The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps

As Black History Month comes to an end, after I’ve listened to “1619,” reread Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and contemplated the meaning of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and hundreds of other black men and women killed by police officers, I am struck by the inexorable courage and contribution of African Americans. Wyoming is the state with the fewest black people in the nation, but even here, we have our heroes. Harriet Elizabeth Byrd, the first African American to serve in the Wyoming Senate; William Jefferson Hardin, the first African American elected to the Wyoming Territorial Legislature; Tilford Ashford, the first African American to own a bar—The Ashford Saloon—in Cheyenne. However, being an adventurer, the story that has inspired me most is that of the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps. 

Archives & Special Collections, Mansfield Library, University of Montana

For a brief period at the end of the 1800s, just before cars, when the horse was still the primary form of transportation, bicycles became the rage in Wyoming. The Laramie Bicycle Club, founded in 1882, was the first of its kind in the entire Rocky Mountain region. Willy Owen, a club member, did the first bicycle tour of Yellowstone National Park in 1883. In an 1885 photo of eight Laramie cyclists, four are women. (Cycling, which necessitated women wearing pants rather than dresses, was a seminal experience in the history of women’s emancipation.) Even the U.S. Army was captured by the simplicity and utility of the bicycle. “There is no doubt in my mind that during the next great war the bicycle, with such modifications and adaptations as experience may suggest, will become a most important machine for military purposes,” wrote Major General Nelson A. Miles in 1894. To test this theory, West Point graduate Lieutenant James A. Moss, a hardcore cyclist stationed in Fort Missoula, Montana, proposed to his superiors a bicycle expedition from Fort Missoula to St. Louis, Missouri, a 1900-mile journey. 

“The bicycle has a number of advantages over the horse, wrote Moss, “it does not require as much care, it needs no forage, it moves much faster over fair roads … is noiseless and raises little dust, and it is impossible to determine its direction from its tracks.”

In 1896, Moss received permission from the Army to form the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps. The 25th Infantry at Fort Missoula was one of four African American regiments in the West. Selecting eight African Americans, Moss first made an 800-mile trial ride to Yellowstone and back. This proved so successful; he increased the size of his team to twenty for the cross-country expedition.

In June of 1897, the score of cyclists, led my Lieutenant Moss and Assistant Surgeon James M. Kennedy, and accompanied by journalist Eddie Boos, rode east out of Fort Missoula. A. G. Spalding Company (which today makes basketballs) sponsored the expedition by providing custom-built, military “safety” bicycles. Weighing 32 pounds, the one-speed bikes had extra-strength forks and crowns, steel rims with tandem spokes, a drinking cup under the saddle, and a leather case that fit inside the diamond frame of each bicycle—just like modern-day bike packers. Inside this case, each rider stowed one set of underwear, two pairs of socks, a handkerchief and toothbrush, plus bacon, bread, canned beef, baked beans, coffee. Every other rider carried a towel and a bar of soap and the squad leader carried a comb for 10 men. Strapped to the handlebars was a daypack, blanket roll and shelter; total bicycle weight was 59 pounds. In addition, naturally, each soldier shouldered a 10-pound Krag-Jorgensen repeating bolt-action rifle and a 50-round cartridge belt.

Moss described the black bicycle corps, ages 24 to 39, as “bubbling over with enthusiasm … as fine a looking and well-disciplined as could be found anywhere in the United States Army.” Apparently, spirits could not even be dampened by constant rain for the few days of riding, and snow when they crossed the Continental Divide. On day 12, June 25, 1897, the corps camped on the banks of the Little Big Horn, 23 years to the day after Custer’s Last Stand. The next day the men pedaled down into Wyoming, covering 52 miles and reaching the town of Parkman. Journalist Boos reported in the Daily Missoulian that the “flowers in this part of the country are much prettier and more varied than are to be seen at home. Red, pink and white wild roses are to be seen on all sides.”

The next day the corps rode 30 miles, gliding into Sheridan at noon. Moss, the doctor and the journalist ate at the Sheridan Inn, “the first square meal we have had for some time.” The black cyclists ate baked beans and bread outside. Two days later, they passed Devils Tower, which Moss notes was scaled by “some patriotic fellow, (who) drove a number of spikes in the side, and reaching the top, there planted the American flag.”

The expedition reached Newcastle on July 1, The Newcastle Democrat reporting that “twenty of Uncle Sam’s ‘fighters on wheels’ … made a good showing, taking into consideration the fact that the boys have had very bad weather, muddy roads and a headwind to contend with thirteen of the eighteen days.” They took a dip in the Salt Creek before riding off to South Dakota.

Twenty-three days later the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corp pedaled into St. Louis, having average 50 miles a day, proving once again the tenacity of the African American soldier and the validity of the bicycle. Four years later, in 1901, Oldsmobile would bring out the one-cylinder, three-horsepower, tiller-wheeled automobile—and the Army abandoned the bicycle.