly aided my people.
All a negro asks is a white man's chance.
Will you give it? Will you give the negroes a chance to build
homes for themselves and a chance to make themselves good citizens?
Source: The Daily Palo Alto, December 9, 1903,
THE FIGHT AT CARRIZAL
The worst defeat inflicted on U.S. forces
during the 1916 Punitive Expedition to capture Pancho Villa
came in June 1916 when fighting broke out between 79 soldiers
of the Tenth and 400 Carranzista cavalry in the town of Carrizal.
Before the fighting was over, 14 cavalrymen were dead and 24
African Americans and one white Mormon scout were prisoners.
A brief account of the battle appears below.
Numerous official and personal documents describe the brazen
attitude of the Tenth's officers that allowed the Carrizal fracas
to occur. Investigating rumors of a large body of Carrancistas
in the vicinity of Villa Ahumada, [General John J.] Pershing
dispatched scouting forces under Captains Charles Boyd and Lewis
Morey, leading seventy-nine experienced black cavalrymen. Although
Pershing apparently issued clear orders to merely reconnoiter
the area and avoid a fight, Boyd replied to his assistants that
"we are going to Villa Ahumada with a chip on our shoulder.
If they [the Mexicans] knock it off, General Funston will move
and so will General Pershing." Arriving at Ahumada on June
20, Boyd confirmed the presence of Carrancista cavalry nine
miles east at Carrizal. Despite warnings from assistants not
to enter the town, Boyd muttered something about "making
history" and declared his intent to confront the Mexicans
Reaching Carrizal early next morning, the
troops paused south of the village while Boyd and his assistants
conferred with the Carrancista officers via interpreters. Ignoring
a command not to proceed eastward, Boyd ordered his troops to
advance forward in skirmish formation. A burst of machine-gun
fire quickly split their ranks, dividing the blacks into separate
groups. Boyd and the Mexican commander were among the first
fatalities. Armed only with Springfield rifles, the Tenth had
little protection against Mexican machine-guns. The total battle
lasted less than an hour, evolving into a general melee that
spread into Carrizal itself... For the next few hours, stragglers
from the Tenth filtered through Villa Ahumada, obtaining food
and medical treatment before scrambling back to Pershing's headquarters
at Casas Grandes. Several days passed before all survivors were
accounted for; many wandered listlessly on foot in the desert,
disoriented and unable to locate base camp.
The Carrancistas, for their part, had no wish
to pursue the black troops, content with collecting the wounded
or surrendered prisoners. Lem Spilsbury, a Mormon scout with
the Tenth and the only white to be captured, later described
how the prisoners' dark skin merited no special consideration.
Originally lining up the "gringo dogs" for execution,
the Mexicans instead stripped all the captives naked and marched
them to a nearby rail line for incarceration in Chihuahua City.
Mistaken for a Hispanic, Spilsbury claimed several Mexicans
favored shooting him as a traitor. During the overnight ride
to Chihuahua, mobs gathered at each town where the train passed,
demanding the murder of the "gringos." Upon arrival,
the Carrizal survivors, some injured and all still lacking clothes,
were marched a mile and a half through the Chihuahua streets
to the penitentiary...
Publicly, the U.S. government praised Boyd
and his troops for valorous service, even though the accounts
of Carrizal's survivors over the next week mad clear that Boyd
had disobeyed written orders not to provoke conflict. Despite
the fact that this left [President Woodrow] Wilson unable to
assume any moral high ground, he issued a formal statement on
June 25 condemning Mexico's actions and demanded the immediate
release of Spilsbury and the black soldiers. As a show of strength,
Wilson mobilized guard units on the border for imminent invasion...
In Chihuahua, military authorities blustered, "If the United
States wants its soldiers who are held here as prisoners of
war, the best way would be to come down and take them..."
The racial origin of the hostages, on whose fate rested the
question of war or peace, apparently mattered little to either
side... Uniform rather than skin color seemed more important
as U.S. citizens' own patriotism demanded the release of men
already coming to be regarded as heroes...
Source: James N. Leiker, "Fracas at El
Carrizal: The Intersection of Race and Nationalism in United
States/ Mexico Relations, 1916," (Paper presented at the
Western History Association Meeting, Denver, October, 1995)
THE HOUSTON MUTINY AND RACE RIOT, 1917
The most serious soldier-civilian clash in
the West, or anywhere in the nation, took place in Houston,
Texas in 1917 when black troopers of the Twenty-fourth Infantry
attacked Houston police. Sixteen whites and four black soldiers
were killed. An account of that episode appears below.
