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Buffalo Soldiers — Named By Their Adversaries

Celebrating Black History Month

Of all the creatures that roamed the great plains of the western United States, none was more revered and feared by Native Americans than the buffalo. They saw it as "hardy nearly to the point of indestructible, bold to the point of fearless, and often unstoppable."

That is also how they came to view the African-American horse soldiers who rode into their midst under the banner of the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry. After facing them in battle and realizing they too, were fearless, hardy, and unstoppable, while, in their eyes, having the dark skin and thick hair of their most feared but respected buffalos, the Native American warriors admiringly named their battlefield enemies "Buffalo Soldiers."

On July 28, 1866, a congressional act authorized six regiments of troops composed of African-Americans. There were four infantry and two cavalry regiments. The 9th Cavalry was activated in New Orleans. The 10th Cavalry was activated at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

One hundred years later, 1966, in Kansas City, Mo., the 9th & 10th (Horse) Cavalry Association was formed to keep alive the exploits, military experiences, and "the bold experiment to accept black men into the regular army establishment." It's mission was to remember and bring recognition to "The Forgotten Heros."

In Room 2000 of Alexandria City Hall on Feb. 10, reenactor members of the association's Washington, D.C., Chapter, under the aegis of the Office of Historic Alexandria, brought the history of the Buffalo Soldiers to life, through personal experiences and memorabilia, as a part of the city's tribute to Black History Month.

"We have a six-member reenactment team who travels throughout the area explaining various aspects of the Buffalo Solider," said Andrew Winfree of Alexandria. "I give a presentation entitled, "The Invisible Soldier." Others explain the uniforms and weapons."

Mark Mathews, the oldest living Buffalo Soldier at 109, currently resides in the District and is an active member of the local chapter. His portrait, in cavalry uniform, was on display at the reception.

"He joined the Army in 1916, and did 30 years active duty," Winfree said. "After retiring from the military he joined security at the National Institutes of Health where he put in another 30 years. Then he retired to care for his father who lived to be 110."

With 109 members, the local chapter brings to life two of the least known Buffalo Soldiers — the black Seminole Indian scouts and Private William Cathy, real name Cathy Williams, the only African-American woman to serve as a Buffalo Soldier. Both were "present" at City Hall.

LORETTA CLARKE, dressed in the dark blue uniform of the U.S. Cavalry of the 19th century, told how Cathy Williams, a cook and laundress for General William T. Sheridan, had decided, "She wanted to make more of a contribution and decided to join the Buffalo Soldiers. However, no women were allowed."

Clarke noted, however, the only physical required at the time was an inspection of one's hands and arms to make sure they were strong enough to handle a rifle and saber. "As a former cook and laundress she had no trouble passing. She was also tall and slender and, in uniform, could pass for a man," Clarke acknowledged.

"She joined the infantry as William Cathy. She served several years before becoming ill and was discovered to be a woman. William Cathy was discharged from the Army with no benefits," according to Clarke.

Williams' life and experiences have been recorded in a book by Dr. Philip Tucker entitled, "From Slave to Buffalo Soldier." One hundred years after her birth in 1842, women were allowed to officially join the Army in 1942, shortly after the United States entered World War II.

Zedore LaVell Campbell, a Maryland association member, was attired in the buckskin jacket and broad brimmed cowboy hat of the black Seminole Indian scouts. He related the history of this little known group who "were among the best scouts in the world" and became scouts for the U.S. Army in the western United States.

"Certain Indian tribes traded in slaves. Among these were the Cheyenne and some of the Creeks. But certain Creek chiefs did not condone slavery. This caused another group to break off and migrate, with their black slaves to Florida. They were given the name Seminole because it meant runaway," Campbell explained.

"But there was a different relationship between the Indians and their slaves than between the whites and their slaves. In fact, some of the slaves became chiefs within the indian ranks," he noted.

"Some of the Seminole blacks migrated to Texas to become scouts for the Mexican government and then eventually were scouts for the United States. They were so good they could pick up a trail that was three weeks old in desert and rock country," Campbell revealed.

"Three of the scouts were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. And not one was killed during 44 years of service," he added.

Prior to African-Americans being integrated into the regular ranks of the U.S. Army following World War II, 18 Buffalo Soldiers were awarded the nation's highest miliary honor and five more troopers were awarded the medal for service in the Spanish-American War.

The 9th and 10th Cavalry units ran up impressive combat records. The 9th against the Comanches, Utes, and Sioux in the indian wars as well as in Cuba, when it captured on the Spanish blockhouse at Santiago. A replica of that blockhouse appears on the regiment crest. In modern history, it won honors as an integrated unit in Vietnam.

THE 10TH IS "one of the unique regiments in the annals of U.S. military history," according to association records. "Ordered west from Fort Leavenworth ... it began its march into immortality. In Montana it clashed with the famous Ghost Dancers of the Sioux." In Arizona it faced the famed Apache Chief Geronimo.

The regiment further distinguished itself in Cuba, at Santiago and Las Guasimas. They were part of "Teddy" Roosevelt's famous charge up San Juan Hill.

At the commencement of their service, many Buffalo Soldiers were physically below par, according to association history. "Years of slavery, wretched food, and sub-normal living conditions had taken their toll." Also, most could not read or write because, prior to emancipation, blacks, by law, were prohibited an education, the association noted.

As for physical characteristics, the maximum height of a trooper could not exceed five-feet, ten-inches. Weight had to be 155 pounds or less. In the 1870's and 80's the soldier wore a flannel shirt of dark blue, light blue trousers tucked into his over-the-knee boots, and a civil war hat adorned with crossed sabers bearing regiment and troop designation.

The weaponry consisted of a 40-70 Springfield carbine, a colt army .45 caliber pistol, and a saber. Soldieers rode a McCellan saddle with deep leather stirrups that completely covered the feet. Later the hats were replaced with a slough "campaign" hat, black at first, and changed to a light grayish-brown in 1874. Although they were not issued at neckerchief, many wore one of a color of their own choice.

Three graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point served as officers with the Cavalry units. They were Henry Ossian Flipper, the Point's first black graduate, John Hanks Alexander, and Charles Young. Black chaplains, Theophilus G. Steward, George W. Preleau, Henry V. Plummer, William T. Anderson, Allen Allensworth, and Louis Carter all were assigned to the units.

Fifty nine Virginians served in the original Buffalo Soldier ranks. Two of those were from Alexandria and Mount Vernon District.

George Ford served as a Sergeant in the 10th Cavalry's Quartermaster Corp. He lived on Duke Street until his parents moved to Gum Springs in 1857.

Lewis Fort, a trumpeter with the 9th Cavalry, Headquarters, was born in Alexandria. He was killed in Cuba in 1898.