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At War with Bigotry - Buffalo Soldiers in the Spanish American War
By Toni Lee Robinson
After the U.S. Civil War, troops were needed for remote outposts in the
West. Troop strength had been cut after North and South had made
peace. At the same time, the military was kept busy subduing native
tribes as white settlers pushed west. The newly formed 9th and 10th U.S.
Cavalry Regiments were called upon to fill the manpower gap.
The soldiers of the 9th and 10th were not green recruits. They had
fought for the Union as members of the U.S. Colored Troops. They were
black units staffed with white officers. A few years later, they were
joined by two infantry units, the 24th and 25th. These were also made up
of black soldiers.
For the next two decades, the four units served in the American West. They put up forts, strung telegraph line,
built roads, and guarded mail shipments. That was in addition to the main task-confronting the Apache, Kiowa,
Sioux, and other tribes who strongly objected to being cornered on reservations. It was the Kiowa who gave the
black troops their nickname-"Buffalo Soldiers."
In their many skirmishes with the tribes, the black troops proved as tough and fearsome as the shaggy king of the
Plains. Nearly 20 Medals of Honor were awarded amongst the four units during the "Indian Wars." Back in
"civilization," however, it didn't matter how bravely a black soldier had served his country. He was subject to the
same bias as before. He was still barred from white society, except as a servant.
By the mid-1890s, the Buffalo Soldiers had worked themselves out of a job. The West had been tamed. Native
tribes had been confined to their allotted lands. Then, towards the end of the decade, a long-simmering conflict just
south of U.S. shores boiled over. America joined Cuban freedom fighters to oust Spain from the area. Again,
troops were needed to fill the gap.
The men of the four black units were useful assets to the U.S. Army. All were seasoned soldiers. They had proven
themselves under difficult conditions. One hazard of the tropics for white troops was disease. It was widely thought
that the illnesses would have no effect on African Americans.
The Buffalo Soldiers were among the first of the regular army called to duty in Cuba. The units were sent to
staging areas near Tampa, Florida. In southern towns, the old prejudice was alive and well. The black men who'd
proudly done the U.S. military's job in the West were now insulted and demeaned. They endured racial slurs. Their
daily lives were controlled by humiliating Jim Crow rules.
Most of the soldiers met the insults with stoic restraint. But tension prowled the streets. Violence loomed just
beneath the surface of every contact between black soldiers and whites. The war seemed a bitter joke to many
black people. The U.S. was eager to come to the aid of those oppressed by Spain. At the same time, its own black
citizens struggled with oppression every day.
Still, the soldiers were anxious to depart for the battlefield. Anything was better than the hostility all around them
in the staging camps. Besides, most believed the war was another chance for them to prove themselves. Once more
they would march out under U.S. colors, laying their lives on the line. Surely now the hard edge of hatred would
soften.
Finally, the time came. Two days after setting foot on Cuban soil, the soldiers saw their first battle. At Las
Guasimas, two columns of U.S. troops had already come against a fortified Spanish defense. Having battled dense
jungle to get to the scene, Buffalo Soldiers were the last column to join the assault.
The black troops burst from the brush with a mighty yell. As they charged toward the enemy, the Spanish line
crumbled. The defenders gave up and ran. Observers praised the Buffalo Soldiers' brave charge. In the retelling of
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the event, however, another group stole the limelight. Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders had also fought in the
battle. The well-known group's exploits were highlighted. The role of the Buffalo Soldiers was barely mentioned.
A week later came the key battle at San Juan Hill. Here, U.S. troops fought their way uphill against an enemy
barricaded at the top. Spanish bullets rained down on the Americans. Black soldiers fought just as fiercely as the
other U.S. units. At one point, the Rough Riders were pinned down by enemy fire. Bullets were zinging in from all
sides. Charging into the relentless gunfire, the 10th Cavalry came running to the rescue.
"If it hadn't been for the black cavalry, the Rough Riders would have been exterminated," one of Roosevelt's men
exclaimed. Some accounts placed black troops first at the top of San Juan Hill, though that honor was later claimed
by other units. Military officialdom recognized the valor of the black troops. The Medal of Honor was awarded to
five men of the 10th Cavalry. Certificates of Merit were given to another 21.
Later, the 25th infantry unit confronted a more subtle enemy. The troops were sent to render aid to a hospital full
of yellow fever victims. Eight white regiments had bowed out of the job. Of 35 remaining members of the 25th, 19
became ill. Still, the black soldiers carried out their duties, even staying on as part of the occupation force after the
war's end.
For a few shining moments, the victory over Spain seemed to mellow old mind-sets. The black soldiers were
called heroes along with all the others. "The services of no four white regiments can be compared with those
rendered by the four colored [units]," wrote a reporter. "They were at the front at Las Guasimas, at El Caney and at
San Juan, and what was the severest test of all...in the yellow fever hospitals."
The praise was short-lived, however. In fact, the treatment of black soldiers worsened after the war ended. By the
turn of the century, it was decided that the usefulness of "colored" troops was limited. They were totally dependent,
the military claimed, on the leadership of white officers. Gradually, the status of black army units was downgraded.
They were channeled into service jobs and menial labor.
In 1948, President Harry Truman would issue an executive order ending racism in the U.S. Armed Forces. Until
then, it would be a long, uphill fight for black soldiers.
At War with Bigotry - Buffalo Soldiers in the Spanish American War
Questions
1. The 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiments were formed from ______ after the Civil War.
A. Displaced plantation owners
B. Loyal black men who had stayed in the South to support the Confederacy
C. The remnants of U.S. Colored Troops units which had fought for the Union
D. Hundreds of homeless, destitute freed slaves
2. Describe the duties of black cavalry and infantry units in the American West from 1866 to the early 1890s.
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3. List three reasons U.S. Army officials called upon the Buffalo Soldiers to go to Cuba.
4. Explain the irony involved in the Spanish American War that embittered some black people.
5. Black troops were uncomfortable in the Tampa staging area because:
A. They knew they would soon be facing death in the war.
B. They were used to a cooler climate.
C. They were subjected to racial prejudice.
D. There weren't enough facilities or food for everyone.
6. One reason black troops in the Spanish American War didn't get proper recognition was ______.
A. Most people focused on Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders and forgot about the contributions of black
soldiers.
B. They hated to have their pictures taken and/or to speak to reporters.
C. Their best efforts couldn't keep Spain from winning the war.
D. They proved to be lazy and cowardly in confronting Spanish troops.
7. The 25th U.S. Infantry performed an important task in Cuba besides fighting the Spanish. What was it?
A. Hauling fresh water for Cuban communities
B. Helping in a hospital overrun by yellow fever victims
C. Keeping the Cubans from taking revenge on the Spanish residents
D. Hunting wild boar
8. In your opinion, what caused whites to treat black soldiers so badly even though the soldiers had risked
their lives for their country?
Define the word "oppression." Give an example of someone living under oppression. By whom or what are/were
they oppressed? Explain why you think this is happening.
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Harry Truman signed executive order 9981 in 1948 to end the official policy of segregation in the U.S. Armed
Forces. Describe the effects the order might have had on the military, on the nation, and on black people in
general.