In 1897 a unit of black infantrymen set out on a grueling expedition to demonstrate a unique means of military transport–the bicycle.
By Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer
By Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer
The determined group of cyclists struggled against a stiff headwind as they pedaled their fully loaded bicycles up the rocky road on a sticky, rainy day in June 1897. Forceful gusts whipped over the plains, punctuated by the sound of the riders’ labored breathing and the scrunching of tires along the dirt road. By the time they reached their destination, the 23 riders–the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps–would have traveled 1,900 miles.
Formed in 1869, the 25th Infantry was one of four African-American military units posted west of the Mississippi, serving as protectors and peacekeepers. The 25th was stationed on the Texas frontier until 1880, when it was transferred to the Dakota Territory. Eight years later the unit moved to the hunting and fishing paradise of Fort Missoula, Montana, from where the soldiers were dispatched as peacekeeping forces during railroad and mine strikes and fought forest fires in Montana and Idaho. Yet one of their most grueling tasks involved cycling long distances under realistic field conditions.
Following the advent of the chain-driven “safety” bicycle, developed in 1874 by H.J. Lawson, and John Boyd Dunlop’s 1888 pneumatic tire invention, cycling for pleasure and for everyday transport became popular. Meanwhile, several European armies had already established the bicycle’s value for reconnaissance and courier services.
The U.S. Army, however, did not attempt any official experiments in bicycle transport until 1896, when the task was assigned to the 25th Infantry. The newly formed bicycle unit consisted of eight enlisted men and their white commander, Lieutenant James A. Moss.
In July 1896, the bicycle corps was given its first long-distance test, riding north to Lake McDonald and back, a distance of 126 miles. During the three-day expedition the soldiers encountered heavy rains, strong winds, deep mud, and steep grades and suffered punctured tires, broken pedals, and loose rims and chains. The corps gained valuable experience for the following month’s test.
On August 15, the riders pedaled out of Fort Missoula and reached Yellowstone Park 10 days and 500 miles later. There they rested and saw the sights for five days before returning to their post. The soldiers averaged a speed of six miles per hour over the steepest part of the route, more than twice that of infantrymen traversing the same terrain.
The summer of 1897 saw the bicycle corps undertake its longest, most challenging test when its members set out for St. Louis. The chosen route closely followed the Northern Pacific Railroad from the corps headquarters at Fort Missoula to Billings, Montana. From there it paralleled the Burlington Northern Railroad through Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Missouri. Selected for its length, difficult terrain, and extreme weather and road conditions, the route was perfect for this military experiment.
The unit’s bicycles were the most modern available, built to military specifications by A.G. Spalding & Bros. of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. Eager for its product to undergo a rigorous service test, Spalding donated the bicycles to the government. Although constructed with the most up-to-date specifications, the bicycles had steel frames and rims and were cumbersome and heavy.
Each rider carried a 10-pound blanket roll that included a shelter tent and poles, a set of underwear, two pairs of socks, a handkerchief, and toothbrush and powder. Properly packed, the roll fitted into a luggage carrier in front of the bicycle’s handlebars. Each man also carried rations of bacon, bread, canned beef, baked beans, coffee, and sugar in hard leather cases attached to the bicycle frame. Every other man carried a towel and a bar of soap, and each squad chief carried a comb and brush and a box of matches. Fully loaded, the soldiers’ bicycles weighed about 59 pounds each. Every man also carried a 10-pound Krag-Jorgensen rifle and a 50-round cartridge belt.
Moss chose 20 of the 40 infantrymen who volunteered for the expedition. The men ranged in age from 24 to 39 and were in top physical condition. Five were veterans of the previous year’s trials. Moss described the corps as “bubbling over with enthusiasm . . . about as fine a looking and well disciplined a lot as could be found anywhere in the United States Army.” Also joining the corps were the assistant post surgeon, Dr. James M. Kennedy, and Edward Boos, a reporter for the Daily Missoulian newspaper.
Corps mechanic Private John Findley was an indispensable member of the unit, responsible for keeping the bicycles in top running condition. Damaged front crowns, front axles, pedals, and spokes would continually demand his mechanical expertise and ingenuity.
