February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
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.
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.
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.
He was a serious-minded young man, whose earliest memory was of a band of Confederate bushwhackers riding into his home town of Laclede, Missouri, and firing on the Pershing home. His father, an ardent Unionist in largely pro-Confederate country, fired back with a shotgun while the family took shelter behind a barricade of furniture. Young Pershing attended West Point only to obtain a better education, for the profession of arms was then widely regarded as a refuge for ruffians, drunkards, and misfits. Pershing had originally wanted to become a teacher or a lawyer, but he stayed in the Army after graduation and served with the 6th Cavalry against the Apaches and the Sioux. In September of 1891 he was assigned as Professor of Military Science and Tactics at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. It was a sinecure, but Pershing wasn’t the man for soft spots. He insisted on teaching two classes in mathematics (the future novelists Willa Gather and Dorothy Canfield Fisher were among his students) and also entered the law school. He often discussed his intentions of quitting the Army and hanging out his shingle with a young Lincoln lawyer named Charles G. Dawes, who was to become Vice President in the Coolidge administration. Shortly after obtaining his degree and being admitted to the Nebraska bar, however, Pershing received the appointment to the 10th Cavalry, and from then on marched steadily toward the honored destiny awaiting him as commander of the A.E.F., General of the Armies, and finally Chief of Staff.
Lieutenant Pershing reported to Fort Assiniboine in October, 1895, and was given command of the 10th Cavalry’s Troop H. The regiment had been ordered to round up the Crees as diplomatically and bloodlessly as possible because, as a regimental historian wrote, they had been “stealing and committing minor depredations” since 1877. The Crees, after staging an uprising in Canada instigated by a half-breed named Louis Riel, had fled across the border to Montana Territory. They now numbered about six hundred, and it had taken years of effort by the State Department to obtain Canada’s agreement to repatriate them.
In the spring of 1896, when it was announced that the Crees would be sent back to Canada, most of them were camped near Great Falls. Some talked of resisting the deportation, others of hiring a lawyer to defend them against it. A number of small bands made the 10th’s task more difficult by fleeing across the plains toward Idaho and North Dakota.
While the other troops shepherded the more docile tribesmen toward the border at Coutts Station, Pershing’s men were handed the difficult task of running down these fugitive bands that were hiding out in the coulees that scored the high plains. It took men of superb discipline, endless patience, and endurance to keep their own tempers in check under the blazing prairie sun while attempting to persuade the Crees to surrender without firing a shot. But Troop H did it, after spending sixty-two days in the field and covering six hundred miles. With that performance in mind, Pershing later wrote in a foreword to a regimental history that “several years of my early military life were spent with that organization, and as I look back I can but feel that the associations with the splendid officers and men of the 10th Cavalry were of the greatest value to me.”
One of the hunting trips Pershing took in Montana was with Major General Nelson A. Miles, then general in chief of the Army. General Miles was so pleased with Pershing’s performance as a guide that he obtained the young lieutenant’s transfer to Washington as his aide-de-camp. That was followed by appointment as a tactical officer at West Point, and it was here that Pershing got the nickname that would accompany him into history.
Company A of the cadet corps, class of ’98, was placed in his charge. The cadets, resenting his close and stern supervision of their activities on and off the parade ground, tried to play the hoary trick of dousing their tactical officer with a bucket of water placed over a door. Pershing spotted the trap, demanded the names of the culprits, and when the names were not forthcoming, saw that the whole company was confined to the barracks area for thirty days. In retaliation his charges hung the sobriquet of “Nigger Jack” on him; after all, he had served with a Negro regiment without any audible professions of distaste. The cadets recorded his disciplinary severity in the 1898 classbook, Howitzer, with a bitter comment: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and 30 days for a water bucket.”
When the Spanish-American War broke out, the 10th Cavalry was among those units earmarked for service in the Cuban invasion. Pershing was desperate at the thought of the regiment’s going into action without him. Rarely has an officer risked his career so recklessly to obtain reassignment. The War Department bureaucrats, under the notably obdurate Adjutant General Henry C. Corbin, had ordained that no member of the Military Academy’s faculty be detached to serve in the field. Pershing began “moving heaven and earth” to get back to the 10th, he wrote a friend. He sent two letters in one day to George D. Meiklejohn, an old friend from his University of Nebraska years who was now First Assistant Secretary of War, pleading for reassignment to the 10th. Two days later, on April 19, 1898, he was successful in obtaining General Miles’ endorsement. He went to Washington and, over Adjutant General Corbin’s head, pleaded his case before Secretary of War Russell A. Alger, himself a cavalry veteran of the Civil War. On April 30, Colonel Guy V. Henry, now commanding the 10th, requested Pershing as regimental quartermaster, the only post vacant. On May 2, Secretary of War Alger finally yielded to this remarkable pressure from a mere first lieutenant—and his highly placed collaborators—and ordered Pershing to duty with the 10th. That it was the regiment itself, as well as a professional soldier’s yearning for combat duty, that spurred on his efforts is indicated by the fact that he might have obtained a better commission with one of the Volunteer regiments (notably the Rough Riders, of which Theodore Roosevelt, also a friend of Pershing’s, was second-in-command).
