“Black Jack” Of The 10th

PrintPrintEmailEmailIf there is a military stereotype in United States history, it must closely resemble the public impression of John J. Pershing, who was accorded the highest possible rank—General of the Armies—after commanding the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. “Brass hat” was written all over him: the jutting jaw, the cold, direct gaze, the bluntly authoritarian manner, the stiff back and square shoulders. Most people believed that his sobriquet “Black Jack” was bestowed because of the forcefulness of his character. It would come as a shock to those who rejected the “Pershing for President” campaign just after the war, on the grounds that he was too obviously the hard-boiled and probably reactionary general, that he had earned the nickname (it was originally “Nigger Jack”) as a fierce and unrelenting advocate of the Negro soldier.

Pershing was one of the carefully selected officers who commanded troops in the two crack Negro cavalry regiments that served on the frontier after the Civil War. Although there has never been in the U.S. Army the sentimental regard for regimental tradition that encrusts the military establishments of Britain and other nations, Pershing’s professional “home” was the 10th (Negro) Cavalry. He served with it in Montana Territory and in the charge up San Juan Hill in 1898, and it was under his command in the Philippines and during the punitive expedition into Mexico in 1916.

Pershing was transferred to the 10th in 1895 as a thirty-five-year-old first lieutenant. By that time the regiment had served on the western frontier for almost thirty years, and had established itself as one of the hardest fighting, best disciplined, and most efficient mounted forces in the field. Anyone whose knowledge of western history has come largely through motion pictures, television, or popular fiction might be surprised to learn that two of the finest regiments in the Indian-fighting army—one fifth of the total cavalry force involved—were composed of Negro troopers with white officers. Invariably, in any action scene of the army riding to the rescue of a wagon train or a besieged settlement, every trooper is a white man. In actuality, a white settler with a mess of Indian troubles on his hands—including many an ex-Confederate who had previously considered the Negro incapable of military service—stood an excellent chance of being saved by a hard-riding troop of black cavalrymen.

An instance occurred on September 17, 1868, shortly after the 10th and its fellow Negro regiment, the 9th, were organized. The scene was Beecher Island on the Arikaree fork of the Republican River, near present-day Wray in Yuma County, Colorado. Major George A. Forsyth, at the head of fifty civilian scouts—mostly former Union and Confederate soldiers—was deep into Indian country when he was attacked by a force of Cheyennes, Sioux, and Arapahoes that out-numbered his band at least ten to one. For nearly a week they were besieged; Forsyth was badly hurt, and nearly half of his command were wounded or killed. Two scouts managed to get through the Indian lines and make it to Fort Wallace, Kansas, 125 miles away. Two troops of the 10th Cavalry under Captain Louis Carpenter saddled up immediately, made it to the Arikaree in the amazingly short time of two days, and rescued Major Forsyth and his survivors. (For eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Beecher Island, see “Don’t Let Them Ride Over Us” in this issue.)

The 10th had been organized on September 30, 1866, under the command of Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson. A major general of cavalry during the Civil War, he had led “Grierson’s Raid” into Mississippi in 1863, and was one of the few non-West Pointers given regimental command after the war. Less stiff-backed than the Regulars, easy-going and tolerant, he was later criticized by one of his staff officers as “too prone to forgive offenses and trust to promises for reform.” Yet he was undoubtedly an excellent choice for command of one of the new Negro regiments, and was retained at his post for twenty-four years, until his retirement in 1890. On finally being relieved of that command, he boasted of his “buffalo soldiers” (as the Indians called them), or “brunettes” (as they were known to white regiments), that after “contact with the most warlike and savage Indians of the Plains,” the 10th had “maintained a most gallant and zealous devotion to duty.”

He was not exaggerating: the list of the regiment’s engagements and the reports of its officers to the Adjutant General’s Office showed that its various units were constantly engaged wherever they served, from the Mexican border to the high plains of the North. Their record is studded with victories against heavy odds, often without the supervision of white officers that the army bureaucracy believed was necessary. In September of 1867, for example, Private John G. Randall of Troop G, travelling with two white civilians, was attacked by sixty to seventy Cheyennes forty-five miles west of Fort Hays along the Union Pacific Railroad. They were caught in the open, and the two civilians were killed almost immediately. Randall, however, burrowed into the cut bank along the railroad tracks; he was shot in the hip and took eleven lance thrusts in the shoulders, but refused to be rooted out. The relief column found him, still forted up in his prairie-dog hole, surrounded by the bodies of thirteen Cheyennes.