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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Buffalo Soldiers from Fort Rob

Monday, August 1, 2011

In all of America's wars there have been black soldiers. In the Revolutionary War it is estimated that there were some 25,000 black soldiers, who saw the war as an opportunity to gain their freedom from slavery. Most saw the British as their best hope, and 20,000 blacks served as Black Loyalists to the British invaders, while only 5,000 served in Washington's Army.

In the Civil War blacks again served on both sides of the conflict. This time there were far more black soldiers in the Union Army than served the Confederate cause. At the end of the Civil War there had been some 186,000 black soldiers who had participated in the war, of which 38,000 had been killed. These soldiers, too, saw the war as a means to freedom from slavery, (and also, the $13 per month pay was far more than they could earn as laborers).

Black troops served in the Spanish American War, as support troops for Roosevelt's "Rough Riders," and later as part of the occupation forces in the Philippines. Again in World War I and World War II black soldiers served with distinction in the U.S. Army, but always in segregated units, often in a support capacity, in sometimes menial jobs. It was not until the Korean War that black units (and white units) were integrated and blacks were accepted as equals in the Army.

After the Civil War, four black cavalry units and four black infantry units were formed to fight Apaches, in the Indian Wars in Texas and New Mexico. These units fought well and earned a number of citations for bravery. Between battles the troops guarded stagecoach lines, removed illegal white intruders from Indian lands, and maintained countless patrols between widely scattered army outposts. It was during this time that they earned the title of "Buffalo Soldiers" -- a name given them by their Indian adversaries, who said that the black soldiers fought like a cornered buffalo. They also saw a similarity of their tightly kinked hair to that of the buffalo. The black soldiers wore this title proudly.

In 1887, the field staff and band of the Ninth Cavalry arrived in Nebraska, to set up Regimental Headquarters at Fort Robinson. They were later joined by another black cavalry unit and two units of black infantry -- all of which were commanded by white officers. In the 1890s black graduates of the Military Academy at West Point began to be assigned to black units at Fort Robinson. While blacks and whites soldiers co-existed with a minimum of tension, the presence of black officers brought complaints, with the fear that white officers would no longer volunteer for service with the black units at the Fort.

In the early 1890s, Buffalo Soldiers from the Ninth Cavalry at Fort Rob were called to Wyoming, to the Powder River Country, to quell trouble between the farmers and ranchers, in what has been called "The Johnson County Wars." By this time the Ninth had become a very efficient military unit, boasting 10 Medal of Honor winners from the Indian Wars. They did their job in stopping the shooting and restoring peace, yet there were many complaints from the Wyoming residents about having "Colored" troops occupying (guarding) their country, which they did for over one year.

Back in Fort Robinson there were also troubles between the blacks and whites, but not among the soldiers. Rather the trouble came between blacks and the business community (saloons and sporting houses) in nearby Crawford, where a black soldier was accused of shooting a white gambler.

The soldier was saved from a lynching by his armed comrades, who hid the poor fellow at Fort Robinson for several days. To add fuel to the fire, several Crawford citizens, who were suspected of leading the lynch mob, received threatening anonymous letters, threatening "to reduce your homes and firesides to ashes and send your guilty souls -- to Hell."

The warning was signed, "500 men with bullet or torch."

The Fort Robinson commander acted quickly, confining all military personnel to the post and ordering troop officers to make frequent bed checks to see that his men stayed put. A hurried investigation revealed that the threatening letters had originated in Omaha and that an NCO at Fort Rob had received the letters and distributed them to the townspeople. He was subsequently court martialed and charged with "conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline in violation of the 62nd Article of War."

By the end of May 1893, feelings had cooled enough so that a detachment from the 9th Cavalry participated in the Decoration Day parade at Crawford. Townspeople were satisfied that the guilty NCO was reduced in rank to Private and discharged from the Army.

In 1891, the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Robinson were caught up in an event that brought them lasting praise, fame -- and criticism. They were called to meet with other military units from the east to police the Indian movement, known as the Ghost Dance, which ended in the tragedy known ever since as "The Massacre at Wounded Knee."

By the late 1880s, the once mighty Sioux, the rulers of the northern plains, were all assigned to reservations in North and South Dakota, and were in a sorry state --desolate, disease ridden, and poverty stricken. Into this environment came the Paiute medicine man, Wovoka, who had seen in a vision that ghosts of dead Indian warriors would return, bringing back with them vast buffalo herds, which had been slaughtered by the whites, which was generally believed to be the cause of their present hopeless state of being. His vision quickly became a new "religion" for many of the Plains Indians, the central feature of which was the "Ghost Dance," in which dancers prepared for the apocalypse, where the world would be destroyed (including all whites), then recreated with the Indians as the inheritors of the new order.

The Ghost Dance religion caught on quickly, much to the alarm of Indian Agents, who feared that there would be new outbreaks of the Indian Wars.

Units of infantry and cavalry were dispatched from Fort Robinson to Pine Ridge in South Dakota, to contain any unrest, and escort Indians back to their reservations. Through a gross misunderstanding, violence broke out and over a period of several days, at least 150 Lakota Sioux, warriors, women and children, were killed (including the great Sioux Chief, Sitting Bull). The 7th Cavalry, best known as Custer's unit at Little Big Horn, with units from Ft. Robinson's 8th, 9th and 10th Cavalry, played a key role in the "uprising," though the exact circumstances surrounding the event have never been fully explained. It seems that there is plenty of blame to go around for the carnage-- by both the soldiers and the Indians.

From 1887 to 1898 Fort Robinson served as Regimental Headquarters for Cavalry and Infantry Units of Buffalo Soldiers, where they served with distinction in a number of varied roles. In 1898, they were called upon to participate in the Spanish American War, when they joined in the invasion of Cuba's southern shore. They were soon to find themselves supporting Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Hill -- the pivotal battle of that war. In this battle the Buffalo Soldiers earned five more Medals of Honor.

After the Spanish American War, black troops never again returned to Fort Robinson. One of the barracks of the Buffalo Soldiers, a single story, frame building, has been preserved, serving as an open dormitory for large groups visiting the Fort in the summer, and serving as the location of the Christmas dinner, the gala event of the winter season at Fort Robinson. After more than 100 years, the memory of these brave, colorful Buffalo Soldiers is strong at the Fort -- an important chapter in the history of Fort Robinson.

-- Source: Buffalo Soldiers and the Indian Wars: Massacre at Wounded Knee.


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By