On the morning of August 25, 1917, two heavily
guarded trains carrying the disarmed men of the Third Battalion,
Twenty-fourth United States Infantry, left Houston, Texas, for
Columbus, New Mexico. After the trains had passed through Schulenburg,
Texas, a resident of that town picked up a small piece of paper
on the railroad right-of-way near his ice house. He discovered
scribbled on the back of a soldier's unused pass a hand-written
message: "Take Tex. and go to hell, I don't want to go
there anymore in my life. Lets go East and be treated as people."
Less than four weeks earlier, 654 black soldiers
and 8 white officers of this battalion had arrived in Houston
to assume guard duties at Camp Logan, a new training cantonment
then under construction and located approximately three and
half miles from the center of town. On the evening of August
23, a sizable group of enlisted men participated in a mutiny
and in a march on the city which left twenty persons dead or
dying on the streets of Houston...
For the Third Battalion, consisting of companies
J, K, L, and M, the prospect of service in Texas was grim if
not frightening... In 1906, three companies of the Twenty-fifth
Infantry were discharged without honor by President Theodore
Roosevelt for allegedly shooting up the border town of Brownsville.
In 1911 and again in 1916, black soldiers nearly came to blows
with white citizens of San Antonio over disagreements involving
racial insults and unequal access to places of public accommodations...
The men of the Twenty-fourth Infantry were also aware that Texas
was a rigidly segregated state and that it had a reputation
for violence against non-white citizens. Two brutal lynchings
of Negroes, one at Temple in 1915, and another at Waco in 1916,
had been publicized by black newspapers and journals. Only a
month before the Third Battalion's arrival in Houston, a mob
of two hundred whites hanged a Negro in nearby Galveston. Finally,
the East St. Louis Massacre, which had occurred in early July,
1917, was still vividly in their minds, and men of the Third
Battalion contributed nearly $150 to a relief fund for the displaced
civilians and homeless blacks of the city.
With both white civilians and black troopers
anticipating trouble, it was not slow in developing. On Saturday
evening, July 28, most of the newly arrived soldiers went to
town to acquaint themselves with Houston and to locate the suitable
places of entertainment. Several incidents occurred on streetcars
over the segregated seating arrangements required by city ordinance.
In most cases the soldiers obeyed the law or the white conductors
disregarded minor violations, but a few black soldiers openly
defied the system of discrimination by removing the Jim Crow
screens which they either kept as "souvenirs" or tossed
out the windows.
The most serious confrontation happened the
next evening. Two platoons of the Twenty-fourth, fearful about
missing the eleven o'clock check, piled onto a streetcar only
to have the annoyed conductor them off for violating the segregation
ordinance. While a handful of angry soldiers were threatening
to "throw the goddamn thing off the track," others
spotted another trolley. As the fifty-eight men swarmed aboard
it, one of the soldiers firmly told the conductor that "they
would just like to see the first son-of-a-bitch that tried to
put them off" while a few others enlarged the "colored
section ordering six white passengers to move up front. By Monday
morning, news of the weekend altercations was all over town...
The principal cause of racial bitterness between
soldiers and police did not stem from these confused arrangements
but from a series of physical assaults on blacks by law officers.
On August 18, two policemen arrested a black youth for allegedly
"throwing bricks promiscuously." After two soldiers
who were passing by in a streetcar protested what they regarded
as unwarranted harassment, the two patrolmen stopped the trolley
and tried to apprehend the two "uppity" soldiers.
When the latter "showed fight," the two officers slugged
them with their pistols and escorted them to the police station.
Later the same day, two other soldiers complained
to the desk sergeant that two policemen had severely beaten
them for objecting to being called "niggers." The
next day a deputy sheriff of Harris County arrested another
soldier for sitting in the "white only" section of
a streetcar. When the private allegedly drew a "penknife,"
the sheriff pistol whipped him and took him to the county jail
where he remained until after the disturbance of August 23.
By late August, as the list of grievances
mounted, the situation was becoming intolerable for several
black soldiers. On Thursday, August 23, when the temperature
soared to 102 degrees, there occurred a series of incidents
which channeled the frustrations of this small but influential
group of black soldiers into armed revolt. During the morning,
Rufus Daniels and Lee Sparks, two police officers, assaulted
Private Alonzo Edwards of Company L for interfering in the arrest
of a black housewife. Early that same afternoon Corporal Charles
Baltimore, a provost guard from I Company, tried to obtain information
from the two mounted policemen about the circumstances which
had led to Edwards's arrest. Annoyed by this inquiry from a
Negro, Sparks, generally regarded as one of the more vociferous
racists on the police force, struck Baltimore with his pistol
and fired at him three times. Baltimore fled with Sparks in
close pursuit. The policemen cornered the bloodied soldier underneath
a bed in an unoccupied house on Bailey Street, arrested him,
and sent him to jail in a patrol wagon.
