Researching African Americans in the U.S. Army, 1866-1890
Buffalo Soldiers and Black Infantrymen
Spring 2001, Vol. 33, No. 1 | Genealogy Notes
By Trevor K. Plante
During the Civil War approximately 186,000 African Americans served in the Union army in the U.S. Colored Troops.1 Black soldiers served in volunteer cavalry, artillery, and infantry units, but the opportunity to serve as regulars in the Army was not afforded African Americans until after the Civil War. In 1866, due in large part to the wartime service of the U.S. Colored Troops, Congress authorized the army to raise six black regiments: four infantry and two cavalry. This change was part of a much larger army reorganization and laid the foundation for the proud tradition of the "Buffalo Soldiers."2 This article describes records held by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to aid genealogists researching African Americans who served in the regular army from 1866 to 1890. It also highlights records related to Charles Woods, who served in Company E, Ninth U.S. Cavalry, as an example of how to trace an individual's service in the army.
On July 28, 1866, Congress passed an act reorganizing the army by adding four regiments to the already existing six regiments of cavalry and expanding the number of infantry regiments from nineteen to forty-five. The reorganization included the creation of six colored regiments designated in November as the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and the Thirty-eighth, Thirty-ninth, Fortieth, and Forty-first Infantry.3 The new colored regiments were to be composed of black enlisted men and white officers. Three years later, Congress reorganized the army again by reducing the number of infantry units from forty-five to twenty-five regiments. For the African American regulars, this reorganization changed only the infantry units and not the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry. The Thirty-eighth Infantry and Forty-first Infantry became the Twenty-fourth Infantry, while the Thirty-ninth and Fortieth were consolidated into the Twenty-fifth Infantry. These two new infantry regiments completely replaced the former Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth.4
For the next twenty years the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry served in the West on the frontier. The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry spent much of their time in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Indian Territory protecting citizens, mail and supply routes and battling hostile Native Americans, and outlaws. The Twenty-fourth Infantry served in the Department of Texas, Indian Territory, and the Department of Arizona, while the Twenty-fifth Infantry served in the Department of Texas and the Department of Dakota.5
It was during this period that two of the regiments gained the nickname "Buffalo Soldiers." The nickname initially described troopers of the Tenth Cavalry, but the Ninth soon adopted the name as well. Although Native Americans bestowed the name upon the troopers, there are differing accounts as to the reason. One account suggests the name was acquired during the 1871 campaign against the Comanches, when Indians referred to the cavarlymen as "Buffalo Soldiers" because of their rugged and tireless marching. Other accounts state that Native Americans bestowed the nickname on the black troopers because they believed the hair of the black cavarlymen resembled the hair of the buffalo. Another suggests that the name was given because of the buffalo-hide coats worn by the soldiers in cold weather. The troopers took the nickname as a sign of respect from Native Americans, who held great reverence for the buffalo, and eventually the Tenth Cavalry adopted the buffalo as part of its regimental crest.6
Unlike individuals who served as volunteers in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, black regulars do not have compiled military service records. The War Department did not compile military service records for individuals who served in the regular army. The place to start researching African American enlisted men is the Regular Army Enlistment Papers, 1798–1894 (Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's–1917, entry 91). This series is arranged alphabetically by name of soldier and generally shows the soldier's name, place of enlistment, date, by whom enlisted, age, occupation, personal description, regimental assignment, and certification of the examining surgeon and recruiting officer. Soldiers will usually have multiple enlistment papers if they served two or more enlistments.
Researchers should also consult the Register of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798–1914, which is reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M233. The register of enlistments are arranged chronologically and thereunder alphabetically by first letter of surname and usually show the individual's name, military organization, physical description, age at time of enlistment, place of birth, enlistment information, discharge information, and remarks.
For medical information, consult carded medical records (1821–1884) found in RG 94, entry 529. These cards relate to regular army personnel admitted to hospitals for treatment and may include information such as name, rank, organization, age, race, birthplace, date entered service, cause of admission, date of admission, hospital to which admitted, and disposition of the case. This series is arranged by the number of the regiment (cavalry, infantry, and artillery are filed together under the common regiment number) and then by initial letter of surname. For example, the Ninth Cavalry is filed under the number "9" along with the Ninth Infantry.
