April 22, 1994 will always be a day to remember in Dallas, Texas and around the world. On this day, some “forgotten heroes” were proudly remembered 128 years after an 1866 Act of Congress (July 28, 1866) authorized the formation of six African-American regiments in the peacetime army prior to the Civil War. These six all black military units encompassed two cavalry (9th and 10th) regiments and four infantry (38th, 39th, 40th and 41st) regiments. The black infantrymen were subsequently merged, renumbered and renamed as the 24th and 25th Infantries. These soldiers were respectfully nicknamed “Buffalo Soldiers” by the Native Americans probably because the black soldier’s “wooly” hair reminded them of the sacred buffalo known for its raw strength and fierce courage.
The U.S. Postal Service enshrined the Buffalo Soldiers in memory with the issuance of a 29-cent commemorative stamp. But the Buffalo Soldiers commemorative stamp is not just another stamp with a black face. The stamp, designed by Mort Kuntsler of Oyster Bay, New York, was officially dedicated in Dallas by Marvin Runyon, the Postmaster General and CEO of the U.S. Postal Service. Paying his respects by wearing a western hat and a bolo tie, Runyon unveiled a 12-foot high replica of the stamp commemorating the black cavalry units that helped settle the West. The stamp colorfully depicts a lesson in history that is virtually invisible in history books.
The honored guests of the ceremony held at the Hyatt Regency Dallas at Reunion were keynote speaker U.S. Navy Commander Carlton Philpot, who is also Chairman of the Buffalo Soldiers Committee, and former Buffalo Soldier, SGT Mark Matthews, Sr., U.S. Army Retired, 10th Calvary, 1917-1947. They both paid tribute by wearing the hats and scarves of their early counterparts. SGT Matthews was visibly moved when the stamp was unveiled and when Philpot vowed to continue the efforts to have the Buffalo Soldiers commemorated at the Smithsonian Institute and in history books by the year 2000. After being presented with a special Buffalo Soldiers plaque by Runyon, SGT Matthews gave his stamp of approval by striking a pose in a soldier’s “salute” to the audience.
Over several decades, Buffalo Soldiers served in forts throughout the U.S., including Texas, Arizona, New York, California, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Montana, Utah, Nebraska, Virginia, Vermont, and Kansas. Fort Scott, Fort Larned and Fort Leavenworth in Kansas were a few of the strategically-important posts protected by Buffalo Soldier regiments. In fact, Fort Larned was the key to protection of the Sante Fe Trail.
The attitude of the U.S. Army toward the black soldiers during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War may account for the reason why the Buffalo Soldiers story is considered a “missing page” in American history. It is said that the Buffalo Soldiers endured cruel hardships and routinely received inferior food, equipment and horses. However, the Buffalo Soldiers received the highest number (18) of Congressional Medals of Honor and had the lowest desertion rate of any Army regiment from 1867 to 1898. In addition to engaging in fights with Native Americans, they confronted outlaws, desperados, protected stage and railway lines, strung telegraph wires, guarded frontiersmen against bandits and cattle rustlers and “rescued” Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War.
In his book, The Negro’s Civil War, James M. McPherson documented that, “Although over 178, 985 black men enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War and fought in 449 engagements, of which 39 were major battles, and in spite of the fact that approximately 37,300 black soldiers died wearing Union uniforms, their military accomplishments were never fully appreciated, especially by the military leaders.” And William H. Leckie wrote in his book, The Buffalo Soldiers, that “There were many white officers who looked upon an assignment with black soldiers as undesirable. So strong was the prejudice against black soldiers that some white officers preferred to take a lower rank in a white regiment as an alternative to duty with a black regiment. George Armstrong Custer, when offered the rank of lieutenant, turned it down, hoping to get an appointment in a white regiment.”
Although history has not been mindful of the accomplishments and contributions of many unsung African-American heroes like the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the Negro Baseball League, or the Buffalo Soldiers, at least now the U.S. Postal Service is trying to right some of the wrongs. Ironically, the Buffalo Soldiers, who were expected to lick the boots of other regiments, are now being licked by Americans everywhere, every time they mail a letter.