The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Black Cavalry in the Westby William H. Leckie
Originally published in 1967, William H. Leckie’s The Buffalo Soldiers was the first book of its kind to recognize the importance of African American units in the conquest of the West. Decades later, with sales of more than 75,000 copies, The Buffalo Soldiers has become a classic. Now, in a newly revised edition, the authors have expanded the/i>/i>… See more details below
Originally published in 1967, William H. Leckie’s The Buffalo Soldiers was the first book of its kind to recognize the importance of African American units in the conquest of the West. Decades later, with sales of more than 75,000 copies, The Buffalo Soldiers has become a classic. Now, in a newly revised edition, the authors have expanded the original research to explore more deeply the lives of buffalo soldiers in the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments.
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The Buffalo Soldiers
A Narrative of the Black Cavalry in the West
By William H. Leckie, Shirley A. Leckie
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2003 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
The Early Years
African American troops marched in the ranks of Washington's armies in the cause of independence and served with Andrew Jackson at New Orleans in 1815 to repel the British invader, but their first large-scale employment awaited the coming of the Civil War. When Confederate batteries fired on Fort Sumter early on the morning of April 12, 1861, inaugurating four years of internecine warfare, many black men were eager to wear the Union blue. They found their services were neither wanted then nor contemplated in the future.
As the bitter conflict dragged on, however, casualty lists grew apace, and as thousands of black refugees sought sanctuary behind Union lines, sentiment began to change. On the first anniversary of Fort Sumter, General David Hunter, commanding the Department of the South, organized a black regiment. His effort was abortive, for it brought no joy to the hearts of President Abraham Lincoln and his advisers. The regiment was, according to T. W. Higginson of Massachusetts, "turned off without a shilling, by order of the War Department." Seven months later, Higginson himself was invited to become colonel of the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, the "first slave regiment mustered into the service of the United States."
Colonel Higginson accepted, although had "an invitation reached me to take command of a regiment of Kalmuck Tartars, it could hardly have been more unexpected." This experiment, as well as others, proved successful, and with the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, enlistment of African Americans began in earnest.
The decision to use black troops was not universally popular and was not motivated by idealism but rather by the dictates of a grueling war. One historian has summarized the impetus as arising "largely out of the dawning realization that, since the Confederates were going to kill a great many more Union soldiers before the war was over, a good many white men would escape death if a considerable percentage of those soldiers were colored."
Such "dawning realization" came slowly to many officers and men in the Union army, for stout opposition developed. In response, General Ulysses S. Grant enjoined his subordinates "that all commanders will especially exert themselves in carrying out the policy of the administration, not only in organizing colored regiments and rendering them effective, but also in removing prejudice against them."
Grant's instruction tempered resistance somewhat, but many officers vowed never to serve with African American troops, and resentment and anger seethed among rank and file. Feeling ran so high in one Ohio division that the men threatened to stack their arms and return home. Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, in turn, warned them that any such action would be regarded as treason and the men involved would be shot.
Resistance to the use of African Americans diminished when officers discovered that a commission in a black regiment often meant quick promotion. A number of candidates then came forward to meet the needs of the new organization. Further, as the black man proved his worth as a soldier, general though reluctant acceptance became the rule. Nonetheless, discrimination persisted until the end of the war. Most notably, until June 1864, the Union army paid the black soldier ten dollars per month for his services, while his white counterpart received thirteen dollars. Blacks also received less in bonuses.
Despite such biased treatment, black soldiers demonstrated their courage and patriotism. African Americans fought at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, and Milliken's Bend, Louisiana; at Baxter Springs, Kansas, and Point Lookout, Virginia; and in the slaughterhouse that was Cold Harbor. Hundreds were massacred at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, and they bled and died on scores of other battlefields. If any lingering question of their merit, spirit, and courage persisted, their charge into the "Crater" before Petersburg on July 30, 1864, should have dispelled it.
Union sappers tunneled under a Confederate strongpoint in the Petersburg defenses and mined up. The mine was exploded at dawn, blasting a huge crater in the Confederate line. When General Ambrose Burnside, a master fumbler, failed to attack at once, the Confederates took advantage of the respite to build a new line to the rear of the crater. The Union attack, when finally launched, failed, but even after realizing this, Burnside ordered General Edward Ferrero's Fourth Division comprised entirely of black infantry to assault the Confederate defense. They charged with great spirit and gallantry but met a galling fire in which "hundreds of heroes carved in ebony fell." Although forced to retire, some stood their ground until most were killed.
