Following the end of the Civil War, Congress enacted “An Act to Increase and Fix the Military Peace Establishment of the United States”, which … included the establishment of two regiments of cavalry and four regiments of infantry to be composed of “colored men”. For the first time in the United States history black men had a place in the regular army.
These African-American units served during periods of aggressive US expansionism, first on the Western frontier
, where they earned their famous nickname, the Buffalo Soldiers, probably from the Cheyenne or Apache warriors who they fought. Later, they distinguished themselves
helping win the Battle of San Juan Hill
in Cuba (leading the Corporal of the Rough Riders to state: “If it hadn't been for the black cavalry, the Rough Riders would have been exterminated") and also served in the Philippines (though not without controversy
) during the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. They chased Pancho Villa
around Chihuahua and protected Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Compelling stories from these units include that of Cathay Williams
, who posed as a man so she could join up, and unusual missions, like the 25th Infantry "Iron Riders"
, an African American bicycle corps whose 24 day-long 1,900-mile trip from Missoula to St. Louis, Missouri inspired their supervising officer to say that "the bicycle has a place in modern warfare".
Segregation of the US military was ended by executive order
in 1948. The reality of integration took longer, and it wasn't until the end of the Korean War that the military was officially integrated and the African-American units were disbanded. The Buffalo Soldiers are gone now, but next time you're in San Francisco you can pay your respects