Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter 1997, pp. 3-17.
Historians of the western army contend with many romanticized myths. Few of those myths, in recent years, have held the popular consciousness as has that of the army's first black regulars, known as "buffalo soldiers." By now, the origins of the segregated regiments are quite familiar. In 1866, with the nation's acting military force having dwindled to a fraction of its Civil War size, the Republican Congress encouraged the enlistment of newly freed slaves and northern free blacks. Assigned to remote western areas, black units played an instrumental role over the next few decades in opening the West for white settlement. Despite their important functions, uniformed African Americans continually suffered racism and discrimination from frontier civilians and even from some of their own white officers.1
For much of this century, both popular culture and professional historians overlooked the buffalo soldiers. The gallant stereotype of patriotic, blue-jacketed warriors bringing civilization to the plains failed to accommodate the presence of armed blacks. Although scholars began to draw public attention toward black soldiers as early as the 1960s, the dedication of a buffalo soldiers monument at Fort Leavenworth in 1992 fully captured the popular imagination, partly because of Colin Powell's visible involvement. The Leavenworth project was accompanied by a veritable explosion of buffalo soldiers commemorations including museum displays, documentaries, newspaper and journal articles, and reenactment societies. Where once the public imagined the West only in terms of white soldiers and red Indians, the present fascination represents a positive step in defining the region as a meeting ground for numerous races and cultures, a step that scholars should applaud.
Yet not all have been enthusiastic about proclaiming buffalo soldiers' contributions to western conquest. From a Native American standpoint, lionizing the black regiments to redress historical neglect appears no more just nor progressive than the Anglo myths that excluded them. When the U.S. Postmaster General announced a commemorative buffalo soldiers stamp in 1994, representatives of the American Indian Movement demanded both the stamp's withdrawal and a public apology.2 For all the topic's recent attention, few grasp its frustrating irony: that black males, themselves victims of white prejudice, voluntarily aided the subjugation of Native peoples for the benefit of Anglo expansion. This scenario illustrates the complicated, even paradoxical, nature of American race relations. Unfortunately, significant questions are overshadowed by the topic's "contribution" aspects, helping to provide a focus for national and racial pride, a cry of "we were there too." Nor have academic historians pursued the more difficult questions as aggressively as they should. New Western History, which has debunked many myths surrounding white occupation and shown its catastrophic consequences for minorities, generally ignores the army's role in western conquest. Military histories have added tremendously to knowledge about the subject but most employ traditional approaches that are more event-centered and descriptive than analytical and interpretive.