In the aftermath of the Civil War the nation and the U.S. Army remained divided over people of color serving in the military. In spite of a record of impressive bravery in battles fought throughout the war (almost 200,000 black men fought to preserve the Union and over 40,000 died in the line of duty) they were not welcomed into the ranks. However, due to manpower shortages and the need to protect settlers along the frontier, the War Department authorized the formation of all black units under the supervision of white officers.
With few exceptions, officers still retained the same bias and prejudices that had existed previously against free black men in the North and emancipated slaves in the South. Most white officers assumed that those now enlisting to serve in these frontier units lacked the discipline required of army life and refused command. The few that were willing accept their assignments soon learned otherwise. The Buffalo Soldiers would leave behind a proud legacy of selfless service.
The commanders of the 9th & 10 Cavalry and the 24th & 25th Infantry Regiments would receive credit for their accomplishments, but it was the black non-commissioned officers who would train, supervise, and lead these soldiers. They understood that to achieve equality and respect they had to out-soldier their white counterparts. They drove their men hard, but also looked out for their welfare forming a close brotherhood that engendered pride.
On the trail or in garrison it was sergeant this or corporal that, but at night around the campfires such formalities went by the wayside.
“Come on, Obadiah. Is this what we bargained for… boots and saddles every damn day for nigh on six months chasing ghosts or getting ambushed and killed by the Apache?”
“Hell, we’ve been breathin’ in the officers’ and white soldiers’ dust ridin’ behind them for months. We ain’t fit to ride beside them, but they damn sure expect us to die for them.”
First Sergeant Johnson identified with the emotional toll of watching his friends die. For what… trying to prove something to the Army that bore no love for colored troops? He’d asked himself that question many times over. But he was convinced the only way to change that attitude was to out-soldier the best of them. So, while he might harbor doubts and feelings no different than those of his men, it was his job to keep discipline.
“Best make sure you got all your possibles in order and get about your business,” he said.
“What business is that, Obadiah?”
“The business of soldierin’. Lights out. We gotta nuther long day ahead of us.” – excerpt from Palo Duro.