The soldier sits tall in the saddle as he rides his Morgan horse. With reins held lightly in one hand and the staff of a swallow-tailed cavalry flag gripped tightly in the other, he gazes north across the Hudson Highlands landscape.
This lifelike, 10-foot tall bronze figure is the striking new monument unveiled last September on the campus of the U.S. Military Academy (USMA) at West Point. It depicts a “Buffalo Soldier”—one of the famed African American cavalrymen stationed at West Point from 1907 through 1947 to teach military horsemanship to white cadets at the Army’s then-segregated Academy.
At the unveiling ceremony, Victor Brooks, USMA Class of 1980, said: “On this field, we can feel them. We can sense their stoic discipline in the heat of the West Point summer, in the gloom of the West Point winter. We can imagine their impressive and impeccable uniforms and their equipment mounted atop perky-eared horses . . . We can draw inspiration from them now, and we will for generations to come. As we dedicate this monument, let us be reminded of the noble service and the sacrifices they contributed so immeasurably to the history of West Point and our nation.”
African Americans have fought in military conflicts since colonial times. In 1866, during the restructuring of the U.S. Army following the Civil War, Congress passed legislation to create six all-African American units, including the 9th and 10th cavalry regiments. Recruits included formerly enslaved people, free African Americans, and Black Civil War veterans.
The 9th and 10th cavalry were deployed along the western frontier, where they protected wagon trains, stagecoaches, railroad crews, and settlers, capturing cattle rustlers, thieves, and other law-breakers along the way. Buffalo Soldiers were also some of the first park rangers in what would become the National Park Service. They protected wildlife from poachers, prevented livestock from grazing on federal lands, and helped build roads and trails.
Buffalo Soldiers also fought against American Indian tribes. “Black soldiers used military service as a strategy to obtain equal rights as citizens,” notes the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Paradoxically, they sought to achieve this by engaging in government-led wars meant to overtake the Southwest and Great Plains from Native Americans. . . The heroism of the soldiers has been celebrated by filmmakers, musicians, military reenactors, and descendants who want to preserve their legacy. Yet that legacy is a complex one and raises challenging questions about the relationship of the soldiers to the government they served as well as to the native peoples they fought.”
The origin of the “Buffalo Soldiers” nickname is not known, although some historians and popular lore hold that Native Americans coined the term—either because the soldiers’ dark curly hair resembled a buffalo mane, or because the soldiers fought like the fierce bison. Black soldiers ultimately embraced the moniker.
Because Buffalo Soldiers were famed for their prowess in military horsemanship, a detachment of non-commissioned officers was sent to West Point in 1907 to teach white cadets how to ride. This detachment became a “colored unit” when the U.S. military was still racially segregated, and Buffalo Soldiers continued to serve at the Academy until 1947. The Buffalo Soldiers supported cadet riding instruction and mounted drill, which was conducted on the Cavalry Plain, now known as Buffalo Soldiers Field. In 1948, President Truman issued an executive order ending racial segregation in the military.
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 404-WS-6-4518-5
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 404-WS-6-4518-7
Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 404-WS-6-4518-8
The new monument was gifted to the Academy by the Buffalo Soldiers Association of West Point. Few people today realize that Buffalo Soldiers served at West Point, said retired Army Major General Fred A. Gorden, the first African American to serve as USMA’s Commandant of Cadets. Gorden helped the association raise roughly $1 million for the project.
The last known Buffalo Soldier to serve at West Point is believed to be the late Staff Sgt. Sanders H. Matthews Sr. It was his dream to see the Buffalo Soldiers honored with a monument at the Academy, and he championed the project for many years before his death in 2016 at age 95. So it is fitting that sculptor Eddie Dixon chose Sgt. Matthews as his model for the Buffalo Soldier who will forever look north across the Hudson Highlands.
“Everybody has a right to have their story told,” said Aundrea Matthews, granddaughter of Sgt. Matthews, in The Washington Post. “It’s a powerful story. . .what [the Buffalo Soldiers] endured, their determination and their commitment to prove to the world that African American men can contribute and are viable citizens of this country.”
USMA Video: Buffalo Soldiers
Smithsonian Magazine article: Buffalo Soldiers
National Park Service: Buffalo Soldiers
Buffalo Soldiers Association of West Point and Staff Sgt. Sanders H. Matthews Sr.