In recent years, there has been renewed media attention on the so-called “Buffalo Soldiers,” black men who enlisted in the U.S. Army and typically patrolled the Old West in search of hostile Indians. A TNT mini-series has been a consistent seller and is occasionally re-run on prime time. Quite a few magazine articles and other hard copy have been published, but perhaps none is as good of a general overview as Elizabeth D. Leonard’s newly released Men of Color to Arms! (New York: Norton, 2010).
The title comes from orator and civil rights activist Frederick Douglass, who sent his own sons off to the army during the American Civil War. Leonard looks at the rise of the black soldiers movement in both the North and belatedly in the Confederacy. She tells the story of several individuals, including Christian A. Fleetwood who received the Medal of Honor for his Civil War exploits, and regiments such as the U.S. Colored Troops.
Following that conflict, many young black men who had tasted army life decided that option was better than trying to eke out a living, particularly among freed slaves in the South. “About half of the more than 4,500 enlistees,” notes Leonard, “who responded to the first calls to join the postwar regiments were USCT veterans.” There was little trouble in convincing former Civil War soldiers to stay in the army, which was needed to facilitate the westward expansion into Indian country. Leonard notes the irony of the key role the black soldiers played in pushing another minority out of lands they had possessed for hundreds of years. While certainly not slavery, the Army’s use of black soldiers fulfilled the white establishment’s goals at the expense of black labor and blood. In this case, however, it was spilled along with white regiments in the decades-long Indian Wars.
Of particular interest is Leonard’s chapter on the redefinition of race relationships late in the 19th century and the drive to admit black cadets to the U.S. Military Academy. She looks are period attitudes, including those of former Civil War generals such as E. O. C. Ord, who disdained the blacks who served in the Civil War as the “lowest class.” Ambrose Burnside introduced a congressional bill that on the surface appeared to be a progressive measure but in reality whose ultimate consequence was “the complete exclusion of black American men from the U.S. army.”
Leonard takes a well crafted look at the black community’s struggle for citizenship in the 1890s, punctuated by the military veterans of the Ninth U.S. Cavalry. She opines that by the end of the century, “Apparently a cross-race fraternity that was difficult to accomplish either in theory or practice in settings such as West Point or the National Guard was significantly more possible in the field.” However, not everything was rosy for the black soldiers. “Cross-race fraternal feelings on the field notwithstanding, ” Leonard notes, “some black Regulars resented being left behind to fend with winter on the Plains while their white counterparts headed off to warmer quarters.” Prejudice and bigotry existed long after the century closed, with segregation still the regular practice for many decades well into the 20th century.
Men of Color to Arms! flows well and is an easy read. Leonard’s sweeping overview paints a good, general picture of the struggle of the black soldiers to gain recognition and acceptance, both in the army and in society as a whole. Her extensive footnotes give the reader desiring more depth a chance to explore the source material. Pertinent photographs and illustrations sprinkle the book, but it is the text that stands out.
It’s a book well worth reading if you have an interest in race relations, the conquest of the Old West, Civil War black soldiers / colored troops, or army socio-political mechanisms.
Elizabeth D. Leonard
Men of Color to Arms!
W. W. Norton, 2010
315 pages, photographs, hard cover, dust jacket