The Buffalo Soldiers and the Constitution - Overview
By Mary Williams
Historian, Fort Davis National Historic Site, Fort Davis, Texas
(Reprinted and posted by permission of the Superintendent, Fort Davis National Historic Site, National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior.)
It was during the summer of 1787 that delegates representing most of the thirteen states of the United States wrote the first official constitution this nation has known. The new document - now the oldest written constitution in the world - underlines the idea that governmental power must be limited if the liberty of the citizen is to be guaranteed. It clearly provides that the basic rights of men and women be protected.
A system of checks and balances based on a two-house legislature, a separate executive branch, an autonomous judiciary, and also provisions for amendment are the greatest strengths of the document. It is the last provision - the ability to amend - that has had the most far-reaching effect on safeguarding the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is this last provision that has greatly affected the lives of descendants of nearly three million slaves brought to America in the 1600s.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed only those slaves in areas "in rebellion against the United States." Since the Union did not control the southern states that seceded, the Proclamation did not immediately free any slaves. It did, however, capture public attention and made all aware that the abolition of slavery was an aim of the war.
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1865, was responsible for abolishing slavery in all parts of the United States. In 1866, the 14th Amendment made citizens of all American-born blacks. Four years later, the 15th Amendment gave blacks the right to vote. Passed as a direct consequence of the military victory of the North over the South, it took over one hundred years before the provisions of these amendments became realities for all. Yet the seeds were planted, and former slaves emerged with a new pride in their country and a new sense of personal responsibility.
It was this new sense of patriotism, linked with optimism for social and economic betterment, that led many blacks to enlist in the post-Civil War Army. Black troops had served in every war including the American Revolution. However, it was not until July of 1866 that blacks were permitted to enlist in the Regular Army. The new legislation provided for the creation of two cavalry and four infantry regiments which "shall be composed of colored men." In 1869, the four infantry units were consolidated into two. (NOTE: The units formed as a result of the 1866 legislation were the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments; the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry Regiments. In the spring of 1869 the 38th and 41st Infantry Regiments were consolidated into the newly designated 24th Infantry Regiment, and the 39th and 40th Infantry Regiments were consolidated to form the 25th Infantry Regiment.)
Nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers supposedly by the Indians because of the similarity between their hair and the coat of the buffalo, many soldiers of the black regiments were recruited from the United States Colored Troops which served in the Civil War. Other enlistees came from the New Orleans area, the fringes of the southern states and from large northern cities. They were former slaves as well as freemen.
Units of the black regiments were stationed all over the West. In the battles and countless skirmishes that marked the Indian Wars, the black soldiers played a significant role. Commanded by white officers, who at times resented their duty with the black regiments, the Buffalo Soldiers endured and overcame tremendous social and environmental obstacles. They were sometimes received inferior supplies and equipment.
Yet, the men of the black regiments, often finding themselves in the forefront of action, never shirked their responsibilities. For more than twenty-five years they not only engaged in battles with Indians, but they built forts and escorted wagon trains, mail stages and railroad crews. They mapped and charted areas and located sources of water. Black soldiers were responsible for opening millions of square miles of western lands to peaceful settlement and development.
The Buffalo Soldiers received little recognition for their years of service on the frontier. Between 1865 and 1899, the Medal of Honor was awarded to 417 men who served in the Indian Wars. However, only 18 of the medals were presented to black enlisted men.
The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution were responsible for the extension and protection of the civil rights of black Americans. These amendments also encouraged blacks to enlist in the military. The Regular Army of the 1870s and 1880s did not afford total equality or democracy for the black man. However, it did offer social and economic opportunities that had not existed before. The record of meritorious service and notable accomplishments amassed by the Buffalo Soldier regiments remain a symbol of hope and pride for all Americans. The achievements serve as a reminder of the contributions they made to American life and culture.
Plan a visit to the FORT DAVIS NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE, located in the Davis Mountains of west Texas. The site can be easily reached from Interstate 10; from the east Exit 209 at Balmorhea and follow Route 17 south; from the west Exit 176 at Kent and follow Route 118 south. From US 90 westbound, exit to Route 118 at Alpine and follow Rte. 118 north