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Bicycles for the Army: The 25th Infantry in Montana
The military has long served as a testbed for new technologies. Late 19th century Montana was the site of one of these technology demonstrations, as the United States Army ran a series of lengthy excursions utilizing the world's latest technological darling - the bicycle. Operating out of Fort Missoula, the men of the 25th Infantry Regiment covered several thousand miles of mud, mountains, and open plains. These men - African-American Buffalo Soldiers - were celebrated by parades, and mobbed by fascinated onlookers. They were led by a young white officer who sought to redeem himself from graduating last in his class at West Point. Together, they rode seemingly impossible distances, carrying backbreaking loads on heavy bikes, navigating primitive roads, and enduring brutal weather. Their story is a unique one in the history of the Army, Montana, and race relations in America.
Fort Missoula - Home of the Bicycle Corps
The hub of operations for the Army's bicycle testing was quiet Fort Missoula, in the western reaches of Montana. Construction on the fort began in 1877, with soldiers stationed in the area to protect settlers during the Indian Wars. The fort was built on open ground, and not enclosed within protective walls. It was situated just a few miles from the growing town of Missoula, allowing soldiers to frequent the local shops and businesses. The photo at right was taken in the late 1890s, during the period when bicycle testing was ongoing.
Fort Missoula was located close by the Bitterroot River - which meant good fishing for the soldiers stationed there. They lived in simple barracks and spent a fair amount of their time building out and repairing the structures around the fort. Hundreds of soldiers lived and worked at the fort.
In the decades following the Civil War, the primary mission of the U.S. Army on the western frontier was protection of the peace. The Indian Wars were a brutal conflict between white settlers and Native Americans, caused by ongoing expansion and settlement in formerly Native territories. The Army carried out aggressive campaigns and established forts all over the West. By the turn of the century, the large scale campaigns and battles were mostly over. Native Americans were confined to reservations, while settlers built towns, ranches, roads, and railways. The Army presence remained, intervening in smaller scale conflicts between whites and Natives.
The 25th Infantry Regiment
The men of the 25th Infantry Regiment reported to Fort Missoula in 1888. The mission of the unit was to provide protection and security in the sparsely populated reaches of the Northern Rockies. Montana at that time was a Territory - a year away from statehood. The 25th patrolled reservations to help prevent violence between white settlers and Native Americans, and even stepped in to protect infrastructure during labor disputes.
These Buffalo Soldiers were experienced and well trained. The term "Buffalo Soldiers" for African-American Army soldiers originated with Native-Americans. The specific reason for the name is lost to history, but speculation is that their adversaries found them tenacious in battle, and thought that their thick, black, curly hair resembled buffalo hide. The 25th had a low desertion rate, high morale, and the men frequently re-enlisted to continue to serve. Like all Army units of the time, they were led by white officers. Their non-commissioned officers (sergeants) were African-American soldiers with extensive service time and experience. Some soldiers had family along with them, with wives that may have worked as servants for white officers.
Drilling and training accounted for much of the time at Fort Missoula. They deployed in the field in training exercises, maintained proficiency with a variety of weapons, and performed guard duty. They also had regular chores and duties to perform to maintain the physical upkeep of the fort, as well as cooking and cleaning. For many of the soldiers, there was the opportunity for formal education and learning while serving.
The 25th was well regarded in Missoula. Their pay was spent in town, helping to stimulate the economy. The regimental band played for the people of Missoula during parades, special events, and regular public performances. Flathead Facts: Descriptive of the Resources of Missoula County, published in 1890, mentioned the men of the 25th: "A jollier, happier set than company H, 25th infantry, could hardly be found in the United States army. Badinage, practical jokes, humorous expressions, funny stories are ever ready; the sound of jolly laughter, the tinkling of the Spanish guitar, accompanies magnificent voices in choruses that are seldom heard amongst any other class except the colored people."
From the "Penny Farthing" to the "Safety Bicycle"
Transportation in the 18th century was limited to a few options. There was mass transit - ships and trains. These were used to navigate vast distances by ocean, river, and rail, and traveled along specific routes. For localized travel, the horse (often with a wagon) was the only real option besides walking. Horses were expensive to purchase and maintain - and horses with their individual personalities can be difficult to deal with.
