Over There: A Buffalo Soldier in World War I
Offered in celebration of Black History Month and in recognition of the 100th anniversary of America's participation in World War I, the Buffalo Soldier objects in the Division of Armed Forces History serve as a fascinating intersection of African American and World War I history.
In the fall of 1918, through the thick haze of gun smoke and mustard gas, French soldiers, American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), and German soldiers toiled in their respective trenches, fighting and scrapping through dirt and the leftover splinters of a forest, the destruction of World War I surrounding them. Fought from September 26 to the Armistice on November 11, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive included the 365th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division "Buffalo Soldiers." Corporal Benjamin Blayton was one of those who served in this historic American regiment.
Benjamin Blayton was born on December 6, 1897, in Lincoln County, Oklahoma. He worked on his family's farm from a young age before eventually moving to Washington, D.C., and becoming an electrician. At the age of 20, he enlisted in the United States Army on January 5, 1918, and became a member of the Buffalo Soldiers. The Buffalo Soldier division was formed on September 21, 1866, primarily comprised of African American soldiers from the 9th and 10th Calvary Regiments of the U.S. Army. The Buffalo Soldiers were primarily responsible for supporting westward expansion by helping to build new settlements and to protect settlers. It was their role in campaigns against American Indians in the West that led to their regimental nickname. The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum explains, "The combat prowess, bravery, tenaciousness, and looks on the battlefield, inspired the Indians to call them Buffalo Soldiers… Buffalo Soldiers, down through the years, have worn the name with pride."
Mustered out of Camp Funston, Kansas in October 1917, the 92nd Division of the 365th Infantry Regiment drew African American soldiers from all over the United States. Although they were part of the United States Army, prejudices of the era prevented most African American units from participating in combat with the American or British forces. As a result, most African American soldiers served as laborers. However, a few units, including the 92nd, served in combat with the French Army, whose soldiers did not object to fighting alongside African Americans. Blayton served in France from June 1918 until February 1919 when he returned to the U.S. after the end of the war.
The 92nd Division saw combat during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the ultimate battle of World War I, which claimed over 26,000 American soldiers. Blayton survived and was awarded the World War I Victory Medal with Meuse-Argonne and Defensive Sector battle clasps. He was honorably discharged March 19, 1919. Upon returning to Washington, he was awarded the District of Columbia World War Service Medal in recognition of his wartime service.
Blayton remained in D.C. for the rest of his life. In 1920 he married Oletha Brown and they had four children together. He told his children about his wartime experiences, both the good—eating in French restaurants and learning to speak French fluently—and the bad—enduring the trenches and watching friends die in battle. Blayton passed away in 1991 just months before his 94th birthday. His daughter Gwendolyn Robinson, who donated his uniform and related objects to the museum in 1994, remembered her father as a gallant and eloquent man who was active in his community, who worked hard to provide for his family, and who instilled in his children a sense of their own self-worth.
Christy Wallover is an assistant project manager in the Office of Project Management and Editorial Services. Patri O'Gan is a project assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History.