• Photo by: Max Kandler

    Fort Davis

    National Historic Site Texas

AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE FRONTIER ARMY

Historic photograph of a 9th Cavalry company at Fort Davis, circa 1875.
A 9th Cavalry company on Parade at Fort Davis, circa 1875
 


AFRICAN AMERICAN REGIMENTS ESTABLISHED

It was opposed by many, considered only an experiment by others, but the Act of 1866 to increase the size of the Regular Army changed the course of military history, and afforded African Americans a permanent place in the Armed Forces of the United States.
The legislation stipulated that of the new regiments created, two cavalry and four infantry “shall be composed of colored men.” For the first time in the history of the United States soldiers of African-American descent could serve in the peacetime army.
Exemplary service in the Civil War had paved the way for the authorization of the “colored” units. Designated the Ninth and Tenth United States Cavalry regiments, and the Thirty-eighth, Thirty-ninth, Fortieth, and Forty-first United States Infantry regiments, they were organized under white officers between the summers of 1866 and 1867.

THE NINTH CAVALRY

Formation of the Ninth Cavalry initially took place in Louisiana with its first recruits enlisting in August 1866. Seven months later, when the regiment marched into Texas, it numbered 885 enlisted men.
On June 29, 1867 four companies of the Ninth, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt, reoccupied the abandoned post at Fort Davis. The Ninth and Merritt had a sizeable job ahead of them. In addition to helping to construct a new post, they had to contend with the Apache and Comanche Indians.
The protection of travelers and the mail on the San Antonio-El Paso Road was their primary concern. Small detachments of men were placed at a number of stage stops, while other troops scouted and patrolled the vast Trans-Pecos region of western Texas. In September 1875, the Ninth transferred to New Mexico. During the years spent at Fort Davis, the regiment helped build the post into one of the largest in the state.
The mid-to-late 1880s saw units of the regiment in Wyoming, Utah, Nebraska, and Kansas. In the spring of 1890, seven Ninth Cavalry troops were sent to the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations during the last uprising of the Sioux Nation.

THE TENTH CAVALRY

Organization of the Tenth Cavalry proceeded at a slower pace than the other African American regiments due in part to the lack of officers and the insistence of its commander, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, to enlist only men who met his very high standards.
Undaunted though, the small regiment in the summer of 1867, became quickly involved in a series of fights with the Cheyenne as they guarded Kansas Pacific Railroad work crews. Soon the regiment saw duty in Colorado and Oklahoma and engaged in skirmishes with the Kiowa and Comanche.
In 1873, five companies of the regiment arrived in Texas and two years later Company H was ordered to Fort Davis. For the next ten years units of the Tenth served at the post, which became headquarters for the regiment in 1882.
A major campaign involving the Tenth occurred in 1879-1880 when the Apache leader Victorio and a number of followers fled the Fort Stanton reservation in New Mexico and began raiding in western Texas and northern Mexico.
The campaign called for the largest concentration of soldiers ever assembled in the Trans-Pecos area. Six companies of the Tenth Cavalry and one company of the Twenty-fourth Infantry guarded water holes and patrolled the region. Major confrontations occurred at Tinaja de las Palmas (a waterhole south of Sierra Blanca) and at Rattlesnake Springs (north of Van Horn).
These two engagements halted Victorio and forced him to retreat to Mexico where he and many of his kinsmen were killed by Mexican troops in October 1880.
In April 1885, the Tenth Cavalry moved to the Department of Arizona where it spent much of its time in the field during the Geronimo Campaign.

THE INFANTRY REGIMENTS

In 1869, the army consolidated the infantry regiments. The Thirty-eighth and Forty-first became the Twenty-fourth, while the Thirty-ninth and Fortieth combined to form the Twenty-fifth.

THE TWENTY-FOURTH INFANTRY

Companies of the new Twenty-fourth Infantry served at Fort Davis from 1869 to 1872 and again in 1880. Guarding stage stations and constructing roads and telegraph lines throughout western Texas and southeastern New Mexico became routine for these foot soldiers. They also spent time chasing the illusive Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa. Although rarely seeing action, Company H was involved in the Battle of Rattlesnake Springs that ultimately forced the Apaches under Victorio to retreat to Mexico in the summer of 1880.
After serving in Texas, the Twenty-fourth transferred to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) with headquarters at Fort Sill. Here its duties included overseeing the thousands of Indians held on reservations and keeping settlers out of the territory. The regiment moved to New Mexico and Arizona in 1888 where it again found itself in the role of a sentinel guarding Apaches and protecting settlers.

THE TWENTY-FIFTH INFANTRY

The Twenty-fifth Infantry began its existence in Louisiana and Mississippi performing usual garrison duties. Within a short period, it received orders to proceed to Texas where its companies found themselves scattered far and wide to posts in the western part of the state. Scouting, escort and guard details, and road building soon became regular assignments.
Companies of the Twenty-fifth arrived at Fort Davis in July 1870 and served at the post until July 1880. One of their most important tasks involved construction of ninety-one and one-half miles of telegraph line from Fort Davis to Eagle Springs (near present-day Sierra Blanca, Texas). The line served as the vital communications link used by Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson, Tenth U. S. Cavalry, during the Victorio Campaign.
In 1880, the regiment transferred to the Dakota Territory where its duties initially were similar to those performed at Fort Davis. Soon the regiment settled into performing routine garrison tasks, however, this tranquil state was jarred when the regiment was sent to Montana in 1888. Ordered into the field, it participated in the Pine Ridge Campaign of 1890-91.
The early 1890s saw the men of the Twenty-fifth restoring peace in a mining district in Idaho where labor unions had declared open war on mine owners. The regiment, along with the Tenth Cavalry, then spent time guarding trains on the Northern Pacific Railroad after labor troubles erupted in 1894.

THE SEMINOLE-NEGRO INDIAN SCOUTS

The men who enlisted in the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts proved to be some of the toughest to serve in the frontier army. Descendants of African American people who had intermarried with the Seminole Indians in Florida, the Scouts had escaped slavery in the United States and were living in Mexico when they were recruited in 1870.
The Scouts operated primarily out of Forts Clark and Duncan and saw combat in extremely rugged conditions on both sides of the border. During twenty-six expeditions, the Scouts engaged in twelve battles without losing a single man in combat. They never numbered more than fifty men at a time, yet four of the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts were awarded the Medal of Honor. They continued to serve in the army until 1914.

PROUDLY THEY SERVED

Their mission was the same - to protect the mail and travel routes, control Indian movements and gain knowledge of the terrain. Surmounting obstacles of harsh living conditions, difficult duty, and racial prejudice, the men who served in the African American regiments and in the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts, gained a reputation of dedication and bravery. Stationed continuously on the frontier from the 1860s to the 1890s, they played a major role in the peaceful settlement and development of the American West.
African American regiments later served in the Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection, Mexican Punitive Expedition, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. In the mid-1950s, the last of the African American units was finally desegregated.



Did You Know?

Fort Davis post hospital about 1885.

Medical treatment at Fort Davis represented state-of-the-art medicine of the 19th century. The soldiers at Fort Davis and other frontier posts probably received medical treatment as good or better than what the average American received at the time.