Respite from War: Buffalo Soldiers at Vancouver Barracks, 1899-1900

By Shine, Gregory Paynter | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Respite from War: Buffalo Soldiers at Vancouver Barracks, 1899-1900


Shine, Gregory Paynter, Oregon Historical Quarterly


ON THE EVENING OF APRIL 3, 1899, the steamer Undine arrived at the wharf in Vancouver, Washington, following a short jaunt across the Columbia River from nearby Portland, Oregon. Although this was not an uncommon occurrence--the sternwheeler traveled like clockwork between Portland and Vancouver twice each day--a large crowd had gathered, including several officers from Vancouver Barracks, the local U.S. Army post. Among the Undine's usual consignment of passengers that evening were more than one hundred soldiers. Many eyes observed them closely as they disembarked, the crossed rifle insignia on their headgear familiar to many of those assembled. The insignia indicated that the soldiers were members of the infantry, not the artillery or cavalry, but perhaps it was the number atop the solid brass insignia that caught the crowd's attention--the "24" that glinted in the lights of the wharf as the soldiers gathered their belongings--and the color of the soldiers' skin. They were Buffalo Soldiers, African American soldiers from Company B of the Twenty-fourth United States Infantry Regiment. (1) The story of the men of Company B and their thirteen months at Vancouver Barracks contributes to our understanding of black western military and urban history, to the broader story of Buffalo Soldiers in the American West, and to the importance of Vancouver Barracks in the Buffalo Soldier diaspora. (2)

By the time of Company B's arrival at Vancouver Barracks, African Americans had carved out tenuous communities in Portland and Vancouver. There is little question that African Americans had run into hostile attitudes in the Oregon Country, especially south of the Columbia River. As a result of racial attitudes and restrictions, several African American pioneers--including Tumwater founder George Washington Bush and Centralia founder George Washington--chose to live north of the river, establishing a population base that led in part to official territorial status for Washington in 1853. By 1900, 2,514 blacks lived in Washington, ten of them in Vancouver--an increase of only seven since 1860. Across the river, although Oregon's total black population grew smaller between 1890 and 1900, the number living in Portland increased by 26 percent to 775, primarily because of the railroad and steamship connections to the region and national immigration trends. (3)

Company B was the first unit from one of the army's four African American regiments to serve as part of the garrison of soldiers at Vancouver Barracks. Still, we seem to know more about the Undine--the ferry that brought the soldiers to Vancouver--than the soldiers themselves. Company B represented the apex of a long and distinguished legacy of black military service in the United States. Although soldiers of African American ancestry fought in most early U.S. conflicts, including the American Revolution, the Civil War brought approximately 180,000 black men into the Union Army. By war's end, one-third of them had lost their lives. (4) Following the war, the War Department established six black regiments, including two cavalry units (the Ninth and Tenth) and four infantry units (the Thirty-eighth, Thirty-ninth, Fortieth, and Forty-first). In 1869, the infantry regiments reorganized into two--the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth. (5)

THE END OF THE CIVIL WAR motivated the U.S. Army to refocus on western conflicts with American Indians, which they did in earnest, recording 943 engagements from 1865 to 1898. Contrary to the conventional nature of Civil War battles, the majority of these actions were smaller, guerilla warfare skirmishes involving cavalry regiments, including the Ninth and the Tenth. The black infantry units had a very different experience from the white units, performing mundane activities such as clearing sagebrush, escorting supply trains, stringing telegraph wire, and building roads. Labor for such work was needed throughout the West, and the army further divided the Twenty-fourth Infantry in 1880, dispersing companies to various posts. …

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