Facts & Information about the African-American Cavalry Regiment known as Buffalo Soldiers in Black History
Buffalo Soldiers summary:Originally part of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment, the Buffalo Soldiers became a separate group on September 21, 1866. This occasion took place at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Native American tribes nicknamed the African American soldiers of the 10th Cavalry Regiment “Buffalo Soldiers.” In time all U.S. regiments formed of African American soldiers during that time became known as Buffalo Soldiers, which included the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 24th and 25th Infantry, Regiments. The Buffalo Soldiers were active between 1866 and 1951.
The United States Congress declared the Buffalo Soldiers as peacetime regiments consisting of African Americans only and being part of the regular U.S. Army. Six regiments were authorized to be manned by black soldiers but by 1869, there was a downsizing of all troops and the black regiments were cut down to two Infantry regiments and two cavalry regiments.
Buffalo Soldiers in The Civil War
Buffalo Soldiers were instrumental in the American Civil War. They were mostly stationed at posts within the Great Plains as well as the Southwestern regions of the nation. These soldiers fought bravely against the Indians and a total of nineteen Medals of Honor were earned by them. Some of the battles of the buffalo Soldiers and their predecessors included the fight at Cabin Creek and at Honey Springs in the summer of 1863/64 and the Red River War in 1875.
The first black soldier to graduate from West Point, in 1877, was Henry O. Flipper. He became the commander of the 10th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Sill, which lay in Indian Territory.
Part of the duties of Buffalo soldiers, aside from engaging in battle, was protecting the civilized Indian tribes on the reservations. They also were keepers of law and order in general and they were active in building roads and military structures.
The oldest Buffalo Soldier, Mark Matthews, died on September 6, 2005. He is interred at Arlington National Cemetery. He was 111 years old.
Articles Featuring Buffalo Soldiers From History Net Magazines
Buffalo Soldiers: Sorting Fact from Fiction
In the summer of 1866, a year after the Civil War ended and more than six months after the 13th Amendment finally abolished slavery throughout the country, the United States needed the largest peacetime army in its history. Several tasks required such a sizable armed force: occupying the recalcitrant South, patrolling the Mexican border, protecting construction of transcontinental railroads, and guarding wagon routes to the Colorado and Montana goldfields. The expanded military would include black soldiers. The U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) had proved their worth during the Civil War, and emancipation had made available several hundred thousand potential recruits. The Army Reorganization Act of 1866 provided for 30 new regiments, including two cavalry and four infantry regiments ‘composed of colored men.’ The law had nothing to do with the Civil Rights Act passed earlier that year, but legislators clearly saw a connection between citizenship and military service. ‘It is … either a burden or a privilege to serve in the Army,’ Henry S. Lane, a senator from Indiana, told the Senate, ‘and … the colored people are equally entitled to bear the burden or equally entitled to participate in the privilege.’
Within a week, orders went to Maj. Gens. William T. Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan to raise four of these regiments. In Sherman’s Military Division of the Missouri, the 38th Infantry organized at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, and the 10th Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., while Sheridan’s Department of the Gulf provided the 39th Infantry and the 9th Cavalry, both organized in or near New Orleans. Elsewhere, the 40th Infantry recruited largely in Baltimore and Washington, while the 41st Infantry, taking most of its men from Kentucky and Louisiana, concentrated at Baton Rouge. Floods and crop failures in the lower Mississippi valley in 1866 provided plenty of recruits for the 39th Infantry and 9th Cavalry. The other regiments formed more slowly.
From New Orleans, the 9th Cavalry sailed to Texas ports and marched inland to posts in the western part of the state and along the lower Rio Grande, while the 39th Infantry settled in at forts around the mouths of the Mississippi River. The 10th Cavalry and 38th Infantry moved west into Kansas to guard railroad construction; half of the 38th eventually followed the Santa Fe Trail all the way to New Mexico Territory. The first companies of the 40th Infantry sailed from Alexandria, Va., to the Carolinas, where the rest of the regiment organized. The 41st Infantry took ship at Baton Rouge for the mouth of the Rio Grande, and marched to posts in south and west Texas. The Army’s Quartermaster Department, bound by a stingy budget, moved troops by water — the cheapest means — whenever possible.
Congress soon decided that it had established too large and too costly an army. In 1869, the Army Appropriation Act contained a single sentence to the effect that no money would become available ‘until the total number of infantry regiments is reduced to twenty-five.’ Although the law did not specify the survival of any black infantry regiments, Sherman–by now the Army’s commanding general–quickly decided to march companies of the 38th Infantry from Kansas and New Mexico Territory to join the 41st in Texas and make the new 24th Infantry. During the Civil War, Sherman had expressed some fiercely bigoted opinions of black people and their abilities, but in 1869 many of the same men who had written the Regular Army’s black regiments into law three years earlier were still sitting in Congress. They could have made things uncomfortable for the military if they saw their handiwork destroyed. Meanwhile, the 40th Infantry left North Carolina by rail to join the 39th in Louisiana. A year later, the new 25th Infantry took ship for Texas, where it served for the next 10 years.
In time, the idea arose that the Army kept the black regiments in Texas ‘on the theory,’ as Sherman told a congressional committee in 1874, ‘that that race can better stand that extreme southern climate than our white troops.’ Sherman must have forgotten his own reaction when he got news of the Fetterman Massacre near Fort Phil Kearny (in what would become Wyoming) in December 1866: ‘I will see if the two new colored regiments … can be made available by April 1,’ he wrote to Army headquarters. In a pinch, Sherman was ready to use black soldiers wherever they were needed; but testifying in Washington, it would have been impolitic for a general to say that black troops stayed so long in Texas because Congress would not allocate money to move them.
About half of the black men who joined the Regular Army in the late 1860s had served in the Civil War. Of these, more than 500 transferred directly from USCT regiments that were mustering out in the fall of 1866. Many other USCT veterans who joined the Regulars told recruiters that their occupation was’soldier’ when they signed on again. The many veterans helped to offset the shortage of educated men in the ranks of the new regiments and furnished ex-perienced comrades for recruits fresh from civilian life.
The black regiments especially needed men who could read and write. Before the Civil War, state laws across the South had forbidden the education of slaves. Everywhere in the South, the vast majority of the black population remained illiterate, and it was hard for recruiters to find men educated well enough to serve as clerks and noncommissioned officers. Daily reports, bimonthly muster rolls, requisitions for supplies, and the mountain of other documents that constituted the Army’s routine paperwork–these all required attention.
By late 1866, most recruiting officers admitted the futility of trying to enlist literate men in the South. Colonel Edward Hatch reported in November that no 9th Cavalry recruits had ‘the necessary education for company clerks and sergeants.’ Officers from several of the black regiments had succeeded in enlisting literate men in some Northern cities, even though the public education afforded black pupils was segregated and rudimentary. Regimental commanders began increasingly to send their recruiters north, and by spring 1867 all the black regiments had established offices in two or more large cities.
