There is no certainty as to the reason but the soldiers of the all-black 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments were dubbed “buffalo soldiers” by the Native Americans they encountered. It is speculated that the epithet arose because the soldiers’ dark, curly hair resembled the fur of a buffalo. Another school of thought has it that the soldiers fought so valiantly and fiercely that the Indians revered them as they did the mighty buffalo.
Buffalo soldiers were African-American soldiers who mainly served on the Western frontier following the American Civil War. In 1866, six all-black cavalry and infantry regiments were created after Congress passed the Army Organization Act. African-Americans had fought in the United States’ wars since the Revolution and during the Civil War, they comprised over 10 percent of Union Army troops and 16 percent of Union Navy Sailors. Yet, African-American U.S. Regular Army units were not created until 1866.
That year, as part of a U.S. Army reorganization following the Civil War, Congress created six Regular Army regiments of African-American Soldiers: 9th and 10th cavalry regiments; and 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st infantry regiments. In 1869, the four infantry regiments were consolidated into two units and re-designated 24th and 25th infantry regiments.
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In the racially segregated U.S. Army (until 1948), these units of black troops were primarily commanded by white officers. Beginning around 1880, African-American officers were also assigned to Buffalo Soldier units. Notable U.S. Army officers who led Buffalo Soldiers included Benjamin H. Grierson; Ranald S. Mackenzie; John J. Pershing; Henry O. Flipper, the first African-American graduate of West Point; and Charles Young, the third African-American graduate of West Point and the first African-American promoted to the rank of colonel.
The buffalo soldiers participated in dozens upon dozens of skirmishes and larger battles of the Indian Wars. For example, the 9th Cavalry was critical to the success of a three-month, unremitting campaign known as the Red River War against the Kiowas, the Comanches, the Cheyenne and the Arapahoe. It was after this battle that the 10th Cavalry was sent to join them in Texas.
Troops H and I of the 10th Cavalry were part of a team that rescued wounded Lieutenant-Colonel George Alexander Forsyth and what remained of his group of scouts trapped on a sand bar and surrounded by Indians in the Arikaree River. A couple of weeks later, the same troops engaged hundreds of Indians at Beaver Creek and fought so gallantly they were thanked in a field order by General Philip Sheridan.
By 1880, the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments had minimized Indian resistance in Texas and the 9th Cavalry was ordered to Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma, ironically to prevent white settlers from illegally settling on Indian land. The 10th Cavalry continued to keep the Apache in check until the early 1890s when they relocated to Montana to round up the Cree.
About 20 percent of U.S. Cavalry troops that participated in the Indian Wars were buffalo soldiers who participated in at least 177 conflicts.
Buffalo soldiers didn’t only battle unfriendly Indians. They also fought wildfires and poachers in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks and supported the parks’ infrastructure. According to the National Park Service, buffalo soldiers billeted at the Presidio army post in San Francisco during the winter and served as park rangers in the Sierra Nevada in the summer.
In the late 1890s, with the “Indian problem” mostly settled, the 9th and 10th Calvary and the 24th and 25th Infantry headed to Florida at the start of the Spanish-American War.
Even facing blatant racism and enduring brutal weather conditions, buffalo soldiers earned a reputation for serving courageously. They fought heroically in the Battle of San Juan Hill, the Battle of El Caney and the Battle of Las Guasimas.
The 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments served in the Philippines in the early 1900s. Despite proving their military worth time and again, they continued to experience racial discrimination. During World War I, they were mostly relegated to defending the Mexican border.
Both regiments were integrated into the 2nd Cavalry Division in 1940. Neither saw action during World War II, although they trained for overseas deployment and combat. The 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments were deactivated in May 1944.