Leaving a Legacy; The Buffalo Soldiers
From Slave to Soldier to Self-Reliant
By George Pettigrew
May 9, 2016, President Obama signed into law the National Bison Legacy Act. With this act, the American bison officially became the national mammal of the United States of America. As members of the Missouri Bison Association you, better than anyone, know how magnificent the “buffalo” is and how little is really known about this majestic animal. Yet, there isn’t a person that isn’t familiar with this iconic master of American lore.
So, it may be that you wonder who the Buffalo Soldiers were and how was it that the name came to be associated with an unlikely group of U.S. Army soldiers that went on to leave their mark on American history. While the story itself is simple, the circumstances leading up to the name earning an honored place in the making of the American story and the westward expansion is as complex as any in our military history.
America has always been inclusive in time of great wars and conflicts. Let it then be no surprise that African Americans have been a part of every war in which this nation has ever been engaged. For example, it is widely regarded that a stevedore of African and Native American heritage, Crispus Attucks, was the first man to die in the Boston Massacre, thereby becoming the first person to die in the American Revolution.
In every war thereafter, just as anyone, no matter how marginally invested, would come to the aid of our fighting forces. This included both sides of the Civil War as well. So, it comes naturally that these black men are a part of our nation’s military history and it is that tradition that leads to the formation of what was to become known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
The year following the end of the Civil War, on July 28, 1866, the U.S. Congress reorganized the Army for a peacetime, standing force as never before in our history. Included in this act was for the first time two regiments of Cavalry designated the 9th and 10th, and four regiments of Infantry (Colored) designated as the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st. Significant about this act is that for the first time black soldiers were enlisted in a peacetime military capacity. These units were however under the command of white officers.
In 1869, the Army reorganized these four Infantry Regiments into two. The 38th and 41st became the 24th Infantry Regiment and the 39th and 40th became the 25th Infantry Regiment.
These soldiers were a wondrous mix of former slaves and freedmen, war veterans and raw recruits, illiterate and educated having come from over many parts of the newly reunited but delicate collection of states as a nation. Their skills and backgrounds were as varied as the mashup of experiences that brought them to join the military. Some were former sharecroppers, cigar makers, writers, teachers, preachers, waiters, laborers, cooks, and mechanics. Many brought with them the skills perfected while in slavery, but all had the capacity to be transformed into soldiers in a matter of months.
Aside from the how’s of these men becoming soldiers the question most often asked is still unanswered, how did they become known as Buffalo Soldiers?
The exact date, time or place the name first occurred referring to this unique unit of fighting men is unknown. What is generally accepted is that they were first called “Wild Buffalos” by the native Americans they encountered in battle. The founder of the 10th Cavalry, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, recalled an 1871 campaign against the Comanches as the genesis of the name. It further appears that F Company, 10th Cavalry was the first unit to be recognized as having been given this name.
From what little information that can be gathered on the origin of the name Buffalo Soldiers it all seems to have started around 1870 and was given by the native Americans of the great plains. There are a few versions of how the name took hold, but one thing is definitely clear, the African American warriors took the name with great pride and carried forth with it as a badge of honor.
One popular explanation is that the hair of the Negro soldier resembled the mane between the horns of the great buffalo. Another even more popular version is that the black soldier wore buffalo robes in the cold weather and some surmise this caused them to resemble a buffalo or because of their skin tone.
As popular as these summations maybe there is still another that has credence.
Most every American you ask understands the ultimate importance of the buffalo to the lives of the native American. Not only was it critical to the existence of the tribes that hunted the animal for all the life needs it provided it was in many cases revered and often thought to have spiritual powers. It is possible to understand that giving this name to an enemy combatant is not likely given outside of respect.
It is in this light the black military units of the west took the name on and carried it forward with that same respect. Let it be recognized that these units engaged in the taming of the west and making possible the westward expansion to settlement served with the distinction of have the lowest desertion rate and the lowest rate of alcoholism during the Indian Wars from 1866 to 1898. Having earned 18 Congressional Medals of Honor during this period made them one of if not the most highly decorated soldiers of the time.
The legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers continued into the twentieth century as a greater variety of challenges and opportunities presented themselves in service to the U.S. Army and America. The idea of three segments of what was to become collectively considered the Buffalo Soldiers have one thing in common from the very beginning in 1866.
While honorably serving the cause of the Army, the units known as Buffalo Soldiers were always segregated from white soldiers with the same mission. As a designation, Buffalo Soldiers served in four distinct phases up until the Army was finally integrated following President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9981 issued on July 26, 1948. Ironically, it was three years to the day that the Army high command took notice of the effectiveness of racially mixed fighting units in Korea and formally announced desegregation of combat units on July 26, 1951.
The “Original Buffalo Soldiers” (1866 until 1900) included the Indian Wars and the War with Spain. The “Transitional Buffalo Soldiers” (1900 until the end of World War I in 1918). This period of transition occurred with the transfer of those troops from frontier stations to the South. The number of first-class honors and their perceived proficiency was called into question. Little is known about the black units that flanked Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba and the charge up Kettle and San Juan Hill. Other instances took front and center during this transition period in the narrative of the Buffalo Soldiers.
