Americans have long heard the story of Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. But often forgotten in the great swamp of history is that Roosevelt’s success was ensured by a dedicated corps of black soldiers—the so-called Buffalo Soldiers—who fought by Roosevelt’s side during his legendary campaign. Roosevelt admitted that the black troops actually spearheaded the charge, beating him to the top of Kettle Hill ahead of San Juan Hill, but later changed his story, claiming their performance was due to the superior white officers under whom the black troops served. The Roughest Riders takes a closer look at common historical legend and balances the record. It is the inspiring story of the first African American soldiers to serve during the post-slavery era, first in the West and later in Cuba, when full equality, legally at least, was still a distant dream. They fought heroically and courageously, making Roosevelt’s campaign a great success that added to the future president’s legend as a great man of words and action. But most of all, they demonstrated their own military prowess, often in the face of incredible discrimination from their fellow soldiers and commanders, and rightfully deserve their own place in American history.
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About the Author
Jerome Tuccille is the author of more than thirty books, including Hemingway and Gellhorn, Gallo Be Thy Name, and Trump, and has taught at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He passed away in 2017.
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The Roughest Riders
The Untold Story of the Black Soldiers in the Spanish-American War
By Jerome Tuccille
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2015 Jerome Tuccille
All rights reserved.
They knew all too well how it felt to be freed but not yet free. Following the Civil War, the shackles of slavery had been undone, but the reality of the master-slave relationship still reigned across the land. Black Americans had little or no access to the mainstream economic system of their country, yet there was always room for them in the military. All nations need fodder for the battlefield, for their ongoing campaigns to slaughter other human beings in war, and the US government was no exception. Of the two million men who put their lives at risk to preserve the Union, 10 percent of them were African Americans.
Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew commissioned one of the first black units in March 1863, with the encouragement of Northern abolitionists including Ralph Waldo Emerson and the two younger brothers of Henry and William James, Wilkinson and Robertson. The "all-colored" Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment trained at Camp Meigs outside of Boston and then was sent south on May 28 of the same year. After arriving in Beaufort, South Carolina, it joined up with the white Second South Carolina Volunteers and fought Confederate forces with them on James Island on July 16, stopping a Southern assault and losing forty-two men in the skirmish. Sergeant William H. Carney with the Fifty-Fourth later received the Medal of Honor for carrying the Union flag up to the enemy ramparts, singing, "Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!"
Two days later, the Fifty-Fourth led an attack with fixed bayonets against Fort Wagner near Charleston, the birthplace and bastion of the Southern rebellion, which was defended by Confederate soldiers under the command of General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the "Little Napoleon of the South." The black troops surged over the sharpened wooden stakes ringing the fort and continued into a water-filled ditch. Two of their captains were killed immediately, and Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass, the son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, was wounded when his sword was ripped from his side by a canister shell. "Men fell all around me," Douglass wrote later. "A shell would explode and clear a space of twenty feet." The vicious battle cost the Fifty-Fourth dearly, with a loss of 281 men in all.
Major-General James G. Blunt, who led the First Kansas Colored Regiment in combat, described the fighting skill of the units under his command in a letter to Congress: "The Negroes (First Colored Regiment) were too much for the enemy, and let me say here that I never saw such fighting as was done by that Negro regiment. They fought like veterans, with a coolness and valor that is unsurpassed. They preserved their line perfect throughout the whole engagement, and although in the hottest of the fight, they never once faltered. Too much praise cannot be awarded them for their gallantry. The question that Negroes will fight is settled; besides, they make better soldiers in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command."
They took up arms to win their own rights as free and equal citizens of the rapidly growing country, but the effort succeeded only in keeping the states together without attaining the main goal of abolishing slavery. Of the nearly 200,000 African American men who fought in one of the bloodiest wars in American history, 36,847 lost their lives. The cost to the nation was heavy, and the country remained as racially divided as it had been at the start.
And then the War Between the States was over, and the question of what to do with the discharged soldiers — how to employ them, how to keep them economically viable — rose from the stink and wreckage as it does after every war. The question was all the more pertinent for black soldiers being mustered out of uniform, since their options were more limited. The whites in the South considered them an inferior species, and those in the North didn't welcome the competition for available peacetime jobs.
Future president James A. Garfield, a staunch abolitionist, was ahead of his time with regard to civil rights. Is freedom "the bare privilege of not being chained?" he asked in a speech delivered right after the war, when he was serving as a congressman. "If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery, a cruel delusion. ... Let us not commit ourselves to the absurd and senseless dogma that the color of the skin shall be the basis of suffrage, the talisman of liberty."
