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 experienced 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 merel passing him and embeded 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 embeded 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!