The Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Ethan Allen

Buffalo Soldiers on Patrol, western frontier

The U. S. Army’s Tenth Cavalry Regiment of African American soldiers, nicknamed the Buffalo Soldiers, were stationed at Fort Ethan Allen from 1909-1913. Their short stay was a period of rest for these battle weary soldiers, who had spent the majority of their military career in brutal battles fought during the Indian Wars. They were nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers as a sign of respect by their Native American enemies. The soldiers were believed to resemble the great buffalo because of their curly black hair and fierce fighting skills.

Formation of the African American Regiments

The  Tenth Cavalry Regiment was one of the first full time African American regiments in the United States military.  African American volunteer forces had fought during the Civil War, but they were not considered a permanent part of the military.  The creation of two African American cavalry regiments and four infantry units was proposed by Congressman Ben F. Wade, and enacted by a vote of 27 to 5 in 1866.  The Tenth Cavalry was activated on July 28, 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, under the command of Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson.  The troops were composed of freed slaves from the Southern states and veterans of the Civil War.

Through the following decades, the African American regiments had the lowest rate of desertion, 4% as opposed to 25% in the United States Army.  They earned thirteen dollars a month, the average pay rate for a soldier, but they were given little chance for promotion.  Though the army had accepted these soldiers, they were not considered equals and were strictly segregated.  The African American soldiers maintained high regimental pride and morale despite difficult campaigns and racist treatment.  Initially, the troops were sent West to the least populated area of the United States, where the Army believed they would cause the least racial tension.  On the frontier, they protected the railroad, the mail, and the settlers; while they fought the Native Americans during the Indian Wars.

Buffalo Soldiers in Battle

Painting of Buffalo Soldiers on Cavalry charge


The Tenth Cavalry Regiment played a pivotal part in the Indian Wars which lasted from 1867 until 1889. On August 2, 1867 the Tenth Cavalry, led by Captain Armes, were involved in their first battle with Native American warriors during a patrol of the Kansas Pacific Railroad near Fort Hayes. They fought over three hundred warriors for six hours before they were forced to retreat. Nineteen days later, they battled at almost the same spot against one thousand warriors for half a day. The casualties over the course of these two days were two soldiers killed and twenty wounded.

Though the regimental headquarters for the Tenth was at Fort Riley, they were scattered throughout the Indian Territory patrolling the Union Pacific Railroad.  In addition to patrol duty, the Buffalo Soldiers rode with Sheridan against the Cheyenne leader Black Kettle and his band of warriors during the 1867-1868 campaign.   Undaunted by   treacherous weather, a blizzard which killed over one hundred of their horses, they continued their pursuit until the warrior band was captured. During this campaign, the Buffalo Soldiers earned a reputation for pursuing a battle at any length.

The Buffalo Soldiers were not only continually challenged by such campaigns, but they were also called on to build their own camps. They built accommodations for ten troops of cavalry, barracks, officers’ quarters, stables, and storehouse at Fort Sill, Oklahoma where they were stationed for seven years. The life of the Buffalo Soldiers was a difficult one due to continuous fighting at Fort Sill, which finally stopped once the Native American warriors were captured and confined. After Fort Sill, the Buffalo Soldiers spent seven years at Fort Concho in Texas where ambushes from hostile Native Americans were an everyday occurrence.


In 1898 the Tenth Cavalry was among the troops sent to Cuba where they fought in the Spanish-American War.  They fought at Las Guasima, Santiago, and charged San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt's "Rough Riders."  Sergeant Major Edward Baker Jr. and four troopers received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their heroic service. After the Tenth cavalry was sent to Cuba, the army was once again confronted with the problem of where to station African American regiments within the United States. 

Regiments of African American soldiers were often stationed at the worst posts even though they requested better. Captain William B Cochran suggested that the military discriminated by stationing the African American soldiers only West of the Mississippi and overseas. In response to that accusation the army sent the Twenty-four Infantry to upstate New York and the Tenth Cavalry to Fort Ethan Allen.

 

Buffalo Soldiers At Fort Ethan Allen

 

Buffalo Soldiers

On the right: George Osborne, a Buffalo soldier stationed at Fort Ethan Allen
 

On the left: Buffalo soldiers out West

 

Buffalo Soldier posing for picture

The Tenth Cavalry traveled through upper New York state to their new post at Fot Ethan Allen Vermont. During their last night in New York they were given a party hosted by the local African American community.   After this farewell, the soldiers left New York and arrived at Fort Ethan Allen on July 28,1909. At the Fort they began a relatively relaxed routine of marksmanship and riding instruction.

After the harsh years on the Western frontier the Buffalo Soldiers were spoiled by the luxury at Fort Ethan Allen. The indoor riding hall at the Fort was used during the winter for cavalry drills and riding practice. On the frontier the soldiers had grown accustomed to being drilled outside during the dead of winter with buffalo overcoats and blanketed horses to save themselves from exposure.   The drill hall was a luxurious part of their stay at Fort Ethan Allen. Marksmanship was practiced daily and monetary rewards were given for the highest scores.

