Honoring The Buffalo Soldiers

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Ordinarily streets and buildings on Army posts are history lessons. The Army is an institution that capitalizes upon its past, using its physical surroundings to commemorate its forebears and convey to its present members a sense of continuity and place. Over the years the Army’s custom of naming everything nameable has ensured that every road and most buildings speak to the inhabitants of these posts in subtle and constant tones. In this respect Fort Leavenworth is no different from any other post, but this is an old place, one that lays a special claim to the Army’s affections. Established in 1827, it is the oldest fort in continuous service west of the Missouri River, which courses below the bluffs where it stands. In 1881 the Army’s “university,” the Command and General Staff College, opened its first classes. Today few officers manage a career in the Army without seeing Fort Leavenworth. The place is frequently referred to as “the heart and soul of the American Army.”

So when Colin Powell was stationed at Fort Leavenworth as a brigadier general in 1982, he understood the historical significance of the place. He knew, too, that it was here in 1866 that the 10th Cavalry Regiment was raised, organized, and first trained while a new sister regiment, the 9th Cavalry, was being established in New Orleans. Together these two regiments, composed of African-Americans, came to be known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

Out for a run one day, Powell came by two gravel alleyways named after the 9th and 10th Cavalries. ”I wonder if that’s all there is,” he thought. So began a remarkable campaign that will culminate in the dedication of a monument to the 9th and 10th on a site at Fort Leavenworth where the 10th first made its home. On July 25,1992, a new bronze statue of a mounted cavalry trooper will be unveiled. Flags will fly and bands will play and speeches will be made. And it will be a far happier day than the one when the Buffalo Soldiers stood their first reveille. As was the case with the 1st Kansas Colored, Leavenworth was not the most pleasant location to raise a regiment of black troops.

Concerned about a new restiveness among the Plains Indians and the demands of policing Reconstruction, Congress passed the Army Reorganization Act in 1866, authorizing the creation of ten new regiments of cavalry, five new artillery regiments, and fortyfive new infantry regiments. Two of the cavalry regiments and four of the infantry regiments were to be made up of black soldiers and officered by whites—the first all-black units on the 1992 rolls of the permanent military establishment of the United States.

Some white officers refused to serve with black troops. Custer turned down a lieutenant colonelcy in the 10th in favor of the 7th Cavalry. The 10th got a better officer anyway. Benjamin Grierson was a former music teacher from Illinois who was afraid of horses and rose to become one of the celebrated cavalry leaders of the Civil War. He was a conscientious, stern, and demanding disciplinarian whose first thought was for the welfare of his command, and he accepted his new posting without cavil.

The post commander of Fort Leavenworth, Col. William Huffman, was made of lesser stuff. A deeply and all too typically bigoted officer, Huffman set himself to opposing Grierson and his new regiment in any way possible. His first act was to select a site for the new regiment’s bivouac and training area, a place called One Mile Creek, the lowest and wettest ground on the post. During Grierson’s frequent absences from the fort on regimental business, Huffman did his best to make life miserable for the new recruits and their officers.

With morale low and getting lower, Grierson intensified both his recruiting efforts and his training schedule. He demanded only “superior personnel” be taken into the regiment and threatened charges if the recruiters in St. Louis did not follow his instructions. His goal was to move the regiment as ’ quickly as he could far from the prejudiced gaze of Colonel Huffman.

The final outrage came in the summer of 1867 when Grierson had raised about two-thirds of his companies. All Army units in garrison were paraded each Sunday in those days. Colonel Huffman ordered Grierson to keep “those people” off the parade ground while the other post units marched by in their finery. Grierson disobeyed and wheeled the men of the newly formed Company F onto the main parade. Incensed, Hoffman had court-martial charges drawn up against Grierson. The court-martial was never convened, for one month later, with only part of j the command formed, Grierson took the 10th Cavalry away to Fort Riley.

While Grierson and his men were contending with Colonel Hoffman, in New Orleans Col. Edward Hatch and the new 9th Cavalry faced deadlier problems. The 9th received so many recruits that the ranks quickly swelled beyond the capacity of their accommodations in abandoned cotton presses. Discipline, training, and camp sanitation were all less than satisfactory in the early days, and in the fall of 1866 cholera broke out in the camp. Hatch moved his command to healthier climes on the outskirts of New Orleans, but when the 9th went to west Texas in the summer of 1867, the regiment was still an ill-disciplined collection of former soldiers from the old “volunteer colored regiments” and ex-slaves.

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.