The bicycle proved to be a popular alternative to individual travel in the latter half of the 19th century. The initial design of the bicycle was know as the high-wheel, or "penny farthing." This design, as seen at right, featured mismatched wheel sizes. The rider sat very high off the ground, and pedaled a wheel directly, without the use of chains or gears. It was inefficient to pedal a bicycle by turning the wheels directly with pedals. And being so high off the ground, these early bicycles could be dangerous.
In the 1880s, more modern designs of the bicycle were released. They came to be known as "safety bicycles." With the seat lower to the ground, the rider could actually put a foot down when stopping. Instead of a large wheel with attached pedals, the pedals were located in the center of the bike and turned the wheel with a chain and gears. In just a matter of years the bicycle was transformed from an odd looking contraption from a history book into something closely resembling those seen on the roads and trails of the 21st century.
People were captivated by this new form of transportation. Both men and women enjoyed cycling, and riding clubs formed in towns all over the world. Mass production meant that prices dropped to the point that even working class people could afford to buy one. Bicycles were seen roaming the streets of huge cities and in frontier towns like Missoula.
The Army Needs Bicycles!
The idea to test bicycles in Montana was originated by 2nd Lieutenant James Moss, a recent graduate of West Point. Moss had graduated last in his class. His assignment to the remote Rocky Mountains, leading a unit of African-American soldiers, was not a prime posting for a young lieutenant. But he was driven, and had a strong desire to make a name for himself. A bicycle enthusiast, Moss saw an opportunity in a new mode of military transportation.
Bicycles were a promising technology for the Army, which at that point relied primarily on horses for transportation across the vast distances of the west. Horses were expensive, always hungry, and could prove unreliable in battle. In the decades before automobiles swept the imagination of the world, bicycles appeared to be the next logical step in transportation. The advent of the safety bicycle paved the way for Moss and the Bicycle Corps.
Moss presented his plan to the commanding officer of Fort Missoula, Colonel Andrew Burt. The request was approved, and forwarded up the chain of command. Fortunately for Moss, he had an unlikely ally in Commanding General of the United States Army Nelson Miles, who saw the potential of bicycles for military operations. The plan was approved in May 1896. Moss worked with A.G. Spalding & Bros., manufacturer of safety bicycles, and convinced them to loan the Army the equipment necessary to perform the military testing.
First Expedition: North to McDonald Lake
Lieutenant Moss set the unit's first major destination as McDonald Lake in the Mission Mountains (not to be confused with Lake McDonald in what is now Glacier National Park). It was an ambitious plan, covering over 125 miles of rough roadways. Moss set out with 6 bicycle soldiers in August 1896, heading north.
The journey was a difficult one. The Bicycle Corps traveled over the crude roads of western Montana, and had to endure rainstorms and ensuing mud. Their bicycles were pushed to the edge of their capabilities. But on the afternoon of their second day, they arrived at beautiful McDonald Lake, surrounded by soaring peaks. They had the chance to fish the plentiful waters of the lake, and spent a rainy night in their tents.
The return trip was difficult, with more bad weather, bad roads, and mechanical issues. But they arrived home just 4 days after leaving - early proof that the bicycle could work as a tool for the Army.
Navigating the Vastness of the West
Montana is an enormous state, the 4th largest in the United States. But it has always been sparsely populated. Montana was admitted as the 41st state in 1889 and by the turn of the 20th century had a population of less than a quarter of a million people. Montana was a wilderness, with small towns and cities separated by miles of emptiness. Railroads connected major hubs, but for those traveling by foot, horse, or wagon the only option was a crude system of roads. These dirt roads weren't formally maintained like modern roadways and were subject to the harsh weather of the Rockies - deep snow during winter, hard dirt in summer, and thick mud during rainy periods. No matter what manner of transportation one took over the roads of Montana, it was often rough going.
The Montana map shown at right is from 1897 and gives a sense of the transportation network during the time of the Bicycle Corps. Railway lines connect towns all over the state. There is also a good representation of the steep topography of the western mountains.
