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Buffalo Soldier's Role Replayed

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 14, 2005 – You're here in 2005, but imagine being out on the Western plains during the Indian War campaigns in the 1800s:

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Adding a bit of humor to his presentation about Buffalo Soldiers, retired Army Master Sgt. Lee N. Coffee Jr., took off his hat showing his bald head instead of how he described to the audience that Indians called African-American cavalry troopers "Buffalo soldiers" because their hair resembled a buffalo's hair. Photo by Rudi Williams
  

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"You hear the voice of a crusty old cavalry sergeant coming toward you, rambling on about being proud to serve. He appears to be a visitor from the past," said senior equal opportunity adviser Army Master Sgt. Jerome Jackson at the 2005 African American History Month program at Fort Belvoir, Va., Feb. 9.

"I am Sgt. Emanuel Stance, Company F, 9th U.S. Cavalry," a deep voice resonates through the room. "I was born in Carroll Parish, La., around 1848. When I was 15 years old, my Uncle Rufus never talked about much, never did much, except maybe fishing and eating. But I liked Uncle Rufus," the voice continued as a man strolled into the center of floor, decked out in a Buffalo soldier uniform.

"Uncle Rufus always helped me to read his blue back speller when I was little," continued 19th century Buffalo soldier Stance, played by 20th century retired Army Master Sgt. Lee N. Coffee Jr. "I didn't reckon he was going nowhere, but I looked up one day and he was gone. Then I reckoned he'd never come back.

"But I looked up one day, and there he was. He looked better than a pan of buttermilk biscuits, standing there with his uniform on. He said he was a soldier. And he was proud.

"I said, 'Uncle Rufus, I want to join your Army,'" the soldier from yesteryear noted. "But he said to me, 'Emanuel, you can't join the Army. Your legs are just too short.'

"Well, I'm in the Army now, F Troop, 9th U.S. Cavalry," the Buffalo soldier stated. "I joined on Oct. 2, 1866. I went to a place called San Antonio and made camp to do Army drilling, tend to the horses and such. Then I went to a place called Fort Davis, Texas, where we learned to do some more drilling and tending to some more horses.

"'Sit up straight on that horse, before you get saddle sores,'" he said his company commander told him. "If you get saddle sores, you walk."

"By the time he got to Fort McKavett, Texas, Capt. Carroll says we were doing the Army drilling like we'd lived it all our lives," the Buffalo soldier noted.

"And me, I'd made sergeant chevrons on account that I could read and write," he said. "You see, most of the Negro troopers couldn't read so well. Old Uncle Rufus didn't have no chevrons.

"But I'll tell you what was hard, though, is fighting those Comanche warriors and those Apaches," he said.

The soldier told the audience about the time Buffalo soldiers went after some horses Indians had stolen. "By the time the dust settled, we had those horses," he noted. "Then we went and made us a camp and ate us some hardtack -- it's made with flour, water and a whole heap of imagination."

The soldier also told the audience about the origin of the term "Buffalo soldier." "Some say it's on account of the hair on top of our head," he pointed out. He said others applied the label because "of the courage and determination" they showed as "troopers on the battlefield," adding, "It's kind of respectful of us.

Stance, the Buffalo soldier, went on to relate how Capt. Carroll sat at his desk and wrote to Washington, asking that he be given a medal.

"This is it right here the Medal of Honor," the trooper said, pointing to the ribbon on his Buffalo soldier uniform.

"I want you to know that when I joined the Army, I didn't join for no medal," he said. "I joined so I could soldier for my country earn my keep -- and gain the respect of being called a man."

The soldier said he was anxious to get home to tell his Uncle Rufus that a man can't be judged by the size of his legs. "Even though I'm only 5-foot-1, I'm proud to serve," he said. "I was the first Negro during the Indian wars campaign to be awarded the Medal of Honor."

Fast forwarding to the present, the audience of more than 100 gave Coffee a long, loud applause for his portrayal of Stance.

In real life, Buffalo soldier Stance was cited for gallantry in action as an Indian scout at Kickapoo Springs, Texas, on May 20, 1870. He was presented the Medal of Honor on June 28, 1870, according to the book, "America's Medal of Honor Recipients."

Coffee pointed out that Stance joined the 9th Cavalry six weeks after the all- black 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments were organized on Oct. 2, 1866.

"He stayed with that organization until his death on Dec. 25, 1887," Coffee noted. He said Stance was with the Buffalo soldiers for eight years in Texas and in New Mexico when they fought against renegade cowboy Billy the Kid. He was also with them when they went into Indian territory and fought against the civilians who encroached land Indians had been promised.

Stance was killed on Christmas morning in 1887 by his own men, said Coffee.

Coffee noted when he walked into the gathering and introduced himself as a Buffalo soldier, he "was trying to convey that I was Sgt. Emanuel Stance and this was a real person. He was the first African-American Medal of Honor recipient, post-Civil War."

"I went to the museum at Fort Sill, Okla., where I saw the statue of a man dressed just like I am today," said Coffee, decked out in a blue wool, single- breasted jacket with gold colored buttons and sergeant's chevrons, and sky blue wool pants with yellow side stripes. "I said, 'Wow, who is that?' I'd seen all the John Wayne and Earl Flynn movies about the Western frontier and I wanted to know who that was. I was told that the statue was a member of the 10th U.S. Cavalry Buffalo soldiers -- who had built Fort Sill.

"So I went to a library and pulled out four or five books on Buffalo soldiers," said Coffee, who now bills himself as an independent Buffalo soldier historian and educator. "I realized that this was history that was both inspirational to me, but I wanted to share it. That's how I got started."

Coffee emphasized that the story of Buffalo soldiers isn't just African- American history -- it's America history. "So I think people need to know that we built the country as slaves, and we've defended the country as soldiers," said the nationally known Buffalo soldier historian.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageRetired Army Master Sgt. Lee N. Coffee Jr., a Buffalo soldier historian, told the audience during an African American History Month observance at Fort Belvoir, Va., Feb. 9 that African American history is American history. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageRetired Army Master Sgt. Lee N. Coffee Jr. chats with Army Master Sgt. Carolyn Wilson after his presentation at Fort Belvoir, Va., on Feb. 9 in observance of African American History Month. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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