Friday, April 21, 2017

Friday Photo - 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps

The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps at Minerva Terrace (photo courtesy of GearJunkie)
We're going back quite a ways for this week's photo - All the way back to 1896. At that time the bicycle, especially the modern design, was relatively new, and motorized cars and trucks didn't exist. Naturally, the United States Army wondered if this new bicycle could be useful to the military. In May of 1896, the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps was formed at Fort Missoula in Montana. It consisted of eight African-American soldiers led by a white officer, Lt. James Moss. Moss achieved his position by graduating last in his class at West Point, which meant he also got the last choice for Army assignments after graduation. Most West Point graduates at that time did not wish to serve in the West or to command black troops, so he got to do both.

The A.G. Spalding company provided bicycles to the corps at no charge. The men were taught to ride in formation with these bikes while carrying the supplies they would need (tent, bedroll, cooking utensils, etc.) in the field. They also had to carry a rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition. Initially each cyclist carried his rifle on his back. Later it was attached to the bicycle.

After a number of shorter rides, they went on a major trek in August of 1896. They traveled from Fort Missoula to Yellowstone National Park. The round trip totaled 800 miles. The photo above shows the cyclists at Minerva Terrace, part of the Mammoth Hot Springs area in the national park. By June of 1897, they started on an even longer journey: Fort Missoula to St. Louis. This trek would total 1900 miles. By this time the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps had increased to 20 enlisted men (all African-American), and had added another officer. Also accompanying the group was a 19 year old newspaper reporter named Eddie Boos. Unlike the military cyclists, he rode a Sterling bicycle. His reports went to Missoula, St. Louis and other newspapers around the country. After 41 challenging days, the cyclists entered St. Louis. According to a report filed by Lt. Moss:
"The bicycle, as a machine for military purposes, was most thoroughly tested under all possible conditions, except that of being under actual fire."
The feat is quite impressive when one takes into account the fact that roads in the era before the automobile were so bad the soldiers often had to dismount and push their bikes through mud.

Moss wanted to ride from St. Louis to Minneapolis to see how fast the corps could travel over better roads. Permission was denied and they returned to Ft. Missoula. In February of 1898 he requested permission to cycle from Ft. Missoula to San Francisco. A week later the battleship U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, and the U.S. Army became focused on the impending Spanish-American War. The trip to San Francisco was not approved and the unit was eventually disbanded.

James Moss deeply respected the black soldiers that served under his command. He later fought in both Cuba and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, and in France during World War I. He was a colonel by the time of his retirement from the Army shortly after World War I. In 1941 he died in a New York City traffic accident not far from where John Lennon was later killed.

For more information on those tenacious souls who made the arduous journey from Ft. Missoula to St. Louis, please visit Riders of the Bicycle Corps.

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