Bicycles in Yellowstone
Lieutenant Moss had excellent taste in selecting the areas of operation for the 25th Infantry on their bicycle expeditions. For their second major excursion he selected Fort Yellowstone, located at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. This was to be a significant journey of 800 miles.
Moss and 8 riders departed for Yellowstone in the middle of August 1896, just a week after returning from Lake McDonald. The grueling expedition encountered many of the same difficulties - wet weather, rough roads, and mechanical failures. In particular, they had problems with the wooden wheels for their rubber tires, which fell apart in the wet, muddy terrain.
The Bicycle Corps reached Yellowstone after a little over a week of riding. They spent a week in the park, seeing the sites as any tourist might. They visited Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs. Lieutenant Moss packed a camera for the trip, and they took many photos with their bikes at scenic spots. In the early days of the park, without the restrictions of modern day, the men were able to ride their bicycles right onto the fragile grounds of Mammoth Hot Springs, as seen in the photo at right.
Carrying a Heavy Load
The bicycle of 1897 was not so different from the bicycle you might see on the roads and trails today. The "safety bicycle" had become popular in the years before the Bicycle Corps emerged, replacing the "penny-farthing" bicycle with wheels of vastly different size. While these bicycles might look like a modern one, the bicycles of 1898 were constructed of wood and metal, not modern composites, so they could be quite heavy.
The men of the 25th Infantry didn't have the advantage of paved roads and neatly laid out streets. They also carried a full military load of supplies. This included tents, bedrolls, food, bicycle repair equipment, as well as a heavy Krag .30-40 caliber rifle and ammunition. The total weight of all this gear could approach 80 pounds.
At right, we see the soldiers carrying their bicycles and all their gear across a running stream.
A Shortcut - Railroad Tracks
Expeditions by the 25th Infantry often became mired in difficult weather and road conditions. The mountains in western Montana are steep, and at the time the main roads were merely dirt tracks. In heavy rains, these dirt roads frequently turned into muddy quagmires. The pace of travel was expected to be maintained despite the elements, and was often 40 miles a day or more.
Aside from horses and wagons, the other major mode of transportation in the west was the railroad. The railroad system, by nature, was built on solid ground. This made for a nice shortcut for the bicycle corps. For longer expeditions Lieutenant Moss planned routes that followed major rail lines. When roads became impassible the Bicycle Corps could hop along the railway bed. It wasn't practical to ride their shockless bikes on top of railroad ties, so they generally walked their bikes on these diversions.
At right we can see the soldiers walking their bikes along a track.
The Object of Attention Wherever They Go
Wherever the 25th Infantry rode they were mobbed by locals. When riding on the open road they often spread out and moved at different paces. But when approaching a town they formed into two columns and road as an organized military unit. Operating in unison, with their huge loads of gear, and neatly attired in uniform, they were quite a sight to see. Local citizens spoke highly of them, and gathered around them to see their new technology in action. Parades were even held for them. Local cycling enthusiasts gathered to check out their bicycles and pack loads.
Race relations in the decades after emancipation were still difficult in much of the United States. For the African-American soldiers in the West, they faced a life in a new part of the nation, inhabited almost exclusively by white settlers. But the people of Montana were generally welcoming, friendly, and proud of the Bicycle Corps.
At right, we see a huge crowd gathered around to speak with and gawk at the Bicycle Corps.
The Grand Expedition - Fort Missoula to St. Louis
Over the winter Lieutenant Moss had the opportunity to tour bicycle factories on the east coast, to see the latest developments in the industry. He had big plans for the following summer. The culmination of the Bicycle Corps' training was a journey planned to cover almost half the distance across the United States.
Moss planned to take a larger group of soldiers - 20 this time - from their base at Fort Missoula all the way to St. Louis, Missouri. This would allow him to demonstrate the viability of the bicycle over a wide variety of terrain. The route was planned to generally follow the path of major railways, and would span almost 2,000 miles in one direction. Given the great distance, supplies would be stashed approximately every 100 miles, roughly 2 days of riding.
