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The Myth of the Buffalo Soldiers

Nineteenth Century African American soldiers who served in the Western United States have generally been known a “Buffalo Soldiers.”  In this article, however, military historian Frank N. Schubert, challenges modern popular perceptions of the soldiers, among them the significance of their name and the nature of their views of the native  people against whom they fought.   His argument appears below.

On and off for about forty years, I have been writing about the men and families of the black regiments that served in the U.S. Army between the Civil War and World War I.  I found their history intriguing and important because they were pioneers in post-slavery America, the first black soldiers allowed to serve in the regular Army, staking their claims on citizenship by serving their country and doing so within a pervasively racist context that limited their occupational mobility, caused humiliation, and sometimes put them at personal risk.

While historians explored their contributions and lives, myths and misconceptions emerged and gained acceptance, covering a range of topics from the origin and significance of their widely recognized nickname—-“Buffalo Soldiers”--to the supposed empathy they shared with their Indian foes.  Myths and misconceptions also include the widely held belief that their combat record far surpassed that of white units (it did not), and the view that their equipment, uniforms, and mounts were worse than those issued to other units (they were not).  And, most extraordinarily, in light of the ongoing flood of literature and memorabilia concerning their lives and service, the notion persists that theirs is an untold story or hidden history, slighted and kept from public knowledge.

Elements of the buffalo-soldier myth started to appear coincident with wider knowledge of the black regiments.  William Leckie’s 1967 book, The Buffalo Soldiers, essentially a campaign history of the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments, brought the service of these units to popular attention and popularized the term

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