Black History: Special Delivery!!
The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corp was formed in 1896. It was one of four African American military units serving as a peacekeeping force west of the Mississippi. The black soldiers were known as “Buffalo Soldiers”. The unit was originally stationed in Texas until 1880. It then moved to the Dakota Territory and then eight years later the unit moved to Fort Missoula, Montana. The soldiers were used as guards and peacekeepers during railroad and mine strikes. They also fought forest fires in Montana and Idaho. The development of the chain driven safety bicycle in 1874 and in 1888 the pneumatic tire invention increased the use of bicycle for sports and leisure and piqued the interest of the military as a possible method of transport.
The U.S. Army began experimenting with the use of bicycles in 1896 deploying the 25th Infantry to pilot its efforts. The newly formed group was initially comprised of eight black enlisted officers and their white commander, Lieutenant James A. Moss. The 25th Infantry was given its first long distance assignment of riding north to Lake McDonald and back. The trip was a “test” to see how the would bicycles would perform. It was a distance of 126 miles. The trip took 3 days. The Infantry encountered extremely challenging weather including heavy rain, fierce winds, and deep mud. The group experienced flat tires and many other issues with their bikes. Again on August 15, the group conducted another test run. Leaving Fort Missoula they headed for Yellowstone Park. It was a ten day trip of 500 miles. They remained in Yellowstone for 5 days before returning to Fort Missoula. The groups speed in covering the terrain was impressive. They averaged 6 miles per hour over the roughest and steepest part of the terrain.
The Infantry took its longest “test” trip in 1897 when they traveled to St. Louis. The route was selected because of its rough terrain, and severe weather conditions which made it ideal for military training purposes. The bicycles of the 25th Infantry were the most modern available at the time. The bikes were donated to the U.S. Army by A.G. Spalding and Bros. The bikes were very heavy and difficult to carry. In addition to their bicycles, the soldiers also had to carry a 10 pound rifle, 50 round cartridge belt. 10 pound blanket roll which contained military supplies including a tent, underwear, socks, toothbrush, powder, The blanket roll was secured to the front of the bike. The soldiers also carried food rations. Half of the troops also carried a towel and soap. The squad chief carried a comb, brush, and set of matches. Loaded down with all of the supplies, the bikes weighed 59 pounds.
20 men from the infantry volunteered for the expedition ranging in age from 24-39. The men were in excellent physical condition. Some had never ridden a bike. The infantry’s post surgeon as well as a reporter for the Daily Missoulian Newspaper also traveled with the group. The journey kept the infantry’s mechanic John Findley very busy. The 20 infantry men left Fort Missoula at 5:30am on June 14, 1897. The town of Missoula lined the streets providing an exciting send off. It began to rain heavily and the dirt roads turned quickly to mud. Around 3pm, the weather began to clear up a bit. After a short rest, the group resumed their journey. Due to the mud they would often had to stop and carry their bicycles. The Infantry was able to travel 54 miles on its first day. Rain continued to fall throughout the night making the road impassable the next morning. Unable to pedal along the muddy rode, the group began riding their bikes on the railroad tracks. As temperatures dropped, the rain quickly switched to snow and sleet greatly hampering visibility. The soldiers continued to move as quickly as conditions would allow; anxious to make good time. Their goal was a daily riding average of 50 miles; which was not always possible to achieve. As the group made its way through Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska their supply of water dropped to dangerous levels. The Infantry men had no choice but to drink water that was tainted; causing many to become ill. The group continued to endure extreme weather conditions and lack of water. Despite the conditions the group persevered.
The group reached its final destination, St. Louis, MO on July 24. They were greeted by cheering crowds. The journey, overall was considered a success, providing valuable information for the Infantry. The trip proved that a bicycle corp could travel twice as fast as a cavalry or infantry at 1/3 of the cost. Though the results were impressive, it was clear that it could not totally replace a mounted cavalry unit. The unit’s recommendation was that the bicycle corp and mounted cavalry were a great compliment to each other. Ultimately, the Army decided not to establish a bicycle corp due to the lack of good roads and the 25th Infantry bicycle corp was disbanded as an active unit. In April 1898, when war was declared on Spain, the 25th Infantry was one of the very first troops that was called to action.