Who were the Buffalo Soldiers? / by Matthew Sims

By Chr. Barthelmess [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Chr. Barthelmess [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In our Velocipede episode regarding St. Louis and the humble bicycle, we featured a segment about the 25th Infantry of the United States.  This famous regiment undertook a dangerous trek from Fort Missoula, Montana to St. Louis.  The story is an inspiring one, but in my research, it occurred to me that I didn't know much about who these brave soldiers were, and what happened to them after their illustrious ride. 

So we reached out to the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula and spoke to their Education Director, Kristjana Eyjólfsson.  She very graciously agreed to be interviewed, and was more than happy to offer links to further information.

There are countless tales of heroism (including 18 medal of honor recipients between 1866-1899) and African-American soldiers were much less likely to desert their posts.

Blinders Off: Who were the Buffalo Soldiers, ans specifically the 25th Infantry Bike Soldiers?  Do we have a feeling for who they were personally or individually?

Kristjana Eyjólfsson: Buffalo soldiers were African-American soldiers serving in segregated units of the army.  The term Buffalo Soldier pops up by about 1876, and some people believe it was a term given by Native Americans to describe the African Americans based on the texture of their hair or fierceness in battle.  The 25th infantry was one of the units that was comprised of African-American soldiers and white officers.  The army remained segregated until 1952! About 1/5th of the soldiers out West during the Indian Wars were black, and there are countless tales of heroism (including 18 medal of honor recipients between 1866-1899) and African-American soldiers were much less likely to desert their posts. Lt. James Moss was a brand new officer at Fort Missoula who was also interested in bicycles; he asked for permission to train some of his until (the 25th infantry) to be bike soldiers.  Moss took fantastic notes, and wrote a book about military cycling, which is how we know so much about their journeys.  We do have lists of who participated in each ride, they started out with just 8 for the first ride and 20 by the time they made the trip to St. Louis. 

We know the most about Sgt. Mingo Sanders – 39 at the time of the ride to St. Louis, noted for his discipline, intelligence, physical condition and leadership qualities.  He has a very sad story, but we’ll get to that in a later question. 

Pvt. John Findley – already an accomplished bike mechanic from Chicago

Pvt. Eugene Jones – described as a whiner! Was sent back to Fort Missoula a bit early by train, didn’t make it all the way to St. Louis

BO: What was a day in the life of a soldier at Fort Missoula like in the 1890s?  Would it have been a dangerous or exciting post?

KE: Life at Fort Missoula probably would have been pretty boring! It was kind of a lull for the army, in between the rapid western expansion and WWI.  Sometimes they were sent out to help with riot control when there were strikes, but there wasn’t a lot of action on a day to day basis.  Lots of time for routine drills though, which made it a good time and place to test out the military efficiency of the bicycle.

BO: The inclusion of a surgeon to the Bike Soldiers makes a lot of sense, considering the dangerous journey they had ahead of them.  But why did Edward Boos, of the Daily Missoulian, included?  Was the Army attempting to draw publicity to their case?

KE: I don’t know exactly how Boos got involved, it seems like there was actually a lot of press coverage of the St. Louis trip, and people in Missoula were very fond of the 25th infantry and proud of the bike experiment, so it was probably a great way for the Missoulian to sell papers!

BO: Aside from the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, why were the bike excursions for the 25th Infantry halted?

KE: Officially the government decided that they had all of the data that they needed about using bikes in the military, so there was no need to keep going. 

BO: What became of the 25th Infantry after the Spanish-American War?

KE: This is the worst part of the story.  From what I read about the 25th infantry in Missoula, they were well respected and there don’t seem to be any issues with it being a black regiment, but they had a very different experience after the war.  Sgt. Mingo Sanders was at San Juan Hill helping rescue Teddy Roosevelt, but that didn’t help his case after the way.  I suspect it has something to do with Jim Crow laws and the institutionalization of racism towards free blacks at the turn of the century, and it didn’t help that they ended up stationed in Texas. I’m not sure exactly where they were between the end of the Spanish American War and their “Discharge without Honor” in 1906, but we do know a fair amount about what happened to the remainder of the 25th infantry in 1906. 

The 1st division of the 25th was stationed at Fort Brown, Texas which was widely thought to be a bad idea! Fort Brown had been the site of the last confederate victory in the civil war (and viewed black soldiers very unfavorably).  On August 13, 1906 an unidentified group of men went into town and shot a bunch of bullets, a bartender and a police horse were killed.  None of the witnesses could identify a single shooter, the soldiers all swore innocence, but they were blamed for the shooting.  There is a lot more to the story, involving some political wrangling, Teddy Roosevelt keeping the decision to discharge the soldiers a secret until after the election, etc. https://newsone.com/2674947/brownsville-raid/

The saddest part involves our Sgt. Mingo Sanders.  He was asleep in the married NCO quarters when the shooting happened, and despite this fact, and all of his years of service he was discharged and not allowed to reenlist.  Sgt. Sanders was 1 year, 5 months and 23 days away from retirement and a pension! He ended up penniless.  More about Mingo: http://bicyclecorpsriders.blogspot.com/2009/01/mingo-sanders.html

Of the other bike soldiers here is what we know:

William Brown retired with his wife in Los Angeles

Pvt. Eugene Jones (the one who got sent back to Fort Missoula early for whining) – was wounded in action in Cuba, was part of the 25th infantry that was discharged after Brownsville.

Cpl. Elwood A. Forman – died in the Phillipines in 1901

Sgt. William J. Haynes – Ranked highly in 1906 marksmanship competition

Lt. Moss served with distinction in Cuba, the Philippines, WWI and was then ordered to attend an army officer school of the line (even though he’d been an instructor there?) so he quit just shy of his 30 year retirement date. 

Public Domain, origin unknown.

BO: Do we have any surviving records (journals or other personal accounts) from the Bike Soldiers themselves?

KE: I don’t believe that we do, or at least, I haven’t seen any.  I have read transcripts of the telegram that Mingo Sanders sent to Roosevelt pleading with him to let him stay in the army.

Most of what I know about the 25th infantry I learned through Iron Riders by George Niels Sorensen, our public research files (newspaper clippings etc.) and a really great documentary that was on PBS https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNnTSD219GA


If you would like to know more about Fort Missoula, or the Buffalo Soldiers, you can reach out the wonderful staff at the Historic Museum.

- Lucas