The Twenty-Fifth Infantry Bicycle Corps

Group of male soldiers riding bicycles in a mountain area
Twenty-Fifth Infantry Bicycle Corps, ca. 1897

courtesy of the Mansfield Library University of Montana

In the 1870s, bicycles became one of the most popular modes of transportation in the world. They allowed travelers to easily move through both the city and countryside. Their affordability, comfort, and use in competitions added to their popularity.

Several European countries started to adapt bicycles for military operations. In 1875, Italy became the first country to create a military bicycle unit. They were used for reconnaissance operations and courier services. By 1890, France, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany added bicycle units into their militaries.

In October 1891, General (Gen.) Nelson A. Miles attended a bicycle race in Chicago, Illinois. He was impressed by their speed and wanted to adapt bicycles for the US Army. Gen. Miles stated, “In my opinion the bicycle will be of great value in military operations, not only for the use of couriers in carrying dispatches, but also for moving bodies of soldiers.” He advocated to test the efficiency of bicycles in US military operations. However, no bicycle experiments were approved at the time.

On June 12, 1894, James A. Moss graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Moss was assigned to the all-Black Twenty-Fifth Infantry, headquartered at Fort Missoula, Montana. It was one of four all-Black regiments in the Army at the time, nicknamed the Buffalo Soldiers.

The Twenty-Fifth Infantry was under the command of Colonel (Col.) Andrew Sheridan Burt. To keep the soldiers physically fit, Col. Burt allowed them to include recreation activities into their training. This was done through sports such as baseball, basketball, and cycling. In April 1894, the Twenty-Fifth Infantry included informal bicycle drills in their training. By 1895, Col. Burt reported three officers and seventy-eight soldiers were proficient cyclers. One of those officers was Lt. Moss, who learned of Gen. Miles' advocacy for a bicycle unit.

On April 13, 1896, Lt. Moss submitted a request to organize a bicycle corps. Col. Burt endorsed it and stated “I am desirous of seeing the plan submitted by Lt. Moss carried out. I think it will be a valuable experiment to the service under the conditions of the surrounding company.”

On May 12, 1896, the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Bicycle Corps was authorized. Lt. Moss recruited volunteers from the Twenty-Fifth Infantry stationed at Fort Missoula. Sergeant Dalbert P. Green, Corporal John G. Williams, Musician William W. Brown, Privates John Findley, Elwood Forman, William Haynes, Frank L. Johnson, and William Proctor were selected. Private (Pvt.) Findley had worked at the Imperial Bicycle Works in Chicago, Illinois before the Army. Lt. Moss learned of this and appointed Pvt. Findley as the mechanic for the group.

Lt. Moss reached out to several bicycle manufacturers about the bicycle experiment. The Spalding Bicycle Company in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts agreed to donate nine bicycles. In exchange, they asked for permission to use the experiment in their advertisements. Lt. Moss agreed and had each donated bicycle’s frame customized with containers to hold supplies. After the bicycles arrived at Fort Missoula, the Bicycle Corps began to train. In July, they all practiced riding up to forty miles per day, equipped with food, tents, and weapons.

On August 6, 1896, the Bicycle Corps departed for their first long distance ride. They traveled 126-miles in six days from Fort Missoula to Lake McDonald, Montana and back. Their second long distance ride was from Fort Missoula through Yellowstone National Park. They departed on August 15, 1896, and arrived in Yellowstone National Park on August 23. Lt. Moss reported “several tourists came to camp to take pictures of the bicycle corps… soldiers delighted with the trip – treated royally everywhere – thought the sights grand.” On September 8, 1896, they returned to Fort Missoula, completing their 800-mile ride.

Lt. Moss reported “our trips to Lake McDonald and Yellowstone Park, and the work on the practice march have, I think, demonstrated the practicability of the bicycle for military purposes, even in a mountainous country. The matter was most thoroughly tested under all possible conditions – we made and broke camp in the rain; we traveled through mud, water, sand, dust, over rocks, ruts, etc.; for we crossed and recrossed mountain ranges, and forded streams, carrying our rations, rifles, ammunition, tents, blankets, extra underwear, medicines, tools, repairing material, cooking utensils and extra bicycle parts.”

On January 22, 1897, Lt. Moss requested for the Bicycle Corps to perform a long-distance experimental ride from Fort Missoula to St. Louis, Missouri. This included expanding the Bicycle Corps to twenty soldiers and having a doctor attached to the unit. On May 4, 1897, the Secretary of War approved the request and Lt. Moss acquired the additional bicycles.

Lt. Moss recruited Lt. James M. Kennedy, the Twenty-Fifth Infantry's assistant surgeon. Lt. Kennedy shared Lt. Moss’s interest in cycling and agreed to serve on the experimental ride. Lt. Moss also recruited Edward H. Boos, a reporter and photographer. Boos was a reporter for the Daily Missoulian newspaper in Missoula, Montana. Lt. Moss asked Boos to document a “full and exhaustive report of the progress of the expedition from the time it starts at the Montana post until it arrives in St. Louis.”

