Ferment on the Frontier: The Story of the Buffalo Soldiers

By Branson, Branley Allan; Branson, Mary Lou | The World and I, February 1998 | Go to article overview

Ferment on the Frontier: The Story of the Buffalo Soldiers


Branson, Branley Allan, Branson, Mary Lou, The World and I


During the U.S. Civil War, over 150,000 black men enlisted in the Union forces. In July 1865, more than 123,000 of them were still in uniform, divided among about 150 regiments. As the army mustered out its veterans, black and white alike, its numbers were greatly reduced. This led to a complete military reorganization in 1866, one result of which was the formation of four regiments of black infantry and two of cavalry.

That year, it became apparent that a strong military presence was required in the frontier country of Kansas, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, not to mention the Dakotas and Wyoming. Marauding Indians, land-baron cattle wars, trouble along the Mexican border, murderous politicians, rustlers, and outlaws plagued these regions. Among the all-black regiments (all of whose commissioned officers were white) were the soldiers of the 38th Infantry Regiment.

Soon after its formation the 38th, under the command of Gen. Winfield Hancock, was ordered to Kansas to repulse Indian attacks. In 1867 the regiment fought several battles with those adversaries. The regiment was then sent to New Mexico, to replace the all-white 135th Infantry, which had been transferred out. Indian marauding continued unabated during 1868-69. The 38th left New Mexico in 1869, and the state was without black soldiers for six years.

It was the activity of the two black cavalry units, however, that has since captured the attention and imagination of historians and readers alike. In 1866 General Grant ordered Gens. Philip Sheridan and William Sherman to organize one regiment each of Negro cavalry. These two units became the famous Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments, commonly known as the "Buffalo Soldiers." The men in these regiments played a major role in settling the western frontier, nearly always under the duress of prejudice and burdened by the lack of good horses, decent uniforms and boots, and even functional supplies and weapons.

Taking the field

Col. Edward Hatch was ordered to take command of the Ninth (after George Custer had turned it down in favor of the white Seventh), and Col. Benjamin Grierson assumed command of the Tenth. Both commanding officers immediately experienced common difficulties, not the least of which was finding competent, dedicated white officers who were willing to serve with black troopers.

They also had problems in finding recruits. In fact, their regiments were seldom up to full strength. Buffalo Soldiers were paid thirteen dollars per month, plus clothing, food, and (mostly substandard) shelter. Recruits, many of whom came from Louisiana and Kentucky, signed up for five-year enlistments. Often the men recruited were both illiterate and superstitious.

Hatch established permanent headquarters for the Ninth Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Arduous training started immediately, and in February 1867 the regiment was ordered to the Texas frontier. Two companies were stationed at Brownsville, right on the Mexican border, and ten companies went to San Antonio. The regiment finally got a few more officers from the War Department, and Hatch moved his troops to occupy Fort Stockton and Fort Davis, where they were to stand guard over hundreds of square miles of daunting, mountainous desert.

Grierson's Tenth Cavalry, also permanently headquartered at Fort Leavenworth, faced similarly exasperating problems, including the unavailability of good mounts or adequate uniforms. Grierson's insistence that the Tenth receive impartial treatment caused additional problems. Then an epidemic of cholera struck, killing a number of troopers. Despite this turmoil, Grierson was able to field eight companies of mounted black soldiers by the beginning of August 1867. At that time, he was ordered to establish field headquarters at Fort Riley, Kansas. There Grierson formed an additional four companies.

At this time, several belligerent Indian groups were wreaking havoc among the so-called Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory. …

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