Background for Students

Building the West:
Buffalo Soldiers


TPW Magazine, February 2010
If you don't have a copy of the TPW magazine, you may print a copy of Building the West: Buffalo Soldiers.

Introduction

Buffalo Soldiers working with a citizen in west Texas

As the American Civil War ended, jobs were hard to find. Food was scarce and thousands were homeless. People traveled west to start a new life on the frontier. The number of settlers grew quickly. American Indians were unhappy. Conflicts between the settlers and American Indians grew. The new settlers asked Congress for military soldiers to protect them.

The United States Army had just completed four years of fighting in the American Civil War. Congress decided to reduce the size of the army. During the Civil War, 186,000 black soldiers who fought for the Union Army. Congress decided to take advantage of this source of work force and created black cavalry and the infantry regiments.

The Formation of the Black Regiments

Infantry Soldiers of one of the Buffalo Soldier Regiments

In 1866, the United States Congress reorganized the army and created two segregated regiments of black soldiers, the Ninth and Tenth United States Cavalry. Congress also authorized the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st black United States Infantry Regiments. The Buffalo Soldiers went to American frontier to keep peace between the American Indians and settlers moving west. In 1869, Congress joined the black infantry regiments into the 24th and 25th U.S. Infantry. These regiments spent the next thirty years on the American frontier helping to build a better nation.

 

Black soldiers enlisted in the army for many reasons. For many, this was the first time they recieved a regular salary and wore a uniform and firearm. Being a soldier might bring adventure and recognition. On the way, many received education for the very first time in their lives. They enlisted for five years at a time. Soldiers started out with the title of "Private" and were paid $13 dollars per month. Each soldier was given a bunk in a barracks, three meals a day, uniforms and medical care. Those who enlisted in the cavalry were also issued a horse.

Chaplains like William T. Anderson were ministers and often taught Buffalo Soldiers to read and write.

Many of the black soldiers were newly freed slaves. Few slaves learned to read. The had little knowledge of the world outside the cities or plantations on which they had spent their lives. A chaplain (minister) was assigned to each regiment of black soldiers. In addition to his religious duties, the chaplain also taught the Buffalo Soldiers how to read, write and do basic arithmetic. The new black recruits were also taught the rules and regulations of the United States Army. They were now on the road to becoming among the best soldiers on the American frontier.

The Life of the Black Soldier

Much of the work of the Buffalo Soldiers was helping build the settlers' needs for daily life. They constructed roads, telegraph lines and forts. Wherever they traveled they also made maps of streams, mountain passes and water holes. Buffalo Soldiers on horseback worked from west Texas to Kansas.

Soldiers on Escort

Buffalo Soldiers building a telegraph line in west Texas

They protected transportation of goods, mail, and people. The soldiers scared off outlaws and Indian raiders. There were many miles to protect, and on average, there was only one soldier for every 120 square miles. There were occasional danger and battles mixed with construction and escort duty.

These were not the only challenges faced by the Buffalo Soldier on the frontier. Prejudices continued to be a problem even after the end of slavery. All of the regiments were commanded by white officers. Many treated their soldiers very poorly because the color of their skin. Eventually three black soldiers, the most famous being Henry Flipper, succeeded in becoming officers. It was a difficult task at that time in our history. Only Charles Young served for more than a few years as an officer. In addition, the settlers who asked for help from the Army often resented the black soldiers and treated them poorly as a result. Despite these challenges, the Buffalo Soldier completed their service with honor and bravery.

The name “Buffalo Soldier”

The exact source of the name “buffalo soldier” in not known. The first use of the name Buffalo Soldier was in a letter from 1876. That letter stated that the tribes called the black soldiers “buffalo soldiers.” There are several proposed reasons why the American Indians gave them this title, as different tribes had different reasons. One of the most common stories is the similar hair on the heads of the soldier and the buffalo. Others suggest that the American Indians believed the black soldiers shared the same courage of the sacred buffalo. Eventually, this name became a title of honor for all black service people of the military.

The End of the Indian Wars

By the 1890s, most of the American Indian tribes of the southwest were forced onto reservations. The towns and settlements of west Texas were establishing law and order. To assist with the settlement of the country, many of the Buffalo Soldier regiments transferred north to less populated areas. In 1898 the Spanish-American War erupted in Cuba. The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiment went to fight alongside Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. The Buffalo Soldiers again distinguished themselves in battle.

Adapted from TPWD’s Buffalo Soldiers on the Texas Frontier, 1866-1898


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