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African American Infantrymen in America's West

Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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In the wake of the Civil War, the West offered perceived opportunities for nearly every element of society. So it was that some black Americans banded together in groups of 'exodusters,' who crossed the Mississippi River bent on establishing a new society in Kansas. Other blacks came on their own to farm, set up businesses, or engage in various livelihoods, including the profession of arms.

Indeed, a number of blacks, many of whom previously had been slaves, joined the Army as a potential avenue to advancement and adventure. They saw the Army as a means to economic or social betterment. Perhaps the promise of education also motivated some knowledge-thirsty men, particularly after the Freedmen's Bureau, which had established schools for blacks, shut down in 1866. Individuals who had been displaced by the Civil War could find food, shelter, clothing and to some extent medical benefits, by entering the military.

Then, too, certain veterans who had served in the Union forces, as well as other blacks inspired by what those veterans had accomplished during the war, thought soldiering was well worth continuing. Jacob Wilks, who had spent more than three years fighting for the Union cause as a member of the 116th Colored Volunteer Infantry, fell into this category. Consequently, he signed on for a hitch in one of the Regular Army units formed in 1866. In other cases, young men whose fathers or family members had served in the Civil War decided to follow suit and join the Army. George Conrad, Jr., who became a private in Company G, 9th Cavalry, after enlisting in the fall of 1883, said: 'When my father went to the army, old master told us he was gone to fight for us niggers' freedom. My daddy was the only one that came back out of 13 men that enlisted….'

Others thought that, after the expiration of their tour of duty, they might parlay an honorable discharge into civilian employment with the government, a goal that Samuel Harris gave as one of his reasons for enlistment. Horace Wayman Bevins, a native of Accomack County, Va., stopped attending Hampton School because he had 'a great desire for adventure and to see the Wild West.' Charles Creek turned to the Army as a chance to break with the drudgery of field work. Creek frankly stated, 'I got tired of looking at mules in the face from sunrise to sunset, thought there must be a better livin [sic] in this world.' George Bentley, who at 26 signed on for five years, said he joined the Army simply to get away from his mother and a brother, neither of whom he liked.

Sampson Mann went to the recruiter out of 'devilment.' After Mann's mother caught him 'doin' wrong' by selling 'moonshine' to the neighbors, she demonstrated her displeasure and 'whomped' him twice. Since Mann was told at the recruiting station 'how good it was in the Army,' he thought the military might be better than facing future maternal wrath. Mansfield Robinson went to an Evansville, Ind., recruiter on a lark because one of Robinson's friends, who wanted to enlist, talked him into going along. The officer on duty convinced the disinterested man to take the entrance examination. Although the friend failed the test, Robinson passed and 'decided on the spot to enlist, and stayed in the Army until retirement.'

Whatever the motives, the option of military service would have been moot after the Civil War had not Radical Republicans and others championed the cause of blacks entering the ranks of the Regular Army, previously the exclusive domain of whites. The proposition of African Americans forming part of the nation's standing peacetime force sparked considerable debate in many forums, including the halls of Congress.

Eventually such opposition on Capitol Hill went down in defeat. In 1866, Congress–for a variety of reasons that ranged from rewarding officers and the black troops they had commanded during their Civil War service to simply providing employment for large numbers of freed slaves–legislated six segregated black units, the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments, along with the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st Infantry regiments, into existence. (See 'Army's Unluckiest Regiment,' Wild West June 1991 for more on the 38th Infantry.) Three years later, a reorganization of the national military structure brought about the consolidation of the original four outfits of foot soldiers into two organizations, the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments.

For the remainder of the century, the two cavalry and two infantry regiments comprised approximately 9 percent of the men who wore the Army uniform. During this period, they usually carried out their duties on the frontier, away from the centers of white population, supposedly because of political pressures to keep blacks from being stationed in Northern states.

