The Indians call them Buffalo Soldiers


Buffalo Soldier in the 9th Cavalry

Buffalo Soldier in the 9th Cavalry. Denver Public Library, Western Collection

Camp Supply, Indian Territory, May 1872:

There are more troops here than at Fort Lyon, and of course the post is very much larger. There are two troops of colored cavalry, one of white cavalry, and three companies of infantry. […] The officers say that the negroes make good soldiers and fight like fiends[…] The Indians call them “buffalo soldiers,” because their woolly heads are so much like the matted cushion that is between the horns of the buffalo. 

Many writers and historians such as: Sandra L. Myres, Michele Nacy, William and Shirley Leckie, and Frank M. Schubert’s “Voices of the Buffalo Soldiers: Records, Reports, and Recollections” credit Roe in their research as the first to chronicle the African American troops as Buffalo Soldiers. The National Park Service Presidio of San Francisco also cites Roe in the website footnotes of Buffalo Soldiers. The Encyclopedia of African American History states, “the earliest known user of the phrase [Buffalo Soldiers] was Frances Roe, the wife of an officer who served at a post with the tenth cavalry in Indian Territory during 1872-1873.”  Many sources reference Roe’s letters about Camp Supply, Indian Territory between May 1872 to April 1873.  What is glossed over, and perhaps, excused in Army Letters are her derogatory remarks, particularly about race. From a historical perspective, were these unedited opinions considered the natural position of 19th century beliefs? Was racism even part of the vocabulary? According to Wikipedia, “many nineteenth century scientists subscribed to the simple belief that human populations are divided into separate races.”

The letters, I would suggest, had mirrored the United States then mindset about race, lineage, class, wealth, and education to name a few. Undoubtedly, the letters eighteen year span had inculcated her perspective while living on the Western Frontier. The military, then and now, consists of a hierarchal system of relationships organized from lowest to highest ranking of warrant, commissioned and non-commissioned officers, and civilian personnel. Frances adhered to a systematic structure arranged not only by military rank but more so by social standing:

Camp Supply, Indian Territory, June, 1872.

Faye is officer of the guard every third day now. […] This is doing duty, and would be all right if there were not a daily mingling of white and colored troops which often brings a colored sergeant over a white corporal and privates.

Birds-eye view of 9th cav going to camp form drill at late Indian war at Pine Ridge Ag South Dakota. Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, X-31372

Birds-eye view of 9th cav going to camp form drill at late Indian war at Pine Ridge Ag South Dakota. Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, X-31372


Clearly, Frances’ trunks were laden with superiority and class ridicule towards those considered inferior in her social hierarchal system.  Native Americans were simply and only painted, dirty, and nauseous-smelling savages and far too many of them. Or the one good advantage to having colored troops one can always have good servants who are thoroughly trained as such prior to enlisting. Roe’s checklist of opinions reward and denigrate simultaneously. The Chinese men made exceptional servants, yet they were oddly superstitious little fellows.  Furthermore, white and buffalo soldiers in her opinion, should not intermingle in shared common areas. According to Roe’s code of  class civility and decorum, those below her social stratum needed to know their place on the Army post. Even military protocol was over-ridden by the larger social structures.  A white officer taking orders from a higher ranking colored officer was justification if not a good cause for desertion:

 Camp Supply, Indian Territory, February, 1873.

Many changes have been made during the few weeks General Bourke has been here, the most important having been the separating of the white troops from the colored when on guard duty. The officers and men of the colored cavalry have not liked this, naturally, but it was outrageous to put white and black in the same little guard room, and colored sergeants over white corporals and privates. It was a good cause for desertion. But all that is at an end now. General Dickinson is no longer commanding officer, and best of all, the colored cavalry that are to relieve them are here now an in camp not far from the post waiting for the barracks to be vacated.