Meanwhile, the 10th had been undergoing intensive retraining at Camp Chickamauga, Georgia, learning how to fight dismounted, infantry style, since there was little prospect of any glorious cavalry charges over the jungled terrain of Cuba. The regiment was now drawing a better-educated type of recruit. Typical of the second or third generation of 10th Cavalry troopers was Sergeant Horace Bivins, born in 1862 to slave parents but himself the possessor of an education superior to that of most professional soldiers, Negro or white. Bivins wrote to a friend about the “flags and flowers” receptions in towns along the way from Montana to Camp Chickamauga; these were fervent in the Middle West, but, as Bivins wryly noted, they dwindled in enthusiasm as the regiment’s trains passed through the former Confederate states. The enthusiasm of the men themselves was undimmed even by the ironic circumstance that both the 9th and the 10th would be fighting under one of the former paladins of the Confederate cavalry, the now frail and white-bearded Major General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, who was commander of the 1st Cavalry Division and had obviously been attached to the expeditionary force to Cuba as a symbol of North-South reconciliation.
Pershing caught up with his regiment just as it was about to embark from Tampa. The landing in Cuba was unopposed, but the American regiments, striking overland toward Santiago, found plenty of resistance from the island itself: the narrow trails through a tropical forest matted with vines and spiked with Spanish bayonet (botanical variety); the endemic diseases; the heat of late June and early July, which laid low most of the elderly senior officers.
During the advance on Las Guásimas, the 10th demonstrated coolness and efficiency under fire by pulling the Rough Riders out of a potentially catastrophic situation. “The 10th Cavalry charged up the hill, scarcely firing a shot,” Pershing said later, “and, being nearest the Rough Riders, opened a disastrous enfilading fire upon the Spanish right, thus relieving the Rough Riders from the volleys that were being poured into them from that part of the Spanish line.” A white soldier whose father had served with Mosby’s Rangers wrote the Washington Post later that “if it had not been for the Negro cavalry, the Rough Riders would have been exterminated.”
On July 1, the 10th participated in the general advance on the landward defenses of Santiago, with the Spanish-held blockhouses of San Juan Hill looming before them. The regiment’s jumping-off position, Pershing would recall later, was “a picture of a peaceful valley; there was a feeling that we had secretly invaded the Holy Land.” Once the offensive was launched, however, there was less time for poetic reflections. Sergeant Bivins, with the Hotchkiss guns (small-bore, rapid-fire cannon), wrote his friend that his battery had to stop 143 times along the seven miles of narrow trail leading to San Juan Hill. Once in range of the Spanish positions, the 10th’s light artillery opened up with its black-powder shells, promptly drawing a vigorous counterbattery fire. Pershing saw “a projectile from an unseen Spanish gun” set off a Hotchkiss piece, wounding two cavalrymen. One was Sergeant Bivins, who was stunned and bleeding but insisted on keeping up with the advance.
Davis came across Lieutenant Thomas A. Roberts, who had been wounded in the abdomen, lying under a tree with three of his troopers, all of whom were wounded also. “When the white soldiers with me offered to carry him back to the dressing-station,” Davis wrote, “the Negroes resented it stiffly. ‘If the Lieutenant had been able to move, we would have carried him away long ago,’ said the sergeant, quite overlooking the fact that his [own] arm was shattered.”
Just before the 10th joined the assault on San Juan Hill, Pershing took over the job of guiding the 2nd Squadron through barbed-wire entanglements and an “almost impenetrable thicket”—an act for which he was later awarded the Silver Star. He went with the skirmish line up the hill. It was one of the storybook charges of U.S. military history—the regular 1st Cavalry, the 10th, and the Rough Riders all racing for the fortified crest. Regardless of what Pershing remembered as “a sleet of bullets,” the charge “continued dauntless in its steady, dogged, persistent advance until like a mighty resistless challenge it dashed triumphant over the crest of the hill. …”
To Pershing there was only one word for it: “glorious.” Sergeant George Berry planted the 10th’s colors on San Juan Hill, and on the crest nearby the wounded but not disabled Sergeant Bivins sank the shaft of a flag presented by Illinois schoolgirls on the way to Camp Chickamauga. “White regiments, black regiments,” said Pershing, “regulars and Rough Riders, representing the young manhood of the North and South, fought shoulder to shoulder, unmindful of race or color, unmindful of whether commanded by an ex-Confederate or not, and mindful only of their common duty as Americans.” To more than one participant that charge seemed an act of national and racial reconciliation. A young Rough Rider named Frank Knox, later a Chicago newspaper publisher and Secretary of the Navy in the second Roosevelt’s administration, wrote home that he had become separated from his own unit, “but I joined a troop of the Tenth Cavalry, colored, and for a time fought with them shoulder to shoulder, and in justice to the colored race I must say that I never saw braver men anywhere. Some of those who rushed up the hill will live in my memory forever.”
