History Features

Remington’s Buffalo Soldiers

Frederic Remington and his groundbreaking illustrations of the 10th Cavalry in Arizona.

frederic-remington_buffalo-soldiers_arizona-terriotry_illustrator

“All I want is one good crack at your nigger cavalrymen and d[amn] your eyes I’ll make you all famous!” -—Frederic Remington, to 2nd Lt. Powhatan Clarke, on April 11, 1888

For the December 1886 issue of Outing: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation, a relatively obscure illustrator named Frederic Remington joined the pictorial team. He was to assist in bringing to life 1st Lt. John Bigelow Jr.’s prose of his days with the 10th Cavalry black troopers in Arizona Territory.

John had arrived at Fort Grant in June 1885. He often left garrison routine for long stretches of time campaigning against Apaches. In March 1886, his diary entries began appearing in serial form under the title “After Geronimo,” which ran through April 1887.

Remington had limited exposure as an artist, having started with modest fledgling efforts such as a depiction of cowboys that ran in the February 25, 1882, edition of Harper’s Weekly, followed by a few other renderings based on an outing to Arizona in 1885. A chance meeting and ensuing friendship with Outing’s editor Poultney Bigelow (John’s brother), which had started years earlier during Remington’s days as an art student at Yale, brought the aspiring illustrator a major opportunity to further his ambitions. Rather than working in a studio, as many illustrators did during the era, the plump Easterner traveled to Arizona to gain an eyewitness perspective of the Apache wars that were much on the public’s mind at this time.

Setting out by train from New York, the green dude packed artist’s supplies and a fresh bound volume with blank pages that became his “Journal of a trip across the continent through Arizona and Sonora Old Mexico.” This excursion was an important part of Remington’s apprenticeship, which, between 1886 and the end of 1888, would result in more than 200 illustrations for U.S. periodicals.

Remington set out in earnest, as his diary entry on June 10, 1886, indicated: “Got up late after a good night rest at Palace Hotel [Tucson], took camera went up to the detachment of 10th Colored Cavalry—took a whole set of photographs.” Some of the resulting illustrations were more caricature than fine art, but even in their raw simplicity, they conveyed a glimpse of a heretofore unexplored topic—the black soldier in the West.

Remington’s trek to Arizona inspired him to illustrate a dramatic incident he had learned about from eyewitnesses.

The clash was part of an April through May 1886 pursuit headed by Capt. Thomas C. Lebo, who was commanding Troop K on a 200-mile chase against a highly mobile opponent. Lebo and his force finally closed with the elusive enemy on May 3. Bigelow stated, “The Indians held their ground and made an attempt to get” the troopers’ mounts, but these efforts were “frustrated by a covering force and a detail sent to drive the herd to the rear. Each side in the fight numbered about thirty men. Three Indians were seen to fall and to be dragged back out of fire, a pretty sure indication that they were killed or mortally wounded.”

As the fight raged, Troop K also sustained casualties. One 10th Cavalry trooper was killed, while another black soldier, Cpl. Edward Scott, “lay disabled with a serious wound, exposed to the enemy’s fire….” Disregarding his own life, Capt. Lebo’s second in command, 2nd Lt. Powhatan Clarke, rushed to the corporal’s “assistance, carrying him to a place of safety.”

Clarke wrote separate letters to his ex-Confederate officer father and his mother soon after the firefight took place. Like George Pickett and George Armstrong Custer before him, Clarke had graduated last in his class of 1884 at West Point. Somewhat offhandedly the less-than-stellar scholar recorded: “I had some close calls while I was trying to pull the corporal from under fire and succeeded in getting him behind a bush and you can be sure it was a very new sensation to hear the bullets whiz and strike within six inches of me and not be able to see anything.”

Although the Louisiana-born officer previously had little respect for blacks in general, Clarke now challenged his mother in his letter: “Do not tell me about the colored troops there is not a troop in the U.S. Army that I would trust my life to as quickly as this K troop” of the 10th Cavalry.

He concluded, “The wounded Corporal has had to have...

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