Buffalo Soldiers: The History Behind the African-American Regiments

Buffalo Soldiers: The History Behind the African-American Regiments

The brave men of the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments and the horses they rode helped shape the nation.

10th Cavalry charge at Fort Robinson (Credit: Courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society)

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Note: The following educational material originally appeared as a Buffalo Soldiers"temporary exhibit at the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum in Amarillo, Texas. To view the museum's current exhibits, visit www.aqha.com/museum

Celebrating and preserving the history of the American Quarter Horse, the Hall of Fame & Museum is a program of the American Quarter Horse Foundation, the charitable arm of the American Quarter Horse Association. Support our mission to preserve Quarter Horse history.


Following the United States Civil War, regiments of African-American men known as Buffalo Soldiers served on the western frontier, protecting settlers and building the infrastructure needed for new settlements to flourish. The Buffalo Soldiers included two regiments of all-black mounted cavalry, the 9th and 10th, formed after Congress passed legislation in 1866 that allowed African Americans to enlist in the country’s regular peacetime military. Many of the men in these regiments were among the approximately 180,000 African-Americans who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Eventually their ranks would include the first black graduate of West Point, 23 Medal of Honor recipients, and one woman disguised as a man.  These soldiers fought in over a hundred significant military engagements as America pushed ever westward, earning the nickname that symbolized their fighting bravery and fierceness: Buffalo Soldiers.

The brave men of the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments and the horses they rode helped shape the nation. 

For more than two decades in the late 19th century, the 9th and 10th cavalries engaged in military campaigns across the Plains and the Southwest. The Buffalo Soldiers also captured horse and cattle thieves, built roads and protected the U.S. mail, stagecoaches and wagon trains.

In addition to protecting frontier settlements, all Buffalo Soldier regiments surveyed and mapped the vast Texas plains, built and repaired dozens of forts, strung thousands of miles of telegraph lines, and escorted countless railroad trains and cattle herds across the southwest.

From the back of a horse, they participated in the Indian campaigns in the West, fought with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in the Spanish American War, enforced the neutrality laws along the Mexican border, saw four tours of duty in the Philippine Islands, and battled Pancho Villa during the Mexican Punitive Expedition under John J. Pershing. Buffalo Soldiers even acted as rangers in Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.

When the United States entered World War I, many of the non-commissioned officers received commissions and several hundred troopers joined new units preparing to fight in Europe. In peacetime America, 1920 to 1941, the Buffalo Soldiers fulfilled their duties as service troops for the cavalry school at Fort Riley, Kan., becoming expert horse and marksmanship units.

In 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive order eliminating racial segregation and discrimination in America’s armed forces; the last all-black units were disbanded during the first half of the 1950s. 

Jumping Dan Ware

Fort Benning, Georgia

By the end of 1939, the United States Cavalry consisted of two mechanized and twelve horse regiments of 790 horses each.  A cavalry division included two brigades of two horse regiments each, 18 light tanks and a field artillery regiment. Cavalry had been the preferred force for the defense of the Mexican border and the Panama Canal Zone from Mexican raiders, and enemy landing, a threat that was becoming obsolete in the 1930s. A fleet of horse trailers called portees assisted cavalry in traversing the roads. Once mounted, cavalrymen would reach the battlefield on horseback, dismount and then fight on foot, essentially acting as mobile light infantry.

This photograph shows Sergeant John Hill riding on Jumping Dan Ware, the finest jumping horse in the Infantry Stables, Fort Benning, Georgia, July 25, 1941.

2013.35.1, Courtesy of National Archives

9th Cavalry Drills

The U.S. Cavalry preferred solid colored horses, including grays, and the horses would be of the same color for each unit. This helped the commanding officers identify troopers under their command during the confusion of battle.

Each horse was thoroughly trained before being assigned to a trooper who was responsible for the care and well-being of his mount. Other remount horses would be kept at the post to replace losses.

Most of the mounts used by the U.S. Cavalry were Quarter-type horses. These horses were very hardy and quick, and were powerful for the charge.

Closing in 1948, Fort Robinson, Nebraska was the last cavalry remount depot operated by the U.S. Army.

This photograph shows the 9th Cavalry conducing field drills in the late 1800s.

