Buffalo Soldiers: Men, Mission and Material Culture

Henry B. Crawford explaining why the army stopped using sabers during the Buffalo Soldiers - Men, Mission and Material Culture event on Feb. 26, 2020 at 3:30 p.m. in the Croslin Room in the University Library. The University Library hosted the event as a part of Black History Month.

The Texas Tech University Library together with Texas Tech Friends of the Libraries hosted “Buffalo Soldiers – Men, Mission and Material Culture” from 3:30 – 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Croslin Room of the library in celebration of Black History Month.

Esther de Leon, the librarian for both the College of Media and Communication and the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, helped put the event together and said Crawford was an ideal speaker due to his background and experience.

“He’s been here before, and he really knows his history on the buffalo soldiers,” she said.

Henry Crawford, a museum and history expert and retired curator of history at the Museum of Texas Tech University, led the discussion.

“One thing that’s going to come through time and time again throughout this talk is the similarity between what the black soldiers were doing and what the white soldiers were doing,” he said, “virtually identical — same job, same places, same equipment, same horses, same everything; they were all doing the exact same work.”

Buffalo soldiers, Crawford said, were just like any other soldiers. The term, “Buffalo Soldiers” was coined by Indians who drew comparisons between the black soldiers and buffaloes.

“About 1867-68, when the army starts to deploy these men out into the frontier, this is when they start encountering Indians, or the Indians start seeing them and noticing them, and they’re saying, ‘Ah, these guys are different; they look like buffalo, oh let’s call them buffalo soldiers,’” he said. “That name doesn’t really appear in print until about 1874.”

After the civil war, in about 1870, lines of settlement were formed in the United States to allow for the movement of goods, some of which needed protection.

“It’s the job of the army to protect these routes,” he said.

Aside from protecting main roads, Crawford said soldiers were also responsible for guarding stagecoaches, which may contain goods such as gold, mail and currency.

“They’d garrison forts down there, but they also are riding the stagecoaches because, in many cases, stagecoaches are gonna be carrying federal property,” he said.

Foot soldiers typically headed the campaign, with cavalry falling behind near the stagecoaches. If fighting broke out, Crawford said every fourth soldier in the column was responsible for leading horses away from the outbreak while keeping them safe and calm.

“First of all, he’s got to be a good soldier, a good fight, knows how to fight,” he said. “He’s got to be really good with horses, and he’s got to be really good with horses under fire.”

Buffalo soldiers were provided with uniforms akin to Civil War uniforms, although Crawford said many uniforms were hand-me-downs that needed to be tailored. The uniforms were also multi-purpose as soldiers used them both in combat and as dress uniforms.

“The army did not get new uniforms until the 1870s,” he said, “so what are they wearing? They’re wearing surplus uniforms.”

New uniforms were doled out in about 1872, and Crawford said they included pleated blouses.

“Soldiers didn’t like that very much, but I can see the practicality of it because the pleats kind of open up and it gives you a lot of room, actually, mine is fairly comfortable,” he said. “It gives you a lot of room, but they kind of look unmanly, but soldiers were wearing these well into the 1870s, even after they’d received new uniforms, even after they’d received more, differently designed uniforms.”

Dress uniforms also changed, and Crawford said the helmet designs focused on Prussian trends more than the previously modeled French trends because the French had lost a war against the Prussians.

“Well into the late 1890s, we still have the spiked helmets,” he said.

Weaponry also changed throughout time, and Crawford said many tools, such as guns, were created or altered by members of the army who had graduated from West Point, a military academy famous for turning out brilliant soldiers.

Colonel Schofield was one such graduate who altered a gun so soldiers did not have to use two hands to reload the weapon, Crawford said.

“He invents a little lever here where you can just bang it against your let, pop it open, the empty cartridges spill out, then you put new ones in,” he said.

Belts were also improved to include canvas, specifically canvas loops. This was necessary, Crawford said, because sabers were no longer a useful weapon, and carrying a bag full of cartridges was cumbersome.

“We evolved from the leather belt with the leather loops to a leather belt with canvas loops,” he said, “to what’s called the, this is the 1876 model canvas cartridge belt.”

Goods soldiers could not carry on horseback typically went in wagons led by pack mules, Crawford said.

“The army used a lot of pack mules, especially in the southwest when the terrain is really, really super rugged or up in the northern plains,” he said, “like Custer, his 76 campaign, he didn’t bring wagons, he used pack mules.”

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