Some of the earliest African-American foot soldiers posted to the West served in Texas, the 24th Infantry gathering there at a time when the area was considered a'soldier's paradise,' with beautiful rivers and grassy plains that teemed with game. The black infantry units also served in Arizona, Colorado, the Dakotas, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico and Utah. As in the Lone Star State, they occupied and maintained outposts that sometimes were isolated and lonely, and participated in the full gamut of garrison and field duties. The men drilled often and sometimes even engaged in physical fitness exercises that were beginning to come into vogue in the late-Victorian era. They stood inspection, did their turn at guard mount and similar martial duties, and paraded. They also went to the target range. The soldiers were assigned many nonmilitary physical tasks known as fatigues–cutting ice (where possible), securing wood for lumber and fuel, working as teamsters or day laborers for the quartermaster, serving as janitors in the post exchange, and picking wild berries near the fort to supplement the issue ration. From time to time, the soldiers chased after military prisoners, chiefly deserters from white regiments, although they sometimes went in pursuit of black comrades. Field maneuvers increasingly became part of their routine, with emphasis being placed on war games.

When called upon, black infantrymen also responded to disturbances that sometimes flared up in the final days of war between the American Indians and the people who came to displace them. While the cavalry performed daring deeds recorded by newspaper reporters and artists, black infantry units faithfully played their part, too. Infantrymen, blacks and whites, were called 'walk-a-heaps' by some Indians because these soldiers had to travel on foot rather than on horseback like the cavalry.

That is not to say that the walk-a-heaps never took advantage of mounts available to them; they did, and when this happened they temporarily became mounted infantry. In Texas in the early 1870s, Captain F.M. Crandal and some of the rank and file from his Company A, 24th Infantry, were using mules and horses to pull wagons when a raiding party attacked them between Fort Stockton and Fort Davis. Another time an officer and his patrol were surprised and 200 of their mules were run off by Indians who could strike swiftly on horseback against the slower foot soldiers.

Years later, and far to the north, during the spring of 1890, Company H of the 25th responded to the killing of three prospectors near Montana's Flathead Lake, and the subsequent shooting of one Kutenai and the lynching of two others, by moving into the area as a deterrent to further mayhem. Later in the year, black soldiers were called out as reinforcements during the Ghost Dance of 1890-91, with several companies gathering at Fort Keogh, Mont., as a ready reserve.

Besides forays against native peoples, African-American foot soldiers were sometimes even dispatched to quell strikes, such as those that broke out in the mines of Idaho during 1892. In 1894 came the threat posed by Coxey's band of jobless anti-railroad men (known as Coxey's Army), who were organized by social reformer Jacob Sachlee Coxey after the panic of 1893. Two companies of the 25th Infantry at Fort Missoula, Mont., set up a temporary camp near the railroad depot in Missoula while another company went out to guard trestles that might be targeted by dissidents for destruction. The soldiers had orders to 'be prudent and cool in the discharge' of their assignment to protect railway property and maintain peace. Despite that admonition, a minor incident occurred when some local civilians heckled two railroad employees who were continuing to work during the strike. A sentry from the 25th stepped in, and after one of the civilians reportedly 'refused to budge' despite twice being warned to move on, the sentry decided to prod him with a bayonet. The civilian withdrew. The sentry was to be served with a warrant for arrest on a charge of assault. According to one account, 'there was some difficulty in serving the warrant and for a moment a ruction seemed imminent.' Matters did not come to a head, however, and calm returned.

Another less dramatic but more unusual duty came when some of the men of the 25th Infantry took part in an 1896-97 bicycle experiment, an early effort to mechanize the American military. A group of adventurous volunteers in Montana peddled their way from Fort Missoula to Fort Harrison, north of Helena, then moved on to Fort Yellowstone and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, where they tested their equipment and stamina traveling across the rugged terrain there before coming home–a grueling 800-mile journey. The next year, this hardy team wheeled off from Fort Missoula toward St. Louis. They completed the grueling 1,900-mile trek, averaging 52 miles a day in the process.

