Buffalo Soldiers in Alaska: Company L, Twenty-Fourth Infantry

  • Published

Buffalo Soldiers in Alaska: Company L, Twenty-Fourth Infantry by Brian G. Shellum. University of Nebraska Press, 2021, 386 pp. 

In Buffalo Soldiers in Alaska: Company L, Twenty-Fourth Infantry, historian Brian G. Shellum documents Company L’s mission in Skagway, Alaska at the turn of the twentieth century. Most Buffalo Soldiers histories focus on their role in the Indian Wars (and later as a constabulary force across the plains), the Spanish-American War, and during the National Park Service’s formative years. But by using an array of Army records, newspaper accounts, and census data, Shellum brings to life a long-overlooked chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers’ contributions to the US’s military past. Buffalo Soldiers in Alaska is the first book to document their experiences at one of the Army’s most remote locations.

 In 1899, the Twenty-Fourth Infantry sent Company L to Alaska to execute a multifaceted mission in a location that locals called “hell on earth” (3). Skagway, located, near the mouth of the Taiya River on the Lynn Canal in the Alaskan panhandle, was the gateway to the Yukon and a port of entry for gold miners looking to strike it rich. Company L’s mission was to “show the flag” (31) in a resource-rich part of American Territory to deter the Canadians and British from launching a military incursion into US territory. During this period, Canada and the United States were in the middle of a border dispute; Canada sought an inlet to the Yukon and Skagway was 15 miles from the provincial border. A military presence sought to prevent this very action.

The Buffalo Soldiers were also tasked with helping the civil authorities maintain law and order, along with mediating interactions between the Chilkat and Chilkoot clans of the Tlingit peoples and incoming white settlers. While much of the gold rush abated by the Soldiers’ arrival, navigating the area’s treacherous diplomatic, social, and environment challenges proved an arduous task for Company L.

Chapters two through four document the company’s initial challenges as it settled into the region. Communication problems stymied the company’s efficacy from the start. Initially, the Twenty-Fourth Infantry split the company in half, stationing half its men at Dyea Barracks near Skagway, the rest at Fort Wrangel, located approximately 250 miles south, before the company consolidated at Skagway in 1900. Couple this with the higher-headquarters’ location at Vancouver Barracks in Washington, and Company L had a difficult time requisitioning needed items like winter clothing, additional personnel, and navigating the military justice system.

As the company settled in, its African-American Soldiers, who made up almost the entirety of its enlisted personnel, received a chilly welcome from the town’s mostly white residents. Skagway, like many places in the United States, was a segregated community. As a result, residents denied Buffalo Soldiers access to businesses and treated them poorly in the newspapers. In response, the company organized contests like football, sharpshooting, and baseball between the Soldiers and local teams. Over time, some of the locals’ prejudices washed away as they came to respect the black Soldiers’ athletic prowess and contributions to the community and region.

The rest of the book focuses on the company’s core missions. Company L’s primary mission pressed its leadership into a diplomatic role. For example, Captain Henry W. Hovey, the Company L commander, convinced the Army to erect a flag across the US-Canada border at the White Pass railroad crossing. He wanted returning Americans to “take off their hats and cheer the flag” (107) as they returned to the United States. He also participated in less bombastic events such as helping to drive a golden spike that joined the railroad track connecting Skagway and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, linking the territory to a port. The Buffalo Soldiers also mediated a possible dispute between miners and Tlingit clans near Haines Mission.

Two platoons of Soldiers deployed to the area to prevent an altercation but ultimately returned without incident. Perhaps their presence alone was enough to diffuse a tense situation. Finally, Soldiers aided the town during a flood in the fall of 1901. As the Taiya River surged, Company L’s organized response helped save lives and property. By the time Company L departed Skagway for Fort Missoula, Montana, in 1902, the company not only fulfilled its mission, but helped ensure a favorable outcome for the United States in its border negotiations with Canada in 1903.

The book’s biggest shortcoming comes from its structure, not its content. In Buffalo Soldiers in Alaska, Shellum tells a linear story. It begins with Company L’s orders to Skagway in 1899 and tracks the unit’s activities through its departure in 1902. As a result, the chapters’ subject matter often repeats itself; baseball, disciplinary issues, and staffing appeared to get the most frequent coverage. This book would have been better served if the author grouped his subject matter thematically. I can envision the early chapters revolving around garrison life and the unit’s mission, with later chapters focused on the officers’ and enlisted members’ social lives, sporting activities, and disciplinary issues and procedures.

Additionally, for a book about Buffalo Soldiers, their perspectives are largely absent. I realize this is a result of the sources Shellum had at his disposal. Company L’s officers produced reports on a wide array of subjects and put their thoughts and reasons for their actions on paper. Unfortunately for the enlisted Soldiers, the sources available only allowed Shellum to tell the reader what they did, not why they acted. This led the author to speculate frequently about their motives. Ultimately, this did not detract from the narrative, but it often raised more questions than it answered.

Regardless of these shortcomings, Buffalo Soldiers in Alaska is a welcome addition to the literature on the Buffalo Soldiers. Shellum’s thorough research and clear writing makes it suitable for academics and general audiences alike.

Troy A. Hallsell, PhD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."