On June 28, 1866, an Act of Congress commissioned African American U.S. Army regiments to patrol the American West after the Civil War. Consisting of two all-Black infantry regiments, the 24th and 25th, and two all-Black cavalry regiments, the 9th and 10th, they were the first such units chartered in peacetime. The troops, which formed one-fifth of the Army's forces in the West, served as guards for pioneer wagon trains, protecting settlers, cattle herds, railroad crews, and helping in the development of Western towns.
For decades African American Regulars were the most effective troops on the western frontier, taking center stage in the Army's Western drama, shouldering combat responsibilities out of proportion to their numbers.
In 1867, fewer than 70 of the raw recruits repulsed an estimated 900 warriors and Mexican bandits. During their years on the frontier, they had numerous battles against Lipans, Kickapoos, Kiowas, Comanches and their most determined foe, the Apaches.
The term "buffalo soldiers" came from the Cheyenne warriors who first encountered these black men in blue uniforms, whose dark skin and thick hair resembled the buffalo. The initial strangeness turned to respect; buffalo soldiers participated in most of the campaigns against hostile tribes, earning themselves battle honors and no less than eighteen Medals of Honor for individual heroism.
The most serious problem faced by the Army during the Indian War period was desertion. In 1868, the desertion rate for enlisted personnel was approximately 25 percent. Desertions among White regiments were roughly three times greater than those among Black units. Also, both African American cavalry and infantry had lower rates of alcoholism than their white counterparts. While in the field, both the troopers and their horses faced not only hostile Indians and outlaws, but also extended patrols of up to six months and covering more than 1,000 miles. Adding to their ordeal was the scarcity of water and the extremes of weather common to the southwest.
When not on patrol, the Buffalo Soldiers were engaged in endless drills, parades, and inspections. At Fort Davis in 1877, a dress parade, complete with the post band, was held each evening except for Saturdays. Regarding the African American troopers, the Post Surgeon noted that: "the troops seemed especially proud of their profession as soldiers."
Still known as Buffalo Soldiers, the all-Black regiments distinguished themselves in the Spanish-American War and World War II. They continued in Army service until the U.S. armed forces were integrated in 1952.
In 1992, Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dedicated a bronze memorial to the buffalo soldiers at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, and birthplace of one of the regiments. It was a fitting tribute from a military that hesitated to accept African-Americans, learned to depend on them and, finally, under the leadership of a modern Black soldier, came to honor their memory.