A Trail of Dead Horses

When the Apaches resisted confinement to reservations, the U.S. Army sent buffalo soldiers into a hornets nest triggered by bureaucratic blunders. Tribes that had earlier acquiesced to government demands were revolting against broken treaties and near-starvation conditions.

Leaders in Washington had been warned by military commanders about the potential blowback, but few expected the full scale guerilla war that erupted. Apache bands swept throughout the region stealing livestock, burning ranches and trading posts, and killing settlers, miners, and travelers as well as army troops at every opportunity. Desperation and cunning gave the Apache warriors an edge, which when combined with the inhospitable terrain, made defeating them nearly impossible. These Apache raiding parties sometimes numbered as many as two-hundred warriors – all seasoned fighters and well-armed.

As the prominent Apache chiefs Victorio, Nana (pronounced Nah-nay), and Geronimo continued to elude the army, the rebellion gained such momentum that other Apache bands began to join the fight. Buffalo soldier companies were scrambling from one trouble spot to another simultaneously hunting the renegades while struggling to defend settlements.

It was extreme duty that took a toll on men and horses. When pursuing a fresh trail, the buffalo soldiers often pushed well beyond their limits. Occasionally, when riding for days in the intense heat with barely enough water, their horses would begin to drop dead of exhaustion. On one particularly grueling chase after Victorio, members of the Ninth Cavalry left a trail of dead cavalry mounts while following a trail of dead Apache ponies.

When the buffalo soldiers did catch up with the fugitive bands, they were often met with withering fire from ambushes as the enemy dug deep into the rocky terrain. During the six-year campaign to capture the Apache raiders, buffalo soldiers maintained a reputation for discipline and high morale despite their circumstances. Before the Apache were subdued, which officially ended the American Indian Wars, over a dozen buffalo soldiers were awarded the army’s Medal of Honor for valor under fire.

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