The 10th had lost half its officers and one fifth of its enlisted men in the charge, but Pershing would recall that “I saw a colored trooper stop at a trench filled with Spanish dead and wounded and gently raise the head of a wounded Spanish lieutenant, and give him the last drop of water from his own canteen.” Pershing was to become notorious for his granite-faced lack of emotion as commander of the A.E.F., but in recalling that moment on the crest overlooking Santiago, he declared: “We officers of the 10th Cavalry could have taken our black heroes in our arms.”
A similar emotion assailed Richard Harding Davis as he watched the supply and ammunition wagons come up from the rear. “The colored regulars of the 10th were the first to come down after the ammunition, and seemed overjoyed at the fact that the wagons held cartridges and not, as some supposed, rations. The web belts of most of them were empty, and in no one belt were there more than half a dozen or ten of the 150 cartridges with which the men had begun the day. The Negro soldiers established themselves as fighting men that morning, and the chuckles they gave as they shoved the cartridges into their belts showed that, though they did not have food or water, so long as they had ammunition they were content.”
After the campaign ended with the fall of Santiago and the Spanish surrender, the 10th’s officers sent a stream of letters back to the War Department seeking decorations and promotions for the enlisted men of the regiment. Many of the officers believed that the Negroes should be given commissioned rank. The result was that, when the Army was expanded during World War I, sixty-two noncoms of the 10th were commissioned, twenty of them as captains.
The battle performance of the regiment stiffened the pride of the whole race that had contributed its men to serve under the 10th’s guidons. A compilation of that record, Under Fire with the 10th U.S. Cavalry, was published in 1899 with a foreword by “Fighting Joe” Wheeler; he described “their brave and good conduct, their obedience, efficiency and coolness under a galling fire.” The venerable Rebel declared that they went home from Cuba “covered with glory,” and added: “Those who see in the future of the colored race in America a difficult and perplexing problem will find encouragement in this book, the product of Negro intelligence and the record of Negro heroism.” Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt of the Rough Riders was quoted as writing to a friend: “I wish no better men beside me in battle than these colored troops showed themselves to be.”
Twice in later years Pershing was reunited with the regiment that he regarded as his home in the service. Part of the 10th served under him when in 1906, having been jumped from captain to brigadier general over the heads of 862 officers senior to him, Pershing took command of Fort McKinley in the Philippines. In 1916, while commanding the brigade post at El Paso, Texas, Brigadier General Pershing was appointed to lead the punitive expedition across the Mexican border in pursuit of the insurgent Mexican leader Pancho Villa, who had raided Columbus, New Mexico. The 10th Cavalry formed part of one of the two invading columns. Their chase over the mountains and deserts of Chihuahua failed to net Villa, and almost embroiled the United States in a conflict with the Carranza (Constitutionalist) government in Mexico City, which was increasingly resentful of the American presence.
Pershing made his headquarters at Namiquipa, which by no coincidence was also the headquarters of the 10th Cavalry. On June 17 he ordered two troops of the 10th to reconnoiter in the vicinity of Ahumada to determine the truth of reports that ten thousand troops of the Carranza regime were concentrating there and preparing to attack his line of communications back to the U.S. border. Captain Charles T. Boyd, commanding Troop C, and Captain Lewis S. Morey of Troop K were instructed to avoid a clash with the Carranzistas. But on reaching the outskirts of the town of Carrizal, they found a force of Carranzistas barring the way. The ninety American troopers were heavily outnumbered by four hundred Mexicans who had taken up a strong position along an irrigation ditch and were equipped with four machine guns. It had already been demonstrated in France that cavalry didn’t stand much of a chance against machine guns, but Captain Boyd, the senior American officer, decided to exceed his orders and blast his way through the town and its defenders. It was almost as ridiculous a gesture as the charge of the British light brigade in the Crimea.
Shortly afterward, the United States entered World War I. The 10th did not go to France, but Pershing’s concern for the thousands of Negroes who did serve under his command in the A.E.F. was unflagging. Much as he hated speechmaking, he always stopped to address groups of Negro troops and speak of “my service with a colored regiment and how proud we were of its conduct in the Spanish-American War.”
One of the last photographs of Pershing in uniform before his final retirement from the Army in 1932 shows him inspecting a mounted troop of the 10th at Fort Myer, Virginia. By that time, both he and the horse cavalry were brave anachronisms.