Let us now praise famous men
-------- Rudyard Kipling,
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination-indeed, everything and anything except me.
---------Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
This series of articles, which make up the "Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Huachuca" editions of the Huachucan Illustrated magazine, are about people, geography, ideas, and military operations. They try to convey what it was like to be a soldier along the Mexican border from 1913 to 1939, especially an African-American soldier.
At one time in Fort Huachuca's history, the border with Mexico was the focal point of U.S. military history, just as Vietnam and the Persian Gulf became so for other generations of soldiers. It was along this border that were mustered in 1916 upwards of 110,000 troops, the most Americans in uniform that had ever been brought together before, outside of wartime. The National Guard of 47 states (Nevada had no militia), the District of Columbia and the Territory of Alaska were called into federal service and rushed to the border. Many units of the regular army were also sent to reinforce those regiments dug in along the Mexican line. Virtually every Army leader of both World Wars saw service on the border between 1911 and 1917. And few of these men doubted that war with Mexico was inevitable. The Punitive Expedition was the largest scale maneuver undertaken up until that time by the U.S. Army. It absorbed the complete attention of all of the politicians and Army brass in Washington, D.C. It was the final hurrah for the horse cavalry, the elite arm of the American Army, although not all cavalrymen would recognize this until decades later. For an American soldier in the second decade of the 20th century, this was where the action was.
The people involved are allowed to speak in their own voice as often as it is possible and it is through them that we get a more immediate feel for their experiences. The enlisted man is given few lines to speak in the drama of military history. Officers, by virtue of education, military training and careerism, are often equipped and inclined to report their observations about their experiences and make official their contributions. Enlisted men are less often moved to see themselves in historical terms. Instead they view themselves as protagonists.
Mexican Service Medal, Army, 1916
This may explain why officers appear in biographies and histories and EM are the stuff of fiction by novelists like Stephen Crane, Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Tim O'Brien. The characters of this body of literature wallow in the trenches, love in the saloons, curse the officer class, and die in the foxholes. For the most part in the literature of war, the generals provide the genius, the enlisted men provide the casualties.
Of the officers who speak to us from the early part of the 20th century are William Carey Brown, Frank Tompkins, Louis C. Scherer, John Brooks, Clarence Richmond, George Rodney, Paul Matte, Vance Batchelor, Edward Glass, Harold Wharfield, and Matthew H. Tomlinson. They all wrote down their experiences and their documents are on file at the Fort Huachuca Museum.
The same applies to the enlisted men who have left us their record. These are men like Vance H. Marchbanks, Henry Houston, George Looney, and James Clark. These men reveal their feelings and pride with an eloquence that comes of thoughtful self-examination. I am grateful that history has made them our comrades. There is much to be learned from them.
As I have said, these articles are also about geography, those mountains and high deserts which dominate the American Southwest. The Fort Huachuca military installation is a plot of ground over which people have trod, built, wept, laughed, and below which they have been laid to their rest. In one sense, the land is the object of our history. People are the subject of this compendium; not any one race or gender, just people. True, most of them are military people, but that is because Fort Huachuca, our range finder, is a military installation.
Heraclitus proclaimed: "Geography is fate." Ralph Ellison wondered why has so little investigation been done on the affect geography has had on African -Americans.
Emancipation was sought by escaping from the South into the unknown areas of young America. Ellison said, "...freedom was also to be found in the West of the old Indian Territory. Bessie Smith gave voice to this knowledge when she sang of 'Goin' to the Nation, Goin' to the Terr'tor',' and it is no accident that much of the symbolism of our folklore is rooted in the imagery of geography. For the slaves had learned through the repetition of group experience that freedom was to be attained through geographical movement, and that freedom required one to risk his life against the unknown."(1) Vance Marchbanks wrote about his enlistment in 1895, characterizing his decision as taking his "chances with the unknown."(2)
And, finally, this series of articles is about ideas; ideas like evolving weapons technology, changing tactics, and changing attitudes. There is one big idea that keeps elbowing its way into the narrative and that is the idea of racial equality (or inequality).
It is here that I wish to acknowledge my biases so that you may determine if you will find these volumes congenial. My own experiences both in the Army and as a civilian working for the Army have undeniably shaped my opinion of that organization. In an almost 30-year association, I have found a lot to admire in the soldiers of the American Army and in the institutional values they represent. I like the Army.
Likewise, I have known many African-Americans over my life and I have encountered their culture through the less direct pathway of historical research. But I must confess to a vast gap in my knowledge about the African-American experience. I have no complete way of understanding the experience of slavery or the toll its memory takes upon its descendants. So I turn to Sterling Brown who tried to express the hurtfulness of slavery to the enslaved, and filtered his verse through a fine anger.
