Black soldiers, many of them freed slaves, played a huge role in opening the West after the Civil War.
But since most were illiterate, there is little written record of the so-called Buffalo Soldiers.
Few know of their cavalry regiments that valiantly fought Indians, Mexican revolutionaries, outlaws, gun smugglers and protected pioneer families.
And largely forgotten are their infantry regiments assigned to dusty outposts across a dozen states including Colorado to build forts and roads and telegraph lines, guard stage stations and watering holes, escort supply trains, survey parties and mail routes, and perform other less-glamorous work of settling the Wild West.
A group of Colorado Springs people, most black and former military, wants to raise the profile of the Buffalo Soldiers, get their stories told in classrooms and honor them with a statue they hope to erect in Memorial Park near the corner of Union Boulevard and Pikes Peak Avenue.
They have organized the Colorado Springs Buffalo Soldier Memorial Committee and launched an effort to raise $200,000 and commissioned a local artist to design a nine-foot-tall bronze of a cavalry soldier on horseback.
The group, led by Willie Breazell, former Colorado Springs School District 11 board member, plans a fundraising breakfast Aug. 20 at the Antlers-Hilton Hotel and already is targeting a June 15, 2016, dedication ceremony.
Breazell said he was inspired to honor the Buffalo Soldiers after recalling boyhood trips to see the ruins of Fort Selden about a dozen miles north of Las Cruces, N.M., where his family lived. He remembers his father talking about the heroism of the black soldiers stationed in places like Fort Selden, along the Rio Grande River.
Recalling those visits, Breazell said he started researching the soldiers a year or so ago but information was hard to come by.
Even the history of their nickname is murky. Some say Indians dubbed them Buffalo Soldiers because they respected the way the black soldiers fought with the intensity and bravery of a cornered bison. Others say their soldiers’ thick, curly black hair reminded them of bison.
Regardless, the soldiers built a reputation for skill with horses and bravery in battle from the time Congress commissioned the all-black cavalry in 1866 and infantry regiments until they were disbanded in 1951 as the Army was desegregated.
And since then, they’ve largely been forgotten. A few statues exist on Army posts, like Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas, and in a handful of cities like Junction City, Kan., home of Fort Riley. But few other places honor the soldiers.
In Colorado, Buffalo Soldiers serve at Fort Lewis, Fort Lyons, Fort Logan, Ute Pass, Pagosa Springs and Fort Garland, among other places, said Dennis Moore, longtime neighborhood watch volunteer who joined Breazell’s committee to build the monument.
“They did more than fight Indians,” Moore said. “They escorted surveyors during the marking of the Colorado-Utah state line and many projects like that.”
He noted that more than two dozen Buffalo Soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor for valor in combat.
In fact, Buffalo Soldiers have a distinguished history for courage under fire and played a key role when Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders charged up San Juan Hill in 1898.
One eyewitness wrote: “If it had not been for the Negro Cavalry, the Rough Riders would have been exterminated.”
I think it’s a great project and hope Breazell and his group can reach into enough deep pockets to get the statue built.
Even though no Buffalo Soldiers were never stationed in the Pikes Peak region, they deserve to take their place among the heroes we honor given our military roots. It makes sense to tell the story of the Buffalo Soldiers here.
I admit I didn’t know much about them until I talked to Breazell and Moore. The more I read about the soldiers, the more impressed I became.
“These were men coming out of slavery, poorly educated, unable to read or write, who contributed significantly to American history,” Breazell said. “But just like old Fort Selden, their history is in the process of disappearing and unknown. How do we give them their due? That’s all I want. Let’s give them their due.”