Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Buffalo Soldiers: Blacks in Blue

They endured prejudice, discrimination, and constant danger, but the Buffalo Soldiers were famous for their bravery, dedication and resilience.

Buffalo Soldiers was the term used to describe all-black regiments who fought alongside the white solders during the Indian Wars, fighting with little recognition for their sacrifice. In fact it is the Native American Indians, possibly the Cheyenne, who are credited with creating the name Buffalo Soldier, believed to be a reference to the dark, curly hair of the soldiers.

It is also believed that the Native American Indians viewed the black soldiers with great respect, recognizing their resilience and determination. As the buffalo are considered a sacred animal to Native American Indians, they honored the black soldiers by linking them to the buffalo. The soldiers didn't seem to mind the moniker of Buffalo Soldier--they used the buffalo as the central figure in their regimental crest.

On September 21,1866, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the troops of the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry were organized specifically as black regiments through an act of Congress. There were several black regiments in the Union Army during the American Civil War, including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, but only four established by Congress in 1866--two cavalry and two infantry all-black peacetime regiments.

Photograph of Corporal in the 9th Calvary. 
Image taken in Denver, Colorado in 1890 by U.S. Army personnel.


The men were also referred to as "Blacks in Blue." Their commanders were both white and black officers, including Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point, but all of the soldiers in these regiments were black. Many officers were vocal about their prejudice against the Buffalo Soldiers, though some tempered their prejudice with praise. General William T. Sherman spoke against the Blacks in Blue during many social occasions, but according to a quote in The Story of the Great American West, Sherman also said, "They [Buffalo Soldiers] are good troops, they make first-rate sentinels, are faithful to their trust, and are as brave as the occasion calls for." In fact, thirteen enlisted men and six officers from the black regiments earned Medals of Honor for their service during the Indian Wars.  

During the Apache wars that took place between 1870 and 1880, the 9th and 10th Buffalo Soldier Calvary regiments were said to match their fellow soldiers in endurance during "furnace-like heat." They were greatly admired during these occasions by Frederic Remington, a highly-skilled artist who followed the troops and captured the American West in his paintings. Remington said, "They may be tired and they may be hungry, but they do not see fit to augment their misery by finding fault with everybody and everything. In this particular they are charming men with whom to serve. Officers have often confessed to me that when they are on long and monotonous field service and are troubled with depression of spirits, they have only to go about the campfires of the Negro soldier in order to be amused and cheered by the clever absurdities of the men...As to their bravery: "Who will they fight?" That is easily answered. They have fought many, many times. The old sergeant sitting near me, as calm of feature as a bronze statue, once deliberately walked over a Cheyenne rifle pit and killed his man. One little fellow near him once took charge of stampeded cavalry horses when Apache bullets were flying." One of Remington's more famous illustrations shows troopers, both black and white, attempting to rescue a wounded 10th Cavalryman as Apache bullets hit the ground surrounding them.

Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry, some wearing buffalo robes. 
Photo taken in 1890 at Fr. Keogh, Montana by a member of the U.S. military.


The Buffalo Soldiers had high reenlistment and low desertion rates, which may be explained by the fact that they were treated with more respect by the U.S. Army than other black civilians after the Civil War. They were said to have an "esprit de corps" (morale) that matched the best white regiments. In the words of historian David Nevin, author of The Old West: The Soldiers: "They fought frequently and hard, deserting far less often than whites and holding onto both discipline and morale during winter marches when white soldiers faltered. Yet they remained cordoned off in their own units, segregated from the rest of the Army, and when they went into action field dispatches mentioned them as having been merely 'engaged.' White officers shunned duty with the black regiments, regarding it as a form of exile. (In a letter home, one young soldier rationalized his stay with a black regiment by proclaiming, 'I won't have near as much to do with them personally as you would with a black cook.')" 

White soldiers called the black troops Brunettes, or Africans. The fact that they devised a name to distinguish them from other soldiers speaks for the prejudice they held against these men who fought hard, protected the pioneers and their fellow soldiers, and died as loyal members of the U.S. Army. It was believed that many white soldiers viewed military service as a temporary refuge from the poverty they faced after the American Civil War, whereas the Buffalo Soldiers viewed their service as a career, a career that they cherished in spite of racial discrimination, which they would have found in any career following the Civil War. This discrimination was apparent in many ways, including the issuing of supplies, which were often inferior to those given white soldiers, but the Buffalo Soldiers accepted what they were given without complaint. They were also provided with inferior food and shelter, and again accepted their circumstances without complaint. 

