Prepared for The New Buffalo Soldiers of Shadow Hills, CA
By Tom Phillips
A small library of books and articles (and at least one fairly recent terrible made for TV movie) tell a great deal about the campaigns of these soldiers, their regiments, and some of their officers. But there are only a few sources that discuss these soldiers as individuals, or, to borrow a phrase from Anthony Powell, present a portrait in black.
The black regulars who served in the post-Civil War army did not write much, and nearly all of what is known about them comes from white observers. These soldiers, however, were not silent and their "voices" can be found in a variety of surviving documents such as enlistment papers, court-martial transcripts, medical records, and pension applications. What follows is based on what I think is one of the most useful sources on the black regulars: Warriors of Color by Harold Ray Sayre.* This book is a compilation of the available military records of sixty-three members of Troop H of the l0th Cavalry who were stationed at Fort Davis, Texas in the spring of l884 (this date falls about mid-way between the formation of the black regular regiments in mid-l866, and the transformation of the army that occurred in response to the start of the Spanish-American War in l898). Sayre's book offers a wealth of information about this small group of black regulars, and, by extension, about the "Old Army" in which they served.
All regulars were volunteers--although a few men may have arrived at a recruiting office a few steps ahead of creditors or the police. Also, throughout the period Jack Frost and unemployment were excellent recruiters. The army had established permanent recruit officer by the mid-l870s, and those in Washington, D.C., and the border state cities of Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Louisville often reported the most success in enlisting blacks. Little was required of those who wanted to sign up. Records show, however, that regulations were ignored or winked at in order to sign up a willing candidate. Perfunctory medical examinations sometimes allowed the ill and infirm to enter the army. In an age before computer records, fingerprinting, and photo IDs, the underage, married men, and those with criminal records could easily deceive recruiters.
Fourteen men in Troop H enlisted for the first time in Baltimore, and thirteen joined in Cincinnati. Others signed on in the Pennsylvania cities of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg, and still other men joined further west in Cleveland, Memphis, Indianapolis and Chicago. Three men enlisted in San Antonio, Texas. This pattern reflected the pattern that nearly half the men in the troop were born in the Border States of Maryland (l0), Tennessee (5) and Kentucky (l5). A small number of soldiers were from the Deep South. There were a handful of Northerners; three from Pennsylvania, and one each from New York and Indiana. One soldier, George Wilkerson, was born in Canada.
Recruiting or medical officers recorded that the "complexion" of these men ranged from "black" (30), to "dark brown" (4), to "brown" (l0). Other descriptions were "light yellow" and "chestnut brown."-- this is the origin of Sayre's title, Warriors of Color. Nine recruits were identified as "mulatto." John F. Casey, who was listed as "light", noted on a pension application that his father was white. One recruiter covered all bases by noting that Clark Wright was "Negro (colored)."
The army attracted the young, and most of the soldiers in Troop H first enlisted when they were in their early twenties. Some were even younger, and they had probably lied about their age to recruiters. William Hawkins would not have been sixteen when he enlisted. Girrard Miller had just turned sixteen, and three others enlisted before they were twenty. Some older men were drawn to the army, and Benjamin Wallace was thirty-eight when he joined. Although his service record is incomplete and does not show the date of his first enlistment, George Wilkerson claimed he was born in l834--making him fifty when stationed at Fort Davis in l884.
By today's standards the men in the troop were short. The majority were between 5'4" and 5'6", the army's ideal height for a trooper. Joseph Cephas was tiny at just under 5'3", while at 6'1" Nathaniel McDaniels towered over his comrades.
Early biographical information is sketchy or missing for many of these soldiers. Certainly all but a few had been born slaves or were them children of slaves. The army did not ask black enlistees if they or their parents had known bondage, but such information is found in scattered military records. John Casey's mother had been a slave. In filling out a pension affidavit in l923, Peter Dehoney wrote that his parents had been slaves in Kentucky. When he wrote to the Pension Bureau in l908, Romeo Slatterwaite explained that he "was born a slave in l852."