Limited by education, training, and the social and economic barriers raised by American society, few black men in the 19th century had advanced much beyond the status of unskilled laborers. The new regiments’ need for skilled workers often became desperate. Officers continually complained that their regiments and companies could not function without artisans. The cavalry in particular required blacksmiths, horseshoers and saddlers.
Given the Army’s vast responsibilities, the War Department did not dare reduce the effectiveness of one-tenth of its still relatively small force by discriminating against the black regiments in the distribution of weapons and equipment. When the Springfield arsenal began converting muzzleloading infantry rifles to breechloaders soon after the Civil War, the new weapons became available to the black regiments as they were needed. The 38th Infantry was one of 10 infantry regiments that had received the breechloaders by June 1867. These regiments covered the country between the Arkansas River and the Yellowstone–including the main routes to the gold fields of California, Colorado Territory and Montana Territory–where there had been bloody fighting with the Plains Indians during and after the Civil War. The 39th Infantry in Louisiana and Mississippi and the 40th Infantry in North Carolina did not receive their breechloaders until 1868. Distribution of the new weapons depended on available transportation and on the troops’ immediate need for them, not on the racial composition of a regiment.
A few years later, when the Army adopted the Model 1873 Springfield rifle and carbine and the Colt revolver, the Ordnance Department took more than a year to distribute the new weapons. The 10th Cavalry, at posts near the Comanche-Kiowa reservation, was one of the first regiments to receive the carbines because, as General Sherman wrote, it would be among ‘the first to have a chance to use them.’ That summer, four companies of the 9th Cavalry, scattered at posts in west Texas, received new carbines. Supplies came slowly to the 9th, but no more slowly than they did to the three white cavalry regiments in New Mexico Territory, Arizona Territory and the Pacific Northwest. By March 1875 nearly all companies of cavalry of whatever race had received Springfields and Colts.
Active service was harder on horses than it was on the men who rode them. Department commanders relied heavily on their mounted regiments, and cavalry troopers spent far more time in the field than did infantrymen. Hard service, poor forage, dilapidated stables, novice riders and too few veterinary surgeons all helped wear out cavalry horses. These problems were common to all the Regular mounted regiments.
Horse-purchasing boards in each geographical department convened to appraise animals that were offered for sale as Army remounts. A typical board included one officer from each of the cavalry regiments in the department (the 4th and 10th cavalries, for instance, first in Texas and later in Arizona Territory) and an officer from the Quartermaster Department. The Army did not set out to cripple one-fifth of its mounted force by assigning poor horses to the 9th and 10th cavalries. Throughout most of the post–Civil War era, these regiments served in some of the most active departments, and a few of their companies took part in some of the most dramatic actions of those years–at Beecher Island in 1868, at Milk Creek in 1879 and at Drexel Mission in 1890. If there had been a policy of assigning them second-class mounts, the black troopers would not have been able to venture far from their forts.
The War Department tried to provide enough horses for the cavalry, but often lacked the money to buy them. In 1871 the Quartermaster Department told Colonel Hatch to purchase 218 remounts for the 9th Cavalry, but warned him not to spend more than $100 each. Usually, though, the horses sent to the 9th and 10th cavalries were fit, and at least no worse than those of white regiments. The black regiments drew poor horses, shoddy supplies, or unenviable assignments from time to time, but it was the result of Army-wide policies — or, more often, short budgets — rather than racial prejudice.
When manifestations of prejudice interfered with Army policies, the War Department took action. Congress established the grade of post commissary sergeant in 1873, to help the lieutenants who were usually assigned to keep track of the beans, coffee, flour and other foodstuffs and the beef cattle herd at each Army post. The first two successful applicants from the black regiments were not appointed commissary sergeant until 1879. Five years later, the general order announcing the grade of post quartermaster sergeant–to help the lieutenants in charge of equipment, housing, transportation and uniforms — provided for 80 of the new sergeants, ‘two from each regiment, provided there are fit applicants … who deserve the position.’ By the end of the 1880s, 10 men from the black regiments were serving as staff sergeants of one kind or another. The size of the understrength Army and the scope of its responsibilities in the West precluded any official policy that might have created and maintained a separate corps of second-class soldiers. Armed and equipped, clothed, fed, housed and paid the same as whites, black soldiers proved themselves able to perform the same duties as those required of any men in the service.
The War Department could do little about informal slights and insults, though, whether they came from officers or civilians. An anonymous letter writer, who claimed to be a 24th Infantry sergeant at Fort Davis, reported the officers there ‘calling the Soldiers Dam Black negros’ in 1871. Eight years later, when 9th Cavalry troopers told an Army inspector that Captain Ambrose Hooker called them ‘damned negro sons of bitches,’ Hooker denied making any ‘distinction on account of race or color,’ but went on to tell the inspector that he meant to teach his men the ‘great difference between soldiers in the United States Army and cornfield niggers.’ The inspector thought that Hooker was a poor choice to command black troops, but found no grounds for disciplinary action against him.
Military justice, though, recognized the legal doctrine of ‘fighting words.’ At Ringgold Barracks, Texas, Corporal Logan Goodpasture noticed an officer’s servant, Appolenos Romero, peering through a barracks window at a dance that was going on inside. Speaking in Spanish, Goodpasture invited Romero to come in. Romero replied, also in Spanish, that he did not ‘dance with niggers,’ and Goodpasture ordered him in English to ‘clear out.’ Words soon led to blows that landed Romero in the post hospital and Goodpasture in the guard house. A general court-martial acknowledged Goodpasture’s ‘just cause and provocation’ for the assault and fined him only $5 — about one-third of a month’s pay, but still far less than other sentences that the court might have imposed — as a reminder that a noncommissioned officer (NCO) should keep a tighter rein on his temper.
Expressions of prejudice, of course, were not confined to Texas. From Fort Shaw, Montana Territory, a 25th Infantry soldier complained in 1888 that ‘it is a shame the way the Officers carry on at this post they treat enlisted men worse than slaves because they are colored … the Commanding Officer … has made all sorts of remarks in our presence about our color and our previous servitude as slaves and that is where we should be to day … as soon as we are here long enough to save a little money they will three fourths of them desert the Service. no humane will stand the treatment they receive here while Canada is so nere. but you know the Colored Soldier does not like to desert. for god sake and ours too please do some thing for us … .’
‘Colored’ was the term black soldiers used most often during the post–Civil War era when they referred to themselves in writing. ‘Buffalo soldiers’ caught on with white journalists after it was first recorded in a letter to The Nation in 1873. Plains Indians, the writer explained, coined it to describe 10th Cavalry troopers at Fort Sill. By 1879, an editor in New Mexico Territory had extended the term to the 9th Cavalry, and in 1894 the Army and Navy Journal, a privately owned but semiofficial weekly paper, included the infantry. (Frederic Remington had already given the term national circulation in 1889 with his article ‘A Scout with the Buffalo Soldiers.’) But black soldiers themselves never seem to have used it in their letters to black newspapers, in court-martial testimony or in pension applications. Among them, ‘buffalo’ was an insult, as when one soldier remarked that an officer ‘had the men out on drill the other day, and he cursed one of the men, and they stood it like black buffalo sons of bitches.’ Another private called a sergeant a ‘God damned black, cowardly, buffalo son of a bitch.’ Such language was the stuff of court-martial offenses, and trial transcripts recorded the men’s words. Although many black Regulars had great racial as well as professional pride, they did not express it by a nickname. ‘Buffalo soldiers’ seems to have been a term that appealed to outsiders but insiders did not use.
