- May 4, 2020
THE LIFE OF A BLACK OFFICER IN A BUFFALO SOLDIER REGIMENT
“The Life of a Black Officer in a Buffalo Soldier Regiment” is abook by Brian G. Shellum, which describes the military life ofCharles Young. Young refers to an unrecognized military hero, despitebeing the third African American to graduate from West Point, thefirst black officer to work as commander in a Regular Army regiment,American military envoy and superintendent of the national park. Inaddition, Young held the highest rank, as an African American manserving in the Regular Army, until he passed away. He was unheraldeddue to racial prejudice, since as a black officer, Young wasconsidered unfit to serve in an army comprising of white men. Thus,despite his military prowess, his service was restricted to being astandard-bearer for the Buffalo Soldier regiments. In the followingdiscussion, the research paper demonstrates how Young’s militarylife acts as an illustration of the widespread racial discriminationtowards African American soldiers in the history of the United Statesmilitary.
Prior to analyzing the prevalent racial discrimination towards blackofficers in American military history, it is important to begin withan analysis of buffalo soldiers and their contributions. The buffalosoldiers refer to African American men who volunteered to serve inthe American military after the civil war.1The origin of the name buffalo soldiers is unclear as there are manytheories as to why the name was used. One postulation is that AfricanAmericans serving in the military were referred to as buffalosoldiers owing to their toughness in war, which resembled that of thebuffalo. Different sources presume that the name derived from thebelief that the soldier’s black and curly hair was similar to thatof the buffalo.2Nevertheless, the soldiers considered the name to be respectful.
Despite the abolition of slavery, many African Americans weretreated as second class civilians. This is because, Jim Crow hadimplemented laws that mandated the separation of blacks from whites.In order to end segregation, many African American men enrolled inthe military. Although taking part in American wars subjected blacksto hardship and suffering, it also acted as an opportunity to confirmtheir patriotism hence, demonstrating that they deserved equalrights as whites. Also, those who enrolled in the military had abetter life than ordinary African Americans, and would be paid fortheir contributions. Blacks were optimistic that the recognition oftheir bravery would change the prevalent racism. In addition, to theperception that fighting for the country would bring an end to theinjustice that they encountered within America. As more blacksenlisted to join the military, the buffalo soldiers were created.
The buffalo soldiers comprised of two regiments of only AfricanAmerican cavalries. The cavalries were created after Congress passeda law, which permitted blacks to enlist in the nation’s customarypeacetime military. The law additionally resulted in the formation of“four black infantry regiments, eventually consolidated into the24th and 25th infantries, which often fought alongside the 9th and10th cavalries”.3Most of the men included in the regiments, which were mainly underthe command of white officers, were blacks who had served during thecivil war in the Union Army.4The cavalries were involved in military operations against aggressiveNative Americans. The buffalo soldiers fought the Indians and alsoprotected settlers. They “also captured horse and cattle thieves,built roads and protected the U.S. mail, stagecoaches and wagontrains, all while contending with challenging terrain, inadequatesupplies and discrimination”.5Even after the conclusion of the Indian wars, the buffalo soldierscontinued to be actively involved in fighting for America, forinstance during the Spanish American battle.
The buffalo soldiers served in the military during a very volatileperiod in America’s history. Their contributions during the Indianand Spanish American battles were a clear indication of theircapability as soldiers. However, African American soldiers continuedto be overlooked by white soldiers. Hence, it was impossible for themto serve together with whites in the regular American army. Thisresulted in the creation of Buffalo Soldier regiments within theregular army. The regiments were under the command of white officers,who discriminated against blacks. Charles Young is among the manyAfrican American men who were actively involved in the military. Hismilitary life makes it possible to analyze some of the hardships thatfellow African American soldiers faced.
Racism towards Black Officers in the History of U.S. Military
In “The Life of a Black Officer in a Buffalo Soldier Regiment”Shellum evaluates the manner in which Young, was only assigned toroles considered appropriate for an African American officer servingin an army of whites. The War Department “deliberately shuffledYoung between the few assignments suitable for a black officer in awhite man’s army. These included the buffalo soldier regiments, anAfrican American college, and diplomatic posts in black republics”.6Such shuffling acted as an obstacle towards his success in themilitary. This is because, by assigning him to a few assignments, itwould be impossible for him to gain the experience required to holdsenior positions, although Young was able to survive and becomesuccessful.
After graduating from military academy, Young was assigned to the 9thcavalry to start his military career. Despite his qualification fromWest Point, he was only allowed to lead regiments comprising ofblacks, or troops of buffalo soldiers. At the time Young joined thearmy, it was impossible for an African American officer to be allowedto command white troops. As Shellum explains “the army showedlittle concern for the reputation of the regiment but great fear thata black officer might end up commanding white troops”.7This is an illustration of the widespread intolerance towards AfricanAmerican soldiers. Despite the fact that Young was qualified tocommand all troops, either comprising of whites or blacks, his rolewas only restricted to the buffalo soldiers. The War Departmentendeavored to ensure that blacks were unable to rise through theranks, with the objective of avoiding a situation whereby an AfricanAmerican officer would be assigned to command white troops.
Such action is illustrative of the second class treatment thatAfrican American soldiers encountered when fighting alongside theirwhite counterparts. Racism was not only subjected towards officers,like Young, but also the African Americans from the troops theycommanded. For instance, the buffalo soldiers had to deal withsystemic discrimination within the army during the distribution ofequipments.8White soldiers were allowed to choose the best weapons as well ashorses, yet the buffalo soldiers were given old rifles and mares thatwere worn-out. This outwardly placed the black soldiers at adisadvantage when participating in the war. Regardless of the factthat they were expected to protect the country, little or noconsideration was given to the weapons they used. In addition, whilewhite soldiers were provided with proper housing facilities, blackswere compelled to live in substandard housing.