They dragged you from homeland,
They chained you in coffles,
They huddled you spoon-fashion in
They sold you to give a few
They broke you like oxen,
They scourged you,
They branded you,
They made your women breeders,
They swelled your numbers
They taught you the religion
Keep a-inchin' along
Lak a po' inch worm...
Bye and bye
I'm gonna lay down dis
Walk togedder, chillen,
Dontcha git weary...
The strong men keep a-comin' on
The strong men git stronger. (3)
It may be enough to know, as James Baldwin knew, that "There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood---one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it."(4)
It is fruitless to try to introduce race as a differentiating factor in military life. The military experience transcends cultural, racial and national boundaries. Men have been exposed to the soldier's life over the ages of history and the uniqueness of that experience changes little from generation to generation, and from nation to nation.
What is worth investigating is how African-Americans performed their duty in a society which had recently enslaved them and now found it necessary to enforce the myth of racial inferiority. That society was represented within the U.S. Army by white officers. Some would say the black recruit had traded their slavemasters for new, commissioned ones.
One indication of the black soldier's feelings about himself was his unwillingness to accept injustice as he found it. And he encountered countless occasions of injustice during the course of his service in the U.S. Army. Some of the most publicized incidents were the 1898 rebellion of 25th Infantrymen and 10th Cavalrymen against Jim Crow laws in Chickamauga Park and Tampa on the eve of their departure for the fighting in Cuba, the 1900 assault by men of the 25th on an El Paso jail where the soldiers thought a comrade was being unjustly held; the 1906 march on Brownsville, Texas, by outraged members of the 25th, and the subsequent unjust blame laid upon the entire regiment; the San Antonio riot of 1911 sparked by the refusal of black soldiers to ride in the rear of a streetcar; the Honolulu protests of 1915 against racial movies and minstrel shows; and the 1917 riots in Houston, Texas, between the 3d Battalion, 24th Infantry, and Houston police arising out of a number of insupportable racial insults by the police and citizens of Houston. In the last case, nineteen soldiers were ordered hanged and 63 jailed for life by perfunctory courts-martial.
Also, while wearing the uniform, he was subjected to numberless humiliations by whites in both mufti and khaki. The black soldiers of the 24th Infantry, while escorting enemy prisoners of the Spanish-American War from Florida to Georgia, were jeered while southern belles handed out flowers to the white captives. A southern priest was heard to say, "It is an outrage that white men have been subjected to the humiliation of having Negro guards over them."(5) In 1906, "No Niggers or Dogs Allowed" signs were posted in Brownsville, Texas, not the first or last time such placards would be seen. In 1919 race riots, 10 of the 77 blacks lynched were veterans, some wearing their uniforms. Memorials to World War I dead had separate plaques for African-American killed in action.(6)
The unforgivable crime of the white officers, who carried the responsibility for the well-being of their men, was the quiet acceptance of the kinds of incidents listed above. An officer, who expects men to die upon his orders, must give the soldiers under him unqualified respect and support. The record shows that most did. Those who did not come to the aid of their black charges when they were insulted by local bigots, failed both as officers and human beings.
It is important to avoid the sometimes tempting but always misleading generalizations; the kind that would allow a Fort Huachuca officer to decide that "The colored soldier's passive resistance is beyond description," in response to a soldier boycott of a Thanksgiving dinner. We are talking about a large body of men. There were 816 men authorized in a regiment early in the century and, later in 1921, as many as 1,464. There was always a smaller number at Huachuca, due to lag in recruitments and the dispatch of troops along the border and other posts in Arizona.