The cyclists pedaled out of Fort Missoula at 5:30 a.m. on June 14, 1897. When the soldiers reached Missoula they rode through town in an impressive, double-file formation as people lined the streets to cheer them on their way.
Unfortunately, the bright start quickly dimmed as heavy rains turned the road to mud. Lieutenant Moss noted in his official report that “we rolled our wheels through weeds and underbrush on the road side in order to avoid the mud, and then would carry them a few paces and stop for second wind, as it were.” About 3:00 p.m. the weather began to clear, and “we stopped for an hour’s rest, after which the ride or rather the march was resumed over the muddy, hilly roads.” It was an exhausting first day, but despite the wet weather the men managed to travel 54 miles.
Rain fell in torrents through the night, and by morning the road was completely impassable. Pushing off in a drizzling rain, the riders soon abandoned the road and traveled along the Northern Pacific Railroad tracks. Instead of mud the group endured bone-jarring jolts from mile after mile of railroad ties.
Near noon on the fourth day the corps trekked across the Continental Divide, enduring freezing temperatures and blowing sleet and snow that brought visibility down to less than 20 feet. Every so often the cyclists stopped to warm their hands and ears before pressing on. As they began their descent, melting snow forced the men to peddle along in ankle-deep water.
The soldiers were under pressure to make good time as they carried only two days’ rations. With food pick-up points stationed every 100 miles, their daily riding average had to be 50 miles, although that wasn’t always possible. Poor weather conditions between the Crow Indian reservation and Fort Custer in south-central Montana produced such muddy roads that the men covered only three miles in six hours on the 10th day of their journey, and they ran out of food before the next ration point. Boos wrote, “We were wet, cold and hungry, and a more jaded set of men never existed.”
On the evening of June 25, the expedition reached the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, fought exactly 21 years earlier. “The site of our camp was on the flat at the foot of the hill on which Gen. Custer fought the famous battle and where the Indians pitched their lodges the day before the battle,” Boos reported. Before eating their supper, the men “visited the celebrated battlefield and viewed the site of the massacre with interest. The writer went over Custer’s very line of march on his bicycle under the direction of Mr. A.N. Grover, the custodian of the Custer National Cemetery.”
As the corps traveled through Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska, water became a critical problem. The only potable supply came from railroad tanks, and if the soldiers were too far from the railroad, they had no choice but to drink water that was often alkali-tainted, causing sickness throughout the corps. Moss reported that on June 29, after “having ridden somewhat over twenty miles up an almost continuous grade, under a broiling sun, we stopped, about 2 p.m. at Gillette, Wyo., for lunch,” although many of the men were so tired that they fell asleep while eating. After being advised that the next place where they could obtain water was the town of Moorcroft, some 30 miles away, the corps started on its way again. By 7:00 p.m. the men had covered about 16 miles and “were bounding along at an eight-mile gait, when all at once the clouds began to gather thick and fast, and almost immediately darkness was upon us.” Suddenly, the front axle on one man’s bicycle broke. Their need for water was too urgent to stop for repairs, however, and the soldier had no choice but to push his bicycle all the way to Moorcroft.
Moss left Sergeant Mingo Sanders in temporary command while he pushed ahead with the cook and two soldiers, “intending to reach Moorcroft an hour or more before the command and have supper ready as soon as they arrived.” Poor road conditions, however, forced Moss and his men to dismount and push their bicycles. Darkness descended before they reached town. “While almost feeling our way along a road wet and muddy from a rain from the previous day, we walked and walked and walked, pushing our wheels before us,” noted Moss. “The night air was damp, chilly, and penetrating, and we were cold, hungry, and tired . . . I was really sleeping on my feet.” After several hours of walking, the men were overcome by sheer exhaustion. They collapsed on top of their tents, covered themselves with their blankets, and fell asleep. When the four men awoke the next morning, they saw the town of Moorcroft about a mile away.
The soldiers regrouped and continued on through the southwest corner of South Dakota, arriving in Crawford, Nebraska, on July 3 as the town’s residents were enjoying an early Independence Day celebration. Boos reported that “The Fourth of July celebration was at its height when the 25th U.S. Infantry Bicycle Corps arrived at Crawford. The entire town was full of people and the corps was given a hearty welcome . . . .”