Although their number remained small, a much higher proportion of black soldiers than of whites re-enlisted after their first term of service. Several hundred even stayed for more than two enlistments, for some found greater rewards in the Army than they had in civilian life. As late as 1880, the 25th Infantry’s Company G had four privates who had served in all-black Civil War regiments, from Kentucky, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Ohio. By the 1890s the four black regiments contained a higher proportion of veteran soldiers than the Army at large.
With long service and an NCO’s stripes came responsibility for small independent commands that operated beyond the range of supervision. Through the years, official reports mentioned dozens of black soldiers by name, often for leading small detachments in the field. In the summer of 1872, Sergeant Pierre Rock led 11 9th Cavalry troopers on a 200-mile scout along the Rio Grande. Sergeant John Denny of the same regiment led eight men on a five-week scout in the Magdalena Mountains during the winter of 1877. Two years later, Denny chased some deserters from Fort Bayard, New Mexico Territory, to the town of Hillsborough (later Hillsboro), a trip that took him and his party of seven men 150 miles.
Foot soldiers were less mobile than cavalry. An infantryman, though, wrote one of the few surviving reports that describes the black Regulars’ field service in their own words. When Sergeant Joseph Luckadoe led three 25th Infantry privates in defending a Texas mail station against attack on New Year’s Eve, 1873, his company commander praised his’soldierlike conduct.’ Luckadoe’s report eventually reached the War Department in Washington:
‘While sitting in the Station our attention was attracted by the dogs barking at what we at the time, supposed to be a Cayote, to be sure, I told [Private Joshua L.] Newby to get his gun and see what they were barking at. When he got near the Haystack, he was fired upon by some one, the ball merely passing him and imbeded itself in one of the Corral posts. We seized our guns, and rushed out of doors when they discharged some 8 shots at us, the balls striking the stone and flatt[en]ing out with the exception of two, one is imbeded in one of the uprights for our Arbor, the other, as I turned around, struck my Cap brim, cutting away a portion of the cloth and pasteboard but did not hurt me … . I told [Private Henry] Williams to fire on them, this he done, when one of them fell at the second shot — at daybreak we found that he had bled all over the stones at least a half gallon of blood, they taken him off with them …. I do not think they were Indians they were to[o] bold and defiant although there are plenty of Moccasin tracks in the gulch. I think that more than one of the party was hurt. I think we killed the one that bled so much — we did not sleep any on the 31st, we are all well, and on the lookout. Please ask the Col. To send some more ammunition we have 130 rounds…and please send those Beans to the station keeper and some vegetables, if you have some to spare.’
Sergeant Luckadoe had given a concise sketch of outpost duty in Texas during the 1870s–the men had provided for their comfort by building an arbor, or ramada; they had fought off a night attack by parties unknown and reconnoitered afterward; they needed more ammunition and rations. ‘The Col.’ in Luckadoe’s report was his company commander, Captain Charles Bentzoni, who had been colonel of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry during the Civil War. Luckadoe himself had served nearly three years in the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry before taking his discharge in the spring of 1866 and enlisting again a few months later in the 40th U.S. Infantry, which was organizing at a camp outside Washington, D.C. His career was pretty typical of NCOs in the new black regiments; at least 36 of the 40th Infantry’s sergeants and corporals were USCT veterans. At the end of his first enlistment, Luckadoe returned to New York City and tried civilian life for a few weeks before signing on again and serving two consecutive enlistments. He left the Army in 1880, five years before Congress enacted retirement for enlisted men with 30 years’ service, and settled in San Diego. This, too, was pretty typical; although most black veterans returned to the towns they had called home — New Orleans and Washington, D.C., headed the list — many others settled in the West.
Few black veterans left a record of their reasons for serving more than one enlistment. Security and simple material comforts may have kept some from returning to civilian life. Veteran soldiers, especially NCOs, enjoyed considerable prestige and power in their companies — rewards that would have been difficult, if not impossible, for a black man to attain as a civilian. When 1st Sgt. Augustus Smith, in his 15th year of service, remarked during court-martial testimony, ‘I went to my room having some work to do,’ he referred not only to the paperwork that literate NCOs handled but also to the privacy of his quarters. The first sergeant was the only man in the company with a room of his own. When third-time enlistee Sergeant John F. Ball matter-of-factly told a general court-martial in 1885, ‘I received a telephone message at 3 o’clock that two of the convicts had made their escape,’ his statement was one that few men of any color could have made — the telephone was an invention only nine years old. The black regiments’ high re-enlistment rate tells as much about the benefits the Army offered as it does about race relations in 19th-century America.
Occasionally, sergeants traveled on official business, escorting prisoners to state penitentiaries or to the U.S. Military Prison at Fort Leavenworth, or delivering insane soldiers to the government hospital in Washington, D.C. These tasks fell frequently to the four companies of the 25th Infantry that served at Fort Snelling, Minn., headquarters of the Department of Dakota from 1882 to 1888. Sergeants of the 25th supervised parties of recruits en route from headquarters to their regiments. Since the 25th was the only black regiment serving in the department at the time, most recruits in the sergeants’ charge were white. Sergeants also traveled to small towns in Minnesota and Dakota Territory to pick up deserters in the custody of local officials.
After they left the Army, the black Regulars lived and died as quietly as they had before they enlisted. Most found unskilled or semi-skilled jobs; a fortunate few kept on working for the federal government, in a post office or national cemetery. Pensions helped some who could prove that they had been injured in the line of duty, but Congress did not grant ‘Indian wars’ veterans a service pension until 1917. Even then, eligibility depended on whether a man’s regiment had taken part in a particular campaign in certain states and territories at a specific time. Troopers of the 9th Cavalry who served in New Mexico Territory from 1876 to 1881 had no status as ‘Indian campaigners.’ The 1917 pension act included only the men of Company D, for their brief role in the Ute War of 1879. Infantrymen who served along the Rio Grande valley throughout the 1870s received no recognition at all. Not until 1927 did Congress pass an inclusive service pension for veterans of the peacetime Army.
Wherever they lived and however poor they were, most veterans seem to have received decent funerals. Well into the 20th century, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) played an important part. When David Morgan, a veteran of the 24th Infantry, died in 1917 ‘wholly without means,’ the Brownsville, Texas, post of the GAR and Army officers at Fort Brown bore the expenses. In Sioux City, Iowa, George Brummsick’s Masonic lodge brothers buried him ‘in the Grand Army lots.’ The Bureau of Pensions settled undertakers’ accounts, too. Whether through the offices of the federal government, a fraternal order or their neighbors’ charity, black veterans could be fairly sure of a respectable burial. But black newspapers did not feature their obituaries. Few Americans, black or white, noticed the Regular Army in peacetime. There was a brief surge of interest during the Spanish-American War, as several thousand black Americans joined state and federal regiments, but public attention soon lapsed.
