There are many stories braided into the history of the American West. There were the settlers, the outlaws, the railroads, the Chinese, the Mexicans—and there were the Indians in their battle against the U.S. Army. I have just finished reading Robert M. Utley’s Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian 1866-1891 (New York: Macmillan, 1973). According to Utley, there were “more than 1,000 combat actions, involving 2,000 military casualties and almost 6,000 Indian casualties.”
And yet, most of us know about the Indian wars from a handful of Hollywood Westerns, such as Raoul Walsh’s They Died with Their Boots On (about Custer) and John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy: Fort Apache, Rio Grande, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (about the Apache wars). In most of these films, we heard the military bands playing “Garryowen,” which was adopted by Custer for his Seventh Cavalry.
From Ford’s films, one would naturally assume that most of the cavalrymen were either Irish or unreconstructed Johnny Rebs. In fact, far more of them were black. Several entire regiments consisted of 100% black enlisted men—and, of course, 100% white officers. (In all fairness, John Ford covered the subject in his little-known Western Sergeant Rutledge.)
The Black Troopers, popularly known as Buffalo Soldiers, had a distinguished history, which, today, is largely forgotten. They were every bit as brave as the White troopers, and they were more likely to re-enlist.
If you want to see depictions of the U.S. Army in the West, I recommend to look at the photos and paintings of Frederick Remington and the paintings of Charles Schreyvogel.