The Spirit of the Buffalo Soldier

Writing in the 1800s Poet and Publisher Josiah Gilbert Holland said, “A time like this demands strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands … men who possess opinions and a will … men who will not lie.” To that I add, leaders who have a “Buffalo Soldier” spirit. Today we need strong, honest leadership at every level of government. We need a rekindling of the Buffalo Soldier’s spirit.

John Randall represents the type of heroism that was typical of Buffalo Soldier Congressional Medal of Honor winners. In September 1867 Pvt. John Randall of Troop G, 10th United States Cavalry along with two civilians, was attacked by 70 Cheyenne Indian warriors. The two civilians were killed instantly and Randall’s horse was shot out from under him. Randall single handedly held off the Cheyenne until help arrived from a nearby military camp. In the process he suffered a gunshot wound to the shoulder an 11 Indian lance wounds.

When the Cheyenne returned to their camp, they told stories of this new type of American Soldier they had encountered. It was a new type of Soldier, who “fought like a cornered buffalo, who like a buffalo suffered wound after wound yet did not die, and who like a buffalo had a thick and shaggy mane of hair.” 

From these stories told around campfires that night, the name “Buffalo Soldier” came into being. 

More important than the name, was that the Buffalo Soldiers carried within them the unconquerable, indomitable spirit of the buffalo.

During the Civil War nearly two million men served in the Union Army. Most of them were white, but nearly 200,000 were black Soldiers who fought so well that when the war was over, Congress authorized formation of four black, regular army regiments. 

They were the 9th, 10th cavalry regiments and the 24th and 25th infantry regiments—all came to embrace the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers.”

From 1866 until the mid-1890s the Buffalo Soldiers fought Cheyenne, Apaches and Sioux and other hostile tribes all along the western frontier. During this time, they were also deployed to Wyoming to settle the Johnson County Wars there.

When they were not protecting the pioneers and restoring order, they were called upon to build roads, string telegraph lines, open the Santa Fe Trail and escort U.S. mail carriers. When the Grand Canyon caught on fire and burned out of control, the Buffalo Soldiers they were called upon to help put it out.

 In 1898, Buffalo Soldiers fought in the Spanish-American War in Cuba charging up San Juan Hill under command of Teddy Roosevelt. They also fought in the Philippine-American War and in the 1916 Mexican Expedition, in addition to National Park Ranger duties, and from 1897 to 1947 a 100-man of Buffalo Soldiers detail taught West Point cadets to ride horseback and conduct mounted drills and tactics.

When I think about the spirit of the Buffalo Soldiers charging up San Juan Hill, I always am reminded of President Reagan’s declaration that the United States is a “shining city on a hill,” one that other nations would do well to emulate. 

Many people of the world do recognize America’s exceptionalism and excellence. This was made clear to me on one of my many tours of duty in Germany. 

On one occasion, while stationed in Frankfurt, I helped a group of Europeans establish an international organization. One of the first orders of business at their first European convention was to elect officers, and someone from the Netherlands nominated me to be vice president. At once, an angry Frenchman jumped to his feet and declared that if there was one thing they did not need it was another American meddling in Europe’s affairs.

This caused a bit of a firestorm. A few Europeans agreed with the speaker, but most came to my defense. I let the battle roar along for a few minutes then told them that I had just received orders returning me to the United States, and could not accept the honor of being their vice president, regardless.

At that point, a very distinguished man, who I later learned was a Catholic bishop, stood to his feet and said, “Gentlemen, I don’t know why God has blessed the United States so much but he has. If you want a Billy Graham there is only one country that has a Billy Graham. If you want a John F. Kennedy you have to go to the United States. If you want a Martin Luther King, Jr. there is only one country that has one. So I wouldn’t be too quick to criticize the United States lest you be found opposing what God is doing.”  

Just then someone suggested that we adjourn for lunch.

Perhaps it was the spirit of the Buffalo Soldier that moved the German bishop that day, perhaps not. In any event, he along with many other Europeans who attended that meeting openly acknowledged that America is a shining city on a hill.

As we approach June 14, the birthday of the United States Army, it is indeed fitting that we pay our respects to the memory of the Buffalo Soldiers and to all the other brave men and women who have so valiantly defended America’s freedoms on the field of battle, especially those who have been awarded the Medal of Honor.