Buffalo Soldiers of Fort Meade

Stories of the heroic acts of soldiers permeate the centuries, from the last stand of the three hundred Spartan warriors against one hundred thousand Persians, to modern soldiers carrying their wounded comrades under heavy fire with no regard to their own safety. But what about the stories that slipped through the cracks? Where are the stories about the soldiers who were once slaves and servants? There are so many stories of unsung heroes that have not yet been told.

One such group is the 25th Colored Infantry Regiment, otherwise known as the buffalo soldiers. Many of these men did nothing worthy of the Medal of Honor. However, simply being part of a special regiment that allowed African-American men to gain the respect of many high-ranking white officers was an accomplishment in and of itself. The vast majority of these men were former slaves that had joined the Union Army during the Civil War to fight for their freedom. The black soldiers of the postCivil War era faced a barrage of double-standards, preconceived racial bias and prejudice from all sides, and a wide range of situations that challenged their loyalty to the US Army. Lee Casey, Benjamin Copeland, Daniel Dinwiddie, James Gibson, Jacob Griffin, Ephram Johnson, John Roberts, William Scott, George Smith, Ross Hallon, Clinton Hines, and William Stanton epitomized this experience. While these twelve members of the 25th Infantry are interred at Fort Meade National Cemetery, information on the individual soldiers is very difficult to come by. In order to give a better understanding of these men, the story of their unit as a whole needs to be told.

African-American soldiers made up a significant number of the Union Army during the Civil War. They made up a combined force of 180,000 strong between the various colored regiments. In 1866 the number of troops in the regular army was reduced to 45,000 after the Army Reorganization Act, with six regiments dedicated for African Americans. They were the 9th and 10th Cavalry Units and the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry Regiments. By 1869, the army’s numbers were further reduced to just 25,000 by cutting the forty-five infantry regiments down to twenty-five. To help this process, the War Department consolidated the 38th and 41st Infantries into the 24th, and the 39th and 40th into the 25th.  This was done on the orders of the Thirty-Ninth Congress, Sess. 1. CH. 299, which had convened on July 28, 1866. Section 3 of the act stated “to the six regiments of cavalry now in service there shall be added four regiments, two of which shall be composed of colored men, having the same organization as is now provided by law for cavalry regiments.”

If the West had been more densely populated by the end of the Civil War, Congress might never have even considered enlisting African-American men in the regular army. Democrats feared that once armed and given authority, these soldiers would take advantage of their new position and intimidate whites, especially in places where their numbers were larger and their subjugation had been more brutal.

The Army Reorganization Act was passed on March 3, 1869, and issued General Order Number 16, which had directed the consolidation of the 39th and 40th Infantry regiments into the 25th. The act stated that “senior company officers of each grade present for duty with any two regiments to be consolidated, and fit for active service, will be the officers of the consolidated regiment. Supernumerary officers will be ordered home to await further orders.” Non-commissioned officers were given honorable discharges unless they elected to remain in service, but at a lower grade. Section VI of the order stated that there would be no new enlistments until the current numbers had been reduced to the authorized number for twenty-five regiments. The 40th had been serving in North Carolina, and was moved to the Department of Louisiana to merge with the 39th, stationed in New Orleans. Company G of both regiments combined to form Company H of the 25th Infantry. The new regimental headquarters was established at Jackson Barracks in Louisiana. With the issuance of General Orders No. 26 on April 16, 1869, General Mower informed the troops that the official consolidation would take place on April 20, 1869.

There had been two previous 25th Infantry regiments during the War of 1812 and during the Civil War, but they were comprised completely of white men and hold no historical connection to the Buffalo Soldier regiment, other than numerical designation.

In the summer of 1867, there was a small detachment of the 38th Infantry that was assigned to guard survey parties, railroad stations, and wagon routes in Texas. During those assignments, they engaged several war parties. These were possibly Cheyenne, but the records are unclear. The detachment was led by several black non-commissioned officers, Sergeants S. Davis and John Reid along with Corporals Alfred Bradden and David Turner. The latter corporal, Turner, had led his first skirmish at the age of twenty-one, and already had prior combat experience from serving in the 15th Colored Infantry during the Civil War. After consolidation, the 25th remained at their stations in Louisiana and Mississippi until May of 1870, when Major Brevet General Mower died on January 7. Colonel Joseph Reynolds, who was in charge of the Department of Texas at the time, succeeded Mower and transferred the 25th to San Antonio to relieve the 19th on April 21, 1870. Colonel Reynolds transferred to the 3rd Cavalry on December 15, 1870, and was ultimately succeeded by Lieutenant Colonel George L. Andrews, who was appointed to colonel in January 1871.

