Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum

Book Review

Black Valor: Buffalo Soldiers & the Medal of Honor, 1870-1898
by Frank N. Schubert

This book examines the lives & military experiences of 23 black soldiers who were awarded the Medal of Honor between the Civil War & World War I. It also mentions recent awards to World War II soldiers. The Medal of Honor is the nation’s pre-eminent award for military valor; it was the first decoration officially authorized by the government as a badge of honor by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. This honor was presented to enlisted soldiers who “shall distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action & other soldier-like qualities.” The star-shaped design of the medal featured an allegory of the Union - carrying a shield in her right hand & repelling an attacker, crouched alongside with fork-tongued serpents that struck at the shield. In her hand, Union held the ancient Roman symbol of government authority - the fasces. The 34 stars around the figures represent the number of states at that time. The reverse was left blank for engraving the recipient’s name, the date, & the place of the act of bravery for which the medal was awarded. The Army version of the medal was suspended from the ribbon by an eagle standing on a crossed cannon & cannonballs.

Although recognition came only to a few black soldiers, their contributions were many. The 180,000 blacks who fought for the Union with the 2.5 million whites participated in over 400 battles. They faced additional pressures that white soldiers did not face. Between 2,700-2,900 died because Confederates did not take black prisoners & capture meant death rather than imprisonment.

On April 6, 1865, 12 soldiers became the first African Americans to receive the medal. They were members of the five regiments of U.S. Colored Troops who fought at New Market Heights (seven miles from Richmond, VA). They charged 300 yards across open fields into heavy Confederate fire, rescuing comrades & proving their ability to fight for their country. William Barnes of the 38th U.S. Colored Troops was severely wounded but continued to forge ahead & was among the first to enter the enemy’s trenches. Private James Gardiner of Company I, 36th U.S. Colored Troops, was among the first to enter the enemy’s land & shot a rebel officer. Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood of the 4th U.S. Colored Troops seized the colors after two color bearers were shot; he carried them through the fight. Sergeant Alfred Hilton of the 4th U.S. Colored Troops, Corporal Miles James of the 36th, First Sergeant Alexander Kelly of the 6th & Private Charles Veal of the 4th all distinguished themselves in similar ways.

Buffalo Soldiers also proved that they were leaders. First Sergeant Powhatan Beaty of Company G of the 5th U.S. Colored Troops saw all of his officers die but took control of his company leading them through the battle as did Sergeant Major Milton Holland, First Sergeant Robert Pinn of the 5th & Sergeant Edward Ratcliff of the 38th. Four more names were added to the Medal of Honor recipients after the Civil War. Sergeant Major Thomas Hawkins of the 6th & Sergeant James Harris of the 38th were recognized for their gallantry at the New Market Heights battle mentioned earlier. Sergeant Decatur Dorsey of the 39th received the award for a battle at Petersburg, VA & Sergeant William Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry received the medal for an assault on Ft. Wagner, SC. For their bravery in the Civil War, 16 black soldiers received the medal of the 1,196 that were awarded.

After the Civil War, black soldiers made up part of the regular military for the first time. President Andrew Johnson signed a law on July 28, 1866 that established two black cavalry regiments - the 9th & 10th Cavalry & black regiment chaplains who were responsible for instructing the enlisted men. In addition, the 38th, 39th, 40th, & 41st black Infantry regiments were consolidated into the 24th & 25th Infantry in 1869. These units made up a substantial proportion of the Army. The two black infantry regiments were 10% of the 25 regiments & the two black cavalry units were 20% of the 10 mounted regiments.

Emanuel Stance enlisted in the 9th Cavalry in 1866 & was stationed with the F Troop at Ft. Davis, TX. These troopers were self-reliant & brave horsemen; they used bows & lances as well as firearms that were acquired by trade or war. They knew the rough terrain & excelled at the tactics of raiding & ambush. Stance led his first patrol in 1868 where he commanded eight privates. He fought two major Indian battles in 1869 & logged 637 tough miles with 100 troopers. His gallantry in battles near Kickapoo Springs, Ft. McKavett, & Ft. Sill earned him the Medal of Honor in 1870. His group of mostly illiterate former slaves developed into a worthy regiment. Sergeant Stance often found himself in trouble; between 1870-71, he was reduced to a private. As a matter of fact, he was made a sergeant at least four times. He had a stormy personality & was often found drunk while on duty in the stables. No matter what trouble he created, he was always accepted back into a troop. By 1882, he made sergeant for the fifth time with 16 years of military service. Between 1883-85 while at Ft. Robinson, he engaged in battles in New Mexico & Oklahoma. Just one year after earning his fourth gold five-year chevron, he was found shot on Christmas morning. Evidence pointed to privates in his own troop but no one was convicted of the crime.

Buffalo Soldier, Corporal Clinton Greaves spent 15 years in the 9th Cavalry; he earned the Medal of Honor in 1879 for battles in the Apache Wars. He was later stationed in Columbus, OH where he died of heart disease in 1906.

Sergeant Thomas Boyne was in five battles against the Apaches in 1879 & took part in three of his regiments 14 clashes with Victorio during 1880. He received the Medal of Honor in 1882. He was discharged from the Army in 1889 with a disability pension of $8 per month. He died in 1896 at the age of 50.

Other Buffalo Soldiers earned the Medal of Honor in the Comanche Campaign (1874), the Staked Plains Campaign (1875), the Ute Campaign (1879), the Victorio Campaign (1879), the Pine Ridge Campaign (1890), & the Spanish-American War (1898). They endured disease, harsh conditions, & the military bureaucracy that often denied them upward mobility. For example in 1901, the Commander of the Division of the Philippines recommended that he & 41 black officers be appointed second lieutenant. But of the 1,464 men who received commissions, only two - Corporal John Greene & Sergeant Major Benjamin O. Davis - were black.

After the Spanish-American War, many black soldiers who were recommended for the Medal of Honor were given certificates “for distinguished service” instead. Between 1866-91, 416 soldiers were given the Medal of Honor. Black soldiers received fewer than 4% of the awards but comprised 20% of the Cavalry & 12% of the Infantry. Under-representation of black soldiers was due to bureaucratic red tape, prejudice, & other factors. Preparing & forwarding documentation for awards was often a long process. Five recommendations for Buffalo Soldiers’ medals did not enter the approval process for nine years or longer but they were finally approved. Black soldiers were often stationed in isolated locations where they had less opportunity for recognition.

The 23 black Medal of Honor recipients shared many characteristics. Most were career soldiers; 13 of 19 regulars & two of four scouts served 25 years or more. Only two served less than five years. Most retired before the age of 50 but only two lived long enough to enjoy retirement. At least 13 of the soldiers were married. These soldiers were heroes but they were not saints. Eight of them had court martial convictions & six were reduced to privates at least once. Yet, they were patriots by volunteering for military service.

One important note is the relationship between the black soldiers & Indians; all but seven of the 23 men received medals for actions in wars against Indian people. Some discomfort remains today; however, efforts have been made to commemorate their struggles regardless of the circumstances.

On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to seven black soldiers for valor during World War II. A re-evaluation of the contributions of black soldiers in past wars continues.

This book presents an excellent chronology of the military efforts from 1860 to the current state of affairs. Many stories are highlighted to illustrate the valor of the Buffalo Soldiers. It provides a worthwhile contribution to military history & the history of African Americans

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