History Features

Remington’s Buffalo Soldiers

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

“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 his leg cut off…. This man rode seven miles without a groan, remarking to the Captain that he had seen forty men in one fight in a worse fix than he was. Such have I found the colored soldier.”

Remington made a special trip to Fort Huachuca to meet with Cpl. Scott after hearing the story of this dangerous rescue from Troop K’s first sergeant. At the post hospital, Remington recorded, an “attendant led me over to one [bed] where a fine tall negro soldier lay. His face had a palor [sic] orspreading it the result of the lost limb. I greeted him pleasantly and told him of my desire to sketch his face….”

Remington also formed a friendship with Clarke, which would continue until the lieutenant’s untimely death in 1893. Clarke even served as the artist’s host during yet another trek to Arizona, which in great part helped launch Remington’s career.

After receiving a commission from Century Magazine, Remington wrote to Clarke on April 11, 1888: “I am going to do the ‘Black Buffaloes’—this information you will please keep private as I do not want to be anticipated.”

Remington promised Clarke in candid language that is offensive today, but all too common in the Victorian era, “All I want is one good crack at your nigger cavalrymen and d[amn] your eyes I’ll make you all famous! Do you know I think there is the biggest kind of an artist pudding lurking in the vicinity of Camp Grant.…” (“Artist pudding” is akin to artist stew, or an environment with ingredients conducive for an artist.)

Fishing for an invitation to gain free lodging from Clarke, the financially-struggling Remington concluded: “Well write and be gracious. I have made up my mind that you are a correspondent worthy of any ones steel.”

Little time passed before Remington made good his boast to add further fame to Clarke and his command. As with his previous Arizona excursions, Remington maintained a journal in which he recorded details of the trip, including his arrival “at Willcox in night—next morning found 6 mile ambulance down from Grant awaiting me—was pleasant arrive for post—met Clark [sic] on horse surrounded by greyhounds—greeting very pleasant.”

Remington then “accompanied the lieutenant on horse out to [A.S.B.] Keyes & [William] Davis troop of cavalry—watched with great interest the packing of mules—the saddling and mounting of horses—was constrained to observe that the Capt. Davis lacks the qualities of a gentleman to an astonishing degree—all the other officers were thoroughly splendid fellows. I accompanied Keyes troop on the march; remarked many peculiarities of the soldier type—to the little inventions of necessity—as it were.”

Clarke equipped the artist with an army mount and a McClellan cavalry saddle fully loaded for their foray from Fort Grant to Fort Thomas and San Carlos Reservation and back.

Cutting a less-than-dashing figure Remington, replete with sun helmet a la some great white hunter in Africa, kept pace with Clarke’s cavalcade. Of this journey, he wrote: “If the impression is abroad that a cavalry soldier’s life in the southwest has any of the lawn party element in it, I think the impression could be effaced by doing a march…clouds of dust choke you and settle over horse, soldier and accouterments until all local color is lost and black man and white man wear a common hue.”

Yet Remington was not actually as color blind as he claimed. He caustically stated, “I witnessed an exhibition of American greatness today—a group—Chinaman, Apache, negro soldier and white man.”

But his less-than-flattering impressions soon gave way to more sympathetic views, as daily exchanges with the black troopers caused him to admit he was “greatly gratified to be able to say that I like the Negro soldiers character as a soldier in almost every particular—Clark [sic] told me many piculiarities [sic] which I hope to remember.”

In another quick musing, while Remington’s racism remained, he nonetheless contended: “These nigs are the best d[amned] soldiers in the world.”

Remington’s 1888 work both reflected heightened artistic skills, as well as bespoke of his more thoughtful insights gained from his field experiences with the black troopers. He came to appreciate the precarious life of the black horse soldiers. In one dramatic episode on the trail, he noted, “…suddenly with a great crash some sandy ground gives way and a collection of hoofs, troop-boots, ropes, canteens, and flying stirrups goes rolling over in a cloud of dust…the dust settles and discloses a soldier and his horse.”

Not all of what Remington ultimately revealed in his subsequently published article came from the trail. He supplemented his cache of images with those taken during his stay at Fort Grant. Clarke, Claude Corbusier (one of the post surgeon’s sons) and Pvt. Henry Jackson (the doctor’s black servant) galloped up and down the parade ground to perform mounted displays for the visiting artist. Jackson even served as Remington’s model for the well-known illustration of a lone trooper descending a steep slope with his mount checked by tightened reins.

Either with his camera in hand or while spending time in the shade of the veranda at a Fort Grant officer’s quarters, Remington rendered images at sunset, when he could “absorb the surpassing colors of earth and sky at that hour.”

He stockpiled everything he needed to furnish The Century with his text and accompanying illustrations for his now famous article, “A Scout With the Buffalo Soldiers,” which appeared in the April 1889 issue.

In this nationally distributed piece, Remington praised the black troopers in Arizona, writing: “Officers have often confessed to me that when they are on long and monotonous field service and are troubled with a depression of spirits, they have only to go about the campfires of the negro soldier in order to be amused and cheered by the clever absurdities of the men.”

Additionally, Remington recorded: “Personal relations can be much closer between white officers and colored soldiers than in white regiments without breaking the barriers which are necessary to army discipline.”

He concluded his portrait based on his personal experience with the black troopers he met and lived with briefly at Fort Grant, calling them professionals who had behaved with bravery and valor in fighting Cheyennes and Apaches, thereby disproving the “sometimes doubted self-reliance of the negro.”

Not only did Remington’s article do much to add to the reputation of the men he called Buffalo Soldiers—his article appears to be the first widespread published use of the term—but he cemented his friendship with Clarke. He later depicted Clarke in the March 22, 1890, Harper’s Weekly article, dubbing him as “one of those old-time kind of ‘ride into battle with his life on his sleeve’ soldiers.”

Remington also drew two versions of a historic 1868 charge made by Troop H of the 10th, which had ridden to the relief of the legendary siege at Beecher’s Island. The artist provided a romanticized image of an event that he had not witnessed personally, and thereby, the work lacked the authenticity often associated with his other portrayals of black soldiers whom he had observed firsthand.

But Remington’s periodic straying from accuracy would be balanced by other work, including an exceptional representation of black soldiers in Arizona and on the Great Plains that included infantrymen as well as cavalrymen.

Nor did his efforts end with the taming of the frontier, after denizens such as the “redoubtable ‘Apache Kid’” had ceased to require the U.S. Army to engage in arduous campaigning in the West.

Both black and white troops would find themselves fighting a “splendid little war” in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Remington was there, to capture men of both races who wore Army blue. By then, his early days scouting with Buffalo Soldiers had earned him a name as an artist.

John Langellier received his PhD in history from Kansas State University. He is the author of dozens of publications focusing on military subjects, and he has also served as a motion pictures and TV consultant.

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