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Saturday, March 10, 2012

25th Infantry Bicycle Corps: America's Black Army on Wheels


The widespread popularity of the bicycle worldwide caught the attention of military leaders in the United States during the late 1800s. Major General Nelson A. Miles, as Army Commander-in-Chief, expressed his interest by recommending that one full regiment be equipped with bicycles in 1892, and that existing troops at different posts around the country use bicycles to obtain a thorough knowledge of their own country, especially the topographical features, conditions of the roads, sources of supplies, and all information of military importance.
On May 12, 1896, Fort Missoula's 2nd Lieutenant James A. Moss received permission to organize the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, the first of its kind in the country. Moss, a native of Louisiana and a West Point graduate, was an avid cyclist who set out to thoroughly test the practicality of the bicycle for military purposes in mountainous country.
Moss contacted the A. G. Spalding Company, who agreed to provide military bicycles co-designed by Moss at no cost. The Corps, consisting of eight black enlisted men, soon was riding in formation, drilling, scaling fences up to nine-feet high, fording streams, and pedaling 40 miles a day. Each bicycle carried a knapsack, blanket roll, and a shelter half strapped to the handlebar. A hard leather frame case fit into the diamond of each bicycle and a drinking cup was kept in a cloth sack under the seat. Each rider carried a rifle (first slung over the back, later strapped to the horizontal bar) and 50 rounds of ammunition.
The Spalding military bicycles were furnished with steel rims, tandem spokes, extra-heavy side-forks and crowns, gear cases, luggage carriers, frame cases, brakes, and Christy saddles. They were geared to 68 inches and weighed 32 pounds. The average weight of the bicycles, packed, was about 59 pounds.
Training trips consisted of a series of rides of increasing lengths, including a trek to Lake McDonald in the Mission Mountains. In August 1896, Lieutenant Moss was ready for a major expedition: a trip from Fort Missoula to Yellowstone National Park and back - 800miles in all. The Bicycle Corps left Missoula on August 15. Moss kept a detailed log of each day's progress, noting the types of grade, road conditions, and weather that the Corps encountered along the way. The Corps arrived in Yellowstone on August 24, 1896.

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