Illiteracy, mainly the heritage of slavery as well as few educational opportunities for the free born or newly-emancipated, was a common problem in all the black regular regiments. Available records make it impossible to determine the level of literacy in Troop H. Some men were illiterate when they enlisted and completed their service without learning how to read and write. In l888, Sharp Thomas signed his invalid pension application with an "X". The secretary of the National Indians Wars Veterans Association informed the Pension Bureau in l92l that Randall Blunt "can neither read nor write." Other men were illiterate; but it is unknown if this was the result of civilian schooling or military classrooms, Andrew Emery was the post librarian at Fort Davis--hardly a position for an illiterate. After serving an enlistment in Troop H and another in the 25th Infantry, Frank Hall was accepted in the Hospital Corps where literacy was a requirement.
The army's recruiting service was divided into two branches, the General Service for infantry and artillery units, and the Mounted Service for cavalry regiments. But this was mainly a paper distinction, and recruits were usually posted to regiments that had vacancies and needed men (it was army policy not to enlist blacks in the artillery). Most late l9th Century American males knew something about horses, and that was enough for the army-drill instructors and regimental commissioned and noncommissioned officers could mould a recruit into a trooper.
Cavalry recruits usually received some training at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. The length of this instruction, however, varied as men were dispatched to regiments as manpower needs dictated. William Allen remembered he was at Jefferson Barracks for three months. John Bennett enlisted at this depot in April l883, but his training was brief for medical records place him at Fort Davis in early June. Benjamin Baker received even less training; he enlisted in December 26, l882, was sent to Jefferson Barracks, and was then detailed to join Troop H on January 23, l883. The army was always hamstrung by inadequate Congressional funding and probably did not go the expense of sending the three men who enlisted at San Antonio to Jefferson Barracks. These men most likely got on-the-job training at Fort Davis ort some other Texas garrison.
Troop H was a typical regular unit that contained a mixture of recruits, more experienced men, and a scattering of long-service veterans.Ê In the spring of l884, thirteen soldiers had served less than a year, and seven of these had been in the army for three months or less. At least fifteen had completed half or more of an initial fire-year enlistment. At the opposite end of this scale were men who had already served multiple enlistments. Four veterans--Robert Banks, Joseph Claggett, Pollard Cole, Silas Jones--had served since July, l866, and were original members of the l0th Cavalry. Issac Jackson and George Wilkerson were Civil War veterans, although both had tried civilian life between leaving the volunteers and joining the regulars. Following a not uncommon pattern, five men had completed an enlistment in another troop of the l0th Cavalry or in a different regiment.
Regulations restricted enlistment to bachelors, but some married men did sign up. The records offer no clue why William Battle married a widow with four children in December 5, l883, and then enlisted two days later. Perhaps this brief period of crowded domestic life was all Battle could stand. Officers frowned on soldiers marrying unless they were noncommissioned officers or had reenlisted. First Sergeant John Casey lived with his wife and two children in government housing at Fort Davis. Pollard Cole married Estephana Gonzales at Fort Davis in l882 when he was in his fourth enlistment.
Sayre found the medical records of sixty-two men. While these documents are a grim tally of illness and injury, conditions that often became the basis of a soldier's application for a partial or full disability pension. They provide a great deal of information about duty on the post-Civil War western frontier. The constant repetition of medical diagnoses such as rheumatism, dysentery, scurvy, constipation, as well as contusions and sprains, testify to hard service, often inadequate or poorly prepared food, and generally unsanitary and unhealthy conditions. These records don't permit an assessment of the quality of army medical care, but in all probability the men in Troop H received medical service from army doctors aided by hospital stewards and corpsmen that few would have had as civilians.
The health record of Robert Banks is a depressing litany of medical problems over a fifteen year period. At various time he had scurvy, a contusion, chicken pox, acute diarrhea, another contusion, acute dysentery, a sprain, acute bronchitis, and finally the occupational curse of cavalrymen--piles. Frank Halls' medical history raises the question of how or why he remained in the army. Between mid-l883 and mid-l897 he was hospitalized with fever, chronic glaucoma, acute rheumatism, chilblains, lumbago, influenza, and, toward the end of his service, three times for chronic rheumatism. Hall could also be careless or unlucky, in mid-l880 his hand was badly injured when a door slammed on it.