Using the enlistment papers, register of enlistments, and carded medical records, researchers can gain valuable information about a soldier. For example, according to his enlistment paper, Charles Woods, born in New Orleans, enlisted for five years at Baton Rouge on September 1, 1866. The twenty-two-year-old laborer was assigned to the Ninth Regiment of Cavalry. The enlistment paper also provides a physical description showing, "this soldier has black eyes, black hair, yellow complexion is five feet, one inches high."7 The register of enlistments shows that Private Woods was discharged June 17, 1870, for disability at Fort Concho, Texas.8 According to the carded medical records, Woods at various times suffered from rheumatism, diarrhea, bronchitis, and gonorrhea.9
From their inception, the colored regiments were led by white officers. This changed once black cadets started graduating from the U.S. Army Military Academy. Three black graduates of West Point, Henry O. Flipper, John Alexander, and Charles Young, all served as Buffalo Soldiers. Flipper was commissioned in 1879 and served in the Tenth Cavalry. John Alexander (commissioned in 1887) and Charles Young (commissioned in 1889) both served in the Ninth Cavalry.10
When researching both black and white officers, researchers should consult the two volumes of Francis B. Heitman's Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, From Its Organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903 (Washington: GPO, 1903). Volume one contains a register of army officers, providing a brief history of their service. Volume two contains a "chronological list of battles, actions, etc., in which troops of the Regular Army have participated and troops engaged."
When researching the records for an officer's military service, consult the Commission Branch (CB) and Appointment, Commission and Personal Branch (ACP) records both found in RG 94, entry 297, Letters Received, 1863–1894. There is a card index arranged by name of officer for each of these files. CB files are reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M1064, Letters Received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant General's Office, 1863–1870, and a select number of ACP files have been reproduced on National Archives Microfiche M1395, Letters Received by the Appointment, Commission and Personal Branch, 1871–1894.
Other records that may be of interest to researchers are post returns and regular army unit returns. Returns for many military posts, camps, and stations are reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M617, Returns from U.S. Military Posts, 1800–1916. Returns generally show units stationed at the post and their strength, the names and duties of officers, the number of officers present and absent, and a record of events. Unit returns are monthly returns of military organizations reporting stations of companies and names of company commanders, unit strength, including men present, absent, sick, on extra duty or daily duty, in arrest or confinement, and significant remarks. Unit returns for Buffalo Soldiers can be found on National Archives Microfilm Publication M744, Returns from Regular Army Cavalry Regiments, 1833–1916. When researching the unit returns of the African American infantry regiments, consult National Archives Microfilm Publication M665, Returns from Regular Army Infantry Regiments, June 1821–December 1916. The returns for the Thirty-eighth, Thirty-ninth, Fortieth, and Forty-first Infantry cover 1866 to 1869. A note of caution: When researching the returns for the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry, be sure to start with the 1869 returns; the returns for the period 1866 to 1869 are for the old units and are not African American soldiers. For additional records related to individual regular army regiments, consult Record Group 391, Records of United States Regular Army Mobile Units, 1821 - 1942.
Researchers will find that court-martial records are a great source of information not only for a particular soldier but also for providing insights into the trials and tribulations faced by black soldiers. The court-martial records include the proceedings or testimony of a case, which contains common language used by black soldiers in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Records related to proceedings of U.S. Army courts-martial or courts of inquiry can be found in Record Group 153, Records of the Judge Advocate General (Army). To find an individual's case file, first consult National Archives Microfilm Publication M1105, Registers of the Records of the Proceedings of the U.S. Army General Courts-Martial, 1809–1890. The years 1866–1890 are covered by registers OO to RR and are reproduced on microfilm roll numbers six through eight. The case files include proceedings of courts of inquiry and court-martial trials related to African American soldiers. These files are not on microfilm and are filed by case file number in RG 153, entry 15A. For this period, the files have a double-alpha numeric file number such as PP-248.
In searching court-martial records, we find that Cpl. Charles Woods was tried by a general court-martial at Austin, Texas, on June 4, 1867. There were several charges in the case including mutiny, striking his superior officer, and desertion. Corporal Woods pleaded "not guilty" to the first two charges and "guilty" to the third charge of desertion. Woods was found guilty of all three charges and sentenced to death. Because of facts brought out during the case, including the harsh treatment by an officer toward his men, the judge advocate general recommended that Woods's sentence be remitted. In writing to the adjutant general, the judge advocate general wrote, "But in view of the extraordinary circumstances developed by the testimony, showing that there was no disposition on the part of the prisoner either to mutiny or to desert, but that his conduct, and that of his company, was the result of outrageous treatment on the part of one of the commissioned officers, and in view of the suffering he has already endured, the sentence is remitted and the prisoner will be restored to duty."11 A November 20 regimental order reduced Woods to the rank of private.
For researchers interested in pension files of individuals who served as Buffalo Soldiers or in black infantry units, consult National Archives Microfilm Publication T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861–1934. This microfilm publication is arranged alphabetically by the individual's last name. The index cards include the individual's unit(s), making it easier to decipher individuals with the same name. Once the application number or pension certificate number is found (this includes invalid and widow pensions), researchers can request to view the pension file. Pension files (including application files) often contain valuable personal information on soldiers that are not found in their military records.
