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Buffalo Soldiers in New Mexico

By William H. Wroth

At the end of the Civil War, Black cavalry and infantry troops known as buffalo soldiers were sent to the American west to take part in the Indian wars and the protection of settlers. The term “buffalo soldier” is said to have been applied to the Black troops by the Indians because of their short curly hair and their courage and fortitude, much admired qualities of the buffalo. The term was first applied to Black soldiers of the 10th Cavalry Regiment in 1866 by the Kiowa Indians in western Kansas after encounters with them. It was taken as a compliment by the troops and the 10th Cavalry adopted a picture of the buffalo as its regiment’s crest.

The origin of the buffalo soldiers goes back to the Civil War. Initially there was great opposition to the use of Black troops in the War; in the racist atmosphere of the day it was believed that African-Americans would not make good soldiers. However, in June 1862 the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry was organized by Kansas Senator James H. Lane. In October 1862 a detachment of 225 troops from the First Kansas under the leadership of white officers encountered superior Confederate forces at Island Mound, Missouri and successfully held their ground against them. This first battle involving Black troops helped to defuse the prejudice against them. In May 1863 the U. S. Colored Volunteers was organized by the U. S. Army. It first consisted of a cavalry regiment, a heavy artillery regiment, five regiments of engineers, and 22 infantry regiments. By the end of the Civil War Black troops had increased substantially. There were 29 volunteer Black regiments, over 130 conscripted infantry regiments, thirteen regiments of heavy artillery, ten of light artillery, and six cavalry regiments. Nearly 200,000 Black troops served in the War, approximately ten percent of the Union forces. Black soldiers fought in 449 engagements during the War, 39 of them considered major battles.

In the reorganization of the army at the end of the Civil War, again there was opposition to Blacks serving in the army, but there also was a great need for troops, especially on the Western frontier. In 1866 Congress authorized the formation of two new regiments of Black cavalry with the designations 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry, and four regiments of Black infantry, designated the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st Infantry Regiments (Colored). The 38th and 41st were later reorganized as the 25th Infantry Regiment, with headquarters in Jackson Barracks, Louisiana, in November 1869. The 39th and 40th were reorganized as the 24th Infantry Regiment, headquartered at Fort Clark, Texas, in April 1869. In addition, the existing 57th and 125th Infantry Regiments included Black troops. All of these Black troops were under the command of White commissioned officers, but lower-ranked noncommissioned officers were in many cases Black.

In August 1866 eight Black companies of the 125th Infantry marched to New Mexico and soon were serving at seven Army forts throughout the territory, most of them in southern New Mexico. In September 1867 they were replaced by six companies of Black troops from the newly organized 38th Infantry who had seen action earlier in the year against the Cheyenne Indians in Kansas. As soon as the 125th arrived, they began to see action against raiding parties of Apache Indians. For both Black and White troops, the pursuit of the Apaches proved difficult due to lack of knowledge of terrain and the slowness of troop movement compared with that of the Indians. At best the buffalo soldiers could help to reduce the raiding and protect local citizens and their livestock. They also served to protect against White cattle rustlers and other outlaws in largely lawless southern New Mexico. One of the important duties of Black troops was to serve as escorts for both government and civilian parties crossing New Mexico. These included military personnel, U. S. mail carriers, supply trains of all kinds, private citizens traversing the Butterfield Overland Trail, the southern route to California, and even herds of cattle moving from one location to another.

These first buffalo soldiers to be stationed in frontier New Mexico also had many more menial responsibilities. They (as well as White soldiers) were responsible, in some cases for major construction and renovations at the forts where they were stationed and served as carpenters, plasterers, painters, and bricklayers. At Fort McCrae, for instance, Black soldiers built several new buildings, put a new roof on the hospital, and made 25,000 adobe bricks for new officers’ quarters, which they also built. They along with other workers constructed the mostly adobe Fort Selden, no doubt under the guidance of Hispanic adobe masons. The Black soldiers were also responsible for other menial work, such as fuel gathering, always a difficult task in the sparse desert environment of southern New Mexico. Men would have to go as far as fifteen miles from the fort to find adequate wood supplies and often had to laboriously dig up mesquite roots for fuel. By the early 1870s, due to complaints by officers in New Mexico, the Army began to contract for many laboring jobs and for supplies such as fuel, hay, and building supplies, thus freeing the Black soldiers from many of these onerous tasks.