Sometime during the Great Depression, some employees from the Works Progress Administration had located and interviewed two aging veterans of the frontier army and the 25th Infantry, William Branch and William Watkins. Branch recounted ten years of service with the frontier army and participating in campaigns against Comanches, Kiowas, and Cheyennes in 1874 and 1875. Branch had been born a slave on May 13, 1850, on a tobacco plantation owned by Lawyer Woodson in Lunenberg County, Virginia. In 1861, he rode with a Union sergeant back to Washington DC and worked as a house boy until 1870, when he joined the army at Baltimore. He was then sent to Texas to help manage problems with various Native American tribes. At Fort Davis, Texas, he joined the 25th Infantry’s Company K under Captain George Andrews. At Fort Concho (San Angelo), he fought Comanches and Apaches, and was then transferred to Fort Sill in Indian Territory, where he fought against Cheyennes who were off reservation.

Branch’s comrade, William Watkins, was born in 1850 to Julia and Hudson Watkins on the Watkins tobacco plantation in Charlotte County, Virginia. He made his way north and enlisted in the army at Jefferson Barracks in Ohio in 1870. From there, he was sent to Alamo to fight Native Americans, and was later sent to Fort Davis and joined Company K, serving in the Colored Indian Scouts. Watkins’s group was sent to Del Norte, Texas (present-day Presidio) and crossed the river into Mexico to rescue a banker from a Chihuahua jail. He was then sent to Fort Concho to fight Apaches. He later fought at the Battle of the Wichita against Cheyennes in Indian Territory, and took an arrow through the wrist. After recovering, he was sent to Fort Clark, and was immediately given trouble by Sergeant Jeff Walker. Walker trumped up charges about Watkins being mistrusted in the presence of Colonel Andrews. Unfortunately, the charges stuck and Watkins received a dishonorable discharge. Watkins was enlisted until at least the end of 1868, but the exact date of his discharge is unclear.

In late 1875, thirteen enlisted soldiers and one officer of the 25th Infantry traveled with a company of the 10th Cavalry, under the command of Captain Louis H. Carpenter, across the Rio Grande to look for Native American tribes. Scouting for tribes was a common assignment for members of the 25th Infantry. A scout report at Fort Davis, Texas on March 22, 1876 detailed another combined scouting party of cavalry and infantry. On February 29, 1876, Company H of the 10th Cavalry with thirty-one enlisted men, and Companies H and K of the 25th Infantry with fifty-three enlisted men were sent to scout the Smoke Mountains. The unit marched on El Paso road to El Muerte and then to Fresno Springs in the Carisso Mountains, moving along the east side of the Smoke Mountains. One of the scouts had located a three-day-old trail signaling three hundred head of stock and a large number of Indians moving east from the Smoke to the Guadalupe Mountains. The scouting party reportedly marched a total of 435 miles.

The African-American regiments tended to serve rather long periods at incredibly remote locations. The 25th served from 1870 to 1880 at remote posts in Texas, and the effects of long-term isolation were profound. It was not uncommon for officers and soldiers alike to adopt characteristics of the region in which they served. In some areas, this included officers marrying into local families, while in other situations, soldiers used the remote locations as an excuse for dubious moral behavior. It is also important to point out that in such locations, the enlisted men were used as laborers far more than they were as soldiers. The men primarily worked in fatigue parties, building and repairing roads and telegraph lines. There was also scouting for hostile Indians, generally Apache, Comanche, Cheyenne, and Kiowa, and the occasional escort duty, and the company or detachment assigned to scout or escort could march three hundred miles in one month. Colonel Andrews had requested the transfer of the 25th because he believed that they had been in Texas for too long, and a change in scenery would do them good. It was not until the issuance of General Orders No. 2 in 1880 that Colonel Andrews’s request for his men to be transferred was finally granted, and the transfer to Dakota Territory finally commenced on May 17, 1880. Colonel Andrews, headquarters, the regimental band, and companies B, F, G, and I were sent to Fort Randall, three miles south of present-day Pickstown, just south of the Missouri River. Lieutenant Colonel Blunt was sent to Fort Hale, located in present-day Lyman County, with companies C and E. Companies A, D, H, and K were sent to Fort Meade.