Forty soldiers from the Twenty-Fifth Infantry volunteered for the Bicycle Corps. Lt. Moss made selections based on riding ability, reliability, and general physical fitness. From the previous Bicycle Corps, Privates Elwood Forman, Frank L. Johnson, William Proctor, and the mechanic Pvt. John Findley were selected once again. William Haynes was promoted to Corporal (Cpl.) and returned as well. He joined Sergeant (Sgt.) Mingo Sanders and Cpl. Abram Martin as the noncommissioned officers of the group. The other soldiers selected were Musician Elias Johnson, Privates George Scott, Hiram L. B. Dingman, Travis Bridges, John Cook, Richard Rout, Eugene Jones, Sam Johnson, William Williamson, Sam Williamson, John H. Wilson, Samuel Reid, and Francis Button. Lt. Moss described the group as “bubbling over with enthusiasm... about as fine a looking and well-disciplined a lot as could be found anywhere in the United States Army.”

Lt. Moss planned to follow the railroad tracks as they covered much of the route. He also coordinated with the Quartermaster Department to deliver supplies 100 miles apart. This allowed the Bicycle Corps to carry food for only two days. Lt. Moss had every soldier carry “two pair summer socks, one pair winter socks, one pair summer drawers, one pair winter drawers, one toothbrush and powder, two handkerchiefs, one cake soap, one towel, one meat can, one knife, one fork, one spoon, one tin cup, one knapsack, one haversack.” Each soldier also carried a shelter half, tent poles, mosquito netting, a Krag-Jorgenson rifle, a cartridge belt with 50 rounds, and bayonet. Pvt. Findley carried additional bicycle parts and tools to make repairs as needed.

On June 14, 1897, the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Bicycle Corps departed Fort Missoula. After twenty-eight miles of traveling, it started to rain. Lt. Moss wrote, at “about 3 pm the weather began to clear away, and they stopped for an hour’s rest, after which the ride, or rather the march, was resumed over the muddy, hilly roads. They passed Clear Water Post Office about dusk and at 8 p. m. pitched camp”. The weather slowed their journey as it made the roads muddy and hard to ride. A snowstorm also slowed them on their way to Fort William Henry Harrison, Montana.

As the Bicycle Corps continued, they gathered intrigue from locals. Lt. Moss stated “the Corps attracted a great deal of attention as we rode through these rural mountain districts. Horses and cows ran from us, and the inhabitants would stop their work and gaze at us in astonishment.” They were welcomed with hospitality and given snacks and drinks by the crowds of people. Boos reported that a Civil War veteran, “insisted that the boys had to have a drink and accordingly called them over to a neighboring bar.” The Bicycle Corps continued, and Lt. Moss reported how they stayed positive as “some of the soldiers were humming, ‘Just Tell Them that You Saw Me’” by Paul Dresser.

On June 24, they arrived at Fort Custer, Montana. It was the headquarters of the Tenth Cavalry, another Buffalo Soldier regiment. Lt. Moss reflected how they were “warmly welcomed at the fort and were comfortably quartered in the garrison” for a day of rest.

On June 25, the Bicycle Corps rode to Custer National Cemetery. They went to pay their respects to those killed during the Battle of Little Bighorn. It was the 21st anniversary of “Custer’s Last Stand”. Lt. Moss reflected on the battlefield as “twenty-two soldier of the regular army are on the same ground with bicycles!” They camped that night at the foot of the hill where the battle occurred. They then crossed the Little Bighorn River into Wyoming.

On June 29, the thick mud caused Pvt. Foreman’s front axle to break. To avoid further delays Lt. Moss ordered the Bicycle Corps to ride at night under the full moon. He continued with a small group to Moorcroft, Wyoming to resupply and acquire bicycle parts. He turned over command of the Bicycle Corps to Sgt. Sanders. However, a storm darkened the sky and slowed both groups causing them to become lost. Sgt. Sanders instructed the soldiers to fire their rifles in the air if they were separated too far from one another in the darkness. Lt. Moss, unaware of this plan, heard rifle fire and had one of his soldiers discharge a shot in reply. This allowed Sgt. Sanders to lead the Bicycle Corps to Lt. Moss’s location. Reunited, the Bicycle Corps camped for the night. They arrived in Moorcroft the following morning and Pvt. Findley acquired the parts to fix Pvt. Foreman’s bicycle.

As they continued east, they took in the beauty of the landscape around them. Lt. Moss noted “about twenty miles to our left, Devil’s Peak, towering far above all else around. The peak itself, which resembles the frustrum of a cone, stands on a high mountain, and is almost solid rock.” They took a two-hour break at a nearby lake before crossing into South Dakota.

On July 3, the Bicycle Corps arrived in Crawford, Nebraska. They were greeted by the Ninth Cavalry during some pre-Fourth of July festivities. Boos reported “the Fourth of July celebration was at its height when the 25th U.S. Infantry Bicycle Corps arrived at Crawford. The entire town was full of people and the corps was given a hearty welcome … at Crawford a number of soldiers from Fort Robinson met the corps and entertained the boys during their stay of several hours.” The Ninth Cavalry Regimental Band played for the Bicycle Corps as they departed.