During the years after the Civil War, though, the black Regulars — fewer than 20,000 men in all — made a place for themselves in the Army. Those who recalled their service in letters to the veterans’ newspaper Winners of the West told a story that Frederic Remington and John Ford had made familiar to millions. Scott Lovelace summarized the 10th Cavalry’s activities during the late 1870s as ‘chasing the redskins to help blaze a right of way for the settlers of the wild west.’ Another 10th Cavalry veteran, George W. Ford, reflected: ‘Our sacrifices and hardships opened up a great empire to civilization.’
Although the black Regulars faced racial prejudice from individuals both outside the Army and within it, the Army itself needed their services and could not afford to discriminate against them in matters of food, housing, clothing and equipment. However poor these might be, they were the same that white troops received. The U.S. Army was one of the most impartial institutions of its day, and it attracted men whose ability and endurance assured their regiments’ survival and a place, however small, for black Americans in the nation’s public life.
This article by William A. Dobak originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Wild West magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!
Buffalo Soldiers’ Assault on the Gothic Line
The African-American 92nd Infantry Division took on formidable German opposition in its push up the Italian boot.
By Robert Hodges, Jr.
African Americans have fought in every major conflict in which the United States has been involved, from the Revolutionary War on. They frequently served with distinction–the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry during the American Civil War, the 9th and 10th U.S. Colored Cavalry regiments during the Indian wars and the Spanish-American War, and the 369th Infantry Regiment during World War I all established outstanding fighting records.
Yet with each new war in which the United States became embroiled, the white American establishment tended to forget the contribution made by black servicemen in previous conflicts. Each time, black soldiers were committed to combat in racially segregated units and had to prove themselves all over again. Of the 909,000 black Americans selected for duty in the Army during World War II, only one black division saw infantry combat in Europe–the 92nd Infantry Division. The vast majority of African Americans in uniform were assigned to segregated construction or supply units or placed in units that performed unpleasant duties such as graves registration. The government’s view was that blacks were not motivated enough or aggressive enough to fight.
While the 92nd was referred to as a black unit, and its enlisted men and most of its junior officers were black, its higher officers were white. The 92nd, which had fought in France during World War I, was once again activated in 1942. Under the command of Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond, the 92nd began combat training in October 1942 and went into action in Italy in the summer of 1944. The unit continued a long and proud tradition by retaining the buffalo as its divisional symbol. Its circular shoulder patch, which featured a black buffalo on an olive drab background, was called The Buffalo–as was the division’s official publication. The 92nd even kept a live buffalo as a mascot.
The nickname "Buffalo Soldier" dates back to the late 1860s, when black soldiers volunteered for duty in the American West. The American Indians, who regarded the new threat as "black white men," coined the term "Buffalo Soldier" out of respect for a worthy enemy. According to one story, the Indians thought that the black soldiers, with their dark skin and curly hair, resembled buffaloes. Another story attributes the name to the buffalo hides that many black soldiers wore during the harsh winters out West, as a supplement to their inadequate government uniforms.
In the spring of 1944, after years of pressure from the black community, the government grudgingly rescinded its policy excluding African-American soldiers from combat. On July 30, 1944, the first wave of Buffalo Soldiers–the 370th Regimental Combat Team–disembarked at Naples, Italy, where they were greeted by a jubilant crowd of black American soldiers from other service units. The rest of the division would arrive a few months later.
American troops were facing an uphill battle in Italy, and at that point the Allies were desperately short of infantry troops. After months of hard fighting, the Allies had managed to push German forces under Field Marshal Albert Kesselring almost 500 bloody miles up the Italian peninsula. But even after the fall of Rome on June 4, 1944, the Germans had simply retreated in an orderly fashion from one line of defense to another rather than acknowledge defeat.
On D-Day, two days after the victory at Rome, Allied soldiers swarmed across the beaches of Normandy. For the duration of the war, the American Fifth Army and the British Eighth Army, under the overall command of British General Sir Harold Alexander, would play second fiddle to the Allied push in France. During the summer of 1944, nearly 100,000 men of the Fifth Army, out of a total strength of 249,000, were transferred to the fighting in France. As the Allies stood at the south bank of the Arno River in July, preparing to assault Kesselring’s most formidable barrier yet–the infamous Gothic Line–the Americans clearly had too many tanks and not enough infantrymen. Kesselring had built the line on the slopes of the Apennine Mountains, the 50-mile-deep range that, in northern Italy, runs diagonally from coast to coast and affords natural protection for northern industrial and agricultural centers.
In addition to the 370th, at that point the 92nd consisted of two other infantry regiments, the 365th and the 371st; four field artillery battalions, the 597th, 598th, 599th and 600th; plus headquarters battery, the 92nd Reconnaissance Troop, the 317th Engineer Combat Battalion and 317th Medical Battalion, as well as a medical battalion, signal company, quartermaster company, maintenance personnel and military police. The Buffalo Soldiers were assigned to the IV Corps of the U.S. Fifth Army in two primary areas of operation, the Serchio Valley and the coastal sector along the Ligurian Sea. They occupied the westernmost end of the Allied front, while the Eighth Army attacked across the eastern portion of the Italian peninsula. The 92nd would face not only mountainous terrain and tremendous resistance–including the German Fourteenth Army and its Italian Fascist soldiers, the 90th Panzergrenadier Division and the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division–but also an array of man-made defensive works.
By fighting an impressive defensive campaign, Kesselring had gained time to build up his Gothic Line. Using 15,000 Italian laborers and 2,000 Slovaks, the Germans constructed bunkers, tank emplacements, tunnels and anti-tank ditches; reinforced existing Italian castles; and laid carefully designed minefields intended to herd enemy troops into interlocking fields of fire.
At this stage in the Italian campaign the Allies did have one advantage. Italy was in a state of civil war, and the Italian partisan forces were proving more than a nuisance to the German cause. Guerrillas had even managed to kill one Luftwaffe division commander. As a result, one German commander, General Fridolin von Senger, discarded his general’s insignia and rode in an unmarked Volkswagen.
When the Buffalo Soldiers deployed along the front, they began to work together with the tankers of the U.S. 1st Armored Division. In addition to this division, the IV Corps consisted of the 6th South African Armored Division, the Brazilian Expeditionary Force and Task Force 45, composed of British and American anti-aircraft gunners who had been retrained and re-equipped for combat infantry duty.
After landing on the Italian mainland at Salerno on September 9, 1943, the Allies had unsuccessfully attempted to destroy Kesselring before January 1944. Now they once again hoped to make significant advances before the snows came in the winter of 1944. The Fifth and Eighth armies planned an all-out attack on the Gothic Line in August, with the Eighth Army positioned along the Adriatic Coast and the Fifth Army directing its efforts against the center of Italy, toward Bologna. The IV Corps would cross the Arno River, take Mount Albano and Mount Pisano on the plain, extend their front and draw the enemy’s attention. Meanwhile, the Fifth Army’s II Corps, to the right along with the British XIII Corps, would drive the main assault into the center of the Gothic Line. The thinly spread IV Corps also had the task of guarding the Allied west flank against a German counterattack and protecting the crucial Allied port of Leghorn, or Livorno, on the coast.
