Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Buffalo Soldier

The other day I found myself driving on an unfamiliar street, and as I reached the intersection of South Wilkeson and South 19th in Tacoma, Washington I happened to notice a very small black and white sign.  It pointed the direction to the Ninth and Tenth Horse Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Museum.  The Buffalo Museum, 1940 S Wilkeson St., Tacoma, WA 98405, (253)272-4257,, open Wednesday and Saturday or by appointment.

It reminded me that February was just around the corner (although when you read this it will already be February).  I immediately thought that the Buffalo Soldier was a perfect subject for February as it is known as the National Month of the African-American History, formerly Black History Month.

To my knowledge, few, if any, Buffalo Soldiers made their homes on the Gig Harbor Peninsula.  But several found their homes in Tacoma and other areas in the Washington Territory.  But too many people have overlooked the history of these men and their contributions and service to the greater society not only in the United States, but also throughout the world.

Perhaps you have fleeting memories of seeing the Buffalo Soldiers in the westerns as they rode also the sparsely settled territories west of the Mississippi chasing the Indians, and protecting the wagon Trains.  Or perhaps, you recall seeing the all-African American troops fighting in Italy during the Second World War.  

Let’s explore a little more about this famous group of American soldiers.   Wikipedia tells us that the 10th Cavalry Regiment of the United States was formed after the Civil War in 1866.  They received the name of “Buffalo Soldier”, according to the stories, that after engaging in battle with a band of Cheyenne warriors that there were soldiers “who had fought like a cornered buffalo; who like the buffalo had suffered wound after wound, yet had not died; and who like a buffalo had a thick and shaggy mane of hair.”

The list of wars, or engagements, that the 10th Cavalry Regiment has been engaged in is staggering:
(again taken for Wikipedia’s article): Indian Wars; Spanish-American War; Philippine-American War; Mexican Expedition; World War I era combat on Mexican border; World War II, Vietnam War; Iraq War; and Afghan War. 

Although I have not found any information regarding the Buffalo Soldiers participating in the 1855 Indian Wars of the Puget Sound, we must remember that they were formally formed as a all Black regiment in 1855 when Congress reorganized the regular Army.  By allowing the soldiers which had served honorably during the Civil War to continue to serve, many men were kept from the ranks of the unemployed.  Of course there were also few jobs for them elsewhere as  free men.  It also allowed them to continue to be eligible for regular pay checks, education, medical treatment, pensions and shelter unavailable otherwise.

I happened across two isolated pieces of information about these men that I wanted to share:  

The first, was a couple entries about the first African-American female soldier who enlisted for a three-year term of engagement in November 1866 in the U.S. Regular Army, and was assigned to the 38th Infantry Regiment, Company A, Buffalo Soldiers, as a Private.  However since women were prohibited from serving, she enlisted as “William” and gave her occupation as cook.  She had served as such after being captured by the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment at age 17, serving in Jefferson City, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Georgia.  Later she served in Washington DC under General Sheridan.  It is a mystery as to how she managed to serve two years and one month, despite examinations by Army Surgeons, being in the hospital two or three times, before it finally was discovered that “William” in fact was not William at all, but instead a woman.  Following her discharge, her personal life was a disaster both in health and personal existence. “A reporter from St. Louis heard rumors of a female African-American who had served in the army, and came to interview her.  Her life and military service narrative was published in The St. Louis Times on 2 January 1876.” 

She moved to New Mexico, Pueblo, Colorado and finally to Trinidad, Colorado working as either a cook or as a seamstress.  By 1890 she spent considerable time in the hospital, and so applied to the US Army for a pension based upon time served.  In 1891 a doctor employed by the Pension Bureau examined her and “despite the fact she suffered from neuralgia and diabetes, had had all her toes amputated, and could only walk with a crutch, the doctor decided she did not qualify for disability payments.  Her application was rejected.”  Cathay Williams died shortly thereafter.  It is believed the year was 1892, originally buried in Trinidad, but her burial site is unknown.

This tribute to Cathay Williams can be found with detailed additional information gathered on her at the site entitled Female Buffalo Soldier - With Documents.  It includes her story “Cathay Williams in Cowboy Poetry written by Linda Kirkpatrick, July 1999.

The second, the former slave and first African-American to graduate from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1877:  Henry Ossian Flipper

Second Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper was born March 21, 1856 in Thomasville, GA, Died May 3, 1940, Atlanta, GA.  His gifts are all the more remarkable when you consider his education began as age 8 “in the wood shop of another slave.”  From that humble schooling, he went on to attend schools run by the American Missionary Association, and entered Atlanta University when it opened in 1869.    After spending four years and graduating from university, he “wrote to James Freeman, a newly-elected Georgia congressman, asking him to be appointed to West Point.  Freeman responded that he would recommend him if he proved “worthy and qualified”.  A series of letters were exchanged between the two, ultimately resulting in Freeman’s forwarding Flipper’s nomination to the Secretary of War.  Henry passed the required examinations and officially entered the academy on July 1, 1873.

As a cadet Flipper excelled in engineering, law, French and Spanish and was ranked 50th in a class of 76 when he graduated from West Point in 1877.”   Following graduation he was appointed to Fort Sill, Indian Territory, as a member of Troop A, 10th Cavalry.  While at Fort Sill, where he served as post engineer he was order to “construct a new drainage system to eliminate a number of stagnant ponds blamed for causing malaria. …in 1977, Flipper’s Ditch was designated a National Historic Landmark.”

Unfortunately though while stationed at Fort Davis, Texas, his successes ran into difficulties while serving  Colonel Wm. R. Shafer who removed Flipper as quartermaster.  At the same time, Flipper discovered the commissary funds had been removed from his trunk.  While Flipper hunted for the money, he lied to the Colonel.  Charged with embezzlement, he was convicted of misconduct and unhonorably discharged in 1881.

Flipper moved to Arizona where he opened his own civil and mining engineering office.  By 1893 he was employed as special agent for the Court of Land Claims by the Department of Justice.  He translated Spanish documents into English, surveyed land grants, and on occasion appeared as expert witness in court.

In 1901 he moved to Mexico where he worked for a mining company as their resident engineer but when the Mexican Revolution in 1919started he moved to El Paso and worked for a subcommittee for the US Senate.  Then it was working as special assistant to the Secretary of Interior, the Alaskan Engineering Commission and for a New York based oil company from 1923 to 1930.

And during all this time, Flipper worked to have his name cleared and army rank restored.  Unfortunately, by the time he died at age 84 in 1940, nothing had been successful.  It took the Civil Rights period to bring his story to light, and in 1976 the US Army reviewed his case, awarded him honorable discharge dating back to June 30, 1892.

And, final in 1999, President Clinton pardoned Henry Ossian Flipper.  To discover more about this remarkable man, perhaps you can locate a copy of his autobiography “The Colored Cadet at West Point, Black Frontiersman” (1878; 1898; 1997 Texas Christian University); “Spanish and Mexican Land Wars:  New Spain & New Mexico”  (Department of Justice 1895); “Negro Frontiersman: The Western Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper “(1963)


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