Dr. Quintard Taylor, Jr.
Scott and Dorothy Bullitt
Professor of American History
 
 
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History 313:
The History of African Americans in the West
Manual - Chapter 6
Buffalo Soldiers and the Defense of the West

Introduction | Chap. 1 | Chap. 2 | Chap. 3 | Chap. 4 | Chap. 5 | Chap. 6 | Chap. 7 | Chap. 8 | Chap. 9 | Chap. 10

CHAPTER 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, FIRST OFFICERS

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 Cavalry.

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), pp. 7-8.


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 training.

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 service...

Source: William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West (Norman, 1967), pp. 9-11.


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 the enemy...

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 unimportant skirmishes...

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 1875.

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...

[1871] At the end of April [1871] 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 operations.

* * *

[1875] 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 back.

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 timber.

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., 1903).



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 7, 1891):483.


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 below.

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 [1880] 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 music.

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, 156-157.


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 below.

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, [1898] 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 Basin Kingdom."

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 exclusively.

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 were few...

Source: Ty Cashion, A Texas Frontier--The Clear Fork Country and Fort Griffin, 1849-1887, (Norman, 1996), pp. 141-144.


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 reports.

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, and industrialism.

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 man's ideals.

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, p. 1.


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 directly.

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) pp. 22-27.


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 him...

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 son,

T.C. Hawkins
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.

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