Being a black soldier in the army on the Texas frontier at a post such as Fort Davis was certainly not a glorious or easy job. The pay was low, the work was hard, the hours were long, living conditions were less than ideal, and the isolation from civilization was sorely felt. Then there were the ever-present racial prejudices which existed within the army ranks as well as in many of the communities where the black soldiers served.
Nevertheless, black regiments had excellent morale and esprit de corps. There was less alcoholism and desertion among the black troops than 'there was overall in the army. In general, the black regiments were first-rate units. They took part in rest of the major military expeditions on the Texas frontier. yet history has failed them---it has failed to give black soldiers the recognition they deserve for their part in settling the West. Certainly most of us never learned from our elementary school teachers that there were black soldiers manning many of the frontier military posts. If not our teachers, why didn't John Wayne fill in the gap and educate us properly in his Hollywood movies???
The 24th Infantry was one of the two all-black infantry regiments which served at Fort Davis. Organized in 1869 at the time of the army's reorganization and reduction, the 24th Infantry was in actuality a consolidation of two other black regiments of Infantry, the 38th and 41st. The staff which was appointed to command the new 24th Infantry was a colorful one---headed by Colonel Ranald Slidell Mackenzie and Lieutenant Colonel William R. Shafter.
For the next twenty-odd years, the 24th Infantry occupied southwestern military posts, protecting and attempting to bring peace to the troubled frontier. These black infantryman earned a fine reputation as soldiers at Fort Davis and throughout the West, and they did it in a quiet, diligent way--without the steady flow of spectacular battles and fanfare that Hollywood would have us believe "won the West."
The infantry has been largely overlooked in western military history. To many people, the infantry has always been less prestigious and less glamorous than the cavalry---a stereotype that John Wayne helped to set in concrete in the minds of our own generation. (Can you imagine the Duke himself on foot leading a charge of "foot soldiers") But it also is a known fact that without the behind-the-scenes kind of support work that the infantry did 100 years ago on the frontier, the West might in fact never have been won.
Units of the 24th Infantry served at Fort Davis 1869-1872 and again in 1880. The black infantrymen were involved in all the usual, tedious everyday soldier routines and fatigue details in garrison. A sampling from the U.S. Army records during a two mrnth period in 1880 when the 24th Infantry was stationed at Fort Davis shows the black enlisted men being detailed as cooks in the post hospital, as gardeners, as bakers in the post bakery, as teamsters and carpenters and masons and plasterers in the Quartermaster Department, as laborers in the Subsistence Department, as overseers in the post school, in addition to being ordered to temporary duty in the field and to be witnesses before the General Court Martial. They also provided an invaluable service on the frontier by building military roads, guarding stage stations, constructing and repairing military telegraph lines, going on scouting patrols, guarding waterholes, and escorting govern- ment supply trains, survey parties, freight wagons and mail coaches.
The year 1880 in west Texas was a time of active operations against hostile Apaches and their leader Victorio. Troopers of Company H, 24th Infantry, were involved in an engagement with the Indians when the supply train they were guarding was attacked by the Apaches at Rattlesnake Springs on Auguat 5, 1880. The attack was repulsed by the black soldiers, and the Indians were forced to retreat. Black troopers of both the 10th Cavalry and 25th Infantry provided manpower and support to the strategy which out- maneuvered and demoralized the Apaches until the Indian barrier in vest Texas was finally destroyed.
Yet being a black infantryman was, for the most part, a thankless job. There was certainly nothing very romantic or exciting about any of the soldiers' duties, most of which were non-military in nature. A lot more of the soldiers' time was spent searching for the elusive Apaches than was spent skirmishing with them. The miserable duty of guarding a waterhole in the west Texas sun to keep Apaches from drinking there---or monotonous work like erecting miles of telegraph poles and stringing telegraph wire probably did not have much significance for the individual soldier performing the tasks. However, they were all a necessary part of eventually destroying the Indians' spirit and pacifying the frontier.
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