The decision to move the 25th and the 24th Infantries from Texas was delayed by substantial debates about where to send them. It was known that some of the soldiers had been in frontier duty since 1867. Housing, schools, stores and other conveniences were sorely lacking, causing some officers to resign and many enlisted men to refuse reenlistment. In 1879, General C.C. Auger, who was in command of the Department of the South at the time, received a suggestion of splitting the 24th between Little Rock and New Orleans. Auger and General Winfield S. Hancock, commander of the Military Division of the Atlantic, agreed the suggestion was a bad idea. The suggestion of sending the black regiments to the Department of Dakota was at first thought ridiculous because it was common belief at the time that African Americans could not exist in cold climates. The Quartermaster General stated that sending them to Dakota Territory would mean sickness and death.

The buffalo soldiers were much hardier than they were given credit for, but the condition of the forts in Dakota Territory did not make it easy to prove that. An inspection of the Dakota barracks was done in 1881, and there were general notes of overcrowding, lack of proper lighting, buildings badly in need of repairs, and lack of furniture. Fort Hale’s conditions were the worst of the three. 3rd Infantry’s Captain R.P. Hughes inspected Hale in 1883, and he was appalled by the condition. The most notable issue he mentioned was that the officers’ quarters and the enlisted barracks were made of cottonwood logs, and the bottom logs were rotting to the point that the corners of the buildings were falling down. In contrast, Fort Meade was reported to be in the best condition, as far as living quarters were concerned. The companies of the 25th stationed there shared the post with six companies of the 7th Cavalry. The barracks and officers’ quarters were reported to be ample, comfortable, and well maintained. The inspection report in 1881 even stated that the kitchen and mess facilities were outstanding.

In exchange for no longer having to guard stations, escort stagecoaches, or scout regularly, the colder climate of Dakota made it necessary for wood cutting to be added to the list of duties for heat and cooking. The 25th also had protection detail for railroad tie-cutting crews working on the Northern Pacific Railroad. In the spring of 1881, the officers and men stationed at Fort Randall had to act quickly and provide disaster relief to the settlers along the Keya Paha River. The winter of 1880-81 was severe, and the spring thaw resulted in heavy flooding. During April and May, Captain H.B. Quimby and Company F made numerous trips and relieved 800 men, women, and children. Several troops also rescued a nearby farmer’s cattle from being washed away after they wandered too close to the swollen river.

In September of that same year, the troops of the 25th at Fort Randall found themselves in the company of Sitting Bull and 166 of his people when they arrived in the custody of the 17th Infantry, and a mutual respect developed between the old warrior and the black soldiers. In the summer of 1882, Fort Randall dispatched two companies of the 25th Infantry to protect the settlers on the Keya Paha and Montana Rivers. The settlers were frightened by the spectacle of the Sun Dances on the Rosebud Reservation, which brought several tribes together for a period of eight days. The companies arrived on June 30, and maintained surveillance for about a month, returning to Fort Randall without incident after the tribes dispersed.

Not all the residents living near the forts approved the presence of black soldiers, and the sentiment favored removal after a murder and lynching case in Sturgis City, involving Corporal Hallon and Doctor Lynch. The corporal shot and killed Doctor Lynch on August 22, 1885, supposedly fueled by jealousy over a woman. Hallon was lynched by an angry mob three days later. A short time later, a supposed triangle of ill feelings led a squadron of buffalo soldiers to fire several volleys into a brothelsaloon owned by Abe Hill, just outside of Sturgis, after the squad leader shouted for all soldiers to leave the saloon. The squad also fired a volley into a Mr. Dolan’s house, before attacking the saloon a second time and retreating. Robert S. Bell was killed in Abe Hill’s place, and four infantrymen were charged with his murder. The facts are incomplete about this incident, but it is believed that the ill feelings between Hill, Dolan, and the buffalo soldiers were in play.

Following the incidents, B.G. Caulfield wrote a letter to President Grover Cleveland requesting the removal of the 25th Infantry, stating it was partially composed of reckless desperadoes. The letter was given to General A.H. Terry, who was commander of the Department of Dakota at the time. Terry favored keeping the soldiers at Fort Meade, believing the officers would take necessary actions to prevent such incidents from happening again. Terry also believed the brothels bore just as much blame as the African-American soldiers responsible.

