Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Promiscuous Arrangement

Race and Ethnicity in the Frontier Army

In the frontier army, some things was the same for every soldier—poor food, inadequate shelter, challenging weather, and insufficient pay.

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Black soldiers, though, had disadvantages vastly different from those experienced by white soldiers, regardless of their ethnicity. Actually, ethnicity may have been a subject in the frontier army, but race and racism were central. In his book, Buffalo Soldiers, William Leckie wrote: “From the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the Spanish-American War, black regulars faced the dilemma of meeting the same military standards as white soldiers while having their abilities and behavior prejudged on racial grounds. . . . From the outset, they managed to meet professional standards. Prejudice, on the other hand, dogged them and their successors for generations.”

Now hear this.

The presence and effectiveness of black combat soldiers in the army of a nation thoroughly committed to the idea of white supremacy posed problems from the outset. Black soldiers experience racism both formally, in that racism was institutionalized by the army, and informally, in that racism factored into the varied personal interactions between white and black Americans in the frontier army.

Policies and Structure

The United States Army institutionalized segregation long before southern states did. After the reorganization of 1868, only four of the army’s forty combat regiments—the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry—were open to blacks. Outside these units, blacks were not welcome.

Further, segregating blacks and limiting their presence in the staff bureaus constituted part of the army’s racial response. In fact, statistics in the Secretary of War’s Annual Report for 1890 indicated that barely 1.5 percent of all black soldiers served in staff bureaus, and they accounted for only 2 percent of the staff’s enlisted personnel. Eight of the five thousand officers who served between 1866 and 1890 were black, and five of the eight were chaplains—that is, officers without command. To the military hierarchy, black chaplains were less of a threat than black line officers. What’s more, until 1892, not one black soldier rose through the ranks to become an officer. Not because they weren’t qualified, but because, in the words of one black soldier, “the sentiment of the white men of the army is decidedly against it.”

The Henry Flipper Incident

Cadet Henry Flipper
Flipper graduated USMA in 1877. He did quite well with the 10th Cavalry and was pleasantly received by the Irish immigrant captain of his troop. But when his commissary accounts came up short, his post commander, Col. William Shafter, assumed Flipper had embezzled funds. He was thrown in the guardhouse, his quarters ransacked, and all personal valuables were confiscated. These valuables were not returned until Flipper threatened Shafter with legal action.

Further, officers are not thrown in the guardhouse, which is for enlisted personnel only. Both Secretary of War Robert Lincoln and General of the Army William T. Sherman were outraged and immediately ordered that Flipper “must have the same treatment as though her were white.” But the damage had been done. Flipper was court-martialed, acquitted of embezzlement, but convicted of “conduct unbecoming an officer.” He was then dismissed from the service.

Historians say Flipper’s dismissal was completely out of line vis-à-vis sentences given to white officers for more serious offences. There seems to be no question but that racism affected the sentence.

Racism and hospital care

Even the medical records prove the existence of racism in the frontier army. In 1868, blacks were admitted to hospital less frequently than whites and were granted fewer discharges for disability, yet their mortality rate was double that for whites. Further, a black soldier admitted to hospital was almost twice as likely to die as a white one.

In a sample of nearly 500,000 cases, blacks were “constantly sick” at a rate of 9.8 percent less than whites, yet their mortality rate per 1,000 soldiers was 69.7 percent higher than the white rate. That figured out to one black death per 73 cases and one white death per 137 cases. Staggering, statistically significant discrepancies.

Punishment that fits the crime?

Severe punishment for minor infractions was common in the frontier army. All soldiers had to endure these flaws, but black enlisted men were as much victims of racial prejudice as of antiquated military legal processes.

Fort Robinson Nebraska was a mixed race post. Its court martial statistics indicate that black soldiers were court-martialed more often than whites. Yet black soldiers had exceptionally low rates of desertion and alcoholism, so why the high court-martial rate? Furthermore, the sentences dealt out to black soldiers found guilty far exceeded those of white soldiers convicted of the same crime.

Get caught drunk on duty and a black soldier would be automatically gat a dishonorable discharge from the army, plus a year at hard labor. The same sentence would be handed down for stealing as little as $1 from a citizen, or pilfering from a jar of candy.

What about the whites?

Lieutenant Robert Price of the 10th Cavalry shot and killed two black enlisted men in 1871. He was not charged with murder, but did have to resign his commission.

First Lieutenant Lucius Warren wounded two soldiers and pulled a gun on a sergeant who refused to carry out an order. The military justice system pounced on the black enlisted men who opposed his demanding personality, court-martialing ten soldiers. Warren got away scot-free.

