The Buffalo Soldiers of post-war Texas are among the most fascinating and least well known, least celebrated, of all our military heroes.
Photo courtesy First City Photo, Leavenworth
In 1866, the U.S. Congress authorized six regiments of black troops, two of cavalry, four of infantry, for the U.S. Army. Retired history teacher Fred Staff pulled one soldier, Sergeant Goldsby, from this period and created a novel based on his character. Sergeant Goldsby and the 10th Cavalry is filled with gory battle scenes that, sadly, happened in real life.
Battle of Beecher Island (hat tip to Lyle E. Davis)
The name “Buffalo Soldiers” was respectfully given by Indians who said the tightly curled hair of the black soldiers reminded them of the curly hair on a buffalo’s face. Bison were revered by the Indians, and Buffalo Soldiers proudly featured a bison on their regimental crest.
The real life George Goldsby was born a slave and lived in Alabama until the Civil War broke out. Forced to serve the war effort, he was at Picket’s Charge and escaped during the battle at Gettysburg. He served in the Union Army until the end of the war. Dreaming of reunion with wife and children, he made the long journey home, only to find his life was as much of a total loss as the defeated South. Worse, he was about to be hanged for serving the North. He escaped to Indian Territory and reentered the military as part of the newly established 10th Cavalry. He marries again and fathers more children, one of them the notorious Cherokee Bill who was executed at age twenty for countless evil deeds and murders. (This is not in the novel. Bill is a child at novel’s end.)
“A bloodthirsty mad dog who killed for the love of killing.”
– Judge Isaac Parker, sentencing Bill to the gallows (Hat tip to Ben Thompson)
The novel takes about eight chapters to get to this Buffalo Soldier phase of Goldsby’s life. My interest picked up with the Battle of Beecher Island, in which the great Cherokee warrior Roman Nose met his demise. Not to be confused with Chief Henry Roman Nose, a highly respected Southern Cheyenne Chief, this Roman Nose (born in the 1820s) attacked emigrants along the Oregon Trail between 1860-1868 and led retaliatory strikes against Euro-American settlements at the Battle of Julesburg along the Platte Road and Powder River regions of south-central Wyoming and in the Platte valley of Nebraska, western Kansas, and eastern Colorado.
Seemingly invincible in combat, Roman Nose wore a warbonnet made by a medicine man who assured Roman Nose he would be impervious to the white man’s bullets as long as he followed certain conditions. E.g., Roman Nose could not shake hands in the way of the white man or eat food that had been touched with any iron implement. Should he violate either of these conditions, he would surely be killed in battle.
Alas, poor Roman Nose. Shortly before the Battle of Beecher Island, a woman used an iron fork to remove fry bread from the cooking pan, which violated one of the conditions. He found out, but not in time to perform the necessary cleansing ceremony to restore his “medicine.” He tried to play it safe by watching the battle from afar, but the elderly warrior White Contrary chided him for his lack of participation. Better to die than look like a coward, right? Roman Nose donned his war clothes and bonnet, then led an assault on the island. He was shot at close range during the attack (in the novel, this is a glorious occasion for the man who kills him). The demise of Roman Nose had devastating effects on the Cheyenne.
The Battle of Beecher Island took place near what is today Wray, Colorado, in Yuma County, near the Nebraska and Kansas borders. Major-General Phil Sheridan commanded the region with 1200 cavalry and 1400 infantry. A large group of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, Arapahos, and Lakotas attacked fifty citizen scouts who held off repeated charges before the Indians departed.
One of the most revolting scenes in the novel is, sadly, true. The scouts were forced to eat their own horses until reinforcements arrived from Fort Wallace, Kansas.
After chasing Indians from West Texas, the Buffalo Soldiers pursued them into New Mexico, Colorado and the Dakotas.
This novel touches on a fascinating part of U.S. history. In any historical novel, it must be hard to invent dialogue, so I would err on the side of writing as little of it as possible. Here, there’s so much dialogue, I skimmed past a lot of it. I also sped through the opening chapters in which George (by virtue of his good looks) is tasked with fathering children who will be sold for what sounds like sex trafficking. Even if it really happened, I’d rather not dwell on that subject for long.
Fred Staff has a great subject here, one that is not over-done. He presents the horrors of slavery — and yes, this subject has been done ad nauseum, but some things bear repeating. “Never forget” is the refrain of the Holocaust, and “Remember the Alamo” is still part of our collective memory (if that’s the right word for learned knowledge) a century later.
The Buffalo Soldiers – in the Old West – that’s a great subject!
I hunted online for more information about George Goldsby but didn’t find much. I did track down some non-fiction resources for those who want to know more. Here are a few:
Buffalo Soldiers in the West: A Black Soldiers Anthology by Bruce A. Glasrud (Editor), Michael N. Searles (Editor) Publication Date: August 15, 2007
This anthology focuses on the careers and accomplishments of black soldiers, the lives they developed for themselves, their relationships to their officers (most of whom were white), their specialized roles (such as that of the Black Seminoles), and the discrimination they faced from the very whites they were trying to protect. In short, this volume offers important insights into the social, cultural, and communal lives of the buffalo soldiers.
Buffalo Soldiers (Black Sabre Chronicles) February 15, 1997 by Tom Willard
From the Civil War to Desert Storm, there stretches an unbroken line of dedicated, distinguished service by African-Americans in the United States military. Buffalo Soldiers is a tribute to the bravery, honor, and sacrifice of these black American fighting men.
Brothers to the Buffalo Soldiers: Perspectives on the African American Militia and Volunteers, 1865-1917 Bruce A. Glasrud (Editor)
Buffalo Soldiers 1866-91 (Elite) Paperback — June 24, 2004 by Ron Field (Author), Richard Hook (Illustrator)
Voices of the Buffalo Soldier: Records, Reports, and Recollections of Military Life and Service in the West — January 16, 2009 by Frank N. Schubert (Author)
Voices of the Buffalo Soldier draws on a wide variety of periodicals, military records, and letters. It covers such key topics as the legislative origin of the inclusion of black soldiers in the army, the campaigns in which the Buffalo Soldiers fought, their daily lives and interactions with white communities, the few black chaplains and line officers who were permitted to serve, and the bravery of some Buffalo Soldier heroes. All students of the frontier army as well as aficionados with a special interest in the Buffalo Soldiers will find this an invaluable publication.
“The first work that presents the correspondence and their primary documents pertaining to black soldiers’ lives in the West.”–Quintard Taylor, University of Washington