11 November 2012

Buffalo Soldier Cyclists

Today is the real Veterans' Day, a.k.a. Armistice Day.

So, I thought it would be interesting to mention an aspect of American military history I recently stumbled over.

You may have seen the 2001 film Buffalo Soldiers or read the Robert O'Connor novel on which it is based.  You've probably heard the excellent Bob Marley song by the same name.  And you may know that they were the first peacetime regiments consisting of African-Americans.  The 9th, 10th, 24th and 25th Cavalry Regiments were officially called The Negro Cavalry but have been better-known by their nickname.

What you may not know is that in 1896, the 25th Regiment--stationed in Missoula, Montana--set out on several cross-country rides across some of the most rugged topography in the Americas.  The purpose of those rides was to test the viability of bicycles as alternatives to horses for transportation.   General Nelson A. Miles had been advocating for bicycle courier units in the Army because bikes had several advantages over our bovine friends:  they are less expensive to keep, smaller and quieter.  Also, they don't get sick, tired or thirsty.  (That last consideration would be very important in the arid areas of the western US.)  

In their first outing--a 126-mile trip to Lake McDonald and back--each man rode a bicycle that, when loaded down, weighed 76 pounds.  The roads were unpaved; in the rain,they turned to mud.  After crossing Mission Creek, they had to re-cement their tires to the wooden rims (!). 

In spite of breakdowns and delays, the mission was declared a success, and a longer ride followed.  On that trek, the soldiers covered 790 miles in 16 days and visited Yellowstone Park.  

Bicycle Corps and Minerva Terrace, Yellowstone National Park, 1897.  Photo by Frank Jay Haynes.

The following year, they took a 1900-mile journey to St. Louis and back.  (In those days, on a journey from the East to West Coasts, St. Louis would be the last major city one would encounter before reaching San Francisco.)  In 34 days of riding, the soldiers averaged 56 miles per day.  That was much more ground than could be covered on horseback, and at an average speed of 6.3 miles per hour.  A report written at the end of the trip concluded, "The practical result of the trip shows that an Army Bicycle Corps can travel twice as fast as cavalry or infantry under any conditions, and at one third the cost and effort."

After that experiment, bicycle regiments became a regular feature of the military in many countries until 2001, when Switzerland disbanded its 110-year-old bicycle brigade.

Apart from how inherently fascinating the story of the Buffalo Soldier cyclists is as history, I find two other aspects of it interesting.  First of all, these African-American soldiers were showing the effectiveness of the bicycle at around the same time Major Taylor, the greatest bicycle racer of that era, became the first African-American athlete to win a world championship in any sport. (Canadian boxer George Dixon was the first black man to accomplish such a feat.)  Second, I find it both interesting and disturbing that an African-American regiment was chosen for what was one of the most arduous and dangerous experiments of that time.  

But, in the eyes of both military officials and civilians, the bicycle showed that it was able and ready for a changing world.  African-Americans were as well, but it would take decades for most other Americans to see them that way.


  1. I don't know that the tests were particularly dangerous since they worked up to the distances, but certainly the hard work aspect played a role in the choice. And the Buffalo Soldiers had always been ready to work hard.

  2. Steve, you're right that the distances wouldn't have been a problem. However, most of the area in which they cycled was undeveloped: Between the Mississippi and the California coast, there were very few paved roads. The terrain was rugged, the climate capricious and the animals wild. It all sounds pretty risky to me.

    Still, though, I agree with you when you say the Buffalo Solkders had always been ready to work hard. That is one of the reasons why they are remembered today.

  3. I am glad that you had the opportunity to learn a little something about the adventures of the 25th. As a Retired Soldier and an avid cyclist, I always appreciated their ordeal. The Negro Bicycle Brigade, as they became known in many newspapers, volunteered for the bicycle experiment. None of the "white" Cav units would touch it. However, the men of the 25th and their white commander believed that it would prove both the viability of the bicycle and the dedication, capability, toughness and quality of the black soldier.

    The Soldiers carried a full combat load, including rifle and ammunition; both strapped to the bike and on their backs. The mechanics bike weighed somewhere on the high side of a hundred pounds. The men rode sick. They road injured. They road in all weather conditions. They were some seriously tough and determined men.

    1. Unknown--They were amazing men, weren't they? That they volunteered for the experiment when, as you say, none of the "white" Cav units would touch it, speaks volumes about their determination and sheer grit. If I had to go to war, they are the soldiers I'd want on my side!

      Thank you for reading.