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“Black Jack” Of The 10th
A Negro cavalry regiment was John J. Pershing’s “home” in the service. From it came his nickname, and he never lost his affection for—or failed to champion—the valorous colored troopers he led.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
Shortly before that, with the whole Kansas border inflamed and the government forces badly outnumbered, Troop F—two officers and thirty-four enlisted men—was attacked by three hundred Indians on the Saline River forty miles northeast of Fort Hays. The troop fought for six hours against odds of ten to one and withdrew only after inflicting heavy casualties.
Early in the seventies the regiment saw its hardest service when it was dispatched to help deal with the Kiowas and Comanches in the Southwest. Its troops were dispersed to various outposts and its headquarters set up at Fort Sill, Indian Territory. Much of the duty consisted of chasing hostiles over the Staked Plains, the Guadalupe Mountains, the badlands of the Rio Grande, and the Big Bend country—some of the hottest, driest, most miserable terrain in the United States. Regimental reports told the story in stoic terms:
November 28, 1876: A corporal and four men sent after a band of horse thieves returned to Fort Griffin after a march of 770 miles, bringing in ten Mexicans and fifteen stolen horses.
Same year: Troop C returned to Fort McKavett after scouting for six months and seven days.
July 30, 1877: Two men died of thirst after being without water for eighty-six hours.
August, 1880: Corporal Asa Weaver and a small detachment attacked the notorious Victorio’s Apache band and pursued it across the Rio Grande after a fifteen-mile running fight.
For ten years, between 1875 and 1885, the 10th was engaged with the Apaches in western Texas and was assigned to keeping the routes to El Paso open to travellers. Colonel Grierson was appointed to command the new District of the Pecos and prevent further depredations by the able and exceedingly active Victorio.
Grierson accomplished this largely by setting up subposts at all the water holes and pursuing the Indian bands whenever they came in sight. The historian of Fort Davis, which served as Grierson’s headquarters, noted that the various troops of the 10th Cavalry “earned the highest scouting mileage for 1878 in the Department of Texas, 6,724 miles.” Victorio kept dodging back and forth across the Rio Grande. In the summer of 1880 Colonel Grierson, with Troops C and G, fortified a water hole in Quitman Canyon and ambushed Victorio, preventing him from heading for sanctuary in the Mescalero country of southern New Mexico. That fall, driven to take shelter in the Candelaria Mountains of Chihuahua, Victorio was surrounded by Mexican troops; he was killed in the ensuing battle and most of his followers were wiped out.
By this time, white officers considered assignment to the 10th a professional honor. In a historical sketch of the regiment’s first quarter-century, Major John Bigelow, Jr., one of its veteran officers, wrote that colored soldiers “will follow wherever led, they will go without leading, and will stay with their leader through all danger, and never desert him.”
Another of the 10th’s officers, commenting on an article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in August, 1889, that had cited the alarming increase in army desertions, suggested that the remedy was to “enlist none but colored men.” Desertions in white regiments were triple those in Negro outfits. It would be better, he wrote, to enlist Negro soldiers than “the lawless, insubordinate and characterless class of the foreign and low-born part of the population assigned to white regiments.” He estimated that in the twenty-three years since the post-Civil War reorganization of the Army, the government would have saved itself $10,000,000 on desertions alone if the Army had been composed entirely of Negro troops.
In 1892 the 10th finally got a change of scene after Colonel Grierson’s successor, Colonel J. K. Mizner, protested to the Adjutant General that his regiment had spent twenty years south of the thirty-sixth parallel and deserved a breather in a kindlier climate. He requested that the entire outfit be transferred to a northern post, preferably not farther north than Kansas. “With characteristic kindness,” Mizner wrote, “orders came to move at once to Montana, detraining there in mid-winter, in a blizzard. The regiment left Arizona in the southern spring.”
The 10th’s new headquarters was at Fort Assiniboine, near Havre, which was surrounded by reservations for the Crows, the Blackfeet, and the Flatheads. For the most part these Indians were peaceable enough; the troublemakers in the region were a large band of Crees from Canada who were, technically, illegal immigrants. One of the first and oddest assignments given the regiment had nothing to do with restless tribesmen. In April, 1894, various units of the 10th were ordered to chase down a Northern Pacific train “borrowed” by one of the detachments of Coxey’s Army during the march on Washington (see “Rebel in a Wing Collar” in the December, 1966, AMERICAN HERITAGE ); the recovery was effected at gunpoint but without bloodshed.
It was just before the regiment began the task of rounding up and repatriating the Crees that Lieutenant Pershing reported for duty.