The Legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers
In February, VCC’s Marketing Campaign focused on Black History Month. The kit included highlights of some little-known yet groundbreaking African American Veterans. There were so many great African American contributors to our military history that we wanted to continue honoring some of their stories on our blog, starting with the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers.
An 1866 Act of Congress created six peacetime regiments of exclusively black soldiers. Later, these regiments were melded into two Infantry, and two Cavalry informally called the Buffalo Soldiers. The units represented the first black professional soldiers in a peacetime army. The recruits came from varied backgrounds, including former slaves and Civil War Veterans.
In 1869, the 38th and 41st Regiments were combined into a new single all-black 24th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers until it was deactivated in 1951 during the Korean conflict. The nickname was given to the black Cavalry by Native American tribes who encountered the soldiers in the Indian Wars. The term eventually became synonymous with all of the African American regiments formed in 1866. Although Buffalo Soldiers fought in the Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, Mexican Punitive Expedition, World War II, and the Korean War, they are most closely associated with their extensive service throughout the Western frontier in the Indian Wars. However, Buffalo soldiers didn’t only battle Native Americans. They also fought wildfires and poachers in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks and supported the parks’ infrastructure.
In 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive order eliminating racial segregation in America’s armed forces. As a result, the last all-black units were disbanded during the 1950s. Mark Matthews, the nation’s oldest living buffalo soldier, died in 2005 at age 111 in Washington, D.C.
Buffalo soldiers had the lowest military desertion and court-martial rates of their time. In addition, many won the Congressional Medal of Honor, an award presented in recognition of combat valor that goes above and beyond the call of duty.
Cathay Williams (William Cathay)
Cathay Williams was the first woman to enlist in the United States Army and the only known female Buffalo Soldier. Williams worked as a house slave on the Johnson plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City, Missouri. In 1861 Union forces occupied Jefferson City in the early stages of the Civil War. At that time, captured slaves were officially designated by the Union as “contraband.” As a result, many were forced to serve in military support roles such as cooks, laundresses, or nurses.
Despite the prohibition against women serving in the military, Cathay Williams enlisted in the United States Regular Army under the false name of “William Cathay” in 1866, passing herself off as a man. She was the first African American woman to enlist and the only one documented as having served in the United States Army posing as a man. Only two people knew her true identity– a cousin and a friend, who faithfully kept her secret.
After traveling over 500 miles, she was stationed in New Mexico, protecting miners and traveling immigrants from Apache attach.
Her time there took a toll on her and her health. It is reported she spent five occasions in the hospital, and it was never discovered that she was female. It wasn’t until July 1968, during hospitalization for neuralgia, that it was found she was a female. On October 14, 1868, “William Cathay” was honorably discharged with a certificate of disability. However, after medical exams and an investigation, the Pension Bureau rejected her claim on medical grounds, stating that no disability existed. Further, they found that her discharge certificate indicated her fragile condition pre-dated enlistment and was not due to service. Therefore, her service in the Army was not considered legal, and any pension, disability, or otherwise was denied.
Henry Ossian Flipper
A Buffalo Soldier member and formerly enslaved person, Flipper attended the American Missionary Association Schools in his home state of Georgia. In 1873 he was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy and, in 1877, graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point as the first African American to graduate. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. His first assignment was with the Buffalo Soldiers under an all-white leadership. Henry Flipper became the first nonwhite officer to lead buffalo soldiers of the 10th Cavalry. Lieutenant Flipper served on frontier duty in various installations in the southwest, including Fort Sill, Oklahoma. His responsibilities included scouting, as well as serving as post engineer surveyor and construction supervisor, post adjutant, acting assistant and post quartermaster, and commissary officer. In 1881 Lieutenant Flipper’s commanding officer accused him of embezzling funds and of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. As a result of these charges, he was court-martialed.
Flipper went on to work in a variety of governmental and private engineering positions. These positions included special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior with the Alaskan Engineering Commission, an aide to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and an authority on Mexican land and mining law.
Flipper was also a writer. His first publication was an autobiography, The Colored Cadet at West Point (New York: Lee, 1878; reprint, New York: Arno, 1898) and Black Frontiersman: The Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper, First Black graduate of West Point (Fort Worth, Texas: Texas Christian University Press, 1997)
Flipper maintained he was innocent of the charges he was court-martialed for until his death in 1940. In 1976 descendants and supporters applied to the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records on behalf of Flipper. The Board concluded the conviction and punishment were “unduly harsh and unjust” and recommended that Lieutenant Flipper’s dismissal be commuted to a good conduct discharge. The Assistant Secretary of the Army (Manpower and Reserve Affairs) and The Adjutant General approved the Board’s findings, conclusions, and recommendations and directed that the Department of the Army issue Lieutenant Flipper a Certificate of Honorable Discharge, dated June 30, 1882, in lieu of his dismissal on the same date.
On October 21, 1997, a private law firm filed an application of pardon with the Secretary of the Army on Lieutenant Flipper’s behalf. President Bill Clinton pardoned Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper on February 19, 1999.
These brave soldiers volunteered to serve their country under harsh circumstances and overcame extreme conditions. The lessons from these individuals are many, but one that sticks out is perseverance. Each one continued to serve despite the personal hardship they endured. Join VCC in honoring their accomplishments and commitment.
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