The concept of all-black regiments had originated during the Civil War when northern states organized regiments of free blacks from the north and former slaves from the south. This concept was met with resistance in the north, which resistance is generally accepted to have been racially oriented in nature. However, by 1863 the U. S. Colored Volunteers had been organized into a cavalry regiment, an artillery regiment and almost two dozen infantry regiments. It is estimated that about one out of ten Union soldiers serving in the American Civil War were black.
The actual origin of the term Buffalo Soldiers is not well documented, although it is usually accepted that the term originated with the Plains Indian tribes when they saw the dark skin and curly dark hair of the black troops. Some historians also emphasize that the tribes respected and revered the buffalo. The troops themselves took it as a compliment, according to interviews with survivors. The 10th Cavalry Regiment also adopted the image of a buffalo on its crest.
The overall performance of these troops was positive during the Civil War, disproving the notion that it could not be done. Following the war, the question arose as to whether all-black regiments should comprise the postwar army. There was again initial resistance to the idea. In 1866, Congress authorized a postwar army of around 54,500 comprised of ten cavalry regiments, five artillery regiments and forty-five infantry regiments. Two of the cavalry regiments and four of the infantry regiments were to be made up of black troops. The total authorized force was further reduced by Congress in 1869. The black troops generally served in the west and were concentrated in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, although they also served in Oklahoma, Kansas and as far north as the Dakotas. In addition to former Civil War soldiers, post war enlistments of black troopers were also authorized. Commissioned officers in the regiments were usually white while noncommissioned officers were almost always black. There were exceptions to this, as black officers began to graduate from West Point, the first black West Point being Henry O. Flipper who served at various posts in the southwest.
(Image credit: Painting by Bob Vann)
Westward expansion of the white settlers had continued steadily in the 1800s and conflict between the tribes and the settlers was inevitable. The United States government tried to protect the settlers by placing a string of forts on the frontier engaging the variosu tribes as well as generally promoting security. The government eventually endeavored to confine the tribes to reservations scattered thoughout Texas. From the viewpoint of the tribes, they were being asked to relocate to parts of land that they had freely roamed for decades and even centuries prior. Sometimes the areas they were being asked to move to and remain within were barren and inferior. Also objectionable to them was the arbitrary combination of tribes that had been historical enemies, when this occurred. The government was committed to the process, nevertheless, and sought to enforce it by bringing in more troops, including the Buffalo Soldiers.
In Texas, these troops served in most of the western forts between Fort Concho and Fort Davis and up into New Mexico. Their wages after the Civil War amounted to thirteen dollars a month, but also included shelter, clothing and food. Their military duties included scouting for Indians, providing escorts for civilians and military shipments, mapping the territory. In addition, the soldiers did construction jobs including repairs and new construction, and also performed kitchen and laundry duties for which they would receive small stipends. They were provided some food stores by the government, and supplemented that they grew on the post and other supplies that were purchased locally, including beef cattle.
The Buffalo Soldiers successfully performed their duties at several Texas forts generally from the end of the Civil War and up to around the year 1890. Between 1882 and 1894, eighteen Buffalo Soldiers received the Medal of Honor. After the years of the Indian Wars, they also served in the U. S. Army attempts to capture Pancho Villa, the Spanish-American War, the Philippines, Mexico, Cuba, World Wars I and II. Segregated Army units continued well into the next century before the process was ended around 1950, when President Harry S. Truman ordered the disbanding of the segregated units and the troops absorbed into the regular Army.
One such Buffalo Soldier serving in Texas was James Monroe Watts. He was born September 16, 1848 in Cleveland County, North Carolina. According to the 1876 United States Army Register of Enlistments, Watts enlisted in the Army on December 29 of that year and was assigned to the 10th United States Cavalry, 5th Regiment. By 1879, Watts had been assigned to duty at Fort Concho, Tom Green County, Texas. In 1880, he married Maria Fierro, born in Chihuahua, Mexico and they would remain husband and wife for about fifty years. Daughter Gertrude “Bessie” was born to the couple in 1884 while they resided at Fort Davis. A son Louis Amos was born three years later in Alpine. Watts left the military in the late 1880s. A second son, Alfonso, was born in Fort Davis in 1890, followed by a number of other children. From about 1900 until his death, Mr. Watts lived in Alpine, Brewster County, Texas where he operated a dry goods store. He passed away in 1923 after being widowed a few years earlier. Mr. Watts was buried in Holy Angels Cemetery in Alpine.
When Master Sergeant Donnie Wah Brown died at age 87 on June 1, 1995 in El Paso, he was called the last Buffalo Soldier in the El Paso area. Brown was a 20th Century Buffalo soldier and his burial at Fort Bliss Cemetery marked the tenth Buffalo Soldier to be so honored. In an El Paso Times interview, his widow Hermie said of Donnie, “It was very dear to him to have been a Buffalo Soldier. He always had stories, and any time he could get someone to listen, he’d talk.” Brown had previously remarked that he was saddened that history books of the day had largely ignored the story of the Buffalo Soldiers. His widow Hermie survived him for another twelve years and is buried with him at Fort Bliss. During her lifetime, she was involved with the Donnie Wah Brown local chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers 9th and 10th (Horse) Cavalry Association, a nonprofit educational military service organization.
In 1986 Charles Long, a descendant of a father and son who had both been Buffalo Soldiers, created the America’s Buffalo Soldiers Re-Enactors Association to educate and train young at risk blacks about the heritage of Buffalo Soldiers. One of the oldest and most wide spread heritage organizations, the ABSRA now has divisions in all fifty states.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department also sponsors a re-enactment group honoring the Buffalo Soldiers. They make appearances all over Texas “as a lasting tribute to the Black Soldiers of the 9th & 10th U.S. Cavalry and the 24th & 25th U.S. Infantry Regiments for their Outstanding Acts of Valor during the Indian Wars Campaign.” There is also a Buffalo Soldiers National Museum located in Houston, Texas.
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