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

by Eric Shalit on January 17, 2011

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.

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