For the most part, brave and determined black infantrymen did everything they could to do their duty well. As one officer observed during an 'excessively hot' march, the white infantry arrived in camp very tired, but the black infantry showed they still were ready to give something extra. After reaching their destination at the end of the long day, these black soldiers threw off their equipment and began to practice their military drill. They carried on for an hour, 'largely at the double time, completing the maneuvers by a grand charge on a neighboring hill which was taken with a rush amid great cheers.' The following day, when the temperature soared to 'over 100 degrees in the shade,' the black infantrymen 'tramped along with a springy step, joshing each other,' their bursts of laughter contrasting sharply with their white counterparts, who, 'bowed under their heavy packs, seemed half-dead with fatigue.' Similar praise came from a white cavalry sergeant who had seen some of the black infantry troops at work in the summer of 1869. He said these men 'were well adapted to the life and the duties of a soldier' and that 'many of them were exceedingly clean and neat soldiers.'

Such indications of professionalism remained very much a part of the story of black infantrymen, as was the case with their comrades in the cavalry. Although their diligence and dedication to duty were seldom rewarded, African-American soldiers received some recognition for their higher re-enlistment rates and fewer incidents of alcoholism. Desertion ranked as an even worse personnel problem for the U.S. Army in the 19th century, but was rare in the black regiments. The 24th Infantry boasted the lowest desertion rate in the entire Army from 1880 through 1886, and it shared this honor with the 25th Infantry in 1888. At that time, the secretary of war paid tribute to the black troops: 'There are two regiments of infantry and two of cavalry of colored men, and their record for good service is excellent. They are neat, orderly, and obedient, are seldom brought before court martial, and rarely desert.'

One more manifestation of unit pride could be found in the excellent bands that formed part of the black regiments. The 25th Infantry's band was very highly regarded. During the summer of 1883 an invitation came from Minneapolis' Shattuck Military School for the musicians of the 25th to perform at the school. The commandant of the school later commented, 'The band proved to be all that we had expected from the reports which had reached us before we heard them.' The same observer pronounced them,'skilled in the use of their instruments, and orderly in their deportment.' On September 13, 1883, the bandsmen from the 25th pleased crowds at the Minnesota State Fair. Some five years later, on Memorial Day, they 'discoursed the sweetest music ever heard in Missoula,' according to one account. In 1895, the musicians, along with seven companies from the regiment, performed'smart maneuvers' and offered stirring marches when writer Mark Twain came to visit Fort Missoula.

The popularity of these music-makers even prompted the regiment to erect a bandstand in front of the Missoula court-house right after the 25th reported to the area. The band offered regular concerts at the courthouse on Thursday evenings, thereby cementing good relations between the civilian population and the personnel of the regiment. One time, the entire band played at the funeral of a prominent Missoula citizen, C.P. Higgins, whose passing brought an estimated 600 mourners to pay their respects. Bands also provided accompaniment for 'hops,' or dances. The string players among the bandsmen at Fort Missoula entertained at an 'Old Folks' program attended by the town's 'best people.' Proceeds from this event went to benefit the local Episcopal church. The strings additionally provided music until midnight at a domino-mask dance held in Missoula.

In Texas, a similar use of black infantry musicians was recalled by Elijah Cox, an old-timer and fiddle player of the 25th Infantry, when he reminisced in a 1924 newspaper interview: 'There wasn't none of them turkey trots in that day. Folks danced the schottische, the polka, the square dance, and the quadrille. We had real music in them days, too. I'll bet I can play 300 waltzes, all of them different, without stopping.'

Locals in many Western communities also could watch some of the athletic competitions that were held by troops at the forts located near towns. Sometimes there were baseball games that pitted soldiers against civilians. Occasionally soldiers from one fort would travel to another post to compete, which no doubt drew local spectators from town. And there were other occasions for black soldiers to mingle with townspeople and others outside their circle. Civilians might even go to a nearby post for such offerings as open-air Sunday services, where they heard gospel songs accompanied by the band and the post chaplain's daughter at the organ, as was the case at Fort Keogh.

Sometimes white clergymen were assigned to black regiments, but by the 1880s African-American chaplains began to be assigned to the black infantry regiments, beginning with Reverend Allen Allensworth of the 24th and Reverend Theophilus Steward of the 25th. Both these remarkable men of the cloth helped many soldiers in their congregation to understand that they played an important role in the opening up of the region. These ministers not only taught lessons about right and wrong but also provided educational fundamentals so that black infantry troops could learn to read and write, and gain other knowledge that would help them both in and out of the Army.