Each year between two and nearly seven percent of all enlisted regulars had some form of venereal disease, and the highest rates were usually recorded in the black regiments. The men in Troop H were no exception, and thirteen had some form of venereal disease, usually gonorrhea but occasionally syphilis, at one time or another. While silent on exactly how these men contracted venereal disease, the medical records are proof that sexual partners, most likely prostitutes, were available to the black regulars. Testimony in the l885 court-martial of John Casey established that two prostitutes had regular customers among the men of the troop and had followed the unit to Fort Davis from another post.
Alcoholism was often chronic in white regiments, but it was very rare in black units. Two men in Troop H, Charles Terry and Michael Finnegan, had drinking problems that brought them to the attention of army doctors. Terry joined the army in early l884 and would reenlist several times. It is unknown how long he had a drinking problem, but in l89l he was sent to an army hospital suffering from "acute alcoholic gastritis." He would spend addition time in military hospitals for alcohol-related problems until his discharge in l9ll.
None of the men in the troop were killed or wounded by gunfire while on campaign, but three were shot in non-combat situations. The record is brief and uninformative, but Samuel Porter was wounded at Fort Elliott, Texas in l879. He recovered and continued to serve until the late l880s. John Dupree was shot in his right leg while at Fort Davis in l882. In a bizarre incident, William Allen was badly wounded in his chest when a pistol discharged as it fell from a pocket of his overcoat. The wound led to Allen's departure from the troop on a surgeon's certificate of disability.
Barracks and other off-duty locations could be dangerous places. Joseph Cammel received a severe wound when he was hit on the back of his head "with a club in a fight." The attending surgeon wryly added "not in the line of duty." William Lynch was cut by a bottle "in a fight." "Fighting, not in the line of duty" resulted in a serious facial wound for the martially-named Colonel Miller.
The medical records list a variety of other injuries. Andrew Emery probably did not belong in the cavalry. On July l3, l883, he was kicked in his right foot by a horse. The same thing happened to the same foot in December, l884. Less than a month later Emery fell off his horse and injured his back. George Newman received an "incised wound", the records do not say where, when bit by a horse. Colonel Miller was briefly hospitalized after he was kicked by a mule.
Some injuries, although serious, carried an element of humor. Clark Wright was an accident prone soldier-athlete. In July, l886, he sprained his ankle "while jumping for a wager." Then in August he fractured his right knee while "playing ball on the parade ground." A sympathetic surgeon, and probably a sports fan, listed the injury as received in the line of duty. George Wilkerson, the oldest man in the troop, must have pondered why he was afoot in late l879 when he suffered badly blistered feet "while marching in the field with the l0th U.S. Cavalry."
Pension and medical records offer other interesting details about the men in Troop H. Many had one or more scars--although their origin, if acquired in civilian life or during military service, is not stated. Andrew Emery had seven scars labeled "identifying marks." Pollard Cole had been cut by a razor on the right side of his jaw.
Tattoos were fairly common. Unit pride probably motivated Silas Jones to wear an "H" on his left arm. Seven-enlistment veteran Joseph Claggett had "10H" inked over his initials on his left forearm. Other men opted for various military and patriotic themes such as the star, shield, and crossed sabers on the right arm of George Newman. Martial thoughts were probably not on the mind of Thomas Pleasants mind when he had the picture of the head and breast of a woman tattooed on his right forearm. For some reason three men sported naval designs; William Battle, Andrew Emery of the seven scars, and Charles Terry each had some variation of an anchor tattoo.
An isolated, and unusual, piece of information is in the pension file of William Hawkins: he wore glasses. It seems that he began to wear glasses after his eyes were damaged by sunstroke while he was on the target range at Ft. Davis in l883. Hawkins served only one enlistment, but somehow a man wearing glasses does not fit the popular image of a hardened frontier regular.
Discipline, the strict obedience of orders and regulations, was at the core of the regular army. Men charged with serious violations of these rules were brought before a general court-martial (lesser offenses were tired by regimental and garrison courts). A guilty verdict typically brought some combination of a fine, reduction in rank, a prison sentence (often at hard labor), and a dishonorable discharge. Five men in Troop H faced a general court martial. All were found guilty and three were dishonorably discharged after completing a prison sentence.