Immediately news of the beatings of Private
Edwards and Corporal Baltimore reached the Twenty-fourth's camp.
The report that Baltimore was "shot at" soon grew
into the rumor that he was "shot." Incensed by what
they regarded as the unwarranted shooting of one of their most
respected noncommissioned officers, several soldiers vowed to
avenge Baltimore's death by getting the policeman who had killed
Shortly after eight o'clock that evening Major
Kneeland Snow [acting on a tip about possible trouble] ordered
the first sergeants to collect all rifles and to search the
men's tents for loose ammunition. While Snow's ordered were
being carried out, Private Frank Johnson of Company I slipped
to the rear of the company street and yelled "Get your
guns men! The white mob is coming!" This cry stampeded
the frightened men into rushing the four company supply tents
where they grabbed arms and ammunition. After approximately
thirty minutes of confused and indiscriminate firing, Sergeant
Henry ordered the men of Company I to "fall in" and
to fill their canteens. Rallying the soldiers with cries of
"stick by your own race" and "To hell with going
to France.... Get to work right here" and with threats
to shoot anyone who refused to join them, ringleaders of the
mutiny were able to attract the support of the bulk of Company
I and a small contingent from Company M together with a scattering
of men from the other two companies. In all 75 to 100 men moved
out of camp and, about nine o'clock, began a determined march
on the city.
Circuitously approaching the city through
the friendly confines of the San Felipe district where they
hoped to fine Lee Sparks and Rufus Daniels, the black soldiers
encountered the police first at Washington Avenue and Brunner
Street and later at Wilson and San Felipe streets, and easily
repulsed them each time. After killing Daniels and three additional
policemen and wounding three others, one of whom subsequently
died, the black rebels, weakened by numerous desertions, fell
into disagreement over what course of action to pursue next.
The vast majority...circled back to camp. The remainder...sought
refuge in the homes of black Houstonians where they were captured
the following day by city police and soldiers....
The results of this Houston encounter were
tragically predictable. The Houston riot and mutiny of 1917
was closely followed by the largest court-martial in American
military history, by the mass execution of thirteen soldiers
at Camp Travis at dawn on December 11, 1917, and by the sentencing
of forty-one others to life in prison. Not satisfied with this
impressive retribution, the army tried 55 more soldiers in two
additional courts-martial which sentenced 16 to hang and 12
to life terms. Under extreme pressure from Afro-Americans, President
Woodrow Wilson saved ten of the latter sixteen men who were
convicted of capital offenses from the gallows by commuting
their sentences to life in prison. The rendering and execution
of these verdicts closed one of the most tragic chapters in
American race relations and one of the darkest hours in the
annals of the United States Army.
Source: Robert V. Haynes, "The Houston
Mutiny and Riot of 1917," Southwestern Historical Quarterly
74:4 (April 1973):418-439.
THE HOUSTON MUTINY AND RACE RIOT: ONE SOLDIER’S LAST WORDS
Private First Class T.C. Hawkins was one of
thirteen African American soldiers court-martialed and sentenced
to die because of his participation in the Houston Mutiny and
Race Riot. On the morning of his execution, Private Hawkins
wrote his last letter to his parents in Fayetteville,[CHECK]
North Carolina. That letter appears below.
Fort Sam Houston, Tex.
Dec. 11, 1917
Dear Mother &. Father,
When this letter reaches you I will be beyond
the veil of sorrow. I will be in heaven with the angels. Mother
don’t worry over your son because it is heavens gain.
Look not upon my body as one that must fill a watery grave but
one that is asleep in Jesus.
I fear not death. Did not Jesus ask death “Where art thy
sting?” Don’t regret my seat in heaven by mourning
over me. I now can imagine seeing my dear Grandmother and Grandfather
and the dear girl Miss Bessie Henderson that I once loved in
this world standing at the river of Jordan beckoning to me to
come, and O! Mother should they be sensitive of my coming don’t
you think that they are anxious for tomorrow morning to come
when I will come unto them. I am sentenced to be hanged for
the trouble that happened in Houston Texas altho I am not guilty
of the crime that I am accused of but Mother, it is God’s
will that I go now and in this way and Mother I am going to
look for you and the family [and] if possible, I will meet you
at the river. Come unto me all ye that are heavy laden, I will
give the rest. Bless his holy name. This is the happiest day
I met with since Jesus spoke peace to my soul in Brookstone
church from my promise to God. I have strayed away but I am
with him now. Send Mr. Harris a copy of this letter. I am your
Fort Sam Houston
P.S. Show this to Rev. Shaw. Rev. Shaw, I
am with Jesus and I will look for you in that great morning.