Buffalo Soldiers

The grounds of Fort Davis National Historic Site can tell many stories, such as those of the early peoples who hunted in the area; the establishment of a military post in 1854 to protect California-bound travelers; the Army’s experiment with camels; its brief occupation by Confederate soldiers; and its re-establishment shortly after the war ended. But perhaps no story is more interesting than that of the Buffalo Soldiers who called this fort home from 1867-1885.

After the Civil War, an exhausted nation rapidly reduced the size of its one-million-man army. The first reduction to 55,000 troops by Congress in 1866 specifically included the recruitment of regular army Black troops with White officers.  The army was further reduced to 27,000 men in 1876.  Ultimately, the Black troops included two infantry regiments (24th & 25th) and two cavalry regiments (9th & 10th) recruited from volunteers, many of whom had served in the Civil War.  These units served on the western frontier to protect settlers who were flooding west and occupying lands which were home to multiple Native American tribes. For almost 30 years, Buffalo Soldiers fought Comanches, Apaches, Utes, Sioux, Kiowa and other tribes from Kansas through Texas, Arizona and New Mexico before finishing in the Dakotas and Montana.

The Black troops were dubbed “Buffalo Soldiers” by the Natives due to their hair (which looked buffalo fur) and fierceness in battle.  And fight they did.  (The soldiers took the nickname as a sign of respect). The tribal nations were defeated not so much in large-scale battles but through the relentless pursuit of the Buffalo Soldiers and their committed White officers. Journals report a story of a squad lost in a winter storm for four days without food, fuel, or fodder for their horses; the ground was so wet with rain and snow they had to sleep in their saddles. Another troop wandered in the desert without water for 86 hours and 400 miles before finding relief; they were reduced to killing their horses so as to drink the blood, which made matters worse.

In the 1870s Victorio, a Warm Springs Apache leader, raided from New Mexico and Arizona to deep into Mexico for over 10 years. In about 1880 he joined with disaffected Mescalero Apaches and focused on the Trans-Pecos region.  He was ultimately driven into Mexico by the 10th Cavalry stationed at Fort Davis under Col. Grierson. Reports state he was killed by a volunteer Mexican Army unit in October 1880, but Victorio’s people say he took his own life.  Grierson’s success involved stationing troops at every waterhole in the area, destroying villages and food supplies, spending months in the field in pursuit, and ultimately destroying the enemies’ will to fight.  In many of these skirmishes, the soldiers were outnumbered, but the range of their breechloading .45 Springfield rifles and carbines was over twice that of their opponents, which caused the Natives to break off hostilities.

After the region became quiet and post life became routine, the 10th Cavalry was sent to Arizona in 1885 to fight a different Apache band.

In view of the rigors of campaigning, it’s not surprising that injuries from combat were only about 5% of the cases recorded by the post hospital. Between hospital records and disability requests, an accurate picture can be painted of frontier army life. Horse kicks, broken bones, rheumatism, bad backs, chest congestion, and hemorrhoids are the most common.  Bad sanitation, a monotonous diet of beef, bacon, beans, and flour, and uncertain water quality added constipation, dysentery, and diarrhea to the list. The lack of fresh vegetables resulted in many cases of scurvy, resulting in one post surgeon to suggest the development of a post garden as well as weekly doses of sauerkraut. Then there were the typical pre-antibiotic/pre-vaccination diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, typhoid, and diphtheria.  (There is an especially poignant post report of a family losing seven children to diphtheria in two weeks).  The enlisted men partied as hard as they fought, and the post surgeon reports wounds from brass knuckles, stabbings and gunshots due to off-base activities.  Nevertheless, the hospital was not segregated, and army medical care was considered the national standard at the time. (The medical instruments on display at the fort hospital can cause shudders in today’s visitors).

From 1867 through 1885, all of the Black army units, both infantry and cavalry, spent time at Fort Davis. During this time period, 14 Buffalo Soldiers and four Black-Seminole Indians received the Medal of Honor, and the size of the fort grew from about 200 to over 600. Such a large garrison required a lot of supplies and support, so the town of Fort Davis grew up around it, and at one time was one of the largest towns in Texas.  The fort today is restored to appear as it would have in 1880s when the 10th Cavalry was stationed here, and Col. Grierson and his family were living in the Commanding Officer’s Quarters.  The bunks of the enlisted men’s barrack have the names of the men who were stationed here at that time.  Grierson enjoyed the area so much that he moved back after retirement in 1890. His descendants donated many of the original furnishings in the Commanding Officer’s Quarters after the National Park Service acquired the site in 1963.

Henry FlipperIt should not be surprising that the Black troops often faced discrimination and hostility in a state where they had once been enslaved but were now depended upon to provide protection against Natives and outlaws as well as to repair roads and string telegraph wire.  This hostility could result in being denied food, lodging or transportation at stagecoach stops and mail posts they were ordered to protect.  Discrimination was not limited to the enlisted men.  The first Black officer to graduate from West Point, Lt. Henry Flipper, was court martialed at Fort Davis in 1881 under the command of Col. Shafter. He had received excellent ratings under a previous commander at another post.  Flipper was charged with embezzlement and conduct unbecoming an officer (misleading a higher-ranking officer in his official duties and possibly corresponding with a White woman while off duty).  Although acquitted of the embezzlement charge, Lt. Flipper was convicted of the second and dismissed from the Army.  He went on to have a distinguished career as an engineer in both the public and private sectors. Lt. Flipper was pardoned posthumously by President Clinton after an Army review board noted that the punishment was excessive compared to similar cases at that time.

It was not unusual for a White officer to turn down a promotion to lead a Black unit because of fear of being tainted by association and being denied further promotion.  Col. Grierson, who played a pivotal role in the Battle of Vicksburg, had recruited the 10th Cavalry in 1867 and was its commander until 1885.  Yet he was denied promotion to general until a month before retirement.  This was in spite of his success against Victorio.  General “Black Jack” Pershing, who was the commander of the US Expeditionary Force in WWI, was given a less flattering nickname after commanding Buffalo Soldiers in Montana.

In spite of discrimination, the morale of the Black units was very high; their desertion rate and number of courts martials were lower than White units and their re-enlistment rate was higher.  Part of this may be because Black and White soldiers received the same pay ($13/month for a private), food, equipment, and medical care.  In many ways, prospects of a career were better in the army than in civilian life.  Those that did leave the service were in demand as cowboys; in fact, about 25% of the cowpokes in West Texas were Black.

Once Native Americans were moved onto reservations and gave up trying to defend their lands, military campaigns against them ended and the Buffalo Soldiers took on other responsibilities.  For example, during the summers of the early 1900s, Black units were sent to Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks to build roads and trails as well as curb poaching and illegal logging. One year their commanding officer was Capt. Charles Young, an early Black graduate of West Point, who is considered the first Black superintendent of a national park (Sequoia).

Buffalo Soldiers fought in the Spanish American War, where their bravery earned the respect of Theodore Roosevelt; they fought in Cuba, the Philippines, Mexico, and in World Wars I and II.  They leave an established record of bravery and sacrifice, but limited recognition.

– By Tom Weeks