Buffalo Soldiers

By: Mark Odintz

Type: General Entry

Published: August 1, 1995

Updated: September 30, 2020

Buffalo soldiers was the name given by the Plains Indians to the four regiments of African Americans, and more particularly to the two cavalry regiments, that served on the frontier in the post-Civil War army. More than 180,000 black soldiers had seen service in segregated regiments in the Union Army during the Civil War, and many units had achieved outstanding combat records. When Congress reorganized the peacetime regular army in the summer of 1866, it recognized the military merits of black soldiers by authorizing two regiments of black cavalry, the Ninth United States Cavalry and the Tenth United States Cavalry, and six regiments of black infantry. In 1869 the black infantry regiments were consolidated into two units, the Twenty-fourth United States Infantry and the Twenty-fifth United States Infantry. The two cavalry and two infantry regiments were composed of black enlisted men commanded, with a very few exceptions such as Henry O. Flipper, by White officers.

From 1866 to the early 1890s the buffalo soldiers served at a variety of posts in Texas, the Southwest and the Great Plains. They overcame prejudice from within the army and from the frontier communities they were stationed in, to compile an outstanding service record. Often divided into small company and troop-sized detachments stationed at isolated posts, the buffalo soldiers performed routine garrison chores, patrolled the frontier, built roads, escorted mail parties, and handled a variety of difficult civil and military tasks. They also participated in most of the major frontier campaigns of the period and distinguished themselves in action against the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, Sioux, and Arapaho Indians. With outstanding officers such as Benjamin H. Grierson, Abner Doubleday, William Rufus Shafter, Joseph A. Mower and Edward Hatch, they were an important component of the frontier army. Thirteen enlisted men from the four regiments earned the Medal of Honor during the Indian wars, as did six officers, and a further five enlisted men won that decoration during the Spanish-American War.

After the Indian wars came to an end in the 1890s the four regiments continued in service, with elements participating in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and John J. Pershing's 1916 punitive expedition. The buffalo soldiers found themselves facing increasing racial prejudice at the turn of the century. They were cut off from the segregated towns they were stationed near, and were the victims of slurs, beatings, harassment by law officers, and, on several occasions, sniper attacks. As armed veterans of active service, they occasionally responded with violence. The Ninth Cavalry was involved in racial disturbances in Rio Grande City in 1899, the Twenty-fifth regiment allegedly attacked civilians in the Brownsville Raid of 1906, and the Twenty-fourth regiment was involved in the Houston Riot of 1917. None of the buffalo soldier regiments went to France during World War I, though they provided a cadre of experienced noncommissioned officers to other black units that did go into combat. In the 1920s and 1930s, as black newspapers and civil-rights groups anxiously monitored the process, soldiers from the four regiments were increasingly used as laborers and service troops. The Ninth and Tenth cavalries were disbanded, and their personnel were transferred into service units during World War II. The Twenty-fifth saw combat in the Pacific during the war, and was deactivated in 1949. The Twenty-fourth also served in the Pacific during the Second World War, and fought in the opening stages of the Korean War. The Twenty-fourth, the last segregated black regiment to see combat, was deactivated in 1951, and its personnel were used to integrate other units serving in Korea at the time, an important step in the efforts of the United States Army to desegregate its units.

Popular interest in the Buffalo soldiers began to grow in the 1960s, stimulated by a John Ford film, Sergeant Rutledge, and the publication of several scholarly histories. In 1965 a reenactment unit, the Tenth Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, was formed. In the 1990s a reenactment group with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department offered a number of interpretive programs on the buffalo soldiers and performed at state parks and other venues.

John M. Carroll, ed., The Black Military Experience in the American West (New York: Liveright, 1971). Garna L. Christian, Black Soldiers in Jim Crow Texas, 1899–1917 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995). William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967). Bernard C. Nalty, Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military (New York: Free Press, 1986).

  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Military
Time Periods:
  • Reconstruction
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Mark Odintz, “Buffalo Soldiers,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 07, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/buffalo-soldiers.

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August 1, 1995
September 30, 2020

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