What was the answer to the nation's dilemma?
Again, war came to the rescue as the country looked for new territories to conquer, more enemies to fight. Greater numbers of strong young bodies were needed on the frontier as the government looked westward to push its boundaries into uncharted regions. But the Native Americans, who had occupied much of that land almost since time had begun, had other ideas. This was their land, they believed. They lived, hunted, fished, and practiced their spiritual rituals there, a situation that the US government had considered problematic for decades. As the expanding nation encroached farther onto those native lands, the inevitable clashes became more and more frequent. In this, African Americans had a new role to play, another military calling: to serve the cause of white America's dreams of empire.
* * *
"There is no greater civilizing agency for the Negro, whether we look upon the conservative or advancing side, than the army," wrote Theophilus Gould Steward, an ordained chaplain who founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina and Georgia. Steward believed that black Americans would eventually emerge from their parlous condition in American society and take their place alongside whites, in part by proving their mettle against the gore and strife of mortal combat in service of the country.
There is some disagreement about the origins of the term "buffalo soldiers." Some attribute it to the Cheyenne in the 1870s, who compared black men in combat to the wild buffaloes they fought on the plains. Others believe the phrase originated with the Comanche, who were intrigued by the black men's dark skin and tight curly hair. Possibly, the truth is a combination of the two accounts. One Cheyenne warrior said that this new type of soldier had "a thick and shaggy mane of hair" and "fought like a cornered buffalo." Also like a buffalo, he "suffered wound after wound, yet had not died." In truth, the African Americans who signed up for service during the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century quickly earned a reputation as some of the fiercest fighters the Native Americans had ever encountered.
After the Civil War, the United States Colored Troops were organized into two regiments of black cavalry — the Ninth and Tenth — and four regiments of black infantry — the Thirty-Eighth, Thirty-Ninth, Fortieth, and Forty-First. The Tenth was the original, activated at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1867. In April 1869, the Thirty-Ninth and Fortieth were regrouped as the Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment, based in Fort Clark, Texas, which they regarded as a soldier's paradise. "Beautiful rivers, grass and grassy plains, teemed with game," wrote Captain William G. Muller, with the Twenty-Fourth. "The buffalo overran the plains in the autumn; immense herds of antelope, thousands of deer, wild turkeys, quail, duck, and geese were everywhere — not to speak of cattle run wild, by the thousands, free to everyone."
Seven months later, the Thirty-Eighth and Forty-First were combined into the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Regiment, stationed at Jackson Barracks in New Orleans. They were led mostly by white officers, although a handful of blacks were promoted into the officer ranks, among them Benjamin Grierson, first commander of the Tenth Cavalry; Edward Hatch, first commander of the Ninth; and Henry Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point. Flipper was the seventh African American to enter the military academy, where he encountered a measure of public racism from some white cadets who otherwise treated him with respect in private. "In short, there is a fearful lack of backbone," he wrote home. The whites for the most part were afraid to befriend him in front of other whites and ostracized him from their clubs. "There was no society for me to enjoy — no friends, male or female, for me to visit, or with whom I could have any social intercourse, so absolute was my isolation." He was simply "the colored cadet."
In July 1875, sections of the Tenth Cavalry and the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth Infantries were put under the command of Colonel William R. Shafter, a future general who directed them on a famous expedition across the plains through Comanche territory and who would later lead them into war in Cuba.
Various wars raged on for the better part of three decades, with black soldiers fighting alongside their white brothers in combat throughout the southwestern United States and up through the endless expanses of the Great Plains region. Over the course of innumerable campaigns, thirteen black enlisted men and six black officers earned the Medal of Honor, and countless other African Americans pitched in to support their nation with grunt labor that included developing roads, constructing buildings, and delivering mail.
In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison dispatched black troops to Wyoming during the storied Johnson County War, which climaxed in a shootout between large, wealthy, settled ranchers and small farmers more recent to the area. A band of Buffalo Soldiers headquartered in Fort Robinson, Nebraska, rode northwest by train to Gillette, in the northeastern corner of Wyoming, and from there marched farther northwest to Suggs, a railroad town, where they constructed Camp Bettens in mid-June, despite hostility from the local populace. Once entrenched near the center of the battle, they teamed up with white troops and a sheriff's posse to help quell the violence and capture a gang of killers hired by the ranchers. The white locals were not overly enamored of armed black soldiers intervening in what they regarded as a regional dispute. Nevertheless, the black troops stayed on for nearly a year before the issue was resolved and law and order was restored to the satisfaction of the federal government. One black soldier lost his life and two were wounded during the infamous clash that has come down through history known as the Battle of Suggs. A year following the conflict, Suggs was abandoned in favor of the new town of Arvada, on the opposite bank of the Powder River.CHAPTER 2
The Indian Wars, too, staggered to an end, most of the Native American tribes having been subdued and relocated to one of several Indian reservations that had come into existence since 1851. The United States had defeated another enemy in battle and shuttled its people onto vast parcels of mostly arid land where they came under the tutelage of religious leaders, many of them Quakers in the earlier years, whose job it was to "civilize" them and force them to adapt to a new way of life.
