Buffalo Soldier Monument Dedication at West Point — Robert L. Caslen, Jr. (2022)

Below is the speech that I made for the unveiling and dedication of a monument at West Point for the legendary Buffalo Soldiers who taught horsemanship and equitation to all the cadets that passed through West Point between 1907 and 1947.

Thanks to General Fred Gordon and the Buffalo Soldiers Association of West Point

General Gordon has always been an inspiration to me. I’ve followed in his shoes in two important assignments in my career – once as the Commandant of Cadets, and second as the commander of the 25th Infantry Division in Schofield Barracks, HI. He’s also been a great mentor, and sounding board. And he was never bashful of making a phone call to tell the new Commandant or the new 25th ID CG, one or two of his key lessons learned and the risks he saw my naïve decisions were heading. He always did so with grace and patience, and when I hung up the phone, I knew right away what I had to do.

When General Gordon asked me to partner with him to raise the funds that were necessary for the Buffalo Soldier statute, I knew right away that this was the right thing to do. Not only because we needed a statute and not a rock, but to properly capture the value and the worth from this unique past generation in order to pass their legacy to our future generation of leaders.

So General Gordon – Sir: Thank-you for your vision, and your commitment, and your drive to make today happen. You’re vision and your leadership, quite frankly, singularly attributed to what we now have. There will be generations that will be inspired when they see that statute and read its history, but frankly, one who needs a statute to stand next to that one, is you. You are a most humble and modest Soldier and patriot, and you would never want me or anyone to bring any attention to you. But if you would forgive me for not listening to you just this one time, I would ask everyone in this room to join me in thanking you for what you have accomplished and what today is all about.

While I’m at it, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the incredible efforts of the Buffalo Soldiers Association of West Point. As I understand it, while SSG Matthews, then President of the Buffalo Association of West Point, was living, he reached out to General Gordon and asked him to spearhead the effort to “Transform the Rock!” to a new Buffalo Soldier monument. From that conversation birthed the Buffalo Soldier Monument Special Committee. Together they recognized the great potential of this idea, and not only commissioned the effort, but with persistence and teamwork, they assembled the incredible team that led us to today. Thank-you Buffalo Soldiers Association of West Point!

Thanks to Donors

When I left West Point 3 years ago, I frankly was not sure we were going to find the donors we needed to make this happen. But after I left, every time I checked on the project, I was encouraged with what I saw. Men and women from all races and ethnicities, from corporate and military backgrounds, from both West Point and other communities, and from people who have been inspired by the Buffalo Soldiers throughout their lives – all who cared enough about the Legacy of the Buffalo Soldier at West Point, and how these men will inspire Soldiers and officers of future generations. As I was reviewing the list of donors, I was flabbergasted and thrilled to see so many who cared enough to contribute to this incredible project. Those who are donors with us today – thank-you. Know that your contribution has not only created a beautiful statute, but your investment will have inspired our future cadets and officers of our Army. Thank-you.

Thanks to our Master Sculptor and Buffalo Soldier descendent families

Let me add a very special thanks to Mr. Eddie Dixon, our Master Sculptor. You have brought great honor and character to our Buffalo Soldiers and their families. Thank you for your meticulous work. The impact this will have on generations will speak for itself.

And let me also add my welcome to our Buffalo Soldier descendants and family members. The worse thing we could have done is to let their story die as they all passed and time went on. But you recognized the worth of their legacy, and you were humble enough to share their story with the rest of us. On behalf of every single Buffalo Soldier who served here at West Point, I have the honor and privilege of thanking them for their service by thanking you, their descendants. And when we all get to the other side of eternity, I promise to hold a party – or whatever we’ll be allowed to do – celebrating their service and contributions to us all!

Thanks to Academy Administration and its Staff and Faculty

There is no shortage of projects and good ideas that are presented to the Academy’s administration and leadership each year. But a special thanks to our Superintendent, General Darrell Williams, for agreeing to keep this project on the front burner. He could have easily pushed it aside for another project, but I know he personally understood its potential, and stood behind it until the end. Trust me, we would not be here right now were it not for General Williams and his staff's support and encouragement. And a special thanks to the West Point staff and faculty. Your inquisitive love of history and application of lessons learned, especially of the history that is made right here at West Point, continues to inspire all of us in everything we do.