Lieutenant Moss would command the expedition. Second in command was the post surgeon, Dr. James Kennedy - another white officer. The senior enlisted soldier was 39-year-old African-American career soldier, First Sergeant Mingo Sanders. This expedition would be accompanied by a young reporter and cycling enthusiast, Edward Boos - who also happened to be the son of the publisher of Daily Missoulian.
The Bicycle Corps set out on this grand expedition on June 14, 1897. Their first difficulty was riding up and over the Continental Divide between Missoula and Helena, where they encountered summer snow. The men shook hands across the Divide, and continued on their way down towards Helena and Fort William Henry Harrison.
This journey was no easier than their previous rides, with difficult weather - both hot and cold - rough roads, and mechanical issues. In eastern Montana, they stopped at the Little Bighorn Battlefield, on the 21st anniversary of the battle. They camped near the spot where Custer fell.
At right we see the 25th stopped on the streets of Livingston, Montana, where they stopped to resupply. Local citizens have gathered around to chat with the soldiers.
Life on the Road
Days on the road were tough on the men of the 25th. They navigated muddy roads, cold running rivers, and steep mountains. Summer temperatures on the plains could exceed 100 degrees. They crossed cold rushing streams and rivers, sometimes lifting their heavy bicycles up on their shoulders in the crossing. They pedaled in the dark, becoming separated from each other in lonely, desolate wildernesses.
Life in camp was not exactly a pleasure cruise either. Their meals consisted of simple foods they could pack, provisions obtained in towns along the way, or fish they might catch in a river or lake. They spent the night in cramped two-man tents, or in abandoned structures along the way. They often struggled to find clean water, and became ill when they drank alkali-tainted water.
At right we see the Bicycle Corps assembled in formation at a campsite, with tents in the foreground and bicycles stacked in the distance.
On to St. Louis
After 41 days on the road - with only 6 days off - the Bicycle Corps rode into St. Louis on July 24, 1897. They had covered nearly 2,000 miles, averaging about 50 miles of road per day. Their exploits, described in vivid detail by journalist Boos, were carried in papers all over the nation. They garnered the nickname "Uncle Sam's Riders." They were met outside the city by a local cycling club who escorted them into the city.
The expedition had been a grind for the men, but Moss had proven his point to the Army. They had traveled at a speed faster than both infantry or cavalry. He wanted to continue the ride on to Minnesota, but by this time the Army no longer shared his enthusiasm for bicycle operations. He was ordered to return the loaned bicycles to A.G Spalding & Bros. The proud bicycle solders returned home to Fort Missoula by train, arriving on August 19th.
The End of the Experiment as a Distant War Calls
Lieutenant Moss hoped to continue long range expeditions with the Bicycle Corps. His idea for 1898 was a trip southwest to San Francisco. The Army had little appetite for this plan, and things changed dramatically in February 1898 when the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor. This effectively ended bicycle operations by the 25th Infantry.
Instead, the unit was one of the first contingents of American soldiers to ship overseas for what would become the Spanish-American War. On April 10, 1898, Easter Sunday, the 25th shipped off from Missoula for training operations in the South. The town organized a grand send-off for them, as seen at right. These Buffalo Soldiers eventually deployed to Cuba, where they saw action at the Battle of El Caney.
The ultimate invention and widespread use of the automobile made the "new" technology of the bicycle quickly obsolete. Lieutenant Moss' dream of Army bicycle operations in time of war never came to fruition. But the episode was an important one nonetheless, as it brought national attention to a group of highly trained African-American soldiers who showed their countrymen the meaning of determination and willpower in the face of a grueling challenge.
"Bicycle Corps: America's Black Army on Wheels." PBS Home Video, 2000
"Iron Riders – The 25th Infantry Regiment Bicycle Corps, Part I." National Records and Archives Administration. https://rediscovering-black-history.blogs.archives.gov/2022/02/07/iron-riders-25th-infantry-regiment-part-i/. (Accessed February 9, 2022)
Langellier, John P. "Buffalo Soldiers in Big Sky Country, 1888-1898." Montana the Magazine of Western History, Autumn 2017 :41-56.
Moore, Kay. The Great Bicycle Experiment; The Army's Historic Black Bicycle Corps, 1896-1897. Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2012.