On September 1, the three battalions of the 370th Regiment, along with elements of the 1st Armored Division, crossed the Arno River and advanced north for two to three miles. By the early morning hours of September 2, the 370th Engineers and 1st Armored Engineers had cleared minefields, worked on fords and placed a treadway bridge across the Arno for the upcoming armored infantry assault. Task Force 45 was bogged down by heavy minefields, but the 370th pushed on. The 3rd Battalion of the 370th moved to the west of Mount Pisano, while the 1st Battalion advanced east of the mountain. Using mule trails, the 2nd Battalion advanced straight over the mountain.
The Germans retaliated with small-arms, machine-gun and artillery fire while their forward elements began to pull back behind the Gothic Line. The Buffalo Soldiers advanced north beyond Mount Pisano and attacked the city of Lucca. They eliminated remaining enemy resistance around the road connecting Pisa to Lucca and spent the next several days patrolling and waiting for the rest of the Fifth Army to move up.
The main attack started on September 10, and three days later the Buffalo Soldiers and 1st Armored tankers stood at the base of the northern Apennines. By September 18, the II Corps had breached the Gothic Line at Il Giogo Pass, and many of the 1st Armored tanks were shifted to that area. The IV Corps consolidated its units while holding its section of the line until late in the month, when patrols of Buffalo Soldiers entered the Serchio Valley.
The men of the 370th had also penetrated the Gothic Line in their sector and now controlled Highway 12, which served as a crucial east-west communications artery for the Germans. In early October, they were ordered to take the city of Massa, near the coast, which was the first step in capturing the naval base at La Spezia. Although the Germans had been in continuous retreat in Italy, they resisted fiercely at Massa. They were determined to protect the western edge of the Gothic Line, especially because La Spezia’s naval base was nearby. Beset by cold autumn rains, the Buffalo Soldiers found themselves fighting a new enemy–mud–in addition to dug-in enemy troops. They did not take Massa at that point, and all across the Gothic Line, Kesselring’s forces held on. Meanwhile, though the II Corps made some impressive headway, it failed to reach Bologna before the snows set in.
After a six-day battle for control of Massa, the Buffalo Soldiers pulled back and regrouped. As the rest of the 92nd Infantry Division began to land in Italy, the Buffalo Soldiers of the 370th kept up the offensive on a smaller scale with power patrols consisting of between 35 and 75 men and at times machine-gun and mortar crews. The Fifth Army spent most of November conducting defensive actions in preparation for a renewed offensive in December.
By late November, the last elements of the remaining two 92nd Division regiments, the 371st and 365th, had arrived. In addition to the 92nd’s own regiments, a fourth regiment came under the division’s control–the 366th Infantry Regiment, with black officers and men. The 366th had originally trained for combat but had been initially assigned to guard duty on Allied air bases throughout Italy. The men of the 366th had performed so well in their former assignment that their commanding general did not want to give them up.
As the 370th moved deeper into the Serchio Valley–later with elements of the 371st–resupply became a logistical nightmare. No vehicles could reach the Buffalo Soldiers as they fought their way to the high ground of the 35-mile-long valley. Despite a wealth of technology and industrial might at their command, the Americans found themselves dependent upon pack animals, the same mode of transport employed by Hannibal Barca when he had invaded Italy more than 2,100 years earlier.
One officer and 15 enlisted men formed the nucleus of the 92nd Division Mule Pack Battalion, which included an Italian veterinarian, two blacksmiths and 600 Italian volunteers who were given American uniforms and even wore the Buffalo insignia. The Americans scoured the countryside for mules and horses, which the U.S. government then purchased from locals. They eventually procured a total of 372 mules and 173 horses. Because the U.S. Army lacked the necessary equipment for pack animals, the blacksmiths had to hammer out their own horseshoes from German barbed-wire pickets. The animals brought up water, ammunition, anti-tank guns and other crucial materiel and transported the wounded to where they could receive treatment. As it turned out, however, the mules were apparently spooked by the smell of dead men and balked at carrying corpses.
The 92nd was expected to launch a major offensive on December 1 in support of the II Corps’ renewed attack on Bologna. The attack was rescheduled for Christmas Day due to a predicted German counterattack. When intelligence reports indicated a large German build-up in the northern region of the Serchio Valley, the men of the 371st were transferred to the coastal sector, and elements of the 366th were sent to the valley to support the 370th. Although the Fifth Army never launched its early December assault, it was not a quiet month in the Serchio Valley. The Buffalo Soldiers continued to advance, town by town, against German artillery, mortar and small-arms fire. American engineers at first repaired bridges and roads for the advance, but soon shifted to defensive work, laying minefields, rigging bridges for demolition, and helping to evacuate civilians in anticipation of the German counterattack.
On Christmas Eve the Fifth Army called off its Christmas Day assault, but the Buffalo Soldiers, who were deployed on both sides of the Serchio River, continued to advance, facing German mortar and artillery rounds as they moved through more of northern Italy’s mountain towns. The 366th’s 2nd Battalion held the town of Barga on the American right flank, while the 370th held Gallicano, west of the Serchio River. On Christmas Eve, the 370th sent its 2nd Battalion east of the river into the little village of Sommocolonia, the northernmost edge of the American line. Light artillery and mortar rounds hit Sommocolonia but there seemed to be little enemy activity, so most of the 2nd Battalion moved out for duty elsewhere, leaving behind only two platoons. On the extreme right, just east of Sommocolonia, lay the villages of Bebbio and Scarpello, occupied by two platoons of the 92nd Division Reconnaissance Troop.
Before sunrise on the day after Christmas, the Germans attacked the villages just north and east of Gallicano. Although the primary German assault seemed to come from west of the river, toward Gallicano, partisans were also battling enemy soldiers north of Sommocolonia later in the morning. Within two hours, Sommocolonia and the two American platoons there were surrounded. A third platoon moved up to reinforce the embattled Sommocolonia troops. Lieutenant John Fox, an artillery forward observer for the 366th, exemplified the impressive fighting spirit of the black soldiers. When enemy troops surrounded the lieutenant’s position inside a house and were about to overrun him, he ordered artillery fire directly on his own position, sacrificing his life. Fox’s heroic action bought valuable time that helped save other troops, and he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
The two platoons of the 370th, along with a group of partisans, engaged in house-to-house fighting with the enemy during that battle. Many of the Germans were dressed as partisans, making the situation even more confusing and dangerous. Just before noon, the platoons were ordered to evacuate the village, but they were trapped. They managed to hold out until nightfall, but of the 70 Americans involved, only one officer and 17 men managed to fight their way out of the village that night as ordered.