After two years in the territory, the 38th Infantry left New Mexico in October 1869. A period of relative peace with the Apaches followed for a few years, but by 1875 more troops were needed. In December 1875 the 9th Cavalry led by Colonel Edward Hatch marched from Texas to New Mexico and were stationed at nine different forts. They continued the effort to curtail the raiding of the Apaches in southern New Mexico and soon earned a good reputation for their behavior. A newspaper editor in Mesilla described them as “quiet, sober, polite, and unobtrusive” and maintaining “perfect discipline.” However, their efforts against the Apaches yielded few substantial results due to the Indians’ superior knowledge of the terrain and abilities in desert raiding.

The Black soldiers of the 9th Cavalry also played an important role in the effort to maintain law and order in frontier New Mexico. They participated in both the Colfax County War in 1876 and the Lincoln County War in 1878. In an effort to quell the disturbances in Colfax County, Governor Samuel Axtell called in Black soldiers from Fort Union into Cimarron to arrest rancher Clay Allison who was one of the leaders of a group opposed to the Maxwell Land Grant Company. Axtell, who was allied with the interests of the company, thought that Allison, an unrepentant Southerner, would resist arrest by Black soldiers, but he did not and soon was released by the military. It was said that Axtell planned to have several leaders of the opposition killed by the troops, but this claim was never proven and an incriminating letter said to be written by Axtell was denounced as a forgery by him. The presence of Black troops in the tense situation existing in Cimarron led to a confrontation between several of them and some Texas cowboys. In March 1876 three Black soldiers were shot to death in the bar of the St. James Hotel. After the killings more soldiers were stationed in Cimarron where they stayed until the middle of April. A few months later the two Texas cowboys were caught and one of them killed by a sheriff’s posse.

In the Lincoln County War, Black soldiers stationed at Fort Stanton, were again used by the authorities in an effort to vanquish their enemies. Several times in the early months of 1878 Black soldiers came into Lincoln to aid law enforcement officers on both sides of the dispute between Alexander McSween’s forces and those associated with James Dolan. In July, 1878, a “five-day battle” began in Lincoln where McSween and his men were held under siege in his home. Sheriff George Peppin, a Dolan supporter, asked for help from Colonel Nathan Dudley at nearby Fort Stanton. Dudley soon arrived with a small squad of troops and officers including eleven Black cavalrymen. Dudley and his men were supposed to be neutral in the conflict, but in actuality they lent support to Dolan’s forces. When Dolan and his men set McSween’s house on fire, Dudley refused to do anything to help. In the desperate attempt to escape from the burning house, McSween and several of his men were shot and killed by Dolan forces. Dudley was later brought before a military court for his actions. Among the witnesses called were two Black ex-soldiers who were employees of McSween. Although they and others testified against him, Dudley was acquitted of all the charges.

In the years 1879 and 1880 Black cavalrymen of the 9th Cavalry played a major role in the pursuit of the Apache leader Victorio. They engaged in numerous fights against the Apaches and at least twelve men were killed in action. Eight Black soldiers received the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery during this campaign. The Victorio campaign finally came to an end in October 1880 when Mexican soldiers, backed up by U. S. Army troops who had crossed the border, killed Victorio in the mountains of Chihuahua. The death of Victorio did not end the Apache wars. He was replaced by Nana who was equally committed to fighting the army. Several more bloody encounters involving buffalo soldiers took place in the first half of 1881. In spite of repeated encounters with Nana and his warriors, the Army forces never won a decisive victory against him, but they did force him to retreat into the mountains of Chihuahua in the fall of 1881. With the Apache threat thus effectively ended, the 9th Cavalry left New Mexico in the final months of 1881.

Buffalo soldiers did not return to New Mexico until 1887 when the 10th Cavalry was moved from Arizona to new headquarters in Santa Fe. Four units of the 10th Cavalry along with eight companies of the 24th Infantry were stationed at Fort Bayard near Silver City where they served until 1896. The 24th Infantry was led by Colonel Zenas R. Bliss, who had served with distinction in the Civil War. Unlike some other White officers, Bliss was not prejudiced against his Black troops. He often praised their work in his reports and tried to protect their interests. With the Apaches no longer raiding, the buffalo soldiers under Bliss played a role in maintaining the peace during this period, going on frequent scouting expeditions to investigate minor incidents. Among their final duties in New Mexico was the closing and dismantling of Fort Selden in 1891 and Fort Stanton in 1896, an indication of the peaceable conditions now reigning in the territory. Here ended the role of the buffalo soldiers in New Mexico in the Indian Wars of the nineteenth century.

Sources Used:

Billington, Monroe Lee. New Mexico’s Buffalo Soldiers, 1866 – 1900. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1991.

Dobak, William A. and Thomas D. Phillips. The Black Regulars 1866-1898. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

Schubert, Frank N., ed. Voices Of The Buffalo Soldier: Records, Reports, and Recollections of Military Life and Service in the West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.