Justice for Good Fighters

Last evening my spouse and I had dinner with friends. As we talked with them, the husband, a lawyer, mentioned doing some work for a veteran of a unit of the Buffalo Soldiers. Our conversation made me think once again about history and justice.

The Buffalo Soldiers were U S Army units created after the Civil War. At the very beginning of the Civil War black leaders, like Frederick Douglass, called for enlistment and use of black men in the Union armed forces. As Douglass famously remarked, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”

However, President Lincoln felt concern with public opinion in the four border states that remained in the Union, with those in the North who opposed the idea of “an abolition war” and with northern Democrats whose support he needed for the war effort. Initially Lincoln opposed efforts to recruit black soldiers and sailors, although he approved their use as laborers. After the disastrous defeats and heavy losses suffered by the Union forces in the first nine months of 1862, Lincoln began to reconsider. Recruitment of black army regiments began in large numbers after the Emancipation Proclamation. The War Department issued an order on May 22, 1863, establishing a “Bureau of Colored Troops” to facilitate the recruitment. Regiments, including infantry, cavalry, engineers, light artillery, and heavy artillery units, were recruited from all states of the Union and became known as the United States Colored Troops (“USCT”). Approximately 175 regiments of over 178,000 free blacks and former slaves served during the last two years of the war, bolstering the Union war effort through that critical period. By war’s end, the USCT consisted of approximately one tenth of all Union troops. These units, with rare exceptions, had white officers only. The War Department at times had problems finding doctors and orderlies to provide medical care for USCT regiments. Confederates often murdered these soldiers if they tried to surrender. Yet these men served with distinction and some achieved fame.

USCT infantry-1865

After the war, both because some of the USCT troopers wanted to stay in the army and because the army needed men on the frontier for several decades of sporadic warfare with Native Americans, in 1866 Congress reorganized the army and authorized the formation of two regiments of black cavalry with the designations 9th and 10th U S Cavalry, and four regiments of black infantry, designated the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st Infantry Regiments (Colored). The 38th and 41st were reorganized as the 25th Infantry Regiment, with headquarters in Jackson Barracks in New Orleans,Louisiana, in November 1869. The 39th and 40th were reorganized as the 24th Infantry Regiment, with headquarters at Fort Clark, Texas, in April 1869. All of these units were composed of black enlisted men commanded mostly by white with a minority of black officers. Today, the term “Buffalo Soldier” refers to the United States Army soldiers who serve in units that are direct descendants of the original Buffalo Soldier regiments.

9th Cavalry trooper 1890

Sources disagree on how the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers” began. Some claim that the name originated with the Cheyenne warriors in 1867, (the actual Cheyenne words translate as “wild buffalo”). Others assert that the nickname was given by the Comanche out of respect for the fierce fighting ability of the 10th Cavalry. Others assert that Native Americans called the black cavalry troopers “buffalo soldiers” because of their dark curly hair, which resembled a buffalo’s coat.

Between 1866 and 1890 these units were involved in every major campaign against the Native Americans of the western plains and the desert southwest. During this time 18 of these soldiers won the Congressional Medal of Honor. That gives me pause. Where is justice?

Black men who often suffered terrible discrimination, yet fighting for their country, fighting courageously against courageous members of another minority group who were being pushed to the brink of extinction. What went on in the minds and hearts of the Buffalo Soldiers? Did they sense the terrible irony? I wonder if some of them purposefully risked their lives to prove their manly equality. Perhaps there were some who sought death rather than live in a segregated and unappreciative world dominated by white people. I have no certainty, only many questions. I guess every student of history would like opportunities to interview those whose lives we study.

For me personally, I believe in an ultimate reckoning. I am a person of faith. I believe in a God who is the ultimate judge of human history. In some manner, all those who recklessly exercised imperial powers, including the United States, must render a final accounting. One of the lessons I constantly learn from history is the need for repentance. History teaches me to pray: “Let Justice roll down like water, Righteousness like a mighty stream.”


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