Meanwhile, the two reconnaissance platoons at Bebbio and Scarpello were overrun by enemy troops and ordered to fall back. Despite heavy fighting, they managed to withdraw to their command post at Coreglia. German artillery fire began to cut deeper into American lines, and the 370th ordered its troops to quit Gallicano and secure the high ground nearby.
With the Allied port of Leghorn threatened, the Fifth Army called back the 1st Armored Division from II Corps control, and the 8th Indian Division, a British unit, moved to the area as reinforcements. On December 27, American fighter-bombers roared into the valley and hammered Sommocolonia, Gallicano and other front-line areas. By January 1, the Allies had more or less re-established their original positions.
With the Germans less of an imminent threat, the 8th Indian Division pulled out, leaving the valley to the Buffalo Soldiers. The Fifth Army postponed its major offensive until April, but General Almond decided that his division would launch its own attack in February. Almond devised his operation not as a breakthrough assault but as a division-strength "feeler movement" intended to determine enemy strength and deployment, draw more enemy troops to the area and enhance the division’s own positions. Troops in the Serchio Valley were to seize the Lama di Sotto Ridge, overlooking the German supply center at Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, and create a diversion while the main assault concentrated on the coastal sector. Almond hoped to reach the Strettoia hill mass on the coast, just north of the Cinquale Canal, and then take Massa. Once in Massa, American artillery would come within firing range of La Spezia.
Units were moved around again so that the 370th and 371st occupied the Coastal Sector while the 365th went to the Serchio Valley. The 366th was divided between both areas. On February 4, the 366th held Gallicano, and the next day it pushed its lines into the outlying villages. The 365th, to the east of the Serchio River, took the town of Lama, just north of Sommocolonia, and occupied Mount Della Stella at the foot of the Lama di Sotto Ridge. The 365th held out against numerous counterattacks until February 8, when a full battalion of Germans pushed the Americans off the hill and out of Lama. At nightfall on the 10th, after encountering grueling enemy artillery fire and grenadier counterattacks, the Buffalo Soldiers retook Lama.
The Buffalo Soldiers on the coast were hit just as hard as their comrades in the valley. The Germans had tanks, field artillery and thousands of ground troops to protect La Spezia, and they could call on a weapon unavailable to the Americans–heavy coastal guns. Emplaced at Punta Bianca, just southeast of La Spezia, the German coastal guns could not only lob shells into Massa but also reach all the way to Forte dei Marmi, which lay south of the Cinquale Canal. Fire from the powerful coastal guns left craters so large that Allied tanks literally fell into them.
The remainder of the 366th and its supporting armor–including another black unit, the 758th Tank Battalion–advanced along the coast. The 371st attacked on the far right through the coastal hill masses but ran into extensive minefields. The 370th advanced in column with its left flank on Highway 1 and its right flank in the hills. As they advanced, each battalion of the 370th leapfrogged the battalion directly to its front in order to keep up a continuous attack.
Riding on the tanks, the 366th rolled into the sea to avoid mines, then came back onto dry land north of the Cinquale Canal. The first two tanks to hit the beach were knocked out by mines and blocked the way. Before long, four more tanks were destroyed by mines, but the 370th reached the canal and started to cross, taking a pounding from local mortar and machine-gun positions as well as from the coastal guns. The artillery fire prevented engineers from laying a bridge, and foul weather meant no air support for the Buffalo Soldiers that day. Three tanks were lost when they fell into underwater craters while crossing the canal.
Despite numerous German counterattacks, the Buffalo Soldiers did manage to establish a line of defense north of the canal. Without a bridge, they had to hand-carry supplies across the water. Casualties were mounting, and the coastal guns kept pounding away. On the night of February 10, Almond called off the attack and ordered his troops back across the canal. The February operation cost 22 tanks and more than 1,100 casualties, including 56 officers.
The 92nd underwent drastic changes before its involvement in an offensive in the spring of 1945. The Allies considered it absolutely crucial that the 92nd seize La Spezia during the April attack, but the previous months of fighting had depleted the division’s strength. Although the U.S. Army had hundreds of thousands of black troops, it could not find enough combat-trained replacements for the 92nd, so the 371st went to the Serchio Valley under IV Corps control while the 366th and 365th were sent elsewhere. The 92nd built up the strength of the 370th, the only black regiment left in the division, while it gained two new regiments. In addition to the 473rd, made up of white anti-aircraft gunners turned infantrymen, the division received a ferocious fighting unit composed of Nisei soldiers–the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team. These descendants of Japanese immigrants served in one of the most highly decorated American regiments of the entire war.
The 370th formed the left flank, with the 442nd on the right and the 473rd in reserve in the nearby Serchio Valley. In order to avoid the relentless barrage from the coastal guns, the 92nd Division, now jokingly referred to as the "Rainbow Division," advanced toward Massa through the hills east of Highway 1. Even though fighter-bombers flew sorties over Punta Bianca and British destroyers shelled the German positions, the coastal guns continued firing.
In less than two hours on April 5, 1945, the 370th’s lead element, Company C, reached its initial objective–Castle Aghinolfi. The company’s artillery forward observer had to convince the artillery twice to give him fire support. Artillerymen could not believe that the riflemen had advanced so far. The Germans were surprised, too–in fact, many were still eating breakfast when the Buffalo Soldiers arrived.
Company C radioed for reinforcements, but the regiment had problems of its own, with two company commanders already killed. No help arrived. The Germans within the castle fired on the lone company with machine guns and mortars. Before long, the company had suffered 60 percent casualties. The forward observer and radioman were both hit and the radio was destroyed, cutting off all contact with the outside. The company had no choice but to pull back. Lieutenant Vernon J. Baker, the company’s only black officer, volunteered to harass the enemy so that the wounded could escape. Armed with hand grenades, and on two occasions supported by Private James Thomas’ automatic-rifle fire, Baker personally destroyed three machine-gun nests and an observation post. Baker, who had already received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, would receive the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day.
Meanwhile, the 442nd fought the enemy ridge by ridge and systematically blew up German bunkers with bazookas. By April 6, the Nisei had control of Mount Belvedere. The 370th, Company C included, made another assault against the same hills but needed more troops to succeed. The 473rd moved up, and the hard-hit 1st Battalion of the 370th, which had had three company commanders killed in the first two days, went to the Serchio Valley to protect the American flank against a German counterattack.
The 370th and 473rd, along with their supporting armored battalions, pushed through the hills and also advanced along Highway 1, although the German guns at Punta Bianca continued to pound away. On April 9, American tankers rolled into Massa but were driven back by staunch enemy resistance. In a supporting maneuver, the 442nd pushed forward through the mountains and flanked the city’s eastern side. Finally, the Germans withdrew, and on April 10 the Americans controlled the city.
The 92nd Infantry Division continued to press forward, though the bitter fighting continued as the Germans moved their reserve men and panzers into position. With the German lines receding, a full battalion of tank destroyers finally came within range of the coastal guns and over a six-day period sent more than 11,000 rounds into Punta Bianca. By April 20 the big guns were silent and the Germans were retreating.