The end of military hostilities once again left thousands of Buffalo Soldiers without the means to earn a living, unless they were willing to return to their old jobs, which, while not exactly slave labor this time, was not far from it. For many, the only option was once again subservient labor at low pay for white employers who could afford their services. Once again, white America was unsettled by the prospect of so many black warriors returning from the wilderness, and many voiced concerns about potential uprisings similar to the slave revolts in ancient Rome.
The black soldiers who had served their country well in combat thought they had earned a proper place in American society, and when they found the sentiment was not shared by the majority of the population, they felt the range of emotions from disappointment to outrage, just as they had so many times before. Yet, although the "civilized" society they returned to was anything but open and welcoming, there had been some gains since Reconstruction ended in 1877. During the next thirteen years, real estate owned by black Americans tripled, and school enrollment and literacy rates improved more than 40 percent. In New York City, about thirteen thousand black residents paid taxes on $1.5 million worth of property they owned, and they had deposited a quarter of a million dollars in the banks. The numbers were even more impressive in Philadelphia, where the black population was double that of New York.
African Americans voted in greater numbers, with many elected to public office. Black colleges and universities including Howard, Morehouse, Fisk, and Tuskegee, sprung up during this time, propelling their students into the professional ranks as doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Yet all of this occurred within an apartheid environment, where separate never amounted to equal, and "uppity" blacks who didn't know their place were treated with scorn and often brutalized.
The African American writer Charles W. Chesnutt described the feelings of a black nurse in his 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition: "These old-time Negroes made her sick with their slavering over the white folks, who, she supposed, favored them and made much of them because they had once belonged to them — much the same reason why they fondled their cats and dogs. For her part, they gave her nothing but her wages, and small wages at that, and she owed them nothing more than equivalent service. It was purely a matter of business; she sold her time for their money. There was no question of love between them."
By this time, a generation had passed since the official end of slavery, and younger African Americans — both former soldiers and the offspring of former slaves — were eager to shuck off the trappings of their ancestors' servile past. Their forefathers had put their lives on the line for their country, and in some cases either died or were mangled by war for their efforts. They had absorbed the dazzling rhetoric of Frederick Douglass and the lessons taught by his oratorical successor, Booker T. Washington, the first head of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute. In 1895, Washington urged new generations of black Americans to work hard, save money, buy property, and rise into the middle class. And while all that advice was well and good if they were allowed to play on a level field, with no insurmountable obstacles strewn in their paths, that was not the reality, not for African Americans in general, and not for the soldiers returning from the wild frontier. What they found instead was a hostile environment, as mean-spirited and un-Christian as the one that had put them under the lash since their forebears arrived on slave ships. In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to dinner at the White House. It was the first such invitation of its kind, but the backlash was so vicious that Roosevelt never made another. The potential political cost was not worth the risk.
To keep black citizens from climbing further up the tottering ladder of equality, white America had launched a three-pronged assault designed to obliterate the type of progress that had occurred during Reconstruction. The all-out war against equal rights started with disenfranchisement in the voting booth. Beginning in 1890, while the Buffalo Soldiers were still in uniform dodging bullets and arrows out west, every southern state enacted laws that effectively prevented black people from voting, depriving them of the most essential democratic right of all. The second prong was segregation under the so-called Jim Crow laws, which took their name from an old minstrel routine, "Jumping Jim Crow," and came to be used as a derogatory stereotype of black Americans. No sooner had the federal government abolished slavery than states passed legislation that created separate racial treatment in housing, banking, the workplace, restaurants, unions, transportation, restrooms, drinking fountains, schools, and other facilities. In 1896, "separate but equal" became the law of the land in the South, and it was a de facto practice in the North as well.
Excerpted from The Roughest Riders by Jerome Tuccille. Copyright © 2015 Jerome Tuccille. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Cast of Main Characters xi
Part 1 The Landing 1
Part 2 The Hills 71
Part 3 The Collapse 179
Part 4 The Aftermath 227