1896: African American Buffalo Soldiers test bikes for Army on 1,900 mile expedition

by ERIC SHALIT on JANUARY 17, 2011

Source: Tubulocity

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

While doing research for an article about military bicycles I came across the above photo of African American soldiers on bicycles. The Twenty-fifth United States Infantry Regiment was one of the racially segregated units of the United States Army known as Buffalo Soldiers. In 1896, the 25th Infantry U.S. Army Bicycle Corps stationed at Fort Missoula, Montana set out across the country on bicycles, on several obstacle intensive test runs of the iron two-wheeled alternative to horses for transportation. Their greatest trip covered 1,900 miles to St. Louis, Missouri, returning to Missoula by train. Writer Lynne Tolman has allowed me to re-publish her succinct 2001 article here:

When the Swiss army announced this year (2001) it would abolish its 110-year-old bicycle brigade, the world’s last remaining combat cyclist regiment, it didn’t need to spell out how much the world has changed since the 1890s.

The U.S. Army had a bicycle unit back then, too. Formed in 1896, the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps at Fort Missoula, Mont., was established to test the practicality of bikes for military purposes in mountainous terrain. The idea had been kicking around for years, as bikes already had been put to military use in Europe, and cycling for sport, recreation and transportation gained tremendous popularity on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1890s.

Gen. Nelson A. Miles, born in Westminster, Mass., began advocating for bicycle couriers in the Army after seeing a six-day bicycle race in Madison Square Garden in New York in 1891. He wrote that unlike a horse, a bike did not need to be fed and watered and rested, and would be less likely to collapse. Furthermore, a bike is smaller and quieter than a horse and thus could help a soldier sneak up on the enemy, he argued. It was Gen. Miles, who became known as “the patron of military cycling,” who approved Lt. James A. Moss’ request from Missoula to form the bicycle corps.

The 25th Infantry regiment was made up of black men, known as buffalo soldiers, commanded by white officers. Its Bicycle Corps began with eight riders using one-speed Spalding bicycles on loan from the manufacturer in Chicago. Their exploits are detailed in the book “Iron Riders: Story of the 1890s Fort Missoula Buffalo Soldiers Bicycle Corps” by George Niels Sorensen (Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 2000).

1895 Spalding Bicycle

Their first major outing was a four-day, 126-mile trip to Lake McDonald and back. Each bike loaded with gear weighed about 76 pounds.

The lieutenant listed their rations: “1 jar Armour’s extract of beef, 1/4 lb.; 7 cans beans, 19 lbs.; 2 lbs. salt; 5 lbs. prunes; 6 lbs. sugar; 5 lbs. rice; 2 lbs. baking powder; 1 can condensed milk; 20 lbs. bacon; 3 cans deviled ham; 2 lbs. 2 ounces pepper; 2 lbs. coffee; 35 lbs. flour; 3 cans corn, 5 1/4 lbs.; 1 can syrup, 12 lbs.; 3 lbs. lard. Total, 120 lbs.”

At times the dirt roads were so muddy and the grades so steep, the men walked the bikes along railroad tracks. After crossing Mission Creek, the soldiers had to re-cement loosened tires onto their wooden rims. Despite breakdowns and delays, their commander considered the trip a success and immediately planned a longer, tougher one.

This time the soldiers covered 790 miles in 16 days, visiting Yellowstone National Park. They dealt with mud, headwinds, rain, punctured tires, stomach ailments and other suffering, but the riders all kept a positive outlook, according to Lt. Moss’ account.

The following summer, 1897, came the Bicycle Corps’ most remarkable adventure, a 1,900-mile trip from Missoula to St. Louis, Mo.  In 34 days of riding, 20 soldiers averaged 56 miles per day. Their average speed registered 6.3 mph. Newspapers carried daily updates on their journey, and the Army & Navy Journal quoted Lt. Moss at the conclusion:

“The trip has proved beyond peradventure my contention that the bicycle has a place in modern warfare. In every kind of weather, over all sorts of roads, we averaged fifty miles a day. At the end of the journey we are all in good physical condition. Seventeen tires and half a dozen frames is the sum of our damage. 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.”

Buffalo Soldier Bicycle Brigade

Sorenson’s book puts the Bicycle Corps’ accomplishments into perspective by exploring the role of blacks in the U.S. military, the attitudes leading up to the bicycle experiment, the Western setting in which the troops were stationed, and the rapid changes taking place in America at the time, including the evolution of the bicycle itself.

In 1974, 10 bicyclists honored the Buffalo Soldiers Bicycle Corps by retracing their route from Missoula to St. Louis. The ride was organized by two professors, Pferron Doss and Richard Smith, from the Black Studies Department at the University of Montana. They borrowed the motto of the original 25th Infantry: “Onward.”

Of course, the 20th century riders encountered a changed nation. But when viewed over the handlebars, some things were hardly different. One of Doss’ reflections on the Bicycle Corps odyssey:

“It was not until we were pedaling down their shadows that we could fully appreciate what they had endured. Though 77 years’ progress boasted the luxuries of paved freeways and high-caliber equipment, the steep hills, weather and snakes proved to be equal opportunists in evening the score.”

