0916. Buffalo Soldiers

Buffalo Soldier re-enactors on the parade ground.
Buffalo Soldier re-enactors on the parade ground.

After the Civil War, Congress authorized the creation of two all-black cavalry units: the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiments. These units became known as the Buffalo Soldiers. They were the first African-American professional soldiers in the country’s peacetime army. However, the 9th and 10th were on the front lines of a land erupting in war, one where racial tensions still allowed the army to fight against itself.

Sent out west in 1867, the 9th and 10th Cavalries quickly proved to be capable and courageous additions to the nation’s frontier military force, earning them the nickname "Buffalo Soldiers." The source of the nickname is unknown, but it is possible that American Indians gave them the name for one or both of two reasons: the way the black men’s hair resembled the hair of a bison and because of their bison-like toughness in combat.

Buffalo Soldiers’ honorable service exceeded other regiments in the contemporary army in combat effectiveness, soldiery, and loyalty. Buffalo Soldier regiments had lower rates of desertion and alcoholism than traditional army units.

Of the several companies that made up the 10th Cavalry, Company A served at Fort Larned from 1867 to 1869. Here, they faced resentment, jealousy, and bigotry brought about by the white infantry soldiers also stationed at Fort Larned. Even though separate companies usually kept to themselves, they did work alongside one another. It is not difficult to imagine the jealousy and resentment a company of infantry might feel on a long day’s march in the hot Kansas sun to be passed by the cavalry effortlessly striding by on their horses. The color of the 10th Cavalry’s skin added another level of resentment made possible by racism.

On January 2, 1869, the 10th Cavalry’s stables at Fort Larned burned, destroying huge stores of hay and grain, saddles, ammunition, and killing 39 horses. The cause of the fire was never identified, though the possibility exists it was intentional. If the fire was arson perpetrated by a jealous infantryman, no one took responsibility for the act. Nor was anyone punished. Instead of launching a full investigation, the post commander instead sent the 10th Cavalry to Fort Zarah to avoid further trouble. The 10th was the last cavalry unit to be stationed at Fort Larned before the fort was abandoned in 1878.

An estimated 12,000 African-American men served in the U.S. Army during the late-19th century. Many completed the entire 5-year enlistment despite the hardships of life on frontier campaigns, the loneliness of garrison duty, and the sting of the prevailing racism of the day. Companies of the 9th Cavalry protected some of America’s first national parks including Yosemite National Park. Segregated army units persisted through the Second World War. Later, Kansas was on the forefront of desegregation with the case of Brown V. Board.