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Buffalo Soldiers: African-American soldiers who fought for control of New Mexico in the 19th Century

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Greg Henneman, ret.
  • Former 49th Fighter Wing historian
Long before B-17 bomber crews trained at Alamogordo Army Field, long before Col. (Dr.) John Stapp rode the High Speed Test Track into history and long before stealthy fighters circled the skies over southern New Mexico, the U.S. Cavalry journeyed from Texas into the unsettled New Mexico territories.

Not yet a state, the area that now makes up New Mexico was primarily controlled by Native Americans and seen as dangerous by western settlers. In addition, white cattle thieves and illegal commerce were rampant in the 19th Century New Mexico. 

In order to settle these lands, and to allow for a much wanted westward expansion, the U.S. Army called upon a group of recently freed black men who made up the 9th and 10th Cavalries. These units were primarily composed of volunteer enlisted black men, many of whom joined for economic security, as few opportunities were available for African-Americans in the post-Civil War United States. 

Clad in blue uniforms and riding on horseback, these units gained fame and respect as the Buffalo Soldiers. Legend states the black cavalrymen were dubbed "Buffalo Soldiers" by their Native American adversary because of their toughness, dark skin and hair texture.

Nearly 4,000 Buffalo Soldiers served at 11 posts in New Mexico, protecting travelers to California and valuable trade routes along the Rio Grande. Many of these soldiers were stationed in south-central New Mexico at Fort Stanton near Capitan, fort McRae near Elephant Butte Lake, and Fort Selden, just north of Las Cruces.

Several key battles for control of New Mexico took place in the areas we live and work. One of the most significant occurred on April 8, 1880, when the 9th Cavalry engaged Apache Chief Victorio at a watering hole in Hembrillo Canyon-located on what today is the west side of White Sands Missile Range, near Victorio Peak.

Numerous other skirmishes took place in Alamo Canyon (near today's Alamogordo) and the Sacramento Mountains. Campaigns in the mountains proved difficult for the Buffalo Soldiers. One venture into Dog Canyon demonstrated the danger faced by the cavalry as the Army was greeted by Apaches firing on them and dropping large rocks from 800 feet above. In the searing summer heat, the Buffalo Soldiers scaled the steep canyon walls, with several men suffering heatstroke. Reaching the ledge at nightfall, the soldiers discovered the Apaches were long gone.

In addition to fighting in difficult conditions, Buffalo Soldiers, like their white Army counterparts in the west, worked without proper clothing for the harsh summers and cold winters. Malnutrition and disease were rampant. Col. Edward Hatch described the conditions: "... the work performed by these troops is most arduous, horses worn to mere shadows, men nearly without boots, shoes and clothing. That the loss in horses may be understood when following the Indians in the Black Range the horses were without anything to eat [for] five days except what they nibbled from pinon pines ..."

Serving for over five decades in New Mexico, black soldiers not only endured difficult battles and physical hardships, but also racism and discrimination. Nonetheless, the Buffalo Soldiers overcame these adversities and played a key role in settling New Mexico. Numerous accounts from superior officers praised the brave fighting capabilities of the black soldiers, many of whom had recently been held by the bonds of slavery. The Buffalo Soldiers directly contributed to the political, economic, and social settlement of the lands which, in 1912, became the state of New Mexico.