Tracing History of Black Army Units That Served after Civil War in West.(BOOKS)

Article excerpt

Byline: Alan Gropman, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

"The Black Regulars," a history of the historic black Army units-9th and 10th Cavalry, 24th and 25th Infantry during the last third of the 19th century - is a must read for anybody interested in African-American military history, or the history of the American West. It is more than an outstanding book: It is the best chronicle of these faithful, effective and highly professional soldiers published to date.It is scrupulously and imaginatively researched and documented, effectively written, well paced and illustrated, objective, and thorough.

We are, fortunately, past the stage of informing Americans that blacks served heroically after the Civil War in the West in histories that, for the most part, tell only of the faithfulness and heroism of the black troopers.This history covers all the bases, probes the dark side as well as the laudatory, and in the process explodes some myths. Black soldiers had the same human failings as whites troopers, and we learn about rowdy (and randy) troops.

But as William Dobak and Thomas Phillips point out, alcohol caused fewer problems for blacks in uniform than for whites, black soldiers were generally better behaved than whites, and the desertion rate for black units (certainly a key indicator of professionalism) was a small fraction of that of white outfits. Over the three decades covered here, because blacks reenlisted at a much higher rate than whites (and, again, had a much lower desertion rate) the black regular units became highly dependable - probably the most reliable regiments in the Army.

One senior officer pondered the success of the Buffalo Soldiers and the black infantry and concluded peacetime soldiering attracted "as a rule only . . . the poorest classes of whites in this country," but the Army was "probably the best position that is offered to a black man, and . . . the United States can probably receive the services of the best." According to Mr. Dobak and Mr. Phillips, this commander's "observation was close to the truth."

Service in the West in the closing decades of the century "was not a life of high adventure," for black or white soldiers the authors tell us, "with each day bringing fresh Indians and outlaws to chase.Their task - the entire Army's task - was to preserve order, which they did in the 1870s by trying to ensure that Indians left their reservation only to hunt, in the 1880s by keeping white intruders out of those same reservations, and in the 1890s by guarding property during labor strikes. They escorted railroad surveyors and track layers, built roads, and strung miles of telegraph and telephone wire themselves. …