Thanks to the Corps of Cadets

General Gordon is the first to acknowledge that this statute and recognition would never have occurred were it not for his vision to build this for the Corps of Cadets. And why would it be “because of the Corps” – you may ask? The answer is simple - to inspire future generations to learn and to become inspired by the values these men upheld. So, a special thanks to our great Corps of Cadets.

The Corps of Cadets also played a mostly unknown but critical role in the renaming of Buffalo Soldier Field way back in 1973 when I was a cadet. You may know that back in 1971, President Nixon wanted Confederate statutes to be erected on Trophy Point. General Knowlton was the Superintendent then, and he was faced with a Corps of Cadet manifesto, initiated principally by the African American cadets within the Corps. Fortunately, the Superintendent supported the cadets, and brought their concerns to the White House, and the President relented on the whole Confederate statue idea.

But one of the outcomes of the 1971 Corps of Cadets manifesto, was the 1973 renaming of Cavalry Plain to Buffalo Soldier Field. What is important in all this, was that it was the cadets that brought this to light and gained recognition the Buffalo Soldiers so importantly deserved.

And what was neat in all of this, is that I was a cadet while all this was going on, and it was a privilege to watch history being made as a result of a few cadets who had the moral courage to confront what was not right, and to do the “harder right”.

I am truly honored to be here with you all today. Frankly, I’m pinch-hitting, because my classmate and good friend LTG(Retired) Mark Hertling was scheduled to give today’s talk, but he unfortunately had a bike accident and is laid up for a couple weeks. Knowing Mark, he’ll recover fully, but we all wish him well and a speedy recovery. And thank-you Mark – for allowing me to be here and the honor of speaking on your behalf today.

SGT Sanders Mathews

I think you’ve heard the story of SGT Sanders Mathews while we’ve been here, and if you haven’t, it is beautifully captured in today’s program. Although SGT Mathews passed from us 5 years ago in 2016, he left a lasting impression on so many of us.

Many of you know my wife Shelly was born and raised in Highland Falls. I asked her about her memories of police officer Sanders Mathews, and when I did, she lit up and said, “he was firm, he was fair; when he told us as kids to do something, we knew he meant it and we did it. We knew he cared about us, and we really respected him in everything he did.

A big kudo to our West Point band for accompanying us at the unveiling. I’ve known the Band Director Tod Addison for quite a while, and when I told him I was coming up to speak at the Buffalo Soldier statute unveiling, he was excited and began to tell me Sanders Mathews stories. If you know SGT Mathews career path, after he retired from the Highland Falls police force, he became a bus driver for the band and also for some of our athletic teams. LTC Addison told me that “when I was a CPT here back in 2000, “Mattie” – which is the endeared name our Band called him - was the band’s bus driver for many events. He was wonderful and had great stories; the band loved him”.

And finally, I remember him well from my own football playing days. I never made the connection between Sanders being a Buffalo Soldier and their great lineage and history. But when I returned to West Point as Commandant of Cadets, and attended one of the annual Buffalo Soldier celebrations, SGT Mathews was there and he began to tell me stories about him driving the team around, and he even remembered my personal time with him.

It is great to know the man on that horse is Sanders Matthews. I only wish I knew more of Sanders Matthew’s personal history and his career when I met him as a cadet. He, like so many of his colleagues, have left an impression on the lives of our future generations, and having them memorialized by this statue, will only inspire so many more to study and learn and to be inspired by what the Buffalo Soldiers did here at West Point.

Legacy and Inspiration

Which leads me to the heart of my message to you today, and that is the Buffalo Soldier’s legacy and inspiration.

The history of the Buffalo Soldier is incredible and you heard a lot of that earlier today and it is so well captured in our luncheon program.

Formed at Fort Leavenworth, KS on the 21st of September 1866, these African American cavalrymen played a critical role in our nation’s western expansion, particularly fighting the Indian Wars. In support of the western expansion, the Buffalo Soldier regiments served throughout the southwestern US and the Great Plains regions. Their key mission was to assist in the building of roads to escort US mail, and the Regiments found their headquarters in places like Fort Concho Texas, and Fort Union, New Mexico.

