Mark MatthewsAug 9th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Military & Exploration
1894-2005 Mark Matthews first enlisted in the U.S. military at the age of 15, became one of the original “Buffalo Soldiers,” and served his country with distinction through numerous conflicts and wars, and racial segregation in the armed forces.
Born to Ride
Matthews was born in Greenville, Alabama, on August 7, 1894. His family moved to Mansfield, Ohio, when he was still young, and he grew up there close to horses and riding. Early jobs included delivering newspapers, which he did by riding a pony, and stable work. While working at a racetrack in Lexington, Kentucky, he met African American soldiers serving in the U.S. Army’s 10th Cavalry, the original unit known as “Buffalo Soldiers.”
The Army was segregated at that time, and black soldiers were organized into special units that gained this name, probably from Native Americans’ reactions to their dark curly hair and as a response to their valor, skills, and fierce bravery in battle. The most likely sources are the Apache, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche tribes who revered the native buffalo. While numerous black troops fought in the Civil War and were often organized into separate segregated units, the Buffalo Soldiers were distinctive in that they were formed during peacetime to serve as regular Army regiments. The designation would ultimately grow to include six Cavalry Regiments: the 9th, 10th, 24th, 25th, 27th, and 28th. There were also a number of infantry regiments comprised of black troops.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the American west was still wild territory, and the Army was engaged in conflicts with both hostile Native Americans and various Mexican forces, although friendly tribal members were employed as guides. The Buffalo Soldiers served admirably during this period, beginning with the Apache and Indian Wars spanning the southwest and Great Plains regions, and also assisting with duties such as road building and guarding postal service deliveries. Comprised entirely of black enlisted men, they were usually commanded by white officers, with occasional African Americans leading. At times, they were even called in to help with civil disturbances, as in Wyoming’s Johnson County War in 1892. Later in the decade, they served as some of the original rangers in national parks in Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia in the Sierra Nevada range of California, building some of the original trails and roads. They were instrumental in the settling of the west at this time of massive expansion and collectively earned some 20 Medals of Honor in recognition of their service.
These black regiments were subsequently part of the Spanish-American War, expeditions into Mexico, and the Philippine-American War at the turn of the century, and ultimately served until the Army’s official integration, which began under President Harry S. Truman in 1948. The last all-black unit in the U.S. military was disbanded in 1954. The term came to be used proudly to describe any all-black unit, tracing its history to the original formation of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments.
Although Matthews was only 15 years old at the time of his first encounter with the 10th Cavalry, he arranged for forged documents that showed him to be the minimum enlistment age of 17. He formally joined the Army in Columbus, Ohio, that year and completed basic training. His first posting was in the Arizona territory at Fort Huachuca. Matthews distinguished himself with his superior marksmanship, and in 1916, he was assigned to a Mexican campaign to capture the infamous revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, led by General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing.
With the outbreak of World War I, the U.S. Cavalry was deemed unnecessary for the European theater, and Matthews’ 10th Regiment stayed posted at home for the duration. He met and married his wife, Genevieve, in about 1929, with whom he would have four daughters and a son, and was transferred to Virginia’s Fort Myer in 1931. While there, he performed various duties such as escorting King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England on their White House visit to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was also responsible for the presidential stable of horses and played on the polo team, and in an effort to sell war bonds, mounted horse shows. As a member of the Buffalo Soldiers’ drum and bugle corps, he played at Arlington National Cemetery for burial ceremonies. Matthews fought in World War II in the South Pacific, at the Battle of Saipan, and earned the rank of 1st Sergeant during that tour of duty.
After the Battle
Matthews retired from the Army shortly before President Truman’s integration measures, at which time the Buffalo Soldiers were formally disbanded. But he continued to be acknowledged as a source of living history and recollection about their vibrant past. He became a security guard, rising to chief of the guards at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, before fully retiring in 1970. Genevieve died in 1986, but Matthews continued in fine health and enjoyed his status as Buffalo Soldier emeritus. He met with President Bill Clinton at the White House in 1994, and joined a ceremony commemorating the Buffalo Soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery at the age of 103, in 1997. In 2002, he met with Secretary of State Colin Powell on the occasion of his 108th birthday. Powell had succeeded in creating a monument to the Buffalo Soldiers in 1992 as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Matthews developed glaucoma in his later years, and was partially blind by age 109 and fully blind at 111. He finally succumbed to pneumonia at age 111, passing away in Washington, DC, on September 6, 2005. He was the oldest living former Buffalo Soldier. Survived by three of his children, nine grandchildren, and 17 great-grandchildren, he was appropriately buried in Arlington National Cemetery, joining other military heroes and pioneers of all races.