Ethnic slurs such as ‘half-breeds’ and ‘tenderfeet sadly lacking brains all around’  are opinions in which she judged and sentenced servants, cooks, military, civilians and anyone who did not meet her code of standards. ‘Thieving colored men’ and ‘cowardly chinamen’ servants are examples of Roe’s scorn usually based on poor performance, ignored instructions and those stepping out of their social class. Without exception, the Roe yardstick of opinions left no stone unturned about race, manhood, womanhood or an officer’s rank. 

Camp Supply, Indian Territory, May, 1872:

There is one advantage in being with colored troops—one can always have good servants. Mrs. Vincent has an excellent colored soldier cook, and her butler was thoroughly trained as such before he enlisted. It did look so funny, however, to see such a black man in a blue Uniform.

African-American soldiers marching in uniform and formation. Grand Junction, Colorado. 1883. Denver Public Library, Western History. X8697.

African-American soldiers marching in uniform and formation. Grand Junction, Colorado. 1883. Denver Public Library, Western History. X8697.

Camp Supply, Indian Territory, October, 1872:

Faye says that the colored troops were real soldiers that night, alert and plucky. I can readily believe that some of them can be alert, and possibly good soldiers, and that they can be good thieves too, for last Saturday night they stole from us the commissary stores.

Anne Bruner Eales explores the diaries and letters of army officer’s wives who lived on the army posts and forts during the military’s push into Westward Expansion. Eales claims that Roe’s prejudicial writings were not unusual for this time period but the standard of the day, specially on the army posts. In Eales book, Army Wives on the American Frontier: Living by the Bugles” she writes, “Women from the North had seldom interacted with Negroes; it is likely that some had never even spoken to an African American.” She points to the experiences of one officer’s wife who came from a wealthy family in Michigan, and had written three books about military life in the Far West with her husband General George Armstrong Custer. Eales recounts Elizabeth Bacon Custer’s personal thoughts about living on the army posts. Her Northern upbringing had impressed expectations about protocol; yet, enclosed army forts and confined living spaces with African-American troops put everyone in close proximity.

Elizabeth Bacon Custer and George Armstrong Custer

Elizabeth Bacon Custer and George Armstrong Custer

Eales notes Libbie’s charitable work with the enlisted white men. However, she feared the African-American soldiers:

Libbie Custer took a great interest in the white enlisted men of her husband’s regiment, asking about their health and the well-being of wives, sweethearts, and children […] This same woman so caring and so revered by white soldiers, considered ‘early days of soldiering [by blacks]… a reign of terror to us women in our lonely unprotected homes.’ She insisted that a Negro recruit on sentry duty had taken a shot at a group of officers’ wives out for an evening promenade around the post. Autie Custer may have turned down an opportunity to serve with the newly formed, all black Ninth Cavalry regiment partially because of his wife’s attitude toward African-American troops. It was apparently only black men that she feared because Libbie expressed tremendous respect for the ability and patience of Negro servants, such as Eliza Brown, the Custers’ black cook.

Another officer’s wife on the Western frontier was Eveline Alexander.  Michele Nacy’s book Members of the Regiment: Army Officers’ Wives on the Western Frontier, 1865-1890 describes Alexander’s journey in 1866 from Fort Cobb to Fort Union. Eveline had joined her cavalry officer husband Andrew in Arkansas on their way to Fort Stevens. A fort built on the headwaters of the Arkansas River in Colorado. Nacy cites Sandra L. Myres’ book Cavalry Wife: The Diary of Eveline M. Alexander, 1866-1867 about Alexander’s encounter with a regiment of black soldiers. Alexander wrote in her diary,

Cavalry Wife: The Diary of Eveline M. Alexander, 1866-1867

Cavalry Wife: The Diary of Eveline M. Alexander, 1866-1867

Negroes of the Fifty-seventh Regiment are indeed the most hideous blacks I have ever seen. There is hardly a mulatto among them; almost all are coal black, with frightful bad places.

Official Army policy had made African-American officers part of its elite social class. But even military policy could not break down the social barriers that its members brought with them. Alexander proves this undeniable truth in her diary entry:

When faced with a black officer, officers and their wives often ignored the presumed equality of like rank and instituted their own system of societal norms. Furthermore, “Officers’ wives associated with members of various social classes, yet supported, and endorsed the separation of classes” (64).

