Gen. George Armstrong Custer didn't think too much of black cavalry soldiers.
"He said they wouldn't fight, that they were afraid and that they'd run," said John Smith, a black whose grandfather served in Utah and other areas of the West in the latter part of the 19th century with the all-black Buffalo Soldiers.Like most white officers of the last century, Smith said Custer felt it was below his dignity to ride with the Buffalo Soldiers, who at times made up as much as 20 percent of the cavalry and whose ranks included 18 Medal of Honor winners.
"It was good that Custer never took us with him," Smith said. "You see what happened to Custer, don't you?"
Smith's grandfather, Charles Smith, served as a sergeant - the highest rank a black man could hold in the army at the time - in the 9th Cavalry. He was stationed at Fort Duchesne from 1892-97 before moving to Arizona in 1902, where he retired from the army.
Buffalo Soldiers couldn't even go into the towns they were protecting. They were the victims of insults, racial slurs and other abuse by townspeople and white officers and soldiers.
"Many of them joined the army after the Civil War because they needed a job and had something they wanted to prove," he said.
John Smith, a Phoenix resident, hopes his participation in the Arizona 10th Cavalry, E (for education) Company, will help spread the word about the accomplishments of his grandfather and other black Americans who served with distinction in the American armed forces in the West and elsewhere in segregated units like the Buffalo soldiers. Black soldiers were given the name "Buffalo soldiers" by American Indians in reference to the hair texture and skin color.
The new 10th Cavalry, a division of America's Buffalo Soldiers Re-Enactors Association, was in town Saturday as part of Utah's centennial celebrations to honor seven Buffalo Soldiers and all other veterans buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery. The group also joined the Centennial Wagon Train near Nephi on Friday to commemorate Flag Day and Juneteenth.
Juneteenth is a holiday honoring June 19, 1865, the day Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and forced slave owners in that city to release their slaves in conjunction with President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Texas surrendered to Union forces on June 2, 1865, but some slaves did not learn of their freedom until Granger arrived in Galveston.
After the Civil War, some black soldiers who served and wanted to remain in the victorious Union Army where reorganized into the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments, both of which saw action during the Indian Wars of the latter 19th century. Much of the history and many of the accomplishments of these two regiments were ignored by contemporaries and forgotten by historians.