In 1866, following the U.S. Civil War, the United States Congress created two Army infantry regiments, the 24th and 25th, and two cavalry regiments, the 9th and the 10th, made up entirely of Black soldiers, except for the officers, who were all white.
Some of them were veterans of the war — more than 33,300 Black soldiers died in the Civil War — and others were former slaves who became new recruits. These groups came to be called the Buffalo Soldiers, and they fought in every part of the American Frontier West.
More than 4,000 Black soldiers served at eight of New Mexico’s 16 forts between 1866 and 1900: Forts Bascom, Bayard, Craig, Cummings, McRae, Selden, Stanton and Union.
The four Black regiments had a desertion rate far lower than comparable white regiments, and fewer Black soldiers were court-martialed. One military historian noted that the Black soldiers believed that wearing the uniform was a privilege and an honor.
They took the business of soldiering very seriously and were quite good at it. Twelve members of the Black regiments that served in New Mexico received Congressional Medals of Honor.
As a young officer early in his career, General John J. Pershing — commanding officer of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I — commanded the 10th Cavalry for a decade, hence his nickname, “Black Jack.”
He said this: “It has been an honor which I am proud to claim to have been at one time a member of that intrepid organization of the Army which has always added glory to the military history of America — the 10th Cavalry.”
As for the name given the soldiers of these four regiments, historian Bruce Glasrud wrote this: “Dubbed the Buffalo Soldiers by Plains Indians impressed with the Black soldiers’ courage and valor as well as their visage and attire, the Buffalo Soldiers performed a crucial role in protecting settlers, in paving the way for peace and in countering discrimination on the western frontier.”
Historian Art T. Burton, however, wrote that “the Black troopers were not called ‘Buffalo Soldiers,’ but ‘Wild Buffaloes’ by the Cheyenne. Later, such writers as Frederic Remington, and others, changed it to ‘Buffalo Soldiers’….”
After peace was attained on the western frontier, the Buffalo Soldiers continued to serve: the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and Korea. The 24th Infantry Regiment was deactivated in 1951, and its troops reassigned. Two other Black Cavalry units were disbanded in 1951.
Source:“New Mexico Historical Encyclopedia” (2015) by Don Bullis
(Don Bullis is a Rio Rancho resident, New Mexico centennial historian and award-winning author. He was named the Best Local Author in the 2018 and ‘19 Rio Rancho Readers’ Choice contests. “Ellos Pasaron por Aqui” is translated as “They Passed by Here.”)
Don Bullis’s latest book, “New Mexico Historical Chronology,” is available from riograndebooks.com.