Buffalo Soldiers

When the government re-organized the Army after the Civil War, for the first time it created several regiments to be made up entirely of African American troops. Almost 200,000 African Americans had served as soldiers in the Civil War in specially designated regiments. The new regiments were to be part of the regular army.

For more than a decade after the Civil War, the South was under military law governed by the U.S. Army and enforced by U.S. soldiers. To keep the new, African American regiments away from toxic environment of the South, these regiments were sent to the western frontier. They were also needed there because the U.S. was intensifying its campaigns to force the various Indian tribes on to reservations.

The African American regiments, which accounted for about 10% of the army's troops, were scattered around dozens of frontier forts at isolated western posts. Their commissioned officers were all white, and there was tremendous prejudice against the black soldiers. Their equipment was inferior to that of white soldiers, but their enthusiasm was not. Many of them had been former slaves in the South, and they were now wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army. These regiments had by far the lowest desertion rates in the army during the 1870s and 1880s.

No one knows for sure how the "Buffalo Soldier" nickname originated. It is believed to be a complimentary reference coined by their Indian adversaries.
statue of buffalo soldier riding horse at edge of small waterfall
Buffalo Soldier monument at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth

Duty at Fort Union

The 9th U.S. Cavalry was transferred from Texas to New Mexico in 1876. The 12 troops or companies of the regiment were parceled out to various New Mexico forts, including Fort Union. Soon after their arrival at Fort Union, the troops were pressed into service as local police officers. Long-running disputes between heavily armed residents, known locally as the Colfax County Wars and the Lincoln County Wars, threatened anarchy in parts of New Mexcio. Despite prejudice from some of the locals, the Buffalo Soldiers helped keep the peace among warring factions.

When not out scouting for Indians, the troops at Fort Union were kept busy with fatigue duty--non-soldierly chores like cutting firewood, repairing buildings and roads, and stringing telegraph wires. Buffalo Soldiers installed pipes for the fort's indoor plumbing system and laid the sidewalks that still grace the fort ruins.

There was even some fun involved. The regimental band accompanied the troops to Fort Union, and soon the musicians were in great demand around the territory to play for military ceremonies, weddings and holidays. Initially based at Fort Union, the 9th Cavalry band was stationed at several New Mexico forts and the territorial capital of Santa Fe, where they played for the 1880 visit by President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Then there is the unusual case of Private William Cathay.
African American soldier standing in uniform with kepi and sack coat with sergeant's stripes
Sergeant John Denny was awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing a wounded comrade under fire from Victorio's Apache warriors in a steep and forbidding canyon in southern New Mexico.

Library of Congress

Medal of Honor

The most challenging combat by far for the Fort Union garrison was the fighting against Apaches in southern New Mexico. Unhappy with the desolate San Carlos reservation in southeastern Arizona, angry Apaches under the leadership of Victorio proved to be formidable enemies. The fighting against the Apaches was intense, hard-fought combat. The battles typically occurred in rocky, mountainous terrain chosen by the Apaches, and the Buffalo Soldiers were often outnumbered.

The only troops serving at Fort Union who ever were awarded the Medal of Honor were the members of the 9th U.S. Cavalry. The Medal of Honor is the nation's highest award for military valor. Soldiers who served at Fort Union and were awarded the Medal of Honor include:
  • Corporal Clinton Greaves, 1877, for breaking through an enemy Apache line that completely surrounded his scouting party.
  • Sergeant Thomas Boyne, 1879, for bravery in battle against Victorio's Apache warriors.
  • Sergeant John Denny, 1879, see photo at right.
  • Sergeant Henry Johnson, 1879, for rendering critical aid under intense fire to U.S. troops surrounded by Ute warriors in northwestern Colorado.
  • Sergeant George Jordan, 1879, for defending civilians under attack by Victorio's Apache warriors.
  • Sergeant Thomas Shaw, 1881, for outstanding bravery while outnumbered more than two to one by Apache fighters.

Last updated: November 18, 2022

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

PO Box 127
Watrous, NM 87753


505 425-8025

Contact Us