These incredible Buffalo Soldiers exemplified great character and courage as fighters. Their regiments earned 23 medals of honor during the Indian wars, and another 5 more medals of honor during the Spanish-American War.

The Buffalo Soldiers continued to serve and to serve with honor. Their regiments also took part in the Philippine-American War, and the Mexican Expeditions in 1916.

And when called upon to help out at our National Parks early in the 20th Century, they answered the call of duty and served as National Park rangers.

But it wasn’t until 1907 that a 100-man detachment from the 9th and 10th Cavalry was assigned to West Point to teach future officers horse riding, mounted drill, and riding tactics, and this lasted until 1947. And what was interesting, is that this West Point mission is what brought the Buffalo Soldiers to the eastern United States. Their unique presence here at West Point, brought great accolades to this part of our Nation. The great respect they generated and the legacy they had been building in their western presence, was now here in the eastern United States, and not only here at West Point, but our Nation as a whole was now able to see their professionalism and honor in service.

I looked up the definition of legacy, and ended up finding a number of unique definitions. Not that “Google” is the best and most respected dictionary, but I really liked the way they talked about what a “personal legacy” is all about.

They simply said, “When a person dies, the mark the individual left on the world represents that individual's legacy. ... It is about the richness of the individual's life, including what that person accomplished and the impact he or she had on people and places.

To me, that means a lot. As I reflect on the legacy of the Buffalo Soldier, I can’t help but think about “the richness” of the Buffalo Soldier’s life. You may ask, what is “richness”, and I would simply say it was the impact of their character on the community or society they served. Whether it was serving their country in its western expansion, or serving the future generation of Army leaders, they did so selflessly, with incredible courage, and with great loyalty and respect.

The testimonies of Buffalo Soldier service are remarkable. As I was preparing this talk and researching their work, every document I read highlighted that these men were loyal, respectful, and trustworthy. Leader after leader – even the wives of post commanders - have written about their professionalism and competence. Archives of discipline records are astonishing; the Buffalo Soldier had the best record of discipline and court martial than any other group in our Army.

So, if you reflect on the legacy of the Buffalo Soldier – the mark they left on not only our Nation but the world – you’ll find a legacy of incredible character, defined by moral and physical courage, loyalty, discipline, respect, devotion to duty, selflessness, and honor.

What an example of what we can aspire to! What an example of what right looks like. And the beauty in all of this, is that we don’t have to go into a book and read about it, we can see a statue and read what that statute represents, and allow that legacy to sink into our Corps of Cadets, and then to become inspired by it.

And this leads me to my next and final point. Every time a cadet goes past Buffalo Soldier Field, whether in a car exiting the post, or doing a run to Thayer Gate and back, they can’t help but run past this incredible statue asking themselves who is this guy and what did he stand for? And as they further explore into what this statue is all about, they will see a man who belonged to an incredibly disciplined and loyal unit, that represented its country when at times I’m sure they wondered if their country even appreciated what they did. But nevertheless, they selflessly continued to serve, and did so with honor and integrity. And when any one of us realizes the incredible worth of their service, you can’t help but be inspired to reflect on our own lives and ask ourselves whether we are worthy of their service and sacrifice.

This statute will inspire many generations of future leaders to serve and to lead with the character the Buffalo Soldier led and served during their day. And if that is the outcome of the great work led by General Gordon, then to you Sir, and to your committee and to each and every donor who shared this vision -- our Academy, the Corps of Cadets, our Army and our Nation are deeply grateful for what has occurred here today, and our Academy, our Corps, our Army and our Nation will be so much better as a result.

What a great day today is for us all. Thank-you all so very much.

Go Army – Beat Western KY

Go Army – Beat Navy!

Latest Posts

Article information

Author: Gov. Deandrea McKenzie

Last Updated: 06/13/2022

Views: 6351

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (46 voted)

Reviews: 93% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Gov. Deandrea McKenzie

Birthday: 2001-01-17

Address: Suite 769 2454 Marsha Coves, Debbieton, MS 95002

Phone: +813077629322

Job: Real-Estate Executive

Hobby: Archery, Metal detecting, Kitesurfing, Genealogy, Kitesurfing, Calligraphy, Roller skating

Introduction: My name is Gov. Deandrea McKenzie, I am a spotless, clean, glamorous, sparkling, adventurous, nice, brainy person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.