As they arrived in Alliance, Nebraska the next day, Lt. Moss held a dinner in celebration of the Fourth of July. He “purchased a quantity of fresh meat, baker’s bread and a stock of groceries, and by 8 o’clock the men had the[i]r grand Fourth of July spread, eating the same in the presence of the entire town which had turned out to see the corps."

The Bicycle Corps continued through Nebraska and water became scarce. The little they found was alkali-tainted which caused the men to get sick. Lt. Moss fell ill and returned to Alliance to recover. Dr. Kennedy led the Bicycle Corps through the sand hills for four days. Pvt. Rout later recounted “their greatest difficulty was experienced in passing through the sand hills of Nebraska. They had to walk through 185 miles of sand, pushing their bicycles before them, the thermometer registering 110 degrees in the shade.” Lt. Moss took the train and reunited with them in Broken Bow, Nebraska. They were greeted by the First Nebraska National Guard who provided dinner, supplies, and beds for the night.

On July 16, the Bicycle Corps crossed the Missouri River and camped in Napier, Missouri. As they continued, Lt. Moss reported that “Pvt. Eugene Jones, Co. ‘H’, who claimed to be ill and unable to ride was sent back to Fort Missoula from St. Joe, Missouri.” Pvt. Jones was the only member of the Bicycle Corps who did not complete the ride.On July 19, the Bicycle Corps arrived in Laclede, Missouri. Lt. Moss was greeted by Henry Van Noye Lucas, a wealthy businessman from St. Louis. Lucas was also the head of the St. Louis Associated Cycling Club and was thrilled to see the Bicycle Corps. He informed Lt. Moss that he had prepared a celebration when they arrived in St. Louis. This sparked joy amongst the soldiers as they continued their journey. The Brookfield Gazette in Brookfield, Missouri reported “they looked rather ‘seedy’ as they had been on the roads in dust, rain and snow for thirty-five day, but said they all felt much better than they looked.”

On July 24, 1897, the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Bicycle Corps arrived in St. Louis, Missouri. They were greeted by a crowd of over 40,000 people organized by the St. Louis Associated Cycling Club. The Bicycle Corps were ushered to the Cottage Hotel in Forest Park where they set up camp for a few days. Lucas of the Associated Cycling Club sponsored a dinner for them at the Cottage Hotel. Lt. Moss summarized the Bicycle Corps by saying, “some of our experiences, especially while in the sandhills of Nebraska, tested to the utmost not only their physical endurance but also their moral, courage, and disposition; and I wish to commend them for the spirit, pluck and fine soldiery qualities they displayed.”

Lt. Moss submitted his preliminary report to Gen. Miles. He also requested an additional experimental ride from St. Louis to Minneapolis, Minnesota. However, Gen. Miles was in Europe, and the War Department denied the request. The Bicycle Corps was ordered back to Fort Missoula.

On August 18, the Bicycle Corps arrived at Fort Missoula and was disbanded. Lt. Moss prepared his detailed report and submitted it to the War Department. He reported, “the durability, as well as the practicability of the bicycle as a machine for military purposes, was most thoroughly tested under all possible conditions except for being under actual fire.” On September 20, the War Department made Lt. Moss’s report public. It was later published in several newspapers, including the New York Times.

On February 7, 1898, Lt. Moss requested permission to organize another Bicycle Corps. He requested to grow it to 100 soldiers and lead an experimental ride from Fort Missoula to San Francisco, California. The request was denied as the United States prepared for the Spanish-American War.

On April 10, the Twenty-Fifth Infantry was assigned to Cuba and departed Fort Missoula. Lt. Moss was promoted to First Lieutenant and transferred to the Twenty-Fourth Infantry. He served with the Buffalo Soldier regiment during the Battle of El Caney in Cuba.

In October 1898, Lt. Moss proposed the organization of a Bicycle Corps in Havana, Cuba. He suggested that “in case of riots or other disturbances of any kind, a number of cyclists, armed with rifles and rapid fire guns could be moved to the seat of disturbance and inconceivable rapidity.” The War Department rejected the proposal as they focused on the Philippine-American War. This marked the final request for a bicycle unit in the US Army.

Though Lt. Moss's reports demonstrated advantages, no permanent Bicycle Corps was established. The US Army shifted focus towards the use of vehicles such as trucks. Trucks moved more soldiers quicker over similar road conditions compared to bicycles. By World War I, the use of trucks and other vehicles proved to be more efficient than the use of bicycles.

Additional Resources:

Moore, Kay. The Great Bicycle Experiment: The Armys Historic Black Bicycle Corps, 1896-97. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Pub. Co., 2012.

Nankivell, John H. Buffalo Soldier Regiment: History of the twenty-fifth United States Infantry, 1869-1926. Lincoln, NE: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2001.

Sorensen, George Niels. Iron riders: Story of the 1890s Fort Missoula Buffalo Soldiers Bicycle Corps. Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Pub. Co., 2010.

Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument

Last updated: March 29, 2024