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America’s First Peacetime Black Cavalry and Infantry Units Served with Honor and Pride

Life in America after the Civil War was new and challenging for all, but especially for black men and women as they became familiar with their newfound status and freedom as citizens. The 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, was ratified in 1868, but it did not end racial discrimination. For the first time, however, African-Americans were able to enlist in a peacetime Army.

"… let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States." – Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, social reformer 

After the Civil War, military service offered many black men the opportunity to have a career, support their families, and protect their fellow Americans as they pushed westward into hostile territories. In 1866, Congress reorganized the Army and authorized the formation of two regiments of black cavalry (the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry), and four regiments of black infantry (the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Colored Infantry Regiments) that later consolidated into the 24th and 25th Infantry.

A Nickname Becomes a Badge of Honor

These soldiers would later be known collectively as “Buffalo Soldiers,” a name supposedly given to them by the Cheyenne. Modern U.S. Army units that trace their direct lineage back to the 9th and 10th Cavalry units, still use the term and distinctive regimental unit insignia to retain their units’ honored place in U.S. history.

A Shift in History

The lure of western migration was in full swing during the latter half of the 19th Century as citizens of all races surged westward, displacing and agitating indigenous populations. The 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry units, among others, were tasked with providing a protective force for settlements in the Southwest and Great Plains. The Buffalo Soldier units spent more than 20 years providing security for settler convoys, guarding post carriers, and building roads. They also regularly engaged in battle with hostile Native American tribes, including Apache, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Comanche.  

Achievement in Face of Adversity

The 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments operated under mottos that were as succinct as they were impactful: “We Can, We Will” (9th) and “Ready and Forward” (10th). Though the Buffalo Soldiers endured hardships and discrimination – often at the hands of those they were tasked with protecting – they reached many notable accomplishments.

They were involved in campaigns that led to the capture of prominent figures such as Geronimo and Pancho Villa. Following the end of the American-Indian Wars, they went on to fight in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and both world wars. Through these engagements, the Buffalo Soldiers earned many Congressional Medals of Honor. They are even credited with being among the first rangers at Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.

When the nation’s social climate began to change, President Harry Truman issued an executive order to end racial segregation in the military. By the mid-1950s, the remaining all-black units were officially disbanded. The last of the Buffalo Soldiers, Mark Matthews, died in 2005 at age 111.

9th Cavalry Regiment’s Distinguished Soldiers

The 9th Regiment received 11 Medals of Honor for actions between 1870 and 1890. All of the awards were for bravery in combat during the Indian Wars, eight against Apaches.

  • Sgt. Emanuel Stance was the first black Medal of Honor recipient in 1870
  • Sgt. Thomas Boyne
  • Pvt. John Denny
  • Cpl. Clinton Greaves
  • Pvt. Henry Johnson
  • Sgt. George Jordan
  • Sgt. Thomas Shaw
  • Sgt. Augustus Walley
  • Sgt. Moses Williams
  • Cpl. William Wilson
  • Sgt. Brent Woods

Other 9th Regimental Accolades

  • Henry Vinton Plummer was the first black regular Army chaplain.
  • Lt. John Alexander, the second black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy.
  • Lt.  Charles Young, the third black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy.
  • Benjamin O. Davis Sr. served with the regiment as an enlisted man and received his commission in 1901. In 1940 Davis became the first African-American promoted to General in the U.S. Army.
  • The 9th had three men killed in combat at San Juan Hill, Cuba.
  • The regiment also fought in the Philippines between 1900 and 1902, losing two men. 

10th Cavalry Regiment’s Distinguished Soldiers

  • Lt. Henry Flipper, the first black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy (1877), served with the 10th until 1882. Flipper was discharged after a court-martial conviction for conduct unbecoming an officer. He received a posthumous pardon from President Bill Clinton in 1999.
  • Sgt. Major Edward L. Baker received the Medal of Honor for rescuing a wounded comrade under fire during the Cuban campaign in 1898.
  • Cpl. William Thompkins, and Privates Dennis Bell, Fitz Lee, and George Wanton received the medal for bravery in an amphibious operation on the south shore of Cuba. 
  • Seven soldiers of the 10th were killed in the Cuba campaign.
  • While participating in Gen. John Pershing’s punitive expedition against Mexican revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa, nine members were killed (two officers and seven enlisted men) in a firefight with Mexican forces at Carrizal on June 21, 1916. 

Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) salutes the spirit, camaraderie, and accomplishments of these first African-American peacetime units, just as we do for our modern-day service heroes. Buffalo Soldiers exemplified the sense of duty and country, which is something still found in today’s warriors served by WWP.

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