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The Buffalo Soldiers
A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West

By William H. Leckie
University of Oklahoma Press, 290 pp, 1967

Military historian William Leckie has written a fine history of the black soldiers who served in the Army after the Civil. Dubbed buffalo soldiers by the Indians they fought, these tough, brave men served with distinction and honor in horrible conditions: drought, heat, cold, poor supplies, shoddy horses, and often lack of support from the Army command in Washington. And yet, by the early 1890s, their desertion rate was the lowest in the Army.

Many blacks - 180,000 - served in the Civil War on the Union side. After the war, Congress created six new regiments of black troops - four infantry and two cavalry. The cavalry regiments became the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry. Congress required that all offices were white - not so much out of racism, but because there weren't enough qualified blacks (that would quickly change, of course). And each regiment got its own chaplain, which taught the men reading, writing, and arithmetic, in addition to ministering to their spiritual needs.

On General Grant's recommendation, Generals Benjamin Grierson and Edward Hatch were appointed to lead the Tenth and Ninth Cavalries, respectively. By Leckie's account, both were honest, decent men who treated their black troops well and respected their fighting ability. The white officers they appointed were much the same.

The difficulties the black regiments faced came mainly from Washington. Grierson and Hatch had to fight, scratch, and claw for decent supplies and horses. The Ninth and Tenth often received the worst horses and leftover, substandard foodstuffs. They also faced opposition and outright hostility from white base commanders, who resented serving with black troops.

But despite the obstacles, and to their credit, the men's moral remained high, and their contribution was essential for making the American frontier safe for settlement. They fought against Comanches, Kiowas, Apaches, and other hostile tribes in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. They also confronted Mexican bandits and white horse thieves.

As fighters, there were probably no superior cavalry forces in the army. These guys were tough, often marching hundreds and thousands of miles with little food and water, fighting Indians along the way. But they did their duty and did it well. Of course, there was the occasional troublemaker, and military discipline took care of them.

Leckie has written a fine book, giving these soldiers their long overdue credit.

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