The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum is for all military buffs.
Once overlooked in most history books and practically every Hollywood Western that depicted the Indian wars, buffalo soldiers finally began getting their due toward the end of the 20th century. But not until the beginning of the 21st century did a museum devote its collection to these post–Civil War black soldiers. The man to thank for that development is black military historian and Vietnam veteran Captain Paul J. Matthews. In January 2001 in Houston, Texas, he founded the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, which also honors black soldiers who fought before and after the American Wild West days. “We are the only museum in the world dedicated primarily to preserving the legacy and honor of the African-American soldier in the United States,” says Matthews.
First-time visitors to the museum may be surprised to learn that during the Revolutionary War some 5,000 black soldiers fought side by side with white Patriots and that by 1778 each brigade in General George Washington’s army averaged 43 black soldiers. By the beginning of the War of 1812 black soldiers had been barred from Army service, but in early 1813 Congress allowed blacks to enlist in the Navy, and perhaps 20 percent of its sailors were black. U.S. fighting men in the Mexican War were supposed to be all white, but blacks commonly worked as officers’ servants and did contribute to the war effort as soldiers and sailors. During the Civil War many blacks served in the Union Army (which was 12 percent black by war’s end). Dozens received the Medal of Honor for their actions in battle.
On July 28, 1866, Congress created six black regiments—the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st Infantry regiments (later reorganized as the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments) and the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments. Some troops were veterans of Civil War service, while others had been slaves. They were the first black professional soldiers in the U.S. peacetime Army, although there wasn’t exactly peace on the frontier. Many of these men would see action in the Indian wars. Exactly how the name “buffalo soldiers” came about is subject to debate. The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum explains it this way: “The nickname ‘buffalo soldiers’ began with the Cheyenne warriors in 1867. The actual Cheyenne translation was ‘wild buffalo.’ The nickname was given out of respect and the fierce fighting ability of the 10th Cavalry. Over time buffalo soldiers became a generic term for all African-American soldiers.”
The buffalo soldiers of the 19th century served at posts from Montana to Texas, assigned to protect westbound emigrants, miners, cowboys and townsfolk from marauders and Indian attacks. Conditions on the frontier were harsh, and soldiering duties were alternately boring and challenging. There were, of course, desertions and alcoholism, but generally to lesser degrees than in white regiments. The Army offered opportunity for many black men, and most of them served their country with pride.
The Houston museum showcases Civil War artifacts, including enlistment documents, epaulets and bullets, as well as items from the Western frontier, including regimental crest and hat devices from the black units. The buffalo soldier regiments served well during the Spanish-American War, although at San Juan Hill they were in the shadow of Theodore Roosevelt’s brave but no more effective Rough Riders. “If it hadn’t been for the black cavalry,” one of Roosevelt’s corporals recalled, “the Rough Riders would have been exterminated.” Charles Young, an 1889 West Point graduate who had served with the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments in Nebraska and Utah Territory, commanded a squadron of 10th Cavalry buffalo soldiers in Cuba. His uniform is on display at the museum.
The museum also highlights black participation in 20th-century wars, with artifacts from World War I through the Persian Gulf War. The museum has preserved interviews with the last four buffalo soldiers from World War II. “A feeling of pride and patriotism will be realized [by visitors] due to the gallant contributions of men and women across all cultures and ethnicities who have served in America’s Armed Forces,” says Matthews. The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum is at 1834 Southmore Blvd. Call 713-942-8920 or visit www.buffalosoldiermuseum.com.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.