Our story of Charles Woods ends with the pension records. After consulting the pension index, we find that Woods's pension application is shown as number 413,571. According to the index, the pension application was filed on December 14, 1880, from the state of Texas.12 Upon checking Woods's pension application file, we find that his story ends on a sad note. It appears Woods was denied a pension because of his court-martial conviction. Several appeals were made to the commissioner of pensions, who contacted the Adjutant General's Office (AGO) for more information. One response from the AGO shows the root of the problem: "The record of desertion appearing against the claimant has not been, nor can it be, removed; He was tried by General Court-Martial for the offence and convicted. His sentence was remitted by this office and he was restored to duty with his troop."13 Unfortunately, Charles Woods died June 6, 1887, while his pension application was still being appealed.14
Medals of Honor
Between 1866 and 1890 African Americans established a proud tradition of service as regulars in the U.S. Army. Proof of their bravery can be found in the Medals of Honor awarded to several of their members. During the Indian Campaigns, eighteen African Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor. Records related to these soldiers have been reproduced on roll two of National Archives Microfilm Publication M929, Documents Relating to the Military and Naval Service of Blacks Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor from the Civil War to the Spanish-American War. Roll two, covering the Indian Campaigns, is arranged alphabetically by surname and includes three Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts who were awarded the Medal of Honor.15 Consult the NARA pamphlet describing M929 for the list of recipients' names and corresponding microfilm frame numbers.
The records and microfilm publications described in this article are available at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. For researchers unable to visit the National Archives, copies of enlistment papers, register of enlistments, and pension files held by NARA can be obtained through the mail. To obtain the proper request form, please write to Old Military and Civil Records, National Archives and Records Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001.
1. Bernard C. Nalty, Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military(1986), p. 43.
2. For a description of the link between Gen. Colin Powell and the Buffalo Soldiers, see Walter Hill, "Exploring the Life and History of the 'Buffalo Soldiers,'" The Record: News from the National Archives and Records Administration (March 1998): 12–14 (also available online at www.archives.gov/publications/the_record/march_1998/buffalo_soldiers.html).
3. AGO General Order No. 56, Aug. 1, 1866, and AGO General Order No. 92, Nov. 23, 1866. Robert M. Utley, Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866–1891 (1973), p. 12.
4. AGO General Orders No. 15 & 16, Mar. 11, 1869, and AGO General Order No. 17, Mar. 15, 1869. Utley, Frontier Regulars, p. 16. The old Twenty-fourth Infantry consolidated with the Twenty-ninth to form the new Eleventh Infantry, while the old Twenty-fifth consolidated with the Eighteenth to form the new Eighteenth. See Army Lineage Series: Infantry: Part I: Regular Army (1972), pp. 31–32.
5. The Twenty-fourth Infantry served in the Department of Texas from 1869 to 1880, Indian Territory from 1880 to 1888, and following 1888 in the Department of Arizona. The Twenty-fifth Infantry served in the Department of Texas from 1870 to 1880 and the Department of Dakota following 1880. See Aloha P. South, Reference Information Paper No. 63, Data Relating to Negro Military Personnel in the 19th Century (1973), p. 3.
6. Account of Col. Benjamin H. Grierson, Tenth Cavalry, found in Hill, "Exploring the Life and History of the 'Buffalo Soldiers,'" p. 13. Other accounts found in Nalty, Strength for the Fight, p. 54; William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West (1967), p. 26; and Gerald Astor, The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military (1998) pp. 46 - 47.
7. Charles Woods, Enlistment Papers, 1798–1894, box 846, Record Group (RG) 94, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's–1917, National Archives Building (NAB), Washington, DC.
8. Register of Enlistments, Vol. 64, p. 271, Register of Enlistments of the U.S. Army, 1798–1914 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M233, roll 32), RG 94, NAB.
9. Charles Woods & C. Woods, Carded Medical Records, box 495, entry 529, RG 94, NAB.
10. Nalty, Strength for the Fight, pp. 58 - 61.
11. AGO General Court-Martial Order No. 83, Oct. 16, 1867. Case file OO-2488, box 2258, Records of the Judge Advocate General (Army), RG 153, NAB. Reduced to the ranks from corporal per Regimental Order No. 110, Nov. 20, 1867. See remarks under Pvt. Charles Woods in Co. E, 9th Cav., Muster Rolls, Oct. 31 to Dec. 31, 1867, box 1118, entry 53, RG 94, NAB.
12. General Index to Pension Files, 1861 - 1934 (National Archives Microfilm Publication T288, roll 534), RG 15, Records of the Veterans Administration, NAB.
13. From Adjutant General's Office to Commissioner of Pensions, Jan. 22, 1887, pension file SO 413571, entry 9A, RG 15, NAB.
14. Pension file SO 413571, ibid.
15. The Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts were descendants of blacks who had intermarried with Seminole Indians in Florida and migrated to Mexico in the 1830s. In 1870 the Seminole-Negro Indians began crossing the Mexican border into Texas, settling in areas around Fort Clark and Fort Duncan.