On the other hand, there were many white soldiers who recognized the equality, and in some cases, superiority of the Buffalo Soldiers. In fact, when the colonel of the 3rd Infantry told "those nigger troops" of the 10th Cavalry they could not stand near his own men during a parade, he was brutally cursed and reprimanded by their commander, the white Colonel Benjamin Grierson of the 10th Calvary. In some circumstances, their all-black status was preferred. The 9th Calvary was called upon to replace the 6th Cavalry during Wyoming's Johnson County Land War in 1892 because the members of the 6th cavalry were swayed by the political pressures of the battle. They created Camp Bettens and remained in this hostile environment for over a year until the tension between the parties calmed.  

The Buffalo Soldiers were also among 5000 black men who served in the Spanish-American War. They served as some of the first National Park Rangers in California's Sierra Nevada. They are responsible for the creation and use of the Ranger Hat, or "Smokey Bear Hat" worn by park rangers of the time.

The Buffalo Soldiers suffered the most severe prejudice in Texas. Their regiments were repeatedly attacked in Rio Grande City, Brownsville, and Houston. Nevertheless, they continued to enlist, fight, and survive. The 92nd Infantry "Buffalo Division" served during World War II. The last Buffalo Soldier units--the 27th and 28th Horse Cavalry Regiments--were disbanded on December 12, 1951. The oldest living Buffalo Soldier survived to the age of 111. Mark Matthews died on September 6, 2005, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cowboys Build Town for Re-enactment of Old West Shootouts


Raccoon Forks, which is located in a clearing not far from Valparaiso, Nebraska, is not an actual ghost town. No one lives there, and no one lived there in the past, though it may appear as if that could have been possible with buildings that include a bank, jail, saloon and other buildings considered requirements in Old West towns. The first hint visitors might have that this is not an actual ghost town is the pristine condition of the buildings--most ghost towns, even restored ghost towns, look old and faded.

The Blue River Regulators, a group of Nebraska Old West re-enactors, created Raccoon Forks by building one or two shops at a time, doing their best to maintain a sense of reality to the place, and any film maker will tell you that if you want to know the true nature of a time, as far as architecture, costume, language, and weaponry, consult the local re-enactor! The Blue River Regulators follow the history as best they can with cowboys, cowgirls, madams and their soiled doves, law enforcement, and even in the use of names, such as Yuma Kid and Cactus Jack. According to the Blue River Regulators website,

They also use the traditional Old West weaponry, with original and reproductions of Colts, Winchesters, and Remington rifles. They participate in re-enactments of Old West shootouts during their monthly meetings.

GunsmokeBonanza, and Have Gun, Will Travel are some of my personal favorite television shows, and these classics depicting life in the Old West also serve as the inspiration for the group and the construction of Raccoon Forks. Raccoon Forks is a small town as the Regulators only have about 40 members, but many Old West towns started small unless there was a gold strike.

The Blue Ridge Regulators are also members of The National Congress of Western Shootists, which is based in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and is "dedicated to the historic preservation and re-enactment of the Old West" according to a recent article by World-Herald staff writer Cara Pesek. There are currently 20 similar groups in 13 U.S. states, but the Blue River Regulators are the only group in Nebraska. Nearly all of the members are hunters or gun enthusiasts in addition to being fans of the Old West and study traditional cowboy shooting methods before participating in shootouts.

I am still waiting for an answer to a request for an interview and will update when I receive more information. I'm not a hunter and do not practice with guns, but those of you who do might want to visit this fun little town. It is my understanding that safety classes are required prior to participation, though.

For more information you can visit the Blue River Regulators website or contact: Marshal John "Yuma Kid" Irons at ironsj@hotmail.com; or Deputy Marshal John "Cactus Jack" Butcher at desert_rat 55@hotmail.com.




Colorado's Deadliest Floods

You may have noticed fewer posts over the past year. I've been working on a history book about flooding in Colorado. Colorado...