The two chaplains hoped many of these soldiers would have successes that were similar to their own. For instance, Allensworth hailed from Kentucky, where he had been enslaved before the Civil War. When the fighting broke out, he escaped from his bondage and fled north. For a time he served with the Illinois volunteers, assisting with hospital work. He eventually joined the U.S. Navy and ended the war as a petty officer.

Allensworth, whose quest for learning caused him to acquire the then illegal arts of reading and writing while 'playing school' with a slave owner's child, continued on the path of education. After the war's end, he explored new roads to advancement in civilian life, beginning with a brief stint with the Freedman's Bureau. Eventually he returned to school to complete a degree in divinity.

After writing President Grover Cleveland that he relished the 'opportunity to show, in behalf of the race, that a Negro can be an officer and a gentleman,' Reverend Allensworth secured his appointment as chaplain of the 24th Infantry in 1886. Conscious of the color line that existed, he continually had to balance his own vision of the future for African Americans with the harsh political and social realities of his time.

In spite of the narrow path he was forced to walk, Allensworth dedicated himself to spreading the gospel and providing education for his soldiers. While at Fort Bayard in New Mexico Territory, for example, he wrote one of the first army manuals on education for enlisted personnel. Innovative and diligent, he served the black soldiers and the Army well for two decades. As partial reward for his devotion, when he retired in 1906, Allensworth was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and thus became the highest-ranking black officer in the U.S. Army to that date.

But for most of the men who served in the ranks, Allensworth's story seemed like a fairy tale. For the most part, their own life in the Army usually brought meager rewards, while their daily experiences at military posts were boring and on the thankless, thorny side.

Detached service was a welcome break from the routine drudgeries of the fort, but could be dangerous. This was the case when on May 11, 1889, Major Joseph Washington Wham took charge of more than $28,000 in gold and silver. This hefty sum was being transported to pay troops at various posts in Arizona Territory. The paymaster had an escort of several men from the 10th Cavalry and 24th Infantry along to protect the money. Since a private was paid only $13 per month, their cargo must have seemed like a king's ransom to the detail, as the officer, his white clerk and 11 black enlisted men rolled along in two mule-drawn vehicles.

Near Cedar Spring, Ariz., the small convoy halted. A large boulder blocked the road ahead. The ranking NCO (noncommissioned officer), Sergeant William Brown of Company C, 24th Infantry, called to several of the men to leave their vehicles and help remove the obstruction. Almost as soon as he gave the order, a shout came from the nearby rocks not to disturb the blockade; then a volley rang out from concealed assailants who had improvised barricades to flank the roadway and offer protection for the ambush. The driver of the lead wagon toppled first with a shot in the stomach. His mules bolted, and in the ensuing exchange of fire, one of the animals was killed, bringing the first vehicle to a halt.

The outlaws raked the escort with a hail of lead. Sergeant Brown was hit in the stomach, but he grabbed a rifle from one of the other men who had been struck, and continued to blaze away until a second round ripped into his arm. The other NCO in the detachment, Corporal Isaiah Mays, also of the 24th, kept up a return fire until driven to seek shelter underneath a wagon. As the barrage continued, Mays crawled out of range. He then went off for help to a ranch some two miles away from the ambush site. When he returned, he found nine men in the contingent wounded. The entire escort was cited for bravery, while Brown and Mays were presented the Medal of Honor for their valor. Their assailants, however, made off with the money and were never brought to justice.

This devotion to duty exhibited by Brown, Mays and their comrades came in part from pride in the uniform and loyalty to comrades. And such outstanding examples of bravery were one reason why black infantrymen assumed the nickname 'buffalo soldiers' (which originated with the Plains Indians as a term of respect). As one writer said, 'So proudly was the name carried, that the infantrymen adopted what the horse soldiers had won.' (See 'Buffalo Soldiers Won Their Spurs,' Wild West February 1995 for additional details.) Indeed, given their fine record, it seems that the black walk-a-heaps more than deserved to share this name with black cavalrymen as these 'common' soldiers helped change the face of the West in the late 1800s.

This article was written by John P. Langellier and originally published in the February 1997 issue of Wild West Magazine.

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