Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
In 1866, the United States Congress authorized the establishment of six new army regiments that were to consist entirely of black men. Part of the reason for the creation of these units was the admirable record black regiments had achieved during the Civil War. But the primary cause was the dire need for manpower in the postwar regular army. Only a year after Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the military had been reduced so drastically that there were not enough soldiers to deal with the needs of white settlers in the West. There, the men of the black regiments aided in the eviction of the Plains Indians acquiring the nickname "Buffalo Soldiers," a title of respect equated with the great beast of the plains. For the community of Hays, Kansas, the story of the Buffalo Soldiers has special significance. From 1867 to 1870, black troops from the Tenth Cavalry and Thirty- Eighth Infantry stationed at Fort Hays and from 1881 to 1885, companies of the Ninth cavalry stationed there as well. The early history of the Buffalo Soldiers ran parallel to the development of Hays City. Fort Hays was the first site of Indian combat for any of the new black recruits. The Buffalo Soldiers witnessed the establishment of Hays City in 1867 and often served as civilian guards during the settlement's first few months. Blacks shared equally in the miseries that were the domain of every soldier in the frontier army. Disease, inadequate food and shelter, association with dangerous characters and even boredom were everyday staples of military life. Fights and shootings between black soldiers and civilians contributed to Hays City's reputation for violence. A combination of local factors brought the Buffalo Soldiers to Fort Hays. While white settlement in western Kansas steadily increased, Indian raids continued to rise. The first overland stage company from Kansas City to Denver ran along the Smoky Hill Trail and prompted the establishment of Fort Fletcher in present-day Ellis County in 1865. A shortage of manpower caused Fletcher to close the following year but by 1866, the Union Pacific Railroad, Eastern Division, had begun construction on a line through Kansas. Out of the need to protect the advancing railroad, Fort Hays was established. Its first months were bedeviled by problems of too few men trying to defend too large an area. By June 1867, the fort consisted mostly of infantry, which was ineffective if pursuit of mounted Indian warriors became necessary. The need for additional cavalry at Fort Hays was answered by several companies of the Tenth cavalry, just completing training at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley in eastern Kansas. The Tenth's commander, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, had recruited freedmen from all parts of the eastern United States. The black recruits faced disadvantages that the white units did not have. Since most freedmen could not read nor write, the burden for routine paperwork shifted to the white officers, leaving less time for supervision of training and drill. The black units were continually provided with inferior animals and supplies and were usually the objects of prejudice from white soldiers. While training his troops at Fort Leavenworth, Grierson became involved in a conflict with the post commander. Wishing to remove his men from the discriminatory environment at Leavenworth, Grierson dispatched several companies of the Tenth to western Kansas. The disadvantages of the new recruits became painfully obvious during their first combat engagement north of Fort Hays. Under the command of Captain George Armes, troops of the Tenth Cavalry, Company F, battled a party of Cheyenne at the Saline River in August 1867. Panic and disorganization among the ranks made it difficult for the officers to mount a proper defense. However, by the time of the Tenth's second engagement at Beaver Creek later that month, the new recruits were able to handle themselves admirably in combat, surviving three days in a perilous situation when their company was surrounded. While units of black cavalry tracked hostile Indians in the field, the infantry spread out along the UPRR-ED line, protecting construction crews and surveying parties. By late 1867, Indian hostilities had diminished enough for Grierson to call his companies of the Tenth back to Fort Riley, leaving companies of the Thirty-Eighth Infantry to occupy Fort Hays. The cholera epidemic of 1867 took a high and gruesome toll on the black units, causing many whites to believe that it was the Buffalo Soldiers who had somehow carried the disease into Kansas. Drunkenness and insubordination were common problems in the black units as well as in all army regiments. One-fourth of the army's enlistment deserted in 1867 but the rate of desertion for the Buffalo Soldiers was relatively low compared to white units. Although the Buffalo Soldiers' sense of cohesion aided their military effectiveness, it also proved to be a drawback in their dealings with civilians. When one black soldier was injured or killed in a fight with Hays City residents, the rest took upon themselves the task of locating and punishing the offender. The numerous violent encounters between blacks and white civilians in Hays City resembled an ongoing blood feud and white racism tended to exaggerate the Buffalo Soldiers ' role to the point where they have mistakenly been blamed for all the bloodshed that characterized Hays' early years . When troops of the Ninth cavalry stationed at Fort Hays in the early 1880s, conditions had improved somewhat but conflicts with local residents was still the norm. The new Buffalo Soldiers were younger and had no experience in combat as compared to their predecessors. But the new troops were also more capable of self-restraint and less eager to resort to gunfire in their dealings with angry civilians. When the last of the black units departed in 1885, they precipitated the closing of Fort Hays itself by only four years. For over a third of its history, Fort Hays was guarded by troops of the new black regiments and the contribution they made to the development of Hays City and Ellis County was substantial. While some of the Buffalo Soldiers served as agents of peace, others contributed to the violence that made Hays the source of legends about wild frontier towns.
Copyright 1992 Jim Leiker
Leiker, Jim, "The Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Hays" (1992). Master's Theses. 2349.