Buffalo Soldiers Ride to Settle the West
Horses pick a path, nose to tail, across a rocky creek bed. Above, a canopy of ghost-like sycamores blocks the sun and sight of the riders. The riders, once slaves and now soldiers, ride with one mission in mind: to capture or kill Victorio, war chief of the Chihenne Apaches.
It is Sept. 18, 1879, and more than 100 soldiers from Company B and Company E of the U.S. 9th Cavalry have tracked Victorio, along with 60 of his warriors, to the base of Las Animas Creek, deep in the maze of the Black Ridge Mountains, which will one day become part of New Mexico.
Without warning, a hail of bullets and arrows rain down on the soldiers. Horses are shot dead from underneath their riders. Scrambling to dismount and reach for their rifles, the men, who will later come to be recognized as the Buffalo Soldiers, are pinned between the canyon walls surrounding the river. Gunfire ricochets off canyon walls. The soldiers, having ridden into an ambush, are engaged in a struggle to the death.
A THIRST FOR LAND
The Union Army’s 1865 victory in the Civil War meant freedom for thousands of enslaved African Americans, but life in the war’s aftermath still included lynching, segregation and prejudice.
During the Civil War, about 180,000 black soldiers fought for the Union Army (with an additional nearly 20,000 serving in the navy), and an estimated 40,000 Army soldiers died, most of those deaths a result of disease or infection. Debate about the continued service by black men during peacetime reached a fever-pitch after the armistice. Some argued that the African American men should be forbidden from enlisting, while others reasoned that those in the all-black Union regiments had served with distinction.
The nation’s thirst to settle the Western frontier ended the debate. The U.S. Congress answered the call for troops on July 28, 1866, establishing two mounted cavalry and four infantry (later consolidated to two) all-black units in a peacetime army. Soldiers enlisted in droves. A five-year enlistment guaranteed $13 each month, and a future that included shelter, food and freedom. Enlistees worked seven days a week, apart from July 4 and Dec. 25.
The mounted units, the 9th and 10th Cavalries, and the infantry regiments, the 24th and 25th, were dispatched to Texas, Arizona, Colorado, the Dakotas and New Mexico for two purposes: law enforcement, including capturing horse thieves, and military campaigns against Native Americans. In part, the soldiers were tasked with orders to protect white settlers from what the U.S. Army termed the “Apache Menace” and were ordered to subdue tribal members and forcibly relocate them to government-sponsored reservations.
TAMING THE WEST
Daily life on the Western frontier was especially inhospitable for the soldiers. Disease and dysentery, a result of unsanitary living conditions, claimed dozens of lives. Creek beds equaled bathing facilities. Poorly ventilated and vermin-infested barracks resulted in widespread diarrhea, bronchitis and tuberculosis. Carb-heavy diets of bread, beans and sweet potatoes lacked variety. Hard tack, a cracker made from flour, water and a little salt, sustained many.
Stifling heat in summer, subzero temperatures in winter, and crosswinds strong enough to unseat the most skilled horsemen jeopardized missions too. Boots fell apart. Horses collapsed and died from the strain and insubstantial food. Dust devils, swirling tornadoes of wind and sand, encrusted eyelids and blinded vision. A misstep could send a soldier and his horse catapulting over a rocky precipice to certain death.
Gear matched the quality of the food. Broken or worn saddles sat atop horses old enough to be retired. Soldiers were equipped only with a poncho, a blanket, a feed bag and oats, a sheath to hold a rifle, a saber and a canteen; a recreational camper today would be more prepared.
New Mexico territory attracted a mishmash of characters— including cattle ranchers and rustlers, merchants and outlaws, cowboys and soldiers. Disputes arose like wildfire. White settlers illegally staked out land protected by Indian treaty. Racial prejudice by local citizens, whom the black military were sworn to protect, ignited false charges against the soldiers. White commanders turned down posts to command black units on many occasions.
Amid the harrowing circumstances, cavalry soldiers built and repaired frontier outposts and military forts. In the saddle, they surveyed and mapped unknown terrain, and hunted for and secured watering holes. Soldiers guarded and escorted the U.S. mail stagecoaches. Illegal gun trafficking and alcohol sales to Native Americans required policing. Hundreds of miles of telegraph poles were strung by infantry men, and on occasion soldiers laid train tracks side by side with railroad workers.
Yet, even in the face of inferior treatment, black cavalry and infantry members embraced their twin mottos— “We Can: We Will” and “Ready and Forward”—with pride.