At the time of the Civil War, African Americans did not have the full rights of citizens. In the southern states, most were slaves. In the northern states, even free blacks suffered from discrimination. Yet more than 200,000 African Americans served with honor in the Civil War.
Helping to Build the West
In 1866, right after the Civil War, Congress passed a law creating African American Army units. Black soldiers served for five years. They were called Buffalo Soldiers.
Wounds in the south were still raw after it lost the Civil War. Buffalo Soldiers did not serve there. They served only in the area west of the Mississippi River. Their job was to protect the settlers moving west. They also built roads and other systems.
The Buffalo Soldiers were given used and poor equipment. Their horses were old. They were led by white officers, although some, including General George Custer, refused to command black troops. Yet they performed their duties with honor.
The Buffalo Soldiers fought cattle thieves and traders who illegally sold guns. They protected stagecoaches and trains. They fought Native Americans, who were resisting relocation to reservations. They also relocated white Americans settling illegally on Indian Territory.
The name Buffalo Soldiers was invented by the Native Americans. Historians think it was a term of respect, although its origins are unclear. It may be because the soldiers wore heavy coats made from buffalo hide. It’s also possible that the soldiers’ curly hair reminded the Indians of buffalo.
The name may also have come from the Buffalo Soldiers’ fierce, brave natures. Unlike other Army units, they rarely had to be disciplined for drunkenness or desertion. For 30 years, they worked hard and received numerous awards. After their work on the frontier, the term Buffalo Soldiers went out of use. But the soldiers continued to serve the U.S. Army with distinction.