2013.39.2, Courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society

10th Cavalry

Fort Huachuca, Arizona

Being daredevils, the men of the 10th Cavalry often challenged each other in various unofficial horse competitions. One favorite ‘sport’ was riding two, three, or even four horses at once, standing with their legs on the outside horses.

Horse shows were held several times a month when the 10th Cavalry was at Fort Huachuca, and were considered both training and sporting events. Winners of these competitions could not compete using the same mount in the same judging class during the remainder of the training year. This kept the competitions more interesting and made the outcome more reliant on the man rather than the mount.

This photograph shows Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry conducting drills on Fort Huachuca’s parade grounds. This photo dispels the notion of all cavalry horses being dark, and follows the practice of grouping similar colored horses in a troop so that field commanders could identify troops at a distance. Photograph circa 1920.

2013.33.6, Courtesy of Fort Huachuca Museum

Cavalry Horse Training

Many different types and sizes of horse were used in war, depending on the form of warfare. The type used varied with whether the horse was being ridden or driven, and whether they were being used for reconnaissance, cavalry charges, communication or supply. Throughout history, horses played a crucial role in providing support to armies in the field.

A war horse used as a riding animal was trained to be controlled with limited use of reins, responding primarily to the rider’s legs and weight. The horse became accustomed to any necessary tack, and learned to balance under a rider who would be laden with weapons. Developing the balance and agility of the horse was crucial.

Training was also required to overcome the horse’s natural instinct to flee from the noise, smell and confusion of combat. They also learned to accept any sudden or unusual movements of humans while using a weapon or avoiding one.

This photograph shows a group of Buffalo Soldiers on horseback going through trees and snow.

2013.35.5, Courtesy of National Archives

The Army had a particular standard for the physical attributes that qualified a horse as a Cavalry or Artillery animal and that men were trained to screen horses of a reasonably mature age. The Cavalry was concerned about bringing the horses to a certain level of fitness, keeping them healthy and sound and making them the most useful for their appointed tasks.

The Army purchased horses that were old enough to begin work. Prior to Congress establishing the Remount Service in 1908, the Quartermaster Department secured horses through a bid process which proved somewhat unsuccessful.

Troopers frequently were very attached to their mounts and the Cavalry understood the value of humane treatment of the animals. To the devoted horsemen of the cavalry, the horse was a needed utility and partner. Consequently he was well trained and well treated and cared for as was required to keep him fit for good service.

This photograph shows Buffalo Soldier Cavalry troopers and their horses on a drill. Their horses were trained to lie down on the ground in front of their rider when troops were in open field fire fights to provide protection for the soldiers.

2013.39.1, Courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society

Buffalo Soldiers

Camp Naco, Arizona

Camp Naco was part of the War Department’s Mexican Border Defense construction project, a plan to build a 1200-mile “fence” along the southern U.S. border. American soldiers were the primary component of this fence, and the construction project was to establish or to upgrade border military posts to protect the soldiers against the elements and to protect U.S. citizens and economic interests. The plan for the camp in Naco included construction of 35 adobe buildings by the 10th Cavalry.

The beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 raised concerns that rebel activity would spill over onto American soil and in response to this potential threat, the U.S. government sent troops to protect the border. Naco had a military presence from 1911 until the end of 1923. While the War Department stationed elements of many units in Naco, the primary presence was the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments, and later the 25th Infantry Regiment, all Buffalo Soldier units. The 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments were commended for their service during the Battle of Naco in 1914, receiving a special commendation from the United States President for their exceptional service in preserving the Neutrality Laws, despite being under almost constant threat of gunfire. In 1922, the 25th Infantry Regiment took over for the 10th as guardians of the border until closure of the station in December 1923.

This photograph shows the camp of Troop A, 10th Cavalry in Naco, Arizona. A group of Buffalo Soldiers are preparing a row of saddles for use.

2013.35.6, Courtesy of National Archives

Preserving American History: American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum

Celebrating and preserving the history of the American Quarter Horse, the horse that built America, is the mission of the Hall of Fame & Museum is a program of the American Quarter Horse Foundation, the charitable arm of the American Quarter Horse Association.

For many people, walking through the doors of the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum in Amarillo, Texas, is the first step to discovering their passion for the horse. It serves as a place where inspiration is just a moment away and allows visitors to experience the joy our horse provides.