Lynne Tolman is a copy editor and former bicycling columnist for the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette, and a board member of the Major Taylor Association. Her numerous bicycling columns going back to 1991 can be viewed at www.ltolman.org/97arch.htm

They carried all their own gear.

Wyoming teacher Mike Higgins publishes an incredible blog, The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps containing first-hand accounts and biographies of the soldiers who participated in the expedition. In 2009 Mike re-traced the route on his own bicycle expedition.

Mike writes, “The accounts I’ve compiled on this blog come almost completely from a pamphlet Moss wrote, titled Military Cycling in the Rocky Mountains. The pamphlet was payback, I think, for the Spalding Bicycle Company, which not only published the book as part of their “Athletic Library” but provided the bicycles the men rode. Moss gives a ringing endorsement & testimonial of the “practicability” of the “fine machines” at the conclusion of the book. For all of the trips Moss made, the Army gave it’s blessing — so long as Moss covered the major expenses, like procuring bicycles.”

Booklet by Spaulding bikes promoting the military bicycle venture.

Here’s another interesting tidbit from the blog which brings the story to Seattle. “In his baseball memoirs, Dalbert Green states that “October 1909, found the regiment in the United States again; Headquarters, Staff and Band Companies A, B, C and D, at Fort Lawton, Washington. Companies E, F, G, H,I, K, L and M, at Fort George H. Wright, Washington”.

The regimental baseball team at Fort Lawton, Washington “was very successful in games around Seattle… and adjoining towns”. Green reports that he was assisted by Sergeant B. Proctor, who was also a “regimental star”.

In 2000 Montana PBS and the University of Montana produced a documentary film, “The Bicycle Corps: America’s Black Army on Wheels”.  Though not on DVD at this time, VHS copies can be found on Amazon.


Bicycles and Buffalo Soldiers

MONDAY, MARCH 7, 2011

Source: Adventure Cycling

Fishing for ideas on something to write about this week, I began thumbing through a three-ring binder holding things I’ve published in the past. One of the first items I came across was a last-page piece that appeared in the September 1994 edition of  Men’s Journal magazine. Here’s the condensed version, which I hope you find interesting:

Mullan Pass, elevation 5,902 feet, is the top of the world. A sweeping sea of grass below — here and there in early June splashed with lupine and camas blooms — ebbs and glows under whips of wind. The Dog Creek Valley fades into a rippling of timber-clad peaks that rise ever higher to the southwest, ever fainter, culminating in the snowy crags of the distant, high northern Rockies. East of the pass the main road dives through shadowy stands of Douglas fir before easing into the dry, rocky badlands. Finally it gives way to the open valley floor; beyond is Helena and Fort William Henry Harrison, where, on the night of June 16, 1897, the weary 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps surely must have slept well.

After the Civil War, the U.S. Army organized four Indian-fighting regiments of freed slaves and other blacks, who were called Buffalo Soldiers by the warriors they were sent west to suppress. One regiment, the 25th Infantry, was garrisoned at Fort Missoula, Montana, after the Indian wars wound down. Among the 25th’s white officers was a pioneer cycling aficionado who believed the velocipede could become an important means of troop transportation. “The bicycle,” wrote Lieutenant James A. Moss, “has a number of advantages over the horse — it does not require much care, it needs no forage … it is noiseless and raises little dust, and it is impossible to tell direction from its track.”

Seeking to validate his theory, Moss petitioned General Nelson Miles for permission to mount a two-wheeled expedition covering the 1,900 miles between Fort Missoula and St. Louis, and the general consented. Moss chose twenty black soldiers to accompany him. The Bicycle Corps, riding one-speed Spalding “safety” bicycles with balloon tires, pedaled in double file out of Fort Missoula on June 14, 1897, their uniforms crisp and their handlebar-mounted packs clean and white. Within hours, however, it was raining hard, transforming their firm dirt track into a splattering of wheel-sucking mud. After slogging through two sopping days, the expedition veered northeast onto the old Mullan Road just east of Elliston and began the steep climb to Mullan Pass and the Continental Divide, where they found two inches of fresh snow. The trip down the Divide was as tough as the ascent had been.

Beyond Fort Harrison, the men of the 25th endured mosquitoes, impassable gumbo roads, hailstorms, 110-degree heat, and alkaline waters. Still, when they arrived in St. Louis on July 24, forty-one days after setting out, they were in excellent health and high spirits. Lieutenant Moss considered the trek a success, but his vision of thousands of bicycle-mounted troops was left in the dust as advances in the internal-combustion engine accelerated. Moss himself died in New York City in 1941, when the taxi in which he was riding collided with a bus.

Today, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route traverses the lovely terrain skirting the western base of Mullan Pass before it climbs over Priest Pass and drops into the Helena Valley. To learn more about the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps and their pioneering “mountain bike” expeditions (they also pedaled to Yellowstone in 1896), visit the website of Wyoming school teacher and historian Mike Higgins.