Like Roe, Alexander’s criticisms extended beyond race. Social status accompanied protocol and, in turn, established a hierarchal system of relationships; in order to maintain an elitist social division of classes. Alexander writes,

Though wives generally understood that not all of their number was identical or amiable, a certain polite disdain was reserved for officers’ wives with less ‘breeding’ (50).

 Libbie Custer and Frances Roe came from privileged backgrounds. So too, was Eveline Alexander raised in “comfortable circumstances” with tutors and governesses (74, Members of the Regiment...). Whether officers’ wives came from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, or Charleston, South Carolina the vast majority of them reflected the nations’s cultural prejudice against blacks along with establishing a class system of privilege within the military forts. The National Park Service Fort Davis vintage newsletter published the article,   MOVING WITH THE FRONTIER ARMY: Tenth Cavalry Officers’ Wives; Follow the Guidon:

 In March of 1885, the Tenth U. S. Cavalry received orders of its impending transfer from Fort Davis, Texas to the Department of Arizona. The Tenth, one of two cavalry regiments of African- American troops commanded by white officers, was organized in 1866. It had spent its entire
existence on the frontier, first in Kansas and Oklahoma, and then in Texas beginning in 1873.
For many officers and their wives, the transfer was welcomed. Others accepted the news hesitantly. A few were angry. They felt the regiment had already “done its time” on the western frontier. 

Roe’s privileged background was common among the army officer’s wives. The above newsletter gives a snapshot with short biographies on the officer’s wives: Flora Green Cooper, Mary Braxton Bigelow, Gertrude Gardner Eggleston, Helen Fuller Davis, Virginia Maxwell Keyes, Alice Kirk Grierson, and Grace Fuller Maxon. All the above mentioned women bios read like a New York Society page of Who’s Who. Here’s an excerpt about Virginia Maxwell Keyes:

Another officer’s wife who chose to travel with the troops rather than by rail was Virginia Maxwell Keyes, wife of Captain Alexander S. B. Keyes. Born in Taos, New Mexico Territory, in 1850, Virginia was the oldest daughter of Lucien Maxwell and Luz Beaubien Maxwell, two of the wealthiest and most influential people in the Territory. 

 Flora Green Cooper, like many officer’s wives, was a seasoned camp follower traveling to and living in military forts on the Western Frontier.  Her recollections about the African-American troops counterbalance the negative stories. Eales recounts Cooper’s near violent episode with drunken soldiers. The white troops had escorted Flora and her children from Austin Texas to Fort Concho in 1874.  Her husband Captain Charles Cooper left camp to purchase supplies for the trip. Since he was unable to oversee their safety, he had Pvt. George Clark, a black striker take care of them. The white soldiers had gotten drunk. However, Pvt. Clark had sat down in front of Flora’s tent with his carbine in his lap preventing the drunken group of soldiers from entering her tent. Private Clark “sat there all night, keeping the white men who threatened her at bay” (pg. 131).

Roe’s derogatory opinions are openly wielded throughout the book. In fact, by today’s standards, it’s incomprehensible that the editors of the manuscript had not deleted her discriminating remarks.  Yet, the world-renown and respected New York Publisher, D. Appleton & Company, DID publish the book because racism was not part of the general consciousness or conversation of the day. And also why Army Letters is an extraordinary book. It crisscrosses many fields of academic study far beyond a historical compendium. It expands into other academic fields such as anthropology and sociology. With our present-day awareness about discrimination, we are able to study past human interactions without the typical editing of what is and isn’t acceptable for print. In other words, the phrase ‘politically correct’ has not removed or hidden an era’s point of view or practice of social mores. We can identify sociological markers such as class structure, race, culture, gender and so forth within a specific time period -Westward Expansionism. A timeframe confined in a hierachal microcosm – the military forts and posts.  Roe gives us more than glimpses into her army life on the Western Frontier.  Without censure, she has revealed the thoughts and opinions of the day. 

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