As the men continued east over the Nebraska plains in extreme heat, water problems intensified. In one instance they rode 50 miles without water, their lips parched and tongues swollen. Daytime temperatures were so high that the men began their trek at daybreak and rode until mid-morning. They rested through the hottest hours of the day and continued on in the late afternoon. If road conditions were good, the corps frequently pedaled by moonlight.
About nine miles out of Alliance, Nebraska, Lieutenant Moss was “overcome from the effects of alkali water, and taken back to town. For the next four days the corps was under the command of Asst. Surgeon J.M. Kennedy.” Moss remained in Alliance to recover, then rejoined the riders by train.
During the four days under Dr. Kennedy’s command, the soldiers endured some of the highest temperatures of their journey. Making matters worse, their bicycles sank eight to ten inches deep in Nebraska’s Sand Hills, forcing the men once again onto the railroad tracks, where they rumbled along for 170 miles. Moss recalled that this distance was covered in four and a half days “by almost superhuman effort. On July 7 the thermometer registered 110 degrees in the shade, and over half of the corps were sick . . . .” Fortunately, the journey was nearing its end.
Twenty-three miles west of St. Louis, newspaper reporter Henry Lucas camped with the bicycle corps and prepared to escort the riders into the city. He relayed word to the St. Louis Star that the men were in top physical condition, and their spirits were high. He further reported, “It is no uncommon sight for residents of this city to see a company of wheelmen . . . but in today’s visitors there is a distinctiveness which will mark them at once as different from other riders . . . . All belong to the African race except the Lieutenant.”
On July 24 hundreds of St. Louis cyclists rode out to meet the approaching regiment, and large crowds greeted the weary travelers as they made their way into the city. During the next few days thousands of spectators visited the corps’ campsite and watched exhibition drills. The St. Louis Associated Cycling Corps even sponsored a parade in honor of its military guests. This was “the most marvelous cycling trip in the history of the wheel and the most rapid military march on record,” reported the St. Louis Star.
Moss was particularly proud of his unit’s persistence. “There was no condition of weather we did not endure, no topographical obstacle that we did not overcome,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In his official report, Moss commended his men for the “spirit, pluck and fine soldierly qualities they displayed.” He stressed that “some of our experiences, especially in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, tested to the utmost not only their physical endurance, but also their moral courage and disposition.”
The trip lasted 40 days: 34 spent in travel and six used for rest and repairs. Due to the extreme road and weather conditions, the men pushed their bicycles nearly 400 of the total 1,900 miles traveled. Initially, the corps averaged 52 miles a day, but once the unit passed beyond the Sand Hills the rate increased to 60 miles.
Moss reported several problems that needed to be addressed, including the increase of regulation rations, as provisions intended for two days lasted for only four meals. He also recommended the addition of shock absorbers to the handlebars to prevent jarring, as many men had suffered numbing pain from traveling over rough roads and railroad tracks. In some places they had actually found it easier to carry their fully loaded bicycles on their shoulders.
Nonetheless, the experiment demonstrated that a bicycle corps could travel twice as fast as cavalry and infantry under the same topographical conditions, at one-third the cost. Moss remarked that a bicycle corps would be particularly useful in situations that required speed rather than numbers, such as taking possession of bridges or passes and holding them until reinforcements arrived. “The bicycle has a number of advantages over the horse,” Moss noted, “it does not require as much care, it needs no forage, it moves much faster over fair roads . . . it is noiseless and raises but little dust, and it is impossible to determine its direction from its tracks.” Still, Moss made it clear that he didn’t believe a bicycle corps could in any way take over the duties of mounted cavalry. He maintained that the services complemented each other, and a bicycle corps would best serve as adjuncts to both cavalry and infantry.
In the end, the army decided not to establish a permanent bicycle corps. Lack of good roads, the large supply of horses, and the country’s vast expanse all worked against the plan. After returning by train to their post at Fort Missoula, the bicycle corps was disbanded as an active unit. Although several different types of bicycles were developed for the army–including some models that carried machine guns and repeating rifles–they failed to pass the strenuous field tests. The arduous experience of the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps would never be repeated.
Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer is a freelance writer who holds a master’s degree in history.
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