By the end of the war, nearly 180,000 African Americans had served in the Union army and taps had sounded over the bodies of 33,380 of those who had given their lives for freedom and the Union. Despite that record, many still doubted that black men could be first-rate combat soldiers, and their future in the U.S. Army remained clouded in uncertainty.
On May 23–24, 1865, the Union army staged its last great spectacle. Nearly a quarter of a million men in blue passed in grand review along Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation's capital. Soon after, the United States reverted to its traditional policy of a small peacetime army. Within little more than a year, the military establishment had been all but dismantled. The authorized strength of the army stood at only 54,641 officers and men; the actual strength was considerably less. This was the situation as Americans faced a renewed Indian war in the West and conditions approaching anarchy along the Mexican border.
Congress, meanwhile, had cleared up some of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the black man in the armed forces. In doing so, it altered military tradition. Largely because of support from some Radical Republicans desirous of aiding their African American allies and certain, as Senators Benjamin F. Wade and Henry M. Wilson maintained, that blacks were "less likely" to leave their posts for the mining fields, the act passed on July 28, 1866, contained provisions for them to serve in the regular peacetime army. Six regiments of black troops were authorized, two of cavalry, four of infantry. By this legislation Congress began a new chapter in American military history and afforded the erstwhile slave an opportunity to play a major role in the opening up of the West to non-Indian settlement and development.
Since the use of black troops in the peacetime army was regarded as something of an experiment, the authorizing act contained some unusual provisions. Chaplains were normally assigned to a particular post or station, but in the case of African American units, the chaplain was assigned directly to a regiment with both spiritual and educational duties. Since most blacks were former slaves and most southern states had outlawed their education during slavery, few black recruits would be literate. This meant that their officers would have to perform most of the paperwork normally assigned to noncommissioned officers. For that reason and to enhance their skills as soldiers in the regular army, the chaplain was to instruct black regulars in the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic.
It was assumed that all officers of the new regiments would be white. In addition, they would take and pass a special examination before a board of experienced officers appointed by the secretary of war. Finally, their record had to include two years of active field service in the Civil War. Two-thirds of those holding the rank of captain or above, moreover, were to be drawn from the volunteer regiments and one-third from the regular army. Officers of lower rank were to come exclusively from the volunteer services.
Early in August 1866, General Grant telegraphed General Philip Sheridan, commanding the Division of the Gulf, and General William T. Sherman, commanding the Military Division of the Missouri, to organize a regiment of black cavalry in their respective divisions. The new regiments were designated as the Ninth and Tenth U.S. Cavalry, and Grant recommended two officers with brilliant Civil War records to command them—Colonel Edward Hatch of Iowa and Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson of Illinois.
Edward Hatch, a blond, blue-eyed native of Maine, had gone early to sea before entering the lumber business in Pennsylvania. In 1855 he moved to Iowa, where he resided when the war came. He received appointment as a captain in the Second Iowa Cavalry in August 1861. Less than a year later, he was its colonel. After taking part in Grierson's famous raid through Mississippi in 1863, he received a bullet through his right lung and a broken shoulder at Moscow, Tennessee, in December that same year. Later, he received citations for gallantry and meritorious service at the battles of Nashville and Franklin, also in Tennessee. One of the most underrated cavalrymen of the Union army, he 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.
Tall, swarthy, scar-faced 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 permanently scarred, 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. When his appointment came through, however, 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. In April 1863 General Grant selected him to lead three regiments of cavalry in a diversionary raid through Mississippi.
Grierson's six-hundred-mile, sixteen-day sweep through the Confederate heartland contributed materially to Grant's successful operations around Vicksburg. When the latter described the raid as the most brilliant expedition of the war, the easygoing and tolerant Grierson emerged as 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 service in April 1866, he gave brief thought to a business career and then accepted appointment as commander of the Tenth Cavalry.
He was a good choice. Although he had expressed prejudice against blacks early in the war, his combat experiences convinced him that African Americans were valiant soldiers worthy of respect. In 1863, following an assault on Port Hudson, Louisiana, Grierson wrote his wife, Alice, that a day earlier, any questions about the "good fighting qualities of negroes" had been "settled beyond a doubt." For him they were never reopened.
Hatch and Grierson wasted no time in proceeding with the organization of 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; many of them refused to serve with black troops. More than a few agreed with Brevet Major General Eugene A. Carr that black men 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. Instead, he wangled the same rank in the newly formed Seventh Cavalry—a decision that was probably fortunate for the Ninth. Certainly, it launched Custer on the road to the Little Bighorn and a controversial niche in history.
