Saddle Sore: Buffalo Soldiers’ role in building West underappreciated
Ute sharpshooters had them pinned down, forcing them to seek cover behind hurriedly circled wagons, dead horses and mules. Smoke filled the air, both from the Utes trying to burn them out and the thick haze from the soldier’s backfires, set in an attempt to thwart the Ute plans.
Major Thomas Thornburg, of the Fourth Infantry, accompanied by white cavalry, had brought down the wrath of the Utes by breaking his own promise, that of not crossing the Milk River onto Ute land, and thus stirred memories of the Sand Creek Massacre in the minds of the nervous Utes. They didn’t want a repeat, and after sending their women and children into hiding, confronted the soldiers at a spot along the river.
As in all things, small blunders make for large consequences, and that is exactly what happened to Major Thornburg of the U.S. Army near present-day Meeker, at a site known as the Battle of Milk Creek in 1879. The silence was deafening as the two sides faced each other on that late September morning, each waiting for the other to make a move and then, Blam! An unidentified individual fired an unauthorized shot, and the battle was on.
Almost immediately, Thornburg was killed with a bullet to the head and the hapless soldiers could do little but try to defend themselves. Captain John Payne, now in command, managed to send messengers requesting help.
Early the next morning, through the haze of breaking day and the remains of smoldering fires, rode the Ninth Cavalry, undetected by the Utes. The Ninth, after traveling all night and commanded by Captain Francis Dodge, also brought additional ammunition, food and water but because there were only 30 Buffalo Soldiers of the Ninth in the area, there still wasn’t enough manpower to rout the Utes.
However, the addition of the Buffalo Soldiers allowed the beleaguered troops to hang on until Oct. 5, when a detachment from Wyoming convinced the Utes to surrender.
Who were the Buffalo Soldiers, you ask? After the close of the Civil War (where 186,000 blacks had served in the Union Army), the U.S. found itself stretched in many directions for military support. Conflicts with Native Americans were on the rise with the westward expansion of men no longer fighting a war, southern states required policing from the military to ensure the treaty was being adhered to, Native Americans on reservations needed protection from white men, and various other issues needed oversight.
To add to military strength, in 1866, Congress created two Cavalry and two Infantry Regiments, composed entirely of African-American men. The men of the ninth and 10th U.S. Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry proudly accepted the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers” given them by the Plains Indians. It is conjectured that the term “Buffalo Soldier” was bestowed on these men because they fought as hard as the Natives’ toughest opponent, the buffalo. Others, including Native Americans, thought they also were given that name because of their short, black, coarse hair. Likely, it was for both those reasons.
These men managed to get some of the toughest jobs available to the army in those days — they did their best to protect Native American lands from encroaching whites; they guarded stage coaches, railroad camps and forts; were responsible for investigating reported crimes against whites by Native Americans; and delivered mail. Through these activities, these gallant men faced prejudice (from whites and Natives alike), hostile environments and inadequate shelter. They were unafraid of combat and just in Colorado fought in many of the most memorable battles of the “Indian Wars.” In the years between 1866 and the decommission of these regiments in 1951, 23 of these soldiers earned the Medal of Honor.
Our history of the West has been so sanitized that today we are ignorant of the large part black Americans played in the Western movement. At least 20 percent of cowboys and drovers of the “old West” were black men; after the Civil War, many moved to the territorial areas of today’s U.S., where they could own property, raise cattle and horses, and live a life they and their families could only previously dream about.
John Wayne, middle-aged hero of the movie, “The Searchers,” made an impressive performance as a white man of the time, but more to historical accuracy, the core of the story was based on African-American Brit Johnson, a black man who, in 1865, rescued his wife and children from the Comanches.
Some have conjectured that the Buffalo Soldiers, non-whites fighting against other non-whites (Native Americans) have a stain on their record, but to judge the actions of others from the safety of a different century speaks more to arrogance than authenticity. According to historian William A. Dobak, “The U.S. Army was one of the most impartial institutions of its day, and it attracted men whose ability and endurance assured their regiments’ survival and a place, however small, for black Americans in the nation’s public life.”
In 2005, the nation’s oldest living Buffalo Soldier, Mark Matthews, died at age 111 in Washington, D.C.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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