The Buffalo Soldiers fighting in the Serchio Valley had also been busy. The 370th had taken Castelnuovo on April 20 and pressed forward. They planned to meet up with the 442nd at Aulla, northeast of La Spezia, and cut off the German retreat.
The fighting had left so much destruction that the Americans could not even use their mules, and the division was accumulating more prisoners than it had time to deal with. Partisans had been fighting at La Spezia, and on April 24 the 473rd moved into the city. Three days later, the 473rd and its supporting armor crushed the German resistance at Genoa. The 370th and 442nd in their sector helped prevent two enemy divisions from escaping through the Cisa Pass before the May 2 cease-fire officially ended the hostilities in Italy.
Although Allied forces were ecstatic over their success in Italy, for the Buffalo Soldiers, it was a bittersweet victory. The military establishment considered the 92nd, which comprised less than 2 percent of all black Americans in the army, a failure. Regarded as an experiment from the outset, the division had been closely watched and roundly criticized.
Much of the blame for the setbacks in February 1945 and other similar occurrences was attributed to confusion between the junior officers and enlisted personnel. However, their officers were rotated so often that the men sometimes had no idea who their commanders were, and in many cases the most outstanding officers and NCOs were killed in action.
In defense of the black junior officers, Lt. Col. Markus H. Ray, commander of the division’s 600th Field Artillery Battalion (which had all black officers and men) wrote on May 14, 1945: "I believe that the young Negro officer represents the best we have to offer and under proper, sympathetic and capable leadership would have developed and performed equally with any other racial group….They were Americans before all else."
The numbers alone tell an impressive story. Of 12,846 Buffalo Soldiers who saw action, 2,848 were killed, captured or wounded. The Buffalo Soldiers did, in fact, break through the Gothic Line. They reached their objective, captured or helped to capture nearly 24,000 prisoners and received more than 12,000 decorations and citations for their gallantry in combat. The soldiers of the 92nd Division had proved their worth through months of bitter combat in the Italian campaign.
Robert Hodges, Jr., writes from Harrisonburg, Va. Further reading: A Fragment of Victory: In Italy During World War II, by Paul Goodman; and Buffalo Soldiers in Italy: Black Americans in World War II, by Hondon B. Hargrove.[ TOP ] [ Cover ]
The Buffalo Soldiers Who Rode Bikes
‘For miles we fared along the windings of the road, with the ever beautiful waters of Gibbon River at our side, now admiring this, then admiring that. Indeed, this was the very poetry of cycling’
Tired and hungry, their bright blue Army-issue blouses tattered and wet from rain and snow, the men of the 25th Infantry Regiment reached Alliance, Nebraska, on July 4, 1897. They had covered 1,000 miles in 21 days, having mastered the Rockies, crossed the Yellowstone and Little Bighorn rivers and surmounted drifts of hail said to be “fully 8 feet high.” The 20 buffalo soldiers, led by Second Lieutenant James A. Moss, still had another 900 miles to go, including a grueling 200-mile trek through Nebraska’s notorious sand hills. Each man carried his own rations, cooking utensils, blanket, tent and other necessities rarely toted by soldiers in the American West—extra parts for needed repairs and spare tires. Yes, tires, because these St. Louis–bound soldiers from Fort Missoula, Montana, were sitting tall on bicycle seats not saddles.
The 25th was one of four regiments of black soldiers enacted by Congress in 1866 and led by white officers. The U.S. Army had established Fort Missoula (now part of the city of Missoula) in 1877, and the men of the 25th first arrived there in May 1888. Eight years later Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles gave Lieutenant Moss—sanguine in his view of modernizing the Army—permission to organize the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps to test the practicality of the bicycle for military use in mountainous country. Moss, a Louisiana native and West Point graduate, wanted to show that cycling was faster than marching and cheaper than traveling on horseback. In early August 1896 he and eight volunteers, including trusted Sergeant Mingo Sanders, made their first excursion, pedaling north to McDonald Lake in the Mission Mountains—a four-day, 126-mile round-trip. Later that summer Moss led a 23-day, 800-mile bicycle trek from Fort Missoula to Yellowstone National Park and back again. “Again and again would we stop along the road to look at paint pots, pools, springs, geysers, etc.” Moss later recalled one particularly fine day in the park:
Riding through the Gibbon Meadows, we then turned off into Gibbon Canyon, deep, sinuous and picturesque. For miles we fared along the windings of the road, with the ever beautiful waters of Gibbon River at our side, now admiring this, then admiring that. Indeed, this was the very poetry of cycling.
While both 1896 jaunts were successful, Moss realized he must try a longer, more grueling trek to prove the true worth of the bicycle. The 1897 trip to St. Louis, about 1,900 miles one way, was the ultimate test ride.
Moss didn’t dream up the bicycle idea in a vacuum; a cycling craze was sweeping the nation. In 1880 enthusiasts had formed the League of American Wheelmen, which lobbied for road improvements and promoted the advantages of the bicycle. The invention of the “safety bicycle,” sporting two wheels of equal size, provided the catalyst to power the craze. Safety bicycles were easier to ride and safer than the earlier cumbersome “penny-farthings,” with one large wheel and one small one. In 1895 Theodore Roosevelt, then president of the board of New York City Police Commissioners, created what became known as the “Scorcher Squad,” a unit of 29 police bicyclists who pursued runaway horses and nabbed reckless carriage drivers. By that time the cycling phenomenon had carried into the Rockies, and bicycles were the talk of the town in Missoula. “Half of the people at the fort are on bicycles, and a person without a wheel is out of the times, as it were,” the Daily Missoulian reported in the spring of 1894.
Military use of the bicycle dated back as early as 1886, when Germany field-tested a bicycle corps. At first it was just a courier service, but the German army later mounted orderlies, scouts and shock troops on bicycles. By the time the U.S. 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps was testing this new mode of transport, other European nations, England and France among them, had followed Germany’s lead and were using bicycles for certain military functions. It helped that the roads in Europe were kinder to two-wheeled vehicles than the largely primitive roads in the American West.
A.G. Spalding & Co. of Chicopee Falls, Mass., made the bicycles for the 25th’s expedition to St. Louis, just as it had for the 1896 trials. The company was at the forefront of bicycle design. Built to Moss’ specifications to handle the rigors of the road, its military two-wheelers were fitted with steel rims, puncture-proof tires, reinforced forks and enclosed gear cases that protected the chains from dust and debris. Each bike weighed 32 pounds, riderless. While the Army and the men of the 25th approached the long journey as a test, Spalding seized it as an opportunity to showcase its bicycles.
Moss and the buffalo soldiers, accompanied by post surgeon James M. Kennedy and Daily Missoulian reporter Edward “Eddie” H. Boos, left Fort Missoula at dawn June 14, 1897. At midday a heavy rain pelted the riders, and the next afternoon bad roads and another downpour forced them off their bicycles to slog along on foot—an inauspicious beginning to their overland odyssey. On their fourth day out, as the men climbed into the Rockies, rain turned to blinding snow, and they couldn’t see past 20 feet. The steep descent presented more danger; Moss and his men had to walk their bicycles, all the while digging in their heels, lest they lose their footing and plummet downslope. Surely, they must have breathed a collective sigh of relief once the Continental Divide was behind them. But more challenges lay ahead.
