Book Review: The Black Infantry in the West (Arlen L. Fowler) : WW

The Black Infantry in the West, 1869-1891, by Arlen L. Fowler, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1996, $12.95 paperback.

Arlen Fowler’s interest in the “buffalo soldiers” grew out of his 1952 assignment as a white officer in the 25th Armored Infantry Battalion, the last remnant of the all black 25th Infantry Regiment. Fowler became a firsthand witness to the prejudices and outright discrimination that still existed; his research showed that such attitudes and practices could be traced back to the organization of the first six black regiments (two cavalry and four infantry) between the summers of 1866 and 1867.

Fowler meticulously documents the black infantry’s service through military records, personal letters and newspaper accounts from the 1860s through 1890s. Black regiments served in the harshest environments, fought Indians throughout the West and drew the most monotonous duties. Even so, their alcoholism and desertion rates ranked among the lowest. (At times white truancy reached 20 to 50 percent higher than black truancy.) Commanders, reporters and other eyewitnesses noted the black units’ valor in battle, but most officers continued to consider it a blot on their record to serve with blacks or took a lower rank in order to serve in a white outfit, George Armstrong Custer among them.

This book offers fascinating insights into the struggles and pride of the black regiments. As William H. Leckie, author of The Buffalo Soldiers, states in the new foreword to this 1996 edition (hardcover edition printed by Greenwood Publishing Group, 1971), “Fowler’s book is still essential reading for a comprehensive understanding of the role of the black infantry on the expanding western frontier.”

Sierra Adare

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