In 1913, the Buffalo Soldiers travelled in a cavalry drill to Winchester, Virginia, where they praticed new maneuvers. They marched from Fort Ethan Allen to Winchester, 706 miles in little over a month. On arrival, they paraded through the Southern town, practicing their maneuvers while the regimental band played ‘Dixie'. They left Winchester for Washington, D.C. where they displayed their horsemanship for President Wilson. A corporal ofthe  C Troop won the Secretary of War Cup for first place in the soldier's jumping class. The African American community of Washington fed the soldiers an elaborate dinner while the evening progressed with speeches and congratulations.

The holidays at Fort Ethan Allen were another opportunity for the Tenth Cavalry to celebrate.  One Thanksgiving evening in 1911, the soldiers held an elaborate turkey dinner followed by a "Wild West" show in the riding hall. As Marvin Fletcher wrote, "There were bucking broncos, trained horses, bareback riders. As a grand finale, the soldiers recreated an attack on a stage coach and a settlers cabin by a group of "Indians." These attackers were put into flight by a band of cowboys and soldiers. The program, directed by first sergeant Alexander, D Troop, and managed by Chaplain Louis Carter, both black, was described as a "splendid success" by the enthusiastic spectators."

The Buffalo Soldiers brought character and life to Fort Ethan Allen. In their everyday recreation they played baseball and basketball. They often played baseball games against the civilian teams in the area until this was stopped by a complaint. A local minister, who was upset that these games were held on Sundays, wrote to the War Department and stated that they furnished an "Attraction for the young people to an environment which was not the best for them." The commander of the Tenth replied that no one was compelled to come to these games, but the military responded to the minister's pressure and the Sunday games were banished. The commander was upset by this action; he remarked that there was more vice just outside the post in "disreputable dives" than took place in the form of Sunday baseball games. Unfortunately the policy did not change, so the men were forced to play against other military or professional teams.

Baseball was the sport of choice during the warmer months in Vermont and during the colder months basketball was the Buffalo Soldier's passion. The Fort maintained a properly equipped gym, which encouraged the growth of this sport. During the winter months the soldiers played almost every night. During the winter of 1911, the team participated in a tournament in New York against the New York All-Stars, another African American team. The Buffalo Soldiers, "Were bigger than the All-Stars but the latter were faster and won 30-14." The event was written up in the New York Age. When there was nothing else left to play, the soldiers enjoyed watching professional boxing. Movies were shown of the lightweight fight between Joe Grans and Battling Nelson and the fight between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries.

The Buffalo Soldiers were encouraged not only to participate in physical activities, but also to continue their education during their spare time. There was a library on the Fort with a small selection of books, magazines and newspapers. The   soldiers most frequently read and enjoyed the histories books about African American soldiers. A literary society was formed to discuss books and debate current interests. The literary club at the Fort was well attended and in one discussion   they debated the subject of women, "Resolved, That Women are of Greater Value than money."

The only recorded racist difficulty the Buffalo Soldiers encountered while at Fort Ethan Allen pertained to the local women. There were very few African American women near the post for the soldiers to date. They naturally began to associate with some of the white women in the surrounding area which caused great alarm at the Fort. The white officers disapproved of this practice and the offenders were put in the guard house for punishment. Other than that incident the Buffalo Soldiers apparently were liked and respected within the Vermont community.

The community was saddened to see them leave in November and December of 1913 when they were transferred back to the Southwest to fight in the Mexican-American War. In the spring of 1916 the regiment participated in a horrible battle with the Mexican leader Carranza. They suffered forty casualities and were forced to retreat defeated. When the citizens of Winooski, the Fort's neighbors, received news of the massacre they sent a letter to the commander of the regiments in Mexico.

"A committee of seven were appointed to convey to the regiment through General Funston the deep and poignant grief of our citizens at the loss of these brave defenders, our pride because of their unsurpassed heroism and our appreciation of their undaunted courage and unexcelled patriotism displayed in such glorious deeds. Therefore, through you to the commander of the Tenth U.S. Cavalry we express the sympathy, gratitude and appreciation of all the citizens of this community because of these achievements of men who were our neighbors and friends and who met this supreme test and sacrifice in a manner to thrill and inspire every true American."

The letter expressed the warmth and regard with which these noble soldiers were held in the state of Vermont.

Sources:

Fletcher, Marvin. The Black Soldier and Officer in the United States Army. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974.
Buechler, John. Buffalo Soldiers in the Green Mountains. Chittenden County Historical Society Bulletin, vol 5 no.3 1970.
Foner, Jack D. Blacks and the Military in American History: A New Perspective. New York:Praeger Publishers Inc., 1974
Folwer, Arlen L. The Black Infantry in the West 1869-1891. Westport:Negro University Press Publication, 1971
www.vq.com/Early_10th_History.html
www.hood-pao.army.mil/110cav/index.html

 

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