In the early spring of 1888, the 25th was ordered to exchange posts with the 3rd Infantry in the Montana Territory. Headquarters, the band, and four companies went to Fort Missoula, four went to Fort Shaw, and the remaining two went to Fort Custer. Just a few weeks later, a black soldier was lynched at Sun River, Montana. Private Robert Robinson kept a mistress named Queeny Montgomery who followed him from Fort Sisseton, Dakota Territory. In June of 1888, Robinson found Private Matchett of the 3rd Infantry, who had stayed at Fort Shaw to finish his last few weeks of service, with Queeny at her quarters. Robinson beat Matchett in a jealous rage with his rifle, breaking his arm and jaw before Matchett escaped. Robinson pursued, and asked a crowd in front of the town’s Maud S. Stables if they had seen him. Resident Charles Maguire tried to lead Robinson away, but was shot through the head. Robinson was then arrested by Sheriff Downing of Sun River. A group of masked men entered the jail around midnight on June 10, took Robinson to an alley behind Stone’s Store, and lynched him.

After Companies F and H returned to Fort Missoula, and Companies C and E returned to Fort Shaw in 1891 following the Pine Ridge Campaign of 1890-91, life became relatively quiet for the next year. Fort Shaw was abandoned in July when Lieutenant Colonel J.N. Andrews moved to Fort Buford, North Dakota, taking companies B, C, and E with him. In 1892, Colonel George L. Andrews retired at the age of 64, and was succeeded by Colonel Andrew S. Burt on August 21, 1892. Earlier that year, there had been growing tensions between the mine owners and labor unions in the Couer D’Alene mining district of Idaho, and the unions declared open war on the owners in the spring. On July 4, strikers and sympathizers riddled the American flag with bullets and spat and trampled it. By July 11, the district was in absolute anarchy, with several mines suffering from violent explosions. A provisional battalion of the 25th Infantry under the command of Captain W.T. Sanborn was dispatched on July 12 from Fort Missoula upon request of Colonel W.P. Carlin with the 4th Infantry, who was already operating in the mining district.

Sanborn’s battalion arrived on July 13 and found that the track for the Northern Pacific Railroad had been blown up in two places near the town of Mullan, Idaho. The batallion arrived the next day at the town of Wardner Junction and assisted with guarding trains, furnishing escorts, scouting, and making arrests. They were later relieved from further duty in the Department of Columbia and ordered to a proper station in the Department of Dakota by the Columbia Headquarters in Wardner, Idaho on July 26, 1892. The next two years were spent guarding the Northern Pacific Railroad against strikers throughout Montana.

Such stories of action and engagement, such as the ones mentioned above, are actually uncommon. The majority of the records available talk more about the everyday life at the garrison the men happened to be stationed at, discussing things like education, health, discipline, finances, and politics between the War Department and Congress. In fact, a limited budget was the biggest reason for keeping the 25th and 24th Infantries in Texas for so long. When the 1st Infantry moved from Dakota to change stations with the 25th in Texas in 1880, General Sherman estimated the cost of that move was nearly $60,000. Racial attitudes that dominated the thinking of the officers determining the regimental assignments were less obvious. The army’s dual task in Texas during the Reconstruction period allowed Departmental commanders to keep their troops segregated. Not only did they have to respond to the insistence of civilians to counter Indian raids from across the Rio Grande and reservations in Indian Territory, Congress also placed the burden of Reconstruction administration on the War Department. After 1870, reduction in the number of garrisons created more mixed posts, especially farther west.

To meet the needs of a smaller military covering significant distances, buffalo soldiers experienced a wide variety of assignments, from populated areas, such as San Antonio and Fort Leavenworth near Kansas City, to rural Dakota Territory. When in more populated areas, there were incidences of civilian objections to having the buffalo soldiers placed nearby, but the War Department considered military demands, rather than the wishes of civilians, when they assigned stations. The wide variety of assignments meant that these soldiers also experienced a diverse array of living conditions. While the conditions of forts throughout Dakota Territory have been mentioned, these were not the only military stations in various states of disrepair. Barracks at Forts Clark, Duncan, and Quitman in Texas were reported to be in poor condition in the early 1870s. The forts were constructed of adobe and spring rains caused extensive damage. Other western forts did not fare much better. The post surgeon at Fort Thomas, Arizona pleaded for an ice machine, having reported a temperature of 105 degrees in the shade during the month of May.