Stretches past Montana’s Beaver Creek were impassible, compelling the soldiers to shoulder their loaded bicycles. In the Gallatin Valley overflowing wastewater from roadside irrigation ditches splattered the soldiers’ boots. As the riders approached Bozeman, many took what Boos described as “a header over handlebars” on a deeply rutted descent. In Big Timber an old Union veteran insisted every trooper have a drink on him.
While riding between towns, the corps by necessity dispensed with any semblance of formation. Each rider pedaled a path that suited him. Some caught a wagon wheel rut and stayed with it, while others steered a zigzag pattern to avoid rocks. The line of troops often strung out, opening up miles between the lead rider and last straggler. But before entering each town, the men would regroup and strike formation, to emphasize they were a military unit and not just black bicyclists roaming the land.
Boos painted a colorful picture of the procession—“hot and flashing storms” beset the men, “mud covered wheels until they were discs of gumbo,” and “rumors of rattlesnakes broke up uncomfortable camp and started the line in the middle of the night.” Moss also kept a journal on the trek. Each soldier strapped his knapsack, blanket roll and tent to the head of his bike, his haversack to the horizontal bar. Every other soldier carried a carbine, strapped horizontally to the bike’s two upright bars, while the alternating riders hauled canvas-covered boxes with extra supplies. Quartermaster units had placed food drops every 100 miles, but the riders soon discovered that two days’ supply of rations provided just four meals, not six—which often left the “Handlebar Infantry” with hunger pangs. From camp on June 24 Moss reported the men had ridden 42 miles on “a cup of weak coffee, partially sweetened, and a small piece of burnt bread.”
On June 25, its 12th day on the road, the column reached the Little Bighorn, resting amid the ghosts of George Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry on the anniversary of its infamous defeat. The next several days brought fair weather, inspiring the men to pedal at a quickened pace. They made good time across northeast Wyoming and through the southwest corner of South Dakota to the Nebraska state border. There, however, they faced the dreaded sand hills, a “soft, shifting mass of sand,” Boos wrote, that compelled them to follow railroad tracks that paralleled their route. As they thumped along the crossties, jarring their wrists, shoulders and backs, they faced temperatures up to 110 degrees. Adding to their misery, drinking water tinctured with alkali soon had three-quarters of the troop doubled over, sick. Moss himself was bedridden for four days, leaving the troop in Dr. Kennedy’s temporary command.
Road conditions continued to vex the cyclists. Moss wrote that roads they encountered were often “a disgrace to civilization,” while Boos added, “The only choice of roads narrowed to bad ones and others that were worse.” Regardless, the column rolled along through such Nebraska burgs as Broken Bow, Germantown (today’s Garland) and Lincoln. Somewhere in Missouri, Boos asked a farmer for permission to camp on his land, and the man asked whether they were Union soldiers. “Why, I guess we are,” the reporter replied, though three decades had passed since the Civil War. “Then you can pile right offa this land,” the farmer snapped back. As the cyclists moved on, a voice called out, “You can camp down there below the pig sty!” Moss and his men decided to push on.
On the rainy morning of July 24, the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps rolled across a railroad bridge on the Missouri River at St. Charles. The clouds soon broke, and they covered the last few rough miles to St. Louis under a broiling sun. On the city outskirts hundreds of local cyclists pedaled out to greet them and form an escort. At 6:30 that evening, after 40 days and 1,900.2 miles, the trek officially ended. Moss was pleased with the results—the troop had averaged 6.3 mph and more than 50 miles each day. Over the next week bicycle clubs feted the buffalo soldiers, and the color barrier seemed to evaporate.
Moss wanted to further test the corps before returning to Missoula. But Maj. Gen. Miles, while applauding the gung-ho lieutenant for a job well done, remained unconvinced of the military value of a bicycle corps. Absorbed in Indian matters, he ordered the 25th back to Montana by rail. The buffalo soldiers, according to Private Richard Rout, still had those trying Nebraska sand hills on their minds and were happy to board the train.
Although disheartened, Moss did not lose confidence. “The trip has proved beyond peradventure my contention that the bicycle has a place in modern warfare,” the lieutenant told the Army & Navy Journal that summer. “In every kind of weather, over all sorts of roads, we averaged 50 miles a day.” Moss further pressed his cause in the interview: “The practical result of the trip shows that an Army bicycle corps can travel twice as fast as cavalry or infantry, under any conditions, and at one-third the cost and effort.”
The bicycles suffered damage to the tune of 17 tires and a half-dozen broken frames, which seems reasonable given the demanding ground the riders covered. But the corps quickly handled most of its own repairs, thanks to Private John Findley, who had spent four years as a mechanic for Ames & Frost’s Imperial bicycle works in Chicago. If a disabled bike needed more work, Findley would give up his own wheels to a rider so the column could continue. Once he had completed the repairs, Findley would pedal the repaired bike like a demon to catch up with the others.
In an age when cavalry remained in use, Moss underscored the bicycle’s clear advantages over the horse. “It does not require as much care,” he explained. “It moves much faster over fair roads…and can be hidden from sight more easily. It is noiseless and raises but little dust, and it is impossible to tell direction from its track.” He concluded, “Under favorable conditions the bicycle is invaluable for courier work, scouting duty, road patrolling, rapid reconnaissance, etc.”
Moss did include caveats in his official report. He emphasized that each rider, not every other one, should have a carbine strapped to his bicycle. Brakes should be mandatory, to avoid those “header over handlebars” spills. He advocated some sort of shock-absorbing device on the handlebars to reduce the pounding riders took on the bicycles. Moss also pressed for increased rations and suggested that when traveling over harsh terrain, the soldiers should dismount and walk their bicycles in formation.
Despite Moss’ convictions, the Bicycle Corps went the route of the U.S. Camel Corps—nowhere. In the mid-1850s Secretary of War Jefferson Davis had peddled the idea of using camels on military campaigns in the desert Southwest (see related book review), and the Army had actually imported a number of the humped beasts. But with the outbreak of the Civil War the experiment unraveled, and the camels were left to roam the desert. After the 1897 Bicycle Corps expedition to St. Louis, Moss was less willing to turn the 25th’s wheeled mounts out to pasture. In 1898 he was in the planning stages of another bicycle mission—from Fort Missoula to San Francisco—when the Army suspended further tests due to the brewing conflict with Spain. Indeed, the Spanish-American War broke out that April, and the Army sent the 25th Infantry to serve in Cuba—but not on bicycles. The U.S. Army did adopt a two-wheeled vehicle in 1913, and in 1916 an expeditionary force under Brig. Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing used that same vehicle to hunt Pancho Villa in Mexico. It was called the motorcycle.
David McCormick of Springfield, Mass., relied on contemporary newspaper articles. He recommends a 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps blog and a visit to the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. Also see Kay Moore’s book The Great Bicycle Experiment (see review).
By David P. Colley
By Daniel D. Aranda