Despite possibilities for greater rank and more rapid promotion in the black regiments, many officers of lower rank shared the feelings expressed in an Army and Navy Journal advertisement in which a "First Lieutenant of Infantry (white) stationed at a very desirable post in the Department of the South" expressed a willingness to trade assignment with another officer of the same rank "on equal terms" if the regiment was white. However, "if in a colored regiment," then "a reasonable bonus would be expected."
Under such circumstances, officer procurement proceeded at a snail's pace. In November Hatch complained to the adjutant general that he had several hundred recruits on hand at Greenville, was receiving arms and horses, but still did not have a single officer present for duty. Grierson had an additional complaint. He believed that regular-army officers were being assigned to white regiments and only volunteers were staffing the black units. If this was the policy of the government, he wrote his wife, "I will not remain in the army."
Once officer procurement accelerated, the Ninth obtained some excellent men. They included Captain James S. Brisbin, a former abolitionist who had served as commander of the Sixth U.S. Colored Cavalry in the Civil War; Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt; and in March 1867 Major Albert P. Morrow. Still, the flow was much too slow in Hatch's case, for recruits were pouring into the camp at Greenville.
Army recruiters concentrated their efforts in nearby New Orleans and Baton Rouge because of the large number of black Civil War veterans in those towns. White southerners often targeted black veterans for intimidation and violence in this period, and the high unemployment rates in many southern cities where blacks had flocked following natural disasters that had destroyed much of the cotton crop rendered military life more attractive. Thus, recruiters had little difficulty in attracting soldiers. A black man named George Washington was the first to enlist on August 1866 and was immediately placed in Company A. Others followed, seeing in the army social and economic opportunities unavailable to them elsewhere. Thirteen dollars a month was meager pay, but it was the same that white soldiers received and more than most could expect to earn as civilians. When food, clothing, and shelter were added, a better life seemed assured.
Equally important for many young black men undoubtedly was the chance to prove their manhood in a nation that, by and large, but particularly in the South, denigrated their worth as human beings. Although blacks had attained freedom, they were still denied full citizenship rights and subject to discrimination and prejudice. In New Orleans the previous July, some two hundred blacks—many veterans of the Civil War—had marched to support civil rights. White citizens had reacted violently. When the ensuing race riot was over, thirty-four of the thirty-eight who perished were African Americans.
The earliest days of the Ninth were difficult and dangerous for both officers and men. In the midst of a cholera epidemic that raged throughout New Orleans during fall 1866, the recruits were packed into a filthy and poorly ventilated site that had once served as a cotton-bale packing plant. There, without stoves and ventilation, they cooked their meals over open fires and tried to sleep. Not surprisingly, nine soldiers died in October, another fifteen in November, and five more in December. Others simply left, and by the end of the year, thirty had deserted and another sixteen followed suit in 1867. It was an inauspicious beginning for the new regiment.
Nonetheless, despite the continuing tension from the recent riot, the deaths from cholera, the desertions, the lack of facilities, and the scarcity of officers, 818 men were accepted as enlistees in the Ninth Cavalry during its first year. Many came from states outside of 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, an Indian arrow awaiting him along the rocky banks of the Pecos River.
Emmanuel Stance, nineteen and scarcely five feet tall, was from northern Louisiana. One of the first to enroll, he was literate, which meant that he would soon be promoted to sergeant. He would also earn a Medal of Honor. 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, U.S.A.
Years later, Lieutenant Grote Hutcheson's regimental history characterized its early recruits as "ignorant, entirely helpless" men with minds that "were filled with superstition." That defamation and the early troubles that beset the unit during its first year led many to conclude that the recruiters, in their haste to fill the ranks, had enlisted men who were, overall, inferior to those who enrolled in the Tenth Cavalry.
Historian Charles L. Kenner challenges that interpretation. Hutcheson, he notes, had never campaigned with the buffalo soldiers and provided no evidence for his statements. Moreover, Tenth Cavalry recruiters actually enlisted 1,147 men, which was substantially more than the 818 enrolled in the Ninth Cavalry. Clearly, the Ninth's early difficulties arose not from indiscriminate recruiting but rather from its early problems and the hardships the men endured. In addition, not only was there a lack of officers but some of those who did serve also were brutal and contemptuous of their men.
Excerpted from The Buffalo Soldiers by William H. Leckie, Shirley A. Leckie. Copyright © 2003 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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