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Memorial Day, Buffalo Soldiers, and Bikes

by Ted Johnson

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. For you readers outside of the US, what this means is that some of us get to take the day off work, and it’s a great day to get a deal on a mattress.

It’s also a day to commemorate U.S. Service Members who died while in the military service.

It’s a solemn day of remembrance for those of us who choose to take it seriously.

I went searching for some stuff about Memorial Day related to bike commuting.

You’re thinking, That’s kind of desperate.

Oh yeah? What I found was fascinating. Stay with me.

First Memorial Day Marker

Marking the First Memorial Day

Before it became a national holiday, the ritual of Memorial Day began as an expression of remembrance and reconciliation after the Civil War.

In Charleston, South Carolina, freed enslaved Africans founded Decoration Day in 1865 at the graveyard of 257 Union soldiers. Decoration Day later became Memorial Day.

Bruce Smith of the Orangeburg Times and Democrat wrote:

The city that plunged the nation into its bloodiest conflict can also lay a claim to holding the first Memorial Day observance honoring the dead from the Civil War.

In a little known event, as many as 10,000 people, many of them black, gathered May 1, 1865, to hold a parade, hear speeches and dedicate the graves of Union dead in what is now Hampton Park in Charleston.

The following year, 1866, another milestone in reconciliation after the Civil War was the formation of the first all-black regiments in the US Army, known as Buffalo Soldiers.

And you’ll never guess one particular thing those Buffalo Soldiers did (other than inspire a famous song by Bob Marley).

In 1896, the 25th Infantry of Buffalo Soldiers was the first American military corps to experiment with bicycles as an alternative to horses for transportation.

25th Infantry

Photo: Wikipedia

Here’s an excerpt from an article in American History:

[T]he 25th Infantry was one of four African-American military units posted west of the Mississippi, serving as protectors and peacekeepers…. [O]ne of their most grueling tasks involved cycling long distances under realistic field conditions.

[...]

In July 1896, the bicycle corps was given its first long-distance test, riding north to Lake McDonald and back, a distance of 126 miles. During the three-day expedition the soldiers encountered heavy rains, strong winds, deep mud, and steep grades and suffered punctured tires, broken pedals, and loose rims and chains. The corps gained valuable experience for the following month’s test.

On August 15, the riders pedaled out of Fort Missoula and reached Yellowstone Park 10 days and 500 miles later. There they rested and saw the sights for five days before returning to their post. The soldiers averaged a speed of six miles per hour over the steepest part of the route, more than twice that of infantrymen traversing the same terrain.

This video is a 2009 commemoration of a 1974 re-enactment of the 1,900 mile ride by Buffalo Soldiers in 1896. (If that sentence was confusing, just watch the video.)

So did you catch that? I just connected the dots between Memorial Day and bike commuting.

Americans who ride bikes can skip the mattress sales, go on a bike ride, and still feel as patriotic as anyone else.

Happy Memorial Day.

Now here’s the solemn and serious part:

While you’re on your ride today, remember to enjoy yourself. Remember to be safe and all that.

Remember the Buffalo Soldiers riding bikes, and the sense of freedom they must have felt, propelled by their own effort on two wheels. Yet they served a country where they were disenfranchised, and their descendents would continue to be disenfranchised for decades to come (in spite of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution).

Remember that our “more perfect union” was more perfect after our Civil War than it was before. And it’s become incrementally more perfect than it was for the Buffalo Soldiers in 1896.

Remember that some of those increments were backwards, but most of them have been forwards.

Remember that Memorial Day is also about reconciliation between those who pushed for progress and those who pushed against it.

Remember the Service Members who have fought and died defending the “vital interests” of the United States, in military conflicts distant in time or recent; in conflicts with moral clarity or moral ambiguity.

Remember that your transportation choices help to determine what those vital interests are, and what constitutes a rationale for sending soldiers into deadly conflicts.

Remember that every bike commute makes oil infinitesimally less of a vital interest.

Most importantly, remember that we’re still at war.

 
The Chariot Summer Sale - 2013

8 Responses to “Memorial Day, Buffalo Soldiers, and Bikes”

  1. swine flu says:

    Great post. There’s a DVD in my netflix queue: “The Bicycle Corps: America’s Black Army on Wheels” – has anyone seen it yet?

  2. Derek says:

    Great stuff. Bicycle infantry played a very large part in the Japanese invasion of Singapore in WWII, where they used bikes to quickly travel down through the Malaysian peninsula. There’s an interesting exhibit of them in the National Museum in Singapore.

  3. Lynn says:

    _Adventure Cyclist_ just did a big article on the cycling buffalo soldiers that you might also find interesting. It’s in the current issue.

  4. Michael says:

    Fantastic article! Is there any way you could cite your sources? I would love to show this to some friends, but they tend to want traceable references. They are severe bicycle skeptics (God made SUVs to free mankind from bikes) and they see me as the irrational (ride in any weather for long distant commute) cyclist.
    Thanks

  5. Ted Johnson says:

    @swine flu: I have not seen “The Bicycle Corps: America’s Black Army on Wheels” but I was hoping to find a clip from it for this article. Instead I used the video above, which, honestly, isn’t that good.

    @Lynn: I’ll see if I can find the latest “Adventure Cyclist” at a local bookstore.

    @Michael: I’ve linked to all of my sources in the body of the article, usually the first time I mention them.

  6. Michael says:

    Thank you. For some reason I couldn’t get through the first time, it would hang on an empty site. I just googled it though, and found some great, documented material. CBB has become the first place I check, after my mail and news on NPR. You are doing a fantastic job!

  7. Alex says:

    Great article, but didn’t see any helments on those soldiers…..kidding, to my politically correct friends….

    and….there was nothing “civil” about the war between the states…

    and that war, it wasn’t all about cotton or slavery either….slavery was everywhere, not just the South…

    ideology….

  8. Stew says:

    Very well said. Thank you for bringing together so many things that we take for granted on this day of memory. If we don’t study that past we are bound to repeat it……

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