Forming the Buffalo Soldier Regiments

Stereograph photo of African American Soldiers lines up shoulder to shoulder mounted on their horses. The Soldier nearest the viewer is holding the unit flag on a pole.
Stereograph photo of A Troop, Ninth Cavalry in 1898

Library of Congress

From the American Revolution to the present day, African Americans have fought for the United States. It wasn’t until 1866 that African Americans had the opportunity to enter the ranks of the Regular Army. Until that time, they were only able to fight for liberty during war.

African American men, both enslaved and free, fought in the Continental Army and state militias mostly in integrated units during the American Revolution. In the War of 1812, Black soldiers served in integrated and segregated units. Two battalions of “Free Men of Color” fought under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. During the Civil War, enslaved African Americans self-emancipated to Union lines. Approximately 200,000 African Americans, 100,000 of whom were formerly enslaved, served in the Union Army. Thirty-eight thousand made the ultimate sacrifice, dying in service to the United States.

On June 28, 1866, the U.S. Congress passed a law that created the Buffalo Soldier regiments. Officially known as “An Act to Increase and Fix the Military Peace Establishment of the United States,” it called for an increase of infantry and cavalry regiments. The act specifically established four segregated African American infantry regiments and two cavalry regiments. The regiments created were the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry, Thirty-eighth Infantry, Thirty-ninth Infantry, Fortieth Infantry, and Forty-first Infantry. The regiments were tasked with maintaining peace in the South during Reconstruction (1865-1877), building roads and telegraph lines, escorting U.S. Mail carriers, and protecting homesteaders as well as American Indians on their lands.

The Ninth Cavalry recruiting office was initially set up in New Orleans in 1866. Later that year a second office was set up in Louisville, Kentucky. Colonel Edward Hatch was the first leader of the Ninth Cavalry. From 1867 to 1890, the Ninth Cavalry was on constant duty throughout the West, headquartered at forts including Fort Riley, Fort Union, and Fort McKinney throughout the region. Charles Young, the third African American to graduate from West Point, was an officer for most of his career in the Ninth. John Hanks Alexander, the second African American graduate from West Point, was a mentor to Young in the Ninth. The Ninth participated in the Plains Wars, Spanish American War, the Philippine War, the Punitive Expedition in Mexico and World War II. The Ninth Cavalry was deactivated on March 7, 1944, in North Africa.

The organization of the Tenth Cavalry began on September 21, 1866, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson was its first leader. Grierson did not always have the support and trust of his superior officers because of his trust and support of the African Americans he led. Henry O. Flipper, the first African American to graduate from West Point, was assigned to the Tenth Cavalry. The Tenth Cavalry were stationed throughout the West, including at Fort Davis, Texas. It participated in the Plains Wars, Spanish American War, the Philippine War, the Punitive Expedition in Mexico and World War II. The Tenth Cavalry was deactivated on March 20, 1944, in North Africa.

The Thirty-eighth Infantry began enlisting soldiers from Jefferson Barracks in Missouri. Colonel William B. Hazen was its first leader. Shortly after its formation, the Thirty-eighth marched west to New Mexico.

On November 15, 1866, William Cathay enlisted in the Thirty-eighth. Shortly after enlisting, He subsequently had numerous illnesses that landed him in the post hospital. During one of those visits, the post surgeon discovered that William Cathay was a woman named Cathay Williams.

Once her deception came to light, Williams was honorably discharged from the Army because of the prohibition on women serving at that time. She is the only woman on record to enlist in the Buffalo Soldiers. The Thirty-eighth was consolidated with the Forty-first Infantry in 1869 by General Order Number 16. The two regiments were consolidated into the Twenty-fourth Infantry.

The Thirty-ninth Infantry began recruiting in Alexandria, Louisiana, under the command of Colonel Joseph A. Mower. Many of the first recruits came from New Orleans and the surrounding area. The Thirty-ninth stayed in the area during Reconstruction to keep the peace. On March 10, 1869, the Thirty-ninth was consolidated with the Fortieth Infantry into the Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiment in response to General Order Number 16. Colonel Mower commanded the Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiment, which went on to serve honorably throughout the West.

The Fortieth Infantry, organized in Washington, D.C., was initially led by Colonel Nelson A. Miles. It was stationed in North Carolina during Reconstruction. Under General Order Number 16, the Fortieth was sent south to New Orleans on March 31, 1869. In New Orleans, the Fortieth was combined with the Thirty-ninth to form the Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiment. Thomas Boyne was one of the original members of the Fortieth Infantry. Later, as a member of the Ninth Cavalry, Boyne was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on September 27, 1879, in the Plains Wars in New Mexico.

The Forty-first Infantry was organized in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on December 25, 1866. It was initially commanded by Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie and stationed along the Rio Grande. Under General Order Number 16, the Forty-first was consolidated with the Thirty-eighth Infantry at Fort McKavitt, Texas, to form the Twenty-fourth Infantry. Colonel Mackenzie first commanded the Twenty-fourth, which served on the Texas frontier until 1888, longer than any infantry regiment in the Army.

The last Buffalo Soldier regiment to be integrated, the Twenty-fourth remained segregated until the Korean War.

Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument

Last updated: February 13, 2022