AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
For decades, African-American regulars were the most effective troops on the western frontier
On september 24, 1868, maj. george a. forsyth must have wondered if he would live to see the next morning. He lay stretched out beside the rotting carcass of his dead horse, in the willow brush and tall grass that covered a small island in the dry bed of the Arikaree River, on the vast plains of eastern Colorado Territory. All around him lay dead and wounded men -- his men. And beyond the empty riverbanks, just out of rifle shot, circled the 700 Cheyenne and Oglala warriors who had kept the major's detachment trapped on this island since the 17th.
Full-scale war with the tribes of the Great Plains had just erupted; Forsyth had taken his 50 handpicked scouts out of Fort Hays in Kansas on a march to find the enemy. But the Native Americans had found Forsyth first.
On the 17th, the Cheyenne war chief the soldiers called Roman Nose had led hundreds of fighters on a dawn charge against Forsyth's camp. Their storm of bullets and arrows laid waste to his horse herd and left many of his men dead or wounded. The major himself collapsed as a slug tore into each leg and another creased his scalp. By the 24th, repeated charges and stealthy sniping had turned half his scouts into casualties; a horrific stench now rose from the dead men and animals. The survivors, who at first had used their fallen mounts as protection, now resorted to eating the horses' decaying flesh.
Unknown to Forsyth, a company of cavalry was searching for him. Two of his scouts had slipped through the besieging Indians and made their way to Fort Wallace in Kansas, where they had alerted Capt. Louis H. Carpenter, an old Civil War comrade of the major's.
The next day, the beleaguered scouts on that malodorous little island noticed that the Indians had drawn off. Then they saw why: in the distance they discovered movement, which gradually took the form of mounted men . . . cavalrymen . . . black cavalrymen. They were Captain Carpenter's troopers, pounding across the dry grass. This unit went by the name of Company H, 10th Cavalry -- but Forsyth's men may indeed have known them by the name that the African-American troops earned from their Indian foes: they were the buffalo soldiers.
Forsyth's fight entered Western legend as the Battle of Beecher's Island, but few remember that he was rescued so dramatically by black troops. Despite a recent wave of interest in the professional African- American soldiers of the 19th century, many writers have treated them as a footnote to the history of the frontier. In fact, black regulars took center stage in the Army's great Western drama, shouldering combat responsibilities far out of proportion to their numbers (which averaged 10 percent of the military's total strength). Over the course of three decades on the frontier, the buffalo soldiers emerged as the most professional, experienced and effective troops in the service.
When Carpenter led his company into Forsyth's grim camp, only three years had passed since the end of the Civil War. Some 180,000 African- Americans had carried arms for the Union, filling out regiments, divisions, even an entire corps (the 25th, part of which occupied Richmond in the war's closing days). These were all-volunteer units, however, established for the duration of the war. Not one company in the standing Regular Army was open to African-American recruits. But on July 28, 1866, Congress provided for four Regular Army infantry regiments (the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st) and two of cavalry (the 9th and 10th), to be composed exclusively of black enlisted men. The Army would have to accept African-Americans.
Almost immediately, the new black regulars found themselves in combat on the frontier. Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's wife, Elizabeth, described an incident in June 1867 (based on an account in one of her husband's letters), when 300 Cheyennes swept down on Fort Wallace, where Custer was in command. A squad of black infantrymen from the 38th had arrived to pick up supplies, when the white …