Contrary to popular belief, the so-called "Wild West" was largely compelled to "law and order" by African-Americans known as "Buffalo Soldiers" for their dark-curly hair and combat ferocity, some first trained at Cheltenham’s Camp William Penn (from 1863-1865), the premier training facility for black Civil-War warriors and white officers under President Abraham Lincoln’s new federal Bureau of United States Colored Troops (USCT).
Ultimately serving as a commander of the Buffalo Soldiers after the war was New York-native Lieutenant Charles Lawrence Cooper, a white officer who trained at Camp Penn and married Flora Green on Dec. 20, 1865 in nearby Philadelphia after earlier leading one of the facility’s regiments – the 127th USCT – during the Civil War.
The facility’s black soldiers who joined Cooper in the Buffalo Soldiers included West Chester’s Benjamin F. Davis and George Bruce of the 32nd USCT, as well as Benjamin Helm of the 6th USCT, a regiment whose several members earned the Medal of Honor during the 1864 Battle of New Market Heights in Va.
Officially launched on May 22, 1863 with Camp William Penn eventually consisting of 11 regiments containing up to 1,000 black recruits each, the USCT bureau oversaw 175 regiments representing almost180,000 black soldiers nationally during the Civil War.
Cooper and other white officers were screened and sponsored by the “Supervisory Committee” headquartered at 1210 Chestnut St. in nearby Philadelphia via the “Free Military School for Applicants for Command of Colored Troops.”
Fighting in many of the major battles of the Civil War, as well as helping to corner President Lincoln’s assassins and Confederate Army forces led by General Robert E. Lee, numerous USCT regiments were sent West after the war in 1865 to fight crooks and other undesirables, as well as protect and combat Native Americans.
Lieutenant Cooper of the 127th USCT, one of the final regiments to depart Camp Penn for the Civil War, became a Buffalo Soldier officer, whose daughter, Forrestine Cooper Hooker, wrote about his exploits in the 10th Cavalry or Buffalo Soldiers that also included the 9th Cavalry in addition to the 24th and 25th Infantry, regiments, established in 1866.
During “the Civil War, the 127th joined other Union forces operating against Richmond, Virginia, capital of the Confederacy,” remarked Steve Wilson, editor of Hooker’s narrative, “Child of the Fighting Tenth On the Frontier With the Buffalo Soldiers,” most recently published in 2003, crediting the regiment with helping to overtake “the enemy at Appomattox Court House” in Va.
“My father saw that surrender, when [Gen. Robert E.] Lee’s flag, which was merely a piece of white toweling on a stick, was accepted,” Forrestine wrote. “[Gen.] George Custer,” an over-rated West Point graduate who refused to command black troops, “and his younger brother, Tom, were also witnesses of that hour.”
Hailing from New York City and originally enlisting at age 17 in 1862 as a private in Company B of the 71st New York State Militia, Cooper earlier participated in the defense of the nation’s capital and Gettysburg before marrying Flora in Philly where his author daughter Forrestine was born March 8, 1867, then joined as a lieutenant Company A of the Tenth U.S. Cavalry.
Her memoir describes in excellent detail Army life in the West ranging from fierce battles to dealing with the likes of Native American leaders Geronimo and Natchez. “Our own regiment, the Tenth Cavalry, had no fewer than forty-two Indian fights in Kansas, Texas, and Indian Territory from August 1867 through 1876,” Forrestine wrote.
And there were also the scenes of black and native camaraderie around campfires, despite their conflicts:
"The Apaches enjoyed the meal, sitting socially with the Negro soldiers who had captured them…" Forrestine wrote. “So the supper was quite a celebration for prisoners and captors,” she continued, before noting the "unconditional surrender" of the Apache Chief Mangus to her father after he and his tribal followers had been tracked through several mountain ranges by the Tenth Cavalry.
Following his dedicated service, Commander Cooper died Sept. 30, 1919 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery where his wife, Flora, rests beside him, a life among many worth remembering this Memorial Day.
West Chester’s Davis married after serving "a couple of enlistments in the 10thCavalry and then five years as a sergeant major in the 9th Cavalry," notes my 2013 book, Camp William Penn: 1863-1865, before becoming post quartermaster sergeant in 1885, dying in Washington DC in 1921.
Lt. Cooper’s daughter, Forrestine, married, had children and became a noted author, but "did not live to see her memoirs published," according to editor Wilson, passing away on "March 20, 1932, just twelve days past her sixty-fifth birthday."
Wilson’s “research into the Tenth Cavalry, and its first black officer, Henry O. Flipper — who joined Company A upon graduation from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1877, and served with Lieutenant Charles Cooper,” led him to discovering “Hooker’s forgotten memoirs.”
Flipper, like many early black soldiers and officers who served in U.S. armed forces, faced tough times, often accused of bogus infractions that led to dishonorable discharges, including Flipper.
My father-in-law, Lt. Commander Wesley A. Brown, the first black graduate in 1949 of the US Naval Academy who overcame much maltreatment, helped to lead a commission that exonerated the great Buffalo Soldier in 1999.