A bit about postings

Simply put, being black in the frontier army meant being consigned to the hottest, most isolated, most demanding posts—usually in the southwest. The 9th Cavalry, for example, served in the Southwest from 1867 to 1885. The 9th’s much-anticipated removal from the Texas frontier in 1885 took it to Arizona, just in time to fight the Apaches.

10th Cavalry on parade
Despite sterling service records, black soldiers were never transferred to posh posts. Please from officers in black regiments fell on deaf ears. President Rutherford B. Hayes proposed that white officers of black units be allowed to rotate out of the region, while leaving the black troops in place. The War Deartment essentially acted on the basis of assumptions about the suitability of blacks for service in hot climates, a belief shared by average Americans and scholars alike.

General William T. Sherman
General Sherman told a congressional committee in 1874 that the 24th Infantry remained in Texas because of the “theory that that race can better stand that extreme southern climate than our white troops.”

Like pronouncements abound.

In the end, we must conclude that military worth had little to do with the debate. Black men who served in the Gilded Age military remained an awkward fit within American society in general and the United States Army in particular. Facing this reality, the army struck a pragmatic deal to avoid arousing passions: it stationed black regiments in the forlorn wastelands of the desert Southwest, where the inevitable tensions and conflicts with locals would remain small and localized, thanks to the low density of white settlement.

Black soldiers, for all their steadfast duty, never received their due.

Personal prejudice

George A. Custer
The top graduates of West Point strongly resisted being assigned to black regiments (even though they could have expected quicker promotions there), or and officers who advertised their availability for transfers expected liberal inducements when the prospect of service in a black unit arose. In fact, Adjutant General R.C. Drum denied an officer’s request to transfer from a black regiment on the grounds that “if every officer assigned to duty in a colored regiment objects to such assignments on account of the fact that the troops are colored, it may be impossible to procure officers for these regiments.”

Some of the second lieutenants who refused service with black regiments followed a long-established precedent. Eugene Carr, George Custer, and Fredrick Benteen all summarily rejected service (and immediate promotions) in black regiments. One lieutenant said of a th Cavalry, “He feels bad about going to the ‘niggers,’ and I feel sorry for him.” This, says Kevin Adams, was the tenor of race relations in the army; discomfort and regret about serving with blacks at best, virulent racism and violence at worst.
Fredrick Benteen
captain being transferred to the 9

Still, some officers saw things as they really were. General Guy Henry, for instance, preferred black soldiers. He wrote, “When a Negro enlists and gets on a uniform, he is in his glory. It elevates him. He regards enlistment in the Army as something to be proud of. My opinion of the colored man as a soldier is that he is as good as any other man that I have ever served with.”

It is true that there were heroes as well as villains, but the fact is, racism mattered in the frontier army.

As Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow emerged, black soldiers continued to serve their country efficiently and bravely, yet they received little reward for their deeds. In the army as a whole, black soldiers had defenders, many of whom trumpeted their service on the grounds of their efficiency and presumed loyalty in comparison to malcontented working-class soldiers, who were generally overwhelmed by racist individuals and institutional inertia.


Fredrick Jackson Turner proclaimed the end of the frontier in 1893, but it would take the frontier army longer to reach the same conclusion. Despite a century of technological change, the U.S. Army of the early 1890s resembled the U.S. Army of the 1790s more than it did the U.S. Army of World War I, because not until then did American soldiers truly leave their frontier past behind.

This blog extracts liberally from the book, Class and Race inthe Frontier Army, by Kevin Adams.

Charlie Whipple


  1. This is absolutely fascinating, Charlie. Thanks so much. I wish I had known about all this when I was writing "Chief of Thieves," June 15, Sunstone Press. More to heap on "poor" Benteen. Thanks so much. swk

  2. Great job Charlie, most folks know nothing of this blight on history. Oh they have heard of the Buffalo soldiers of the 10th cavalry but that was because of Hollywood.
    Glad you were able to showcase this historic finding.

  3. What a blight and something we need to not sweep under the rug. I recommend Troy Smith's Bound for the Promise Land, which is wonderfully written and follows the life of a black soldier.

  4. The Flipper case has always fascinated me. There was so much about that story, one wonders at truly finding and understanding all the nuances.
    The more we know and understand about the events of the past, and the outcomes, the ring of authenticity our stories will have. Thank you again for a very informative post. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines

  5. Replies
    1. Unfortunately, this is the last of the Race and Ethnicity in the Frontier Army series. I'll try to find something new just as interesting. Watched Yellow Ribbon again last night. The gap between officers and enlisted men is not apparent. My next Stryker book will be Stryker's Troop, and we'll see some of those differences.