But it wasn’t just the post buildings that made life at these stations difficult, environmental conditions also challenged those in western outposts. The San Carlos Agency only received ice once a week, forcing all meat to be eaten the day it was killed to avoid spoiling. Leonard Wood, the medical officer in the 1880s, reported the creek that supplied the garrison with water was frequently above 90 degrees. When the soldiers of the 25th arrived in Fort Hale, Dakota Territory, they encountered 95- degree temperatures in the summer and found winters equally extreme, with ice closing the Missouri River from November to April.

Living conditions did eventually improve. However, one of the biggest banes of the post surgeons and chaplains was persistent health problems. Alcoholism and venereal disease ranked the highest of all the health problems reported by the post surgeons. Chronic alcoholism resulted in many dishonorable discharges because of what authorities today would call “drunk and disorderly conduct.” It was well known among experienced officers that heavy drinking impaired discipline and morale, and often led to crime, desertion, and violence. That being said, the black regiments had a substantially lower rate of alcoholism per 1,000 men. For the white regiments, it varied between 76.00 in 1883 to 32.16 in 1895, whereas the rate in black regiments remained below 5.00 per 1,000 men. It was often believed that boredom and dissatisfaction with the military were the leading causes of drinking. It was also believed that the black troops had lower rates because they were more content with the army.

While drinking was something the military could somewhat control by establishing canteens at the posts, recreational sex, and ultimately venereal disease, was something they could do little about. Ranking sixth among reasons for medical discharge and recruit rejection, records showed that it was a little higher among the black regiments than the whites. Statistically 75 of every 1,000 white soldiers experienced it, and 85 of every 1,000 black troops received a diagnosis between 1884 and 1893. The rates were not all-inclusive, though. The numbers varied every year, and proximity to towns, prostitutes, and the amount of money in a soldier’s pocket affected the rates. Venereal disease was not the only health condition medical staff was concerned about. While stationed at Fort Meade, a number of soldiers died from diseases that were common at the time, and some that may sound unusual underwent name changes as they were better understood.

Illness seems to have struck the 25th at Fort Meade particularly hard. All of the following members of the 25th Infantry passed away during their time at Fort Meade, and are interred at Fort Meade National Cemetery. Private Lee Casey died of pneumonia on December 21, 1884. Private Benjamin Copeland died of blood poisoning on February 5, 1882 after developing a large, painful sore on his left arm from a vaccination. Sergeant Daniel Dinwiddie of Company K died on February 9, 1881 of pulmonary consumption, otherwise known as tuberculosis. He was originally admitted for erysipelas, which is a bacterial skin infection that occurs on the face and sometimes the legs, and is generally caused by Group A Streptococcal bacterium. Private James Gibson of Company H died on September 21, 1880 of typhoid fever. Unfortunately, the cause of death for Private Jacob Griffin of Company H and Sergeant Ephram Johnson of Company D, and Private John Roberts of Company K are unknown.

Private William E. Scott of Company A died on December 30, 1880 from valvular disease of the heart. Records noted that Scott should never have enlisted. He suffered from emphysema before he enlisted, as well as the heart condition. During his time at Fort Meade, he suffered from dropsy of the feet, legs, and abdomen. Dropsy is the swelling of soft tissue and retention of large amounts of water, which usually occurs after being on the feet all day. The valvular disease is damage or a defect in one of the four heart valves, effecting the flow of blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Private George Smith of Company K died on March 1881 from inflammation of the lungs. Aside from Corporal Ross Hallon of Company A being hung for Doctor Lynch’s murder, Private Clinton Hines of Company D died on October 21, 1884 after being shot by a black prostitute in Sturgis. Corporal R. William Stanton of Company H died on March 11, 1884 of an accidental gunshot wound.

The buffalo soldiers remained active until the end of the Pine Ridge Campaign in 1890. While they had been deployed from Fort Missoula to Dakota Territory, the role of the 25th was little more than that of a reserve force. After the end of the Indian Wars, life became much quieter. The earlier mentioned miner rebellion in Idaho in 1894 was really the last big incident the 25th was involved in until World War I. They were absorbed by the 93rd and units went to fight in France. They were demobilized after the war, and were not used again until they were sent to the Pacific in 1942 from Arizona. They were again demobilized at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1947.

The stories of those who served as buffalo soldiers are nothing short of incredible. They faced opposition from all sides in the form of bigotry and racism. They stood strong in the face of these challenges and took great pride in their accomplishments.

Written by Courtney Lee

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