Next came the “Traditional Buffalo Soldier” or “Associate Buffalo Soldier”. This final group of Buffalo Soldiers is distinguished by serving following the end of World War I and continued into the Korean War in 1951 as earlier mentioned. Also distinctive about this group of soldiers is not only the last group of U.S. soldiers to serve in segregated units but in October 1942 the first and only units to come into existence as Buffalo Soldiers was the newly formed Ninety-second “Buffalo” Infantry Division. Every member of the division was required to wear a “buffalo” shoulder patch; “The Buffalo” was the division newspaper; and the division had a buffalo as a mascot until ordered overseas.
The 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments were deactivated in 1944 and were not involved in World War II combat. This is the same year the horse as a cavalry staple was also deactivated in favor of a mechanized military. Both the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments were however involved in combat in World War II, both in the Pacific Theater. The 24th was the only Buffalo Soldier unit involved in the Korean War.
The Buffalo Soldiers also served in the Mexican Punitive Expedition, the Lincoln County War in New Mexico, the Philippines, and the Boxer Rebellion to name a few more.
Some Buffalo Soldier facts that have escaped popular history as we know it is that baseball legend Jackie Robinson, world heavyweight champion Joe Louis, General of the Armies, John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing were notable Buffalo Soldiers. The first Superintendent of the National Park Service was Colonel Charles Young, a Buffalo Soldier. It was on his watch his men using an adaptation of the hat they wore in the rainy jungles of Cuba fashioned what has become known as the “Smokey the Bear” hat.
There was even a woman recorded but not officially recognized as having served for 22 months in Company A, 38th (Colored) Infantry Regiment. Born a slave in Independence, Missouri in 1842 she was tall and reportedly about as handsome as a man and standing 5’9” tall. Her name was Cathay Williams and when she enlisted in 1867 she changed her name to William Cathay. She mustered in at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri in nearby St. Louis.
The famed 10th Cavalry Regiment, as well as the 38th (Colored) Infantry Regiment, were formed in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Because of this fact, General Colin Powell started the project that resulted in the National Buffalo Soldier Monument Park located on Grant Avenue, Fort Leavenworth. There are locations throughout the fort that recall the valor and sacrifice of these brave heroes and make note of their contributions to the greatness of America.
The story of the Buffalo Soldiers is more than a story of the African American experience in the history of this great nation. It is simply American history.
About the author:
George Pettigrew is the 1st Vice President and Historian of the Alexander-Madison Chapter of KC Area; 9th and 10th (Horse) Cavalry Association. He is a member of the first graduating class of the Oral Storyteller Certification Program sponsored by the Woodneath Library and Story Center, Metropolitan Community College, and funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
George is a Navy veteran that grew up with stories his mother told him about Pvt. Isaac Johnson (1846-1931) who enlisted in May 1867 in Jefferson Barracks, Missouri into Company K, 38th (Colored) Infantry Regiment, later reorganized into the 24th Infantry and reenlisted in Company F, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment on June 14, 1878.
Private Isaac Johnson, Buffalo Soldier is my maternal great-grandfather. My mother, Eunice Davis Pettigrew, researched the family for forty years. Her work was recognized in the second session of the 107th Congress, Congressional Record and a flag was flown over the U.S. Capitol in honor of Isaac Johnson, a Buffalo Soldier.
A SLAVE – A BUFFALO SOLDIER
Stories associated with the Buffalo Soldiers are ones of heroism, valor, and dedication to duty, expertly preformed. Facing the innate difficulties by African-Americans during slavery didn’t change when faced with the challenge of including these same men in the regular peacetime US Army in 1866, for the first time.
Isaac Johnson was born a slave in Charlottesville, North Carolina about 1846, he died December 7, 1931. He was never told his real age. His mother died during childbirth as well as a twin sister. Isaac had only one family member, an older sister, who was sold from him at a very early age.
Isaac, as a very young boy, was a water boy on the plantation while his sister worked as a wet nurse. She nursed all the slave babies while their mothers were in the fields. He told stories of his sister making “sugar ticks” for the babies made of sugar and butter in small bags used between feedings as a pacifier.
In time, he was given to the daughter of the plantation owner and moved with her to Montgomery, Alabama working in a hotel. This is where I believe he first heard about the US Army enlisting African-Americans.
By 1867 Isaac Johnson had enlisted and arrived in Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, Missouri as a Private in the 38th Colored Infantry. In that summer, an Asiatic cholera outbreak at Jefferson Barracks followed some of the troops to Fort Harker, Kansas. 500 cases were reported among the black troops with 22 deaths by the end of the year.
While assigned as a regular part of their duty, Pvt. Isaac Johnson escorted the mail from Fort Harker along the Santa Fe Trail. Pvt. Johnson was shot in the shoulder at Cow Creek Crossing. Wounds dressed, he continued his duty another 468 miles before reaching Fort Union, New Mexico and the first available hospital.
At 5 feet 7 ¼ inches he hadn’t seen enough! On 14 June 1878, in St. Louis, Isaac Johnson re-enlisted, in the Buffalo Soldiers for five years. His re-enlistment papers show him in “General” Company of the Mounted Services signed by Capt. E. B. Savage of the 8th Infantry. This after having served in Company “F”, 9th Cavalry. What I know, what I have told you, is entirely due to a historic undertaking my mother, Eunice Davis Pettigrew, traced for almost 40 years. Pvt. Isaac Johnson, a Buffalo Soldier, was her grandfather. She verified the re-enlistment paper copies by the remarks noted on the border saying, “Marks from the Eruption of the Skin on the Chest” were the same on her grandfather, Isaac Johnson, Buffalo Soldier.