Racial discrimination towards the buffalo soldiers was not onlyapparent in the distribution of weapons and housing. All throughtheir military participation, they were informed of their position insociety as second class. This is because, officers assigned to blacktroops despised their assignments and were quick to shun blacks.9Social isolation was one of the most effective strategies used toremind African Americans of their insignificance as compared towhites. This is perfectly illustrated in Charles Young’s efforts toensure that he did not associate with white soldiers as was expectedby regulation. The officer sparingly engaged in the social eventsthat were organized during their free-time and even took his meansfrom his home, “because of Young’s social exclusion from meals atthe officers’ club, he took his meals at his home alone, served byone of his soldiers”.10It highlights the segregation of whites from African Americans.
Regardless of demonstrating their devotion to the Americangovernment, the buffalo soldiers had to endure a great deal of racialdiscrimination even in the assignment of roles. For instance, duringtheir participation in the Indian Wars, black soldiers were assignedthe responsibility of protecting white settlers. However, thesettlers disregarded the important role played by black soldiers inprotecting them and reacted towards them with hostility. The hatredtowards African Americans was often manifesting through violence. Asa result, the soldiers had to deal with the hostility, while at thesame time ensuring that they fought and defeated the Indians. Duringthe Indian War, white soldiers were not assigned to work togetherwith the black troops, which could have been a great move towardseasing the hostility that was projected towards them.11Instead, the African Americans were left on their own, highlightingthe lack of consideration by the War Department of the need toprotect its black soldiers.
Racial discrimination was also evident in the efforts made by whitesenior officers to terminate the careers of African Americanofficers. Blacks would be accused of having difficulties in handlingtheir tasks, which would result in court-martialing. According toShellum “black soldiers were court-martialed three times more oftenthan were those at smaller posts”.12This was especially the case in Fort Robinson as “Fort Robinson’smix of four troops of black cavalry and four companies of whiteinfantry proved a fertile breeding ground for racism and directlyaffected the treatment of African Americans in the Ninth”.13Due to the fact that white officers despised working with blackofficers, they would make efforts to ensure that the latter group wasdismissed from the army. Such efforts were evident in the filing offalse complaints against African American officers, aimed atdepicting them as unfit to handle their assignment, due toindifference to duty.
An illustration of the endeavor to court-martial black officers isillustrated in “The Life of a Black Officer in a Buffalo SoldierRegiment”, where Young was a victim. He was accused of failing toconduct investigations on the ammunition boxes, having issued acommand prior to arriving at the Camp Color, and failure to salutethe officer in charge as appropriate. Young was accused of failing toobserve his duties as required, which was considered a seriousaffair. At the time, Young was serving in the army as one of the onlytwo African American officers assigned to the Regular Army. Suchfalse allegations were aimed at diminishing the possibility of Youngrising in rank against his fellow white officers, because hisposition in the military was a threat to the whites.
The book, “The Life of a Black Officer in a Buffalo SoldierRegiment” is important because it acts as a basis for analyzing theexperiences of African American soldiers in historic America. Thebook is an account of the military career of Charles Young, and howhe managed to survive in a racially strife military environment andbecome a successful officer. Upon Young’s graduation, he wasassigned to command the buffalo soldier regiment, which comprised ofonly black soldiers. The War Department made endeavors to diminishthe possibility of Young being assigned to white troops, because hewas considered unfit to command whites. While blacks were optimisticthat joining the military would bring an end to the racial prejudicethey faced, they continued to be treated with disregard even whileserving in the army. By evaluating the challenges encountered byYoung, it becomes apparent that the buffalo soldiers faced otherchallenges. This includes the fact that they were given old weapons,had poor housing and were not allowed to socialize with whites.
Buffalo Soldiers. The Indian Wars, Facing Racism, theSpanish-American War, 2016.http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/articles/pages/6032/Buffalo-Soldiers.html
Lefferts, Peter M. "US ArmyBlack Regimental Bands and the Appointments of Their First BlackBandmasters." BlackMusic Research Journal 33,no. 2 (2013): 151-175.
Nix, Elizabeth. Who were the Buffalo Soldiers? History.com,2015.http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/who-were-the-buffalo-soldiers
Shellum, Brian G. Black Officer in a Buffalo Soldier Regiment: TheMilitary Career of Charles Young. Nebraska: University ofNebraska Press, 2010.
Wooster, Robert. "Child of theFighting Tenth: On the Frontier with the Buffalo Soldiers(review)." SouthwesternHistorical Quarterly 115,no. 4 (2012): 423-424.
1 Elizabeth, Nix. Who were the Buffalo Soldiers? History.com, 2015, p.1.
2 Elizabeth, Nix, p.1
3 Elizabeth, Nix, p.1
4 Peter Lefferts."US Army Black Regimental Bands and the Appointments of Their First Black Bandmasters." Black Music Research Journal 33, no. 2 (2013), p. 151.
5 Elizabeth, Nix, p.1
6 Brian, Shellum G. Black Officer in a Buffalo Soldier Regiment: The Military Career of Charles Young. (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2010) p.1
7 Brian, Shellum G, p.1
8 Buffalo Soldiers. The Indian Wars, Facing Racism, the Spanish-American War, 2016, p.1
9 Buffalo Soldiers, p.1
10 Brian, Shellum G, p.2
11 Robert Wooster "Child of the Fighting Tenth: On the Frontier with the Buffalo Soldiers (review)." Southwestern Historical Quarterly 115, no. 4 (2012), p. 423
12 Brian, Shellum G, p.3
13 Brian, Shellum G, p.3