Buffalo Soldiers: A Complicated Story

One of the greatest stories about African-American soldiers in our history is that of the segregated African-American cavalry and infantry units that were formed after the Civil War to fight in what became known as the Indian Wars. These soldiers would later become known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

In the beginning, the units were formed by men who had fought in the Colored Regiments for the Union Army, but after the Civil War, and due to the extremes of poverty and lack of work for newly freed Black people, many more men enlisted in these segregated units for the benefits and privileges that went along with serving in the military, including the steady pay.

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You will hear a handful of these men in this video explaining, in their own words taken from written documents, their reasons for why they chose to enlist. You will also hear some personal accounts of their experiences in the Indian Wars.

There were two cavalry units, the 9th and 10th Cavalries, and two infantry units, the 24th and the 25th Infantry. These soldiers went west to participate in the western expansion, to protect and defend settlers (and, ironically, Indians), to help build infrastructure, to deliver mail, and more.

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This history is complicated and often contradictory. The Buffalo Soldiers, former slaves, did indeed fight against the Indians in the Indian wars, but they also were commanded to guard and protect Creek and Chickasaw in Oklahoma “Indian Country” from raiding Indian tribes like the Kiowa and others. They also were used to forcefully remove White settlers who were illegally taking land from the Indians.

It was actually the Indians who gave these Black soldiers the moniker “Buffalo Soldiers.” They recognized the fighting skills of these Black soldiers and respected them for their warrior skills and hearts. The Buffalo Soldier story is a uniquely American story, a story made up of a complex mix of ironic contradictions and great courage.

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Indeed, the Buffalo Soldiers’ story is one of the many stories braided and woven into the tapestry of our complex centuries-long history. That history includes the great and noble story written about the struggle for freedom from English tyranny. While that story was being written, another was too—that of the institutionalization of the horrors of chattel slavery and the Civil War.

Those two stories are braided and woven into another story that was also being written at the same time about American expansion and the genocidal wars against the Indian nations who were here before the European arrivals. These stories, and many others, make up this immense, colorful, and still developing tapestry that is the American story with all of its glories and all of its naked contradictions.

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It is a human story made up of great examples of courage and brotherhood, intertwined with examples of desperate cruelties, painful misunderstandings, and outright injustices that arise out of the realities of prejudice and hate. Our story is full of countless accounts of incredibly noble character, generous self-sacrifice and courageous survival, and a deep desire to know and enjoy the gifts of freedom.

Just as all human stories are, it is full of stories, too, of unjust suffering, hatred, and prejudice. We have a duty to praise all that is good in it, as well as a corresponding duty to learn the important, proper, and beneficial lessons from the errors in it so that we can continue growing in our long effort to live into the ideals expressed in our founding documents.

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The Buffalo Soldier story would continue on after the Indian Wars that ended in 1890. Buffalo Soldiers would participate in the Spanish American War, WWI, and WWII, until the military was desegregated by Presidents Roosevelt and Truman some 50 years after the end of the Indian Wars.

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These Buffalo Soldiers gained the respect of their fellow soldiers wherever they fought, doing so with courage and distinction in every one of those eras. Indeed, Teddy Roosevelt himself would praise the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalries for making the charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War successful.

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The Buffalo Soldiers rightfully bear an honored name in our American military history. The Veterans Site honors that history and those who made it. They lived up to and performed their service with honor, dignity, courage, and great self-sacrifice. They were always, as their motto says: Ready and Forward.

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