Desertion was one of the most serious military crimes. Compared to white units where the annual desertion rate often approached twenty percent, desertion was rare in all of the black regiments. For example, 3,597 men from a mean strength of 2l,l000 whites deserted between June 30, l883, and June 30, l884. During the same period only seventy five of the 2,300 black regulars deserted.
Frank Posey was the only member of Troop H to desert and his story is most interesting. He parted company with the troop at Fort Davis in early l885 because of unspecified difficulties with local civil authorities. But instead of filtering back into the civilian world, Posey reenlisted under an assumed name in the 25th Infantry. He had been promoted corporal before being identified as a deserted and brought before a court-martial. Posey admitted his guilt and several officers of the 25th testified to his good service and excellent character. The court, however, had no choice and sentenced him to two years at hard labor and a dishonorable discharge. After Posey began his sentence the member of the court signed a unanimous appeal for clemency and this action was endorsed by several prominent civilians. The Secretary of War was persuaded by this to order Posey's release and to rescind the dishonorable discharge.
Most regulars, black and white, served only one enlistment and then moved on. Slightly less than half the men in Troop H fit this description. Although the total number was never large, fewer than one hundred men between mid-l883 and mid-l884 for example, black regulars tended to reenlist at a higher rate than whites. More than thirty men in Troop H served more than one enlistment, with most of these soldiers leaving the army after two five-year hitches. Seven men stayed in the army for between thirteen and sixteen years, and six would take their discharge after twenty or more years.
Thirty-year soldiers, with Civil War service counted double, could retire with a small pension. Joseph Clagget enlisted on July 9, l867, in Washington, D.C., and left the army in late September, l897. The regulars had taken him a long way from the nation's capitol, and he had served in Indian Territory, Texas, Arizona Territory, North Dakota and Montana. Charles Faulkner joined the troop in mid-l879 and retired after thirty years a ranker. He may also have had the unique distinction of completing one reenlistment and reenlisting the next day while at sea aboard a military transport ship.
The army encouraged continuous service by giving a small pay increase to men who rejoined within thirty days after the end of their first enlistment (a similar bonus applied to subsequent enlistments). Thirty-year soldier Charles Faulkner reenlisted seven times, never more than a day after the previous enlistment expired. Soldiers who signed on again within a month were usually posted to their old unit. Those who let this grace period lapse did not receive the reenlistment bonus and took their changes at being assigned to a different company or regiment.
The attractions of civilian life probably kept some men from immediate reenlistment, just as disappointments as civilians led former soldiers to return to the army months, or, as in the case of Peter Dehoney, nearly two years after being discharged. Some men may have deliberately let the thirty day period expire to insure positing to a new unit. Jacob Watkins served one enlistment in Troop B of the l0th Cavalry, waited for just over a years to re-up, and was then sent into Troop H. Some men moved from the cavalry to the infantry. Charles Gray served ten years in Troop H, left the army for six months before reenlisting, and found himself assigned to the 25th Infantry.
The service history of Charles Terry illustrates how the reenlistment system could work. Terry joined the regulars on February 8, l884, and completed his final enlistment in November, l9ll. During these years he reenlisted eight times and served in three of the four black regiments. He returned to civilian life for varying periods after each enlistment, the longest being for almost two years.
The records collected by Sayre show that the sixty-three men of Troop H were a cross section of soldier types: no apparent heroes, some minor scoundrels, some very competent men, and a majority who did not consider the army home and used military service as a temporary occupation. There were, however, a small number of men who made soldiering their profession and they provided their troop, regiment, and the United States Army with a valuable cadre of trained and experienced veterans.
*The book can be ordered direct from the author for $30 (includes mailing). This is a hefty volume that weighs in at just over 500 pages. When ordering, tell Harold that Tom Phillips sent you:
Warriors of Color
Harold Ray Sayre
© 1995 Harold Ray Sayre
Harold Ray Sayre
HCR 74 Box 57
Fort Davis, Texas 79734
©Thomas D Phillips
The New Buffalo Soldiers, Shadow Hills, CA.
All rights reserved.