The Civil Radical Battles of the Black American Soldier

Buffalo Soldiers

American Plains Indians who fought against these soldiers referred to the Black cavalry troops as “buffalo soldiers” because of their dark, curly hair, which resembled a buffalo’s coat, and because of their fierce nature of fighting. The nickname soon became synonymous with all African-American regiments formed in 1866. In 1866, an Act of Congress created six all-Black peacetime regiments, later consolidated into four, the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 24th and 25th Infantry, who became known as “The Buffalo Soldiers.” There are differing theories regarding the origin of this nickname. One is that the Plains Indians who fought the Buffalo Soldiers thought that their dark, curly hair resembled the fur of the buffalo. Another is that their bravery and ferocity in battle reminded the Indians of the way buffalo fought. Whatever the reason, the soldiers considered the name high praise, as buffalo were deeply respected by the Native peoples of the Great Plains. And eventually, the image of a buffalo became part of the 10th Cavalry’s regimental crest.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

To settle problems in 19th-century New Mexico, the U.S. Army called upon a group of recently freed black men to form the 9th and 10th Cavalries. They subsequently became known as “Buffalo Soldiers.” (Courtesy photo/49th Fighter Wing History Office)

Each regiment consisted of ten companies, all of which were led by a Colonel. Each of the companies had about one hundred troops. In total, the regiment was about ten thousand strong. Although Blacks were not allowed to become commissioned officers, they were granted the ranks of non-commissioned officers, such as the various levels of Sergeants and Corporal. These, unfortunately, were the only ranks Black soldiers could aspire to.

The Buffalo Soldiers are an example of one such colored regiment. Although they were formed after the Civil War, they were the first peacetime, all-colored regiment to be put into service, and saw much action against Indian raiding parties along the frontier. The name “Buffalo Soldiers” was given to them by the Indian enemies they faced in battle (Creating Black Americans).


“Let it be said that the Negro soldier did his duty under the flag whether that flag protects him or not.”

Edward A. Johnson, New York State Legislator, 1917

During the war, several troubles arose for Black Americans even after being admitted into the armed forces. The first was equal pay. Black soldiers, whether non-commissioned officers or not, received a monthly payment of seven dollars. Enlisted White men received thirteen dollars a month, with an extra three dollars in clothing allowance. Non-commissioned white officers received a few dollars more than even this, depending on rank. Black Americans saw this as an outrage and an insult to the men fighting. One regiment even protested, pilling up their rifles and refusing to move until equal pay was administered. Their Sergeant was then executed for treason. Equal pay was not fixed until later in the war. The next problem was that of rank. No Black soldier, no matter what his experience, could become a commissioned officer. This meant that at all times colored regiments were commanded by a White officer. There were several exceptions to this rule, but very few. The problem of rank was never fixed until after the Civil War. There was also the problem of treatment by their fellow White soldiers. Most Union, White soldiers looked down on their counterparts, resulting in much discrimination (History.Net).  This was still better than the treatment by the Confederate forces. In May 1863, the Confederacy passed a proclamation that all Black troops captured in battle would either be shot or sold back into slavery and that any White officers found leading them would be executed for leading rebel slaves against the Confederacy. Reports soon came in of Confederates executing Black prisoners of war. One such incident was the Massacre at Fort Pillow. Their many Black troops who had surrendered were slaughtered by Confederate forces under the command of General Nathan Forest. Forest would later go on to found the Ku Klux Klan only a year after the war (Creating Black Americans).

The shoulder patch that belonged to the 92nd Infantry Division during World War I.
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.