Considering The Role Of The Buffalo Soldiers (Guest Author)

Noreen Stavinoha

Noreen Stavinoha

Welcome to Gazette665, Noreen Stavinoha! Noreen is our guest author for this month, and her request for more information about the Buffalo Soldier actually prompted the historical theme for March 2016. She is a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines in Texas and has been a wonderful writing mentor to me through the years.

Today, Noreen shares how she became interested in the Buffalo Soldiers and some historical facts she discovered.

Lt. Colonel Wesley Merritt (c. 1860-1870)

Lt. Colonel Wesley Merritt (c. 1860-1870)

While doing research into my family history, I learned that a relative of mine, Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt, was given command of the 9th Cavalry in Texas after the Civil War. The 9th was an African-American unit known as “Buffalo Soldiers.” I found this fact intriguing, both from a personal standpoint and historical. So I set out to find out more about who they were and what they were doing during the ten years my ancestor was leading them.

Buffalo Soldiers never had anything to do with buffalo, and there are three possible origins of the name: Some say it was because their curly hair was like the hair on the buffalo’s face; others say it was because their fierce brave nature reminded them of the way buffalos fought; still others claim it was because they wore coats made from buffalo hide during the winter. According to the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, the name originated with the Cheyenne warriors in the winter of 1877, the actual Cheyenne translation being “Wild Buffalo.” Colonel Benjamin Grierson, who founded the 10th Cavalry regiment, claimed the Apache used the same term because the soldiers had curly, kinky hair, like bisons. No matter what its origin, the name stuck and gendered respect.

After distinguishing themselves in the Civil War, African-American soldiers were not met with the same respect they had received in the military when they returned to civilian life, so many of them decided to make the military their life’s career. This was good news for the generals, because there was a serious need for rebuilding the armed forces after the war.

In 1866 Congress passed legislation that created six all African-American army units. They were the 9th and 10th cavalry and the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st infantry regiments. The four infantry units were reorganized in 1868 as the 24th and 25th infantry. Enlistment for black soldiers was five years, and their pay was $13.00 a month plus food, clothing and shelter–considerably more than they could have earned as civilians.

9th U.S. Cavalry Coat of Arms

9th U.S. Cavalry Coat of Arms

Settlers traveling from eastern states to territories opening up in the Great Plains, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas depended upon the Buffalo Soldiers for protection, and enjoyed the infrastructure these military units created in their blossoming communities. They were responsible for building and renovating forts, strung thousands of miles of telegraph lines and escorted wagon trains, railroad trains, cattle herds, railroad crews, and surveying parties.

New roads were opened by them and maps created for vast areas of the west. They brought horse thieves to justice and recovered stolen livestock for ranchers. Indian raiders were a constant threat, but the Buffalo Soldiers proved to be very effective protectors against them. In fact, from 1866 to the early 1890s their active participation in the Indian Wars from a variety of posts in the Southwestern United States and the Great Plains regions with distinguished records. Thirteen enlisted men and six officers from the infantry regiments earned the Medal of Honor.

Buffalo soldiers continued to be active participants in all of America’s military actions. During the Korean War, the 24th Infantry Regiment saw combat and was the last segregated regiment to engage in combat. In 1951, the 24th was deactivated and its soldiers were integrated into other units in Korea. The last Buffalo Soldier units, the 27th & 28th Cavalries were disbanded on December 12, 1951.

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Fascinating information, right? A big “thank you” to Noreen for sharing her discoveries with us!

And now, I have a little surprise… Using the books and other research resources I had available, I found some extra information about Wesley Merritt. Noreen, I hope you will enjoy these details about your ancestor.

Wesley Merritt

  • Born June 16, 1834, in New York City. (He had 10 siblings!)
  • At age 7, he moved to Illinois with his family and thought he wanted to be a lawyer.
  • Plans change…Wesley decides the military is more exciting and receives an appointed to West Point in 1855.
  • Graduated in 1860 and served with a dragoon (cavalry) unit in Utah, before the Civil War prompted his recall back to the East.Cavalry_by_Orderly_Edwin_Forbes
  • He was an aide-de-camp to Union Cavalry Generals Cooke and Stoneman, and eventually commanded a horsemen unit of his own.
  • Promoted on June 29, 1863, to brigadier general of volunteers, Merritt participated in the Gettysburg campaign under the command of General John Buford.
  • By April 1865, Merritt had been promoted to major general of volunteers, was second in command of Federal cavalry during the Appomattox Campaign, and was one of the officers selected of officially received the Confederate surrender.
  • When the volunteer units were disbanded, Merritt was a Lieutenant Colonel in the regular army, serving as second in command of the 9th U.S. Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers) for the next 10 years. When the colonel was absent from the regiment for other duties, Merritt was the commander.
  • On April 9, 1867, he skillfully handled a “mutiny” in Company E of the 9th Cavalry when the soldiers protested against the unfair treatment by other officers. Ultimately, the commander of all Federal armies – Ulysses S. Grant – supported Merritt’s mild actions and request for better officers.
  • Major General Wesley Merritt

    Major General Wesley Merritt

    Promoted in 1876 to the rank of colonel, he transferred to the 5th U.S. Cavalry, continuing to serve in the western territories and occasionally coming to the aid of the 9th Regiment in combat situations.

  • 1887 and 1895 were milestone years: Merritt achieved the ranks of brigadier and major general.
  • The Spanish-American War took Merritt half-way around the globe to the Philippines where he served with distinction. He was called to Paris to help with the peace settlement.
  • In 1900, he retired from the military and enjoyed spending time at his homes in Washington D.C. and Natural Bridge, Virginia.
  • December 3, 1910, Merritt died, and he is buried in West Point Cemetery.
  • The Buffalo Soldiers played an important role in American history, and their officers had incredible leadership opportunities to stand against racial prejudice and demand equality for all American soldiers. Officers like Wesley Merritt respected the African American soldiers and took pride in setting positive precedents for the military.

    Your Historians (and Writers),

    Miss Noreen

    Miss Sarah

    P.S. Thank you, Noreen, for prompting this fascinating topic and for taking the time to share your writing with us. Wesley Merritt is certainly an ancestor to be proud of!

     

    About Sarah Kay Bierle

    I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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