Buffalo Soldiers in Alaska
Company L, Twenty-Fourth Infantry
Brian G. Shellum
University of Nebraska Press (Bison Books), Lincoln, 2021, 386 pages
Book Review published on: February 18, 2022
When most military readers think of the Buffalo Soldiers, they think of the Indian Wars, or perhaps the Buffalo Soldiers’ role in Cuba. Brian Shellum’s book, Buffalo Soldiers in Alaska: Company L, Twenty-Fourth Infantry, looks at a story that has largely been forgotten: the role Buffalo Soldiers played in Alaska.
Between the purchase of Russian America, the discovery of gold in Alaska, and the nearby Yukon Territory of Canada, the U.S. Army kept a minimal presence in the district. The native tribes of Alaska did not constitute a great threat and the U.S. Army consisted of only a relatively few regiments spread mostly in the West. The Spanish-American War and the Gold Rush both served to change, if not the size of the Army’s commitment in Alaska, then certainly the nature of its mission.
Within a few short years, the U.S. Army suddenly found itself on duty in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, and China. Some of these territories would require garrisons to ensure their status as U.S. territories while the Philippines would see a long-term insurgency. Regular Army troops were suddenly at a premium.
Existing regiments were expanded during the Spanish-American War and the 24th Infantry received African American veterans of the fighting in Cuba. Company L was created from a combination of these combat veterans; they were soldiers who enlisted but did not get the opportunity to serve overseas and they were the long-term veteran soldiers of the Indian Wars. With fighting already over in Cuba (where the rest of the 24th had been sent) and fighting continuing in the Philippines, Company L was sent to relieve a company on duty in Alaska so that it could join the rest of its regiment before departing to deal with the insurgents.
Company L found itself in a unique situation. Deployed mostly in the vicinity of Skagway, the unit was needed to help with law and order in a town that had “grown up” with very little of either. Even firefighting was needed, and the soldiers stepped in to help, not just to aid the town but to preserve their own billets when they were moved into the town.
The commander, Capt. Hovey, also had the difficult task of maintaining U.S. sovereignty over the area because the proper border between British territory in Canada and Alaska had never been established. Because of the nature of local geography, most of the goldfields were in the Yukon, which was clearly part of British North America, but the easiest access to them was from Skagway, which was considered American, but some Canadians argued that it was theirs. It didn’t help that many of the prospectors on their way to the Yukon were American and could be turned back by North-West Mounted Police or that British prospectors were using a U.S. port to get to British territory. Feelings could run high and as the U.S. military representative on the scene, Hovey had to prevent any kind of an international incident.
Hovey was fortunate to have a well-disciplined company to accomplish his mission. The Buffalo Soldiers, whether cavalry or infantry, were always considered to be first-class soldiers and Company L proved this, despite their station in a boomtown where gambling dens and prostitution serviced prospectors who managed to find gold. Not only did the soldiers largely resist the vices of the town, but they also participated in local sports and provided musical entertainment for the civilian population. Unfortunately, many of the civilians brought their prejudices with them from the States.
Shellum’s book uses the stories of individual soldiers to tell the narrative whenever possible and explains the nature of the U.S. Army in the last quarter of the nineteenth century: how promotions, reenlistments and reporting worked, the organization and bureaucracy of the Army, even changes in how soldiers were fed. This book is a fitting tribute to the Buffalo Soldiers of Alaska, especially since many of them made the decision to stay there and add to the history of Alaska.
Book Review written by: James D. Crabtree, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas