5 things you might not know about the Buffalo Soldiers

Abbie Bennett
July 22, 2019 - 3:18 pm

JBLM Army Museum

The Buffalo Soldiers were originally members of the Army’s 10th Cavalry Regiment, established in 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. 

How they got their name

The Cheyenne and other Plains Native American tribes who fought in the Indian Wars gave the 10th Cavalry regiment their nickname, which was eventually applied to all the black regiments formed in 1866, including 9th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry, according to the National Archives. Those regiments would spend the next 20 years serving on the frontier, protecting settlers, mail, wagon trains and stagecoaches on supply routes and battling cattle ruslters, thieves and other outlaws. Buffalo soldiers also clashed with Native Americans, many of whom were frustrated with life on reservations and the federal government’s broken promises. 

Why the nickname was given is still unclear. Rumors include that the tribes were inspired by the buffalo-hide coats the soldiers wore, the tireless marching of the soldiers or that their hair resembled the dark, curly hair of buffalo. 

“The troopers took the nickname as a sign of respect from Native Americans, who held great reverence for the buffalo, and eventually the Tenth Cavalry adopted the buffalo as part of its regimental crest,” according to the archives.

Buffalo Soldiers spent much of their earliest history on the western frontier alongside the buffalo they were named for, aiding the expansion of the United States. According to the museum, “African Americans could only serve west of the Mississippi River because many whites didn't want to see armed black soldiers in or near their communities."

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Allison Lotz

They weren’t the first 

While the Buffalo Soldiers were the first peacetime all-black regiments, during the Civil War nearly 200,000 black soldiers served and many all-black regiments were established as part of the Union Army. 

After the Civil War, black soldiers were allowed to enlist in the military as “regulars” instead of volunteers, for the first time, and were led mostly by white officers.

Since then Black soldiers have served in every American war, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

Before there were National Park rangers, there were Buffalo Soldiers

The U.S. Army and its Buffalo Soldiers were among the first protectors of what would eventually become National Parks, including Sequoia and Yosemite in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. 

“Buffalo Soldiers prevented poaching, stopped timber theft, and extinguished forest fires. The troops helped the local economy by supporting local businesses and brought rule of law to the mountainous area. They were also responsible for building an arboretum near the south fork of the Merced River in 1904 — the first museum in a national park,” according to the National Park Service. “Their work in conservation also made an indelible impact in preserving public lands, setting the foundation for roles of park rangers, and ensuring the protection and future of national parks.”

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Allison Lotz

Outnumbered and outgunned, they still won

Buffalo Soldiers “often faced extreme racial prejudice from the Army establishment” and sometimes deadly racism. But despite that, and despite being underequipped and outnumbered in battle, they persevered, according to the museum (which museum?) 

Before leaving Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they were mustered, the 10th Cavalry, with support from the Buffalo Soldiers who would become the 24th Infantry Regiment, fought hundreds of Cheyenne Native Americans in two battles near the Saline River, according to History.com. 

With inferior equipment and greatly outnumbered, the Buffalo Soldiers defeated the Cheyenne, losing just one man -- the first of many battles to come in the west. Buffalo Soldiers made up about 20 percent of all U.S. Cavalry troops in the Indian Wars, participating in at least 177 conflicts. Buffalo soldiers would later serve in the Spanish American War and later American conflicts until deactivation in the mid-20th century. 

U.S. Army photo by Spc. Adeline Witherspoon, 2nd Sustainment Brigade PAO

They were among the most loyal, decorated soldiers of their time

Buffalo Soldiers had the lowest rates of military desertion and courts-martial of their time, and at least 18 Buffalo Soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their service during the Indian Campaigns alone, according to the National Archives. 

Buffalo Soldier Henry O. Flipper, born into slavery, was the first black man to attend West Point. After graduating in 1877, he went on to become one of the first black Buffalo Soldier officers. 

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Follow Abbie Bennett, @AbbieRBennett.