Honoring The Buffalo Soldiers

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The simple statue that General Powell first thought would be a fitting tribute has now grown into a major project.

The 9th’s first campaigns in Texas would turn them, as did the 10th theirs, into a formidable fighting regiment. Its companies were posted in San Antonio and Brownsville and farther west at Fort Stockton and Fort Davis. Their mission was to protect the stage route from San Antonio to El Paso and to establish law and order along a notoriously dangerous Mexican border. Comanche and Apache raids on the sparse settlements were commonplace, and billeting, food, horses, and basic equipment were all at a premium. Soldiering was never tougher, yet the officers and men of the 9th seemed to weather their hardships with a good deal of maturity; discipline and training improved, and the desertion and court-martial rates, which had been high while the regiment was forming in New Orleans, gradually fell off to among the lowest in all the Army’s regiments.

Both the 9th and 10th were raised just as the tribes of the western Plains were beginning to make their last stands against white settlement, and the regiments crisscrossed the Plains in campaign after campaign, fighting the Cheyennes (who, according to regimental lore, first called the men Buffalo Soldiers) from 1867 to 1869, along the Red River in 1874 and 1875, in the Ute War of 1879, against the Apaches from 1875 to 1886, and finally against the Sioux in 1890 and 1891. Along the way the men of the 9th and 10th won thirteen Medals of Honor.

By the turn of the century, the two regiments had become an essential, if not always appreciated, part of the Regular Army establishment. They fought in every major conflict from the war with Spain (at San Juan Hill) until 1952, when as part of President Truman’s campaign to erase the color line in the Army, the 9th and the 10th were integrated.

Thirty years later, General Powell decided that these regiments deserved greater recognition than two gravel alleys. But he was soon to change assignments, and his project lay dormant until, several years later, a naval officer took up the cause.

Commander Carleton Philpot was not happy at being “beached” in Fort Leavenworth. Assigned to the faculty of the Command and General Staff College in 1989, Philpot learned of Powell’s idea, kept alive by regimental veterans still living in the vicinity of the fort. The incongruity of a Navy man campaigning for a monument to soldiers virtually forgotten never seemed to disturb Philpot; his goal was nothing less than the rectification of an injustice of memory against the men of the 9th and 10th. Philpot is hard put to say now whether he took over the project or it captured him, but before long he had mobilized a diverse group of people who shared his interest.

The simple statue that Colin Powell first thought would be a fitting tribute has now grown into a major project in which an entire site will surround a bronze figure astride a horse, standing at the edge of a waterfall, not too far from where Grierson’s recruits passed their first unpleasant winter together.

Even with the dedication of the monument next summer, Philpot does not think his work is finished. Now he is laying plans for a commemorative stamp, a new motion picture, and perhaps an exhibition at the Smithsonian. How did this naval officer get up such a head of steam? “When I realized how much those guys had done and not been honored for, I was incredibly angry,” he recalled in an interview in the Washington Post . “We have got to get this story into the schools, not as part of Black History Month in February but as part of American history. This is a group of heroes—true heroes that you don’t have to create. Not football players, not singers, just guys who did a tough job and nobody gave a hoot.” Well, fortunately, not quite.