Buffalo Soldier Regiment: History of the Twenty-Fifth United States Infantry, 1869-1926

By John H. Nankivell | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION TO THE BISON BOOKS EDITION

Quintard Taylor Jr.

Few groups in African-American history have been more revered and reviled than the “buffalo soldiers,” some twenty-five thousand men who served between 1869 and 1942 in four regiments: the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantries. Along with black cowboys, these troops were the first African-American Western historical figures to capture public attention in the 1960s. Black Americans, however, had long derived considerable pride from the soldiers’ role as the “sable arm” of the U.S. government. Some soldiers consciously embraced that role. “We made the West,” boasted Tenth Cavalry Pvt. Henry McCombs, “[we] defeated the hostile tribes of Indians; and made the country safe to live in.”1

Contemporary observers and historians focus much of their attention and praise on the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries. Indian fighting in the West fell primarily to cavalrymen, who, without garrison duties, were free to move into the field on short notice. Consequently it was the infantry which assumed guard, fatigue, and post maintenance assignments. Moreover many off-post infantry assignments, although vitally important to the military, did little to enhance the foot soldier’s prestige, particularly with civilians. The Twentyfifth Infantry in Texas, for example, escorted stagecoaches and wagon trains, built military roads, and constructed telegraph lines between remote posts. Occasionally pressed into service for scouting patrols, infantry detachments walked as many as one hundred miles while on assignment. The saga of these soldiers remained unknown to the public until John Nankivell, a EuropeanAmerican captain in the Twenty-fifth Infantry, compiled and published the regiment’s records in 1927, in his History of the Twenty-fifth Regiment, United States Infantry, 1869–1926, giving the African-American infantryman his first voice in the annals of U.S. military history.2

The Civil War permanently established African Americans in the nation’s military. The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, organized on the day of the Emancipation Proclamation, 1 January 1863, was the first officially recognized African-American military unit. By the end of the Civil War nearly two hundred thousand black men had worn the uniform of the U.S. Army and proved their courage in battle from Fort Wagner on the Atlantic Ocean to Honey Springs in the Indian Territory.3

After the war, Congress quickly reduced the authorized strength of the U.S. Army from 1.5 million troops to its pre-war total of sixteen thousand men. The possibility of intervention in Mexico and of intensified warfare with Native Americans as the post-war nation turned westward prompted Congress in 1866 to increase the army’s size to fifty-four thousand troops. That legislation also created six regiments of African-American troops, marking the beginning of continuous service of black soldiers in the U.S. military. Two of the regiments were designated the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries while

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