Buffalo Soldier's Day
Honoring those who changed history
July 28, 2015 by Mark Dye
Throughout its history, America has had thousands of African Americans fight in its name, including during the Revolutionary War. But it wasn’t until after the Civil War that the military officially created all-black regiments and Calvary to serve during peacetime. With July 28 being “Buffalo Soldier Day,” we take a look at their proud heritage.
There are several stories about where the name “Buffalo Soldier” originated. Perhaps the most detailed centers around Private John Randall of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, who was escorting two civilians on a hunting trip in 1867. Along the way they were ambushed by 70 Cheyenne warriors, with the civilians being killed in the fighting. Randall managed to find safety under some railroad tracks, holding off the attack and killing 13 warriors in the process despite just having 17 bullets on hand. He suffered a gunshot wound (to the shoulder) and 11 different gashes, but his tenacity made an impression on the Cheyenne—they spread stories about a new type of Solider who fought with the strength and honor of a cornered buffalo, and even had thick, curly black hair to match.
While the initial term only referred to those in the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments, and the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments, which served on the western frontier, it later became a term applied to all black Soldiers until full integration.
Blacks who served in the military found their accommodations lacking, with worn out equipment and dilapidated housing the norm. They were placed on the edge of the frontier and tasked with limiting raids by Native Americans and outlaws, relocating tribes, and stopping settlers from homesteading on Indian lands. In short, they had some of the dirtiest and toughest jobs then available in the Army.
Yet, despite these challenges and second-class status (not to mention the racism they often experienced), all-black units had lower rates of desertion (at the time, nearly a third of whites deserted) and fewer courts martial than their white counterparts. These facts garnered them a great deal of respect, even by those who might not have supported full racial equality.
Buffalo Soldiers distinguished themselves in more than 200 conflicts in their 30 years of frontier service, fighting bravely and serving with honors. In fact, from just 1879 – 1890, 14 received the Medal of Honor for their heroics in battle.
It was the Battle for San Juan Hill, however, that propelled the Buffalo Soldiers into the history books. While a man by the name of Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt (and, later, President Roosevelt) has always been viewed as the central figure in the battle, it was the impressive service of the black Soldiers that helped to turn the tide. Their actions put them front and center for the first time, with the media hailing their exploits—an important aspect given the rising racial tensions of the time, many of which were hardening into hard-coded segregation in many areas of the country.
The tales of the Buffalo Soldiers eventually became relegated to history books, but started to spread once again after the Civil Rights movement, with many African Americans looking deeper into American history to find connections. Several films, a popular song by Bob Marley, a museum in Houston, Texas, and memorial at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., have also helped to weave their stories into our popular culture.
So on this Buffalo Soldiers Day, we honor the trailblazing men (and even one woman: Cathay Williams, who dressed as a man in order to serve) who helped change the course of American military history.