Battle of Carrizo Canyon: 9th U.S. Cavalry Fights Indians, Buffalo Soldier Receives Medal of Honor

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Battle of Carrizo Canyon: 9th U.S. Cavalry Fights Indians, Buffalo Soldier Receives Medal of Honor

Officer and men of the 9th Cavalry Regiment, in full dress c. 1880
Painting by H. Charles McBarron, Jr.
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 12, 1881

Today's trip via the WABAC (Way-back) Machine of Military History will takes to a skirmish between U.S. Cavalrymen of the 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment and Apaches bent on continuing their war against the white man. Two men of the 9th Cavalry received the Medal of Honor for their action this day.


The various bands of Apaches had been making war on American settlers and the U.S. Army since at least February of 1861, with the actions of U.S. horsemen at Apache Pass which became known as the "Bascom Affair." [Readers interested in that action can read my BurnPit post entitled, "Army Doctor Receives Medal of Honor for Action vs. Apaches – Before MOH's Creation" at Army Doctor Receives Medal of Honor for Action vs. Apaches – Before MOH's Creation.] These action continued into the 1870s, and would finally end in the 1880s with the surrender of the chief Geronimo.

Buffalo Soldiers

The main U.S. Cavalry units opposing these tribesmen were men were men of the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry regiments, two cavalry units of the American Army composed entirely of African-American horsemen commanded by white officers. [The other two units were the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments. These two infantry regiments often shared assignments with the 9th and 10th Cavalry.] Many of the men in these four units were freedmen, or veterans of service in the War of the Rebellion (1861-65).They were based primarily in forts located in Texas and New Mexico, and occasionally made patrols into areas subject to Apache raids.

Sources disagree on how the nickname "Buffalo Soldiers" began. According to the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum – located in Houston, TX – the name originated with the Cheyenne warriors in the winter of 1877, the actual Cheyenne translation being "Wild Buffalo." However, writer Walter Hill documented the account of Colonel Benjamin Grierson, who founded the 10th Cavalry regiment, recalling an 1871 campaign against Comanches. Hill attributed the origin of the name to the Comanche due to Grierson's assertions. The Apache used the same term ("We called them 'buffalo soldiers,' because they had curly, kinky hair ... like bisons") a claim supported by other sources.

Some sources assert that the nickname was given out of respect for the fierce fighting ability of the 10th Cavalry. Still other sources point to a combination of both legends. The term Buffalo Soldiers became a generic term for all black soldiers. It is now used for U.S. Army units that trace their direct lineage back to the 9th and 10th Cavalry units whose service earned them an honored place in U.S. history.

Sergeant George Jordan

George Jordan, Company K, 9th Cavalry Regiment; Photographer unknown, image taken circa 1890s
George Jordan, Company K, 9th Cavalry Regiment
Photographer unknown, image taken circa 1890s

George Jordan, was born a slave in 1847 in Williamson County, near Nashville TN. He enlisted in the U.S. Army on Christmas Day 1866, originally assigned to the 24th Infantry Regiment. In 1870, he transferred to Company K, 9th Cavalry Regiment. Jordan was promoted to corporal in 1874, and by 1879 he attained the rank of Sergeant. He learned to read and write during his decade in the 9th Cavalry, which undoubtedly helped his advancement.

Battle of Carrizo Canyon

Jordan was one of 19 troopers of the 9th Cavalry actively pursuing Nana, a Warm Springs Apache chief who had ravaged areas of Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico. [Nana was in his early 80s when he made these raids against the white men.] The soldiers were led by Capt. Charles Parker and had tracked Nana and his band of Navajos and Chiricahua Apaches into Carrizo Canyon. The canyon lay south of present-day Carrizozo Spring, NM. Though not daunting in size, the outcropping was a treacherous place to come upon as it provided many high, hidden vantage points for an entrenched contingent to fire upon approaching enemies.

It is unclear how many enemy combatants the Buffalo Soldiers faced when they arrived at the canyon Aug. 12, 1881. Capt. Parker's after-action report estimates that the opposing force had 40 guns. The Americans were easily outnumbered but would need to find a way through the canyon to continue the southward pursuit of Nana. That's when Parker leaned on the battle-tested Jordan.

The Buffalo Soldier was charged with taking a few men to head up the right flank along the gradual slope of the canyon to lay down suppressing fire along the opposite slopes as the rest of the group moved through. But the day didn't go as planned. During their trek through the underbrush, Parker's group came under fire from the slopes opposite Jordan. Jordan's group returned fire from the other side, intermittently making the enemy retreat into the surrounding forest only to see them return further up the path to again cut off Parker's progress.

While Parker was pinned down, the danger intensified for Jordan and his small detachment up above. They encountered hostile forces that had been posted on their side of the crest who had flanked them from the right. Parker rallied his men, positioning them so they were able to stave off their attackers in close combat while also periodically firing across the canyon at enemy forces that were shooting into the canyon below.

It is unknown how long Jordan and his men remained in this position, but the desperate courage of Jordan allowed the remainder of the unit to retreat back to Carrizozo Spring.

Medal of Honor Citation – Sergeant George Jordan

[Note: Sgt. Jordan's Medal of Honor citation included two actions for which he was recognized. I am only including the one specified in this post.]

Rank and organization: Sergeant, Company K, 9th U.S. Cavalry. Place and date: … at Carrizo Canyon, N. Mex., August 12, 1881. Entered service at: Nashville, Tenn. Birth: Williamson County, Tenn. Date of issue: May 7, 1890.

At Carrizo Canyon, N . Mex., while commanding the right of a detachment of 19 men, on 12 August 1881, he stubbornly held his ground in an extremely exposed position and gallantly forced back a much superior number of the enemy, preventing them from surrounding the command.


The Americans lost one soldier while inflicting at least four enemy casualties.

Footnote #1: Jordan left the Army in 1897. By the end of his service he had spent a decade as first sergeant of a troop renowned for its efforts against the Apache and Sioux. Jordan lived among other Buffalo Soldier veterans in Crawford, Nebraska, became a successful land owner and made headway in earning the right to vote.

Grave marker of Sgt. George Jordan at Fort McPherson National Cemetery, NE; Image from
Grave marker of Sgt. George Jordan at Fort McPherson National Cemetery, NE
Image from

Footnote #2: Jordan became ill in the fall of 1904. He was turned away from Fort Robinson's hospital and told to travel to Washington, D.C., to gain admission to the U.S. Soldiers' Home. He never made the trip, as he died October 24. [The Fort Robinson chaplain made an official complaint about Jordan's treatment, saying the retired Buffalo Soldier "died for the want of proper attention." Jordan was buried in the Fort Robinson cemetery. Sometime between 1904 and 1947, the Fort Robinson burial ground was closed, and Jordan's remains were moved to the Fort McPherson National Cemetery in Maxwell, Nebraska.

Footnote #3: The 9th Cavalry Regiment served in the Spanish-American War (particularly in the Battle of San Juan Hill), the Punitive Expedition against Poncho Villa (1916-17), the Vietnam War, Operation Just Cause (Panama), as well as in Iraq. Several of the regiments historic squadrons are part of other Army units. In addition, when Yosemite National Park was created, elements of the 9th Cavalry functioned as the first park rangers of the new facility from 1899 to 1913.

Distinctive Unit Insignia of the 9th Cavalry
Distinctive Unit Insignia of the 9th Cavalry

Footnote #4: The 9th Cavalry motto – still kept alive by the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment – is "We Can, We Will."

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