In 1992 Congress passed legislation designating July 28 as Buffalo Soldiers Day, marking the first time that four African-American regiments were used in the US Army on July 28, 1866. Known as “Buffalo Soldiers,” members of Calvary Units 9, 10, 24, and 25 worked in conjunction with US interests among Native American tribes, provided protection for important shipments, and helped to construct roads and trails in the southwest and in the plains states. The celebration honors these four regiments of African Americans serving on the frontier in the post-Civil War Army.
Origins of the Buffalo Soldiers:
As to the origin of the term "Buffalo Soldier," the longstanding debate continues. Some maintain that the nickname is associated with the toughness and courage seen in the bison, commonly called buffalo. Others insist that the thick, curly hair and dark skin of the soldiers reminded them of buffaloes. Still others think of the title as a disparaging racial term used by Native Americans to describe the dark-skinned soldiers they met in battle. Some even speculate that the term is based on the thick coats made from buffalo hide that the soldiers wore during winter. Regardless of its derivation, the term as used today conveys respect and honor.
The Buffalo Soldier regiments also served in a range of military operations, including the Spanish-American War. In discussing “Buffalo Soldiers at San Juan Hill,” Richard Schubert cites Edward Van Zile Scott, who in his book, The Unwept, makes the following comment,". . . in the Spanish-American War of 1898, veteran black troops . . . were more responsible than any other group for the United States victory." This view is in sharp contrast to those who hold that Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders played the primary role rather than a secondary role in the Cuban conflict.
In addition, Walter Hill reports in the National Archives Publications that Buffalo Soldiers also helped to “enforce the neutrality laws along the Mexican border, saw four tours of duty in the Philippine Islands, and battled Pancho Villa during the Mexican punitive expedition under John J. Pershing in 1916. Members of the all-black regiments also serve in World War I, where many of the non-commissioned officers received commissions and several hundred troopers joined new units preparing to fight in Europe.”
Although members also served in World War II and other conflicts, changing military philosophy and the mechanization of the cavalry led to the end of the mounted cavalry in postwar America. Hill also notes the Buffalo Soldiers no longer operated as distinct military units with the end of segregation in the military during the late 1940s and 1950s and beyond.
Celebrations across the nation
On the first Buffalo Soldiers Day in 1992, a monument to the Buffalo Soldiers was dedicated at Fort Leavenworth, KS by General Colin Powell, who had originated the idea of a memorial to the black soldiers when he was stationed at the fort. Since that time ceremonies and commemorations honoring the Buffalo Soldiers have included reenactments, museum displays, educational forums, prayer services, and dedication or groundbreaking ceremonies for sculptural or other permanent memorials established throughout the nation.
Take a look at the accompanying slide show that pays tribute to the pioneering Buffalo Soldiers. An accompanying video also provides background information on these members of the military.
Check out the related article discussing the origins of “Decoration Day,” with an accompanying slide show of some notable African Americans in the military over the years.