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Buffalo Soldiers-History Revisited

“I’m just a buffalo soldier in the heart of America,
Stolen from Africa, brought to America,
Said he was fighting on arrival, fighting for survival;
Said he was a buffalo soldier win the war for America.”

Remember the gritty lines of Bob Marley’s, “Buffalo Soldiers”? It ignited my imagination like none other. Let’s take a walk in the history of the United States. In each prominent war, be it the American Revolution or the Indian Wars, Afro-Americans and Native-Americans have fought against and with each other.

The same scenario existed during the Civil War. Few tribes fought for the North like the Seminoles while others assisted the South, like the Cherokees. Here is a story worth telling – unsung heroes who must be revered for their bravery! This is my tribute to the mighty warriors, Buffalo Soldiers.

Times of Struggle and Inequality!
The black soldiers and slaves, who couldn’t write or read, were completely in dark. They had no idea of the frequent genocidal intent and historical deprivations of the government toward Native Americans. Even free Blacks, irrespective of whether they could read or write, were not granted privilege to any unbiased information about this relationship. Sadly, whites who were given the access really didn’t care about the grim situation.

In the name of “Manifest Destiny”, the government carried on with their usual business. Apart from this apathy, many Americans perceived the Indians as non-reformable and incorrigible savages. Those who were threatened by the warring factions, most naturally wanted government protection. When the Civil War started, the United States government was fighting against the Indians in the west. They withdrew most of its resources and men from the wars, in order to end the rebellion.

Origin of the ‘Black’ Warriors!
When the Civil War ended, around 186,000 black soldiers participated in the war. Nearly 38,000 were killed in the battle front. Eastern and Southerners populations did wish to see any armed Negro soldier in or near their communities. Also, they were afraid of the fact that the labor market will be flooded with a novel source of resource.

General opportunities for employment available in these communities were not applicable for Blacks, so the Afro-Americans were forced to think about military service which offered medical attention, steady source of income, education, shelter and pension plans post retirement. A few decided that it was far better than being in a condition of frequent civilian unemployment. Obviously, in some quarters it was considered to be a good opportunity to get rid of two problems at one go.

It is a fact that Afro-Americans have equally participated in every conflict recorded in U.S. history. However, it was only in 1866 that the U.S. Congress authorized the formation of 6 black regiments in the U.S. Army. Out of these, 2 were cavalry (horse borne units) – the 9th and 10th Cavalry. The rest of the 4 units were infantry regiments – the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st. In 1869, the foot soldiers were reduced to only 2 units – the 24th and 25th infantry regiments.

Coining the Name‘Buffalo Soldiers’!
The regiments served at remote places in extremely harsh conditions. Also, they were considered a low priority in receiving equipments and goods. These brave soldiers earned the name Buffalo Soldiers from the Indians who held their intense courage and fighting spirit in high regard. So bold and courageous were these soldiers that their legendary enemies called them Buffalo Soldiers.

Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson, their commanding officer, is renowned for his Civil War gallantry. He famously said that the name was coined because the Indians respected a powerful and brave adversary, which directly relates to the much revered buffalo. Some others say that the name was given due to the similarity of the soldier’s hair to the hair surrounding a buffalo’s head.

The brave soldiers fought in the Spanish-American and Indian wars apart from the battles in Mexico, Cuba and Philippines. When not fighting, these soldiers protected settlers, surveyed roads, escorted wagon trains, installed telegraph lines and built roads and forts. Still, not only they faced discrimination by white settlers and soldiers, but they had the lowest desertion rate given to any Army unit.

The Unsung Heroes!
In 1877 at West Point, Lt. Henry O. Flipper was the first black to successfully graduate from the US Military Academy. For him life at the Academy and later in the Army was controversial and difficult. Sadly, he was court-martialed eventually. A 100 years later, he was finally cleared of all the charges and pardoned by former President Bill Clinton.Another brave soldier was Cathy Williams, a woman soldier who served from 1866 till 1868.

The other unsung heroes include Jackie Robinson, a baseball player who enlisted in the US Army during WWII; and Major Charles Young, an 1889 West Point graduate. In 1917, he rode his horse from Ohio to Washington DC in order to prove his military fitness. General Benjamin O. Davis was the 1st black man to command these regiments. However, with the mechanization of the equipment and Army, these regiments were officially disbanded.

A Salute to the Brave!
Today, it is uncertain how many Buffalo Soldiers are still alive. According to Charles L. Davis, who organizes a few public appearances, their story is “a treasure that we are letting fade away.” He said,” if you don’t keep that bandwagon going people will throw dirt over your history.”

I would like to end my tribute to the brave soldiers with a few lines from Bob Marley’s song. It says everything in a nutshell.

“If you know your history,
Then you would know where you coming from,
Then you wouldn’t have to ask me,
Who the ‘eck do I think I am.”

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