It should be remembered that the men of the 9th and 10th Cavalry, the 24th and 25th Infantry, were volunteers. They chose, in the words of one 19th century private, "to place themselves in virtual slavery for $13 dollars a month." When one accepts the life of a soldier, he subjects himself to military regulation and discipline, in return for a way of life that offers a sense of service. Veteran Vance Marchbanks recognized that and expressed it thusly:
... The Army is no place now for thieves, murderers or renegades from the talons of the law, but a place where young men can obtain a liberal education, and fit themselves for better citizenship. ...(the 10th Cavalry) has built some fine men. I say built, because I have seen them come in the rough-some from the city and some from the country, uneducated, uncultured-some almost hopelessly ignorant, and the writer assigns himself to the latter class. In three short years these boys not only straighten up but they improve in physique, manners, and education. They learn the importance of organization, and obedience to constituted authority. They learn to submit to discipline and controls.(7)
To ignore the painful victimization of the black soldier in the U.S. Army would be a mistake. The lessons learned about inhumanity need to be driven home over and over again. There are myths that can only be dispelled in the vast laboratory of human history. But it would be equally mistaken to dwell on the controversial at the expense of the celebratory. In addition to some incidents of hate and humiliation, there was much love, laughter and loyalty on the Fort Huachuca reservation. All of the men in the regular army black regiments that I have talked to or read about, speak with great pride of their service and their accomplishments and with unmistakable fondness for their Army experiences.(8)
"I met some of the best and some of the worst...If you characterize yourself like a man, they treat you like one...I never hated anybody... I could always smile and find some good."(9)
Master Sergeant James Clark was one of the veterans that returned to Fort Huachuca and talked about his life. He acknowledged the presence of racial injustice in the Army of the 1920s, but could not recall, or did not want to discuss, specific cases. At the time of his interview, he was in his early 80s and was without rancor. In fact, he viewed his Army experiences affectionately. Speaking of white officers in his regiment, the 10th Cavalry, he said, "You'll always find someone who was honest." He said he was brought up to "look for the good."
Clark's philosophical attitude, his willingness to overlook any painful racial incidents, and always "look for the good," was not unusual among visiting veterans to Fort Huachuca. It should be remembered that those men had voluntarily come back to Huachuca in later years because of positive feelings about the place. Those with bad memories would probably have no desire to visit and so their views remain undocumented.
The composite picture presented by the African-American enlisted men discussed above may be one-sided. They have many things in common. They were all high-achievers, had positive outlooks, and were proud of their chosen careers. They were professional soldiers. It is not until we look at those periods when blacks were drafted that we begin to see a record of bitter discontent, on the part of men less inclined to submit to Army discipline, especially when it was perceived as racist.
It would also be unfair to characterize the experiences and feelings of the "Buffalo Soldiers" as being from another time different from our own and therefore irrelevant. If we think of history as the explanation of change, then it is important to point out differences between their day and our own. Attitudes change, weapons improve, the uniform undergoes modification, but the man within changes little. He carries in his head the same hopes and fears from century to century.
This brings us to the importance of remembering; remembering both the good and the bad, "The disastrous and the marvelous."
Vance Marchbanks was a believer in the instructive power of history and quoted Patrick Henry, "We have no way of judging the future except by the past."(10) He was extremely knowledgeable about the history of black Americans serving their country and felt the compulsion to transcribe his own military experiences so that his life might become a part of the flow of history.
Ellison makes the point that ignorance of history, or the "discontinuous" American historical consciousness, leaves us open "to superstition, rumor, and the manipulation of political medicine men." He thinks the forces of historical consciousness are always at work in our psyches to offer up clues as to group identities. "Perhaps if we learn more of what happened and why it happened, we'll learn more of who we really are. And perhaps if we learn more about our unwritten history, we won't be so vulnerable to the capriciousness of events as we are today. And in the process of becoming more aware of ourselves we will recognize that one of the functions of our vernacular culture is that of preparing for the emergence of the unexpected, whether it takes the form of the disastrous or the marvelous."(11)
The history of the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Huachuca has its share of disasters and much at which to marvel. These stories set about the job of self-definition.
--------------------------------------------------James P. Finley
1. Ellison, Ralph, Going to the Territory, Vintage books, NY, 1986.
2. Vance Marchbanks enlisted for the first time in 1895 and spent most of his 43-year Army career at Fort Huachuca. In World War II he was commissioned a captain and after the war he rejoined the Regular Army at his old rank of First Sergeant. His reminiscences are in manuscript form in the Fort Huachuca Museum files.
3. Brown, Sterling, The Negro Caravan, 1941.
4. Baldwin, James, Notes of a Native Son, Dial, NY, 1985
5. Foner, Jack, Blacks and the Military in American History: A New Perspective, Praeger, NY, 1974, 76.
6. Foner, 126.
7. Marchbanks mss.
8. These were regular army men, volunteers and lifetime soldiers, as opposed to the draftees that were inducted into an alien world against their will.
9. Master Sergeant James Clark enlisted in the Army as a kitchen worker, a KP, in 1918 and served at Fort Huachuca in the early 1920s with Troop E, 10th Cavalry, and rose from KP to first cook to mess sergeant to cadre sergeant and, finally, to the rank of First Sergeant. Clark appeared in a series of videotaped interviews for the fort's television channel. The video interview is in the Fort Huachuca Museum files.
10. Marchbanks mss.
11. Ellison, 88-9,144.
1. Fort Huachuca: The Traditional Home of the Buffalo Soldier
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