Hell on Two Wheels: The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps
By Lieutenant Colonel Roderick A. Hosler, USA-Ret.
The United States Army has often been on the cutting edge of military doctrine and technology, either in developing new implements and theories of warfare or improving upon existing technologies. It is true today as it was true more than 100 years ago.
In the late 1890s, the bicycle craze was sweeping Europe and North America, not just within the civilian population, but also within military circles. Many countries in Europe had established the bicycle as a means to move formations of troops onto the battlefield economically and swiftly. American military observers at maneuvers across Europe reported back to their superiors in Washington on the success of the military bicycle.
This innovation eventually caught the attention of Major General Nelson A. Miles, Commanding General of the U.S. Army from 1895 to 1903. Miles became known as “the patron of military cycling” for the Army at that time and had advocated for bicycle couriers in the Army after seeing a six-day bicycle race in Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1891. He wrote, “unlike a horse, a bicycle did not need to be fed and watered and rested, and would be less likely to collapse. Furthermore, a bicycle is smaller and quieter than a horse and thus could help a soldier sneak up on the enemy.”
In 1896, an unlikely advocate of the bicycle was serving at Fort Missoula, Montana. Second Lieutenant James A. Moss, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy Class of 1894 from Louisiana, was assigned to Fort Missoula and was serving with the 25th U.S. Infantry Regiment. Up to that point, Moss’s only claim to fame was graduating at the bottom of his class, but he was an avid cyclist and possessed some other untapped military qualities. Assignment to Fort Missoula was not considered especially hazardous or illustrious duty. The Indian Wars had come to an end, and the peacetime soldiers found themselves saddled with endless training or involved in putting down labor unrest—not what an energetic young officer fresh from West Point wanted to do. Additionally, Fort Missoula was also home to the 25th Infantry, a “colored” unit.
At that time the Army had four African American regiments, two infantry (the 24th and 25th) and two of cavalry (the 9th and 10th) comprising about ten percent of total Army strength. Although made up of African American soldiers, the 25th was one of the finest infantry regiments in the Army. As with most colored regiments, the officers were white and the noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and enlisted soldiers were “men of color.” The relationship between the white officers and black soldiers was, for the most part, congenial and professional. Some officers were better than others, but that was found in all regiments. The 25th had entered service in 1866 and took part in nearly every Indian campaign fought in the West and had earned an outstanding reputation during the Indian Wars. More important, the 25th had one of the highest reenlistment and disciplinary records of the Army. The regiment enjoyed active training and operational missions but, as with soldiers everywhere, did not like routine fatigue duty.
The regimental commander, Colonel Andrew S. Burt, was a professional soldier whose Army career began during the Civil War. He ensured that the training tempo of the regiment was always kept at the highest through an active marksmanship training program and long tactical marches to keep the men of the 25th in top military and physical condition. The regiment had its headquarters, field staff, band, and six line companies at Fort Missoula, two line companies at Fort Assinniboine near the Canadian border, and another two line companies at Fort Custer near the site of the Little Big Horn battlefield.
Despite graduating at the bottom of his West Point class and having been assigned to a remote frontier outpost, Moss was, in fact, an advanced military thinker. Having already spent a year with the 25th Infantry at Fort Missoula, he observed the daily routine of the peacetime Army. As a result of his studies at West Point, Moss knew that movement to and around the battlefield was essential and a key component to victory. Combining his bicycling experience and military readings, he developed a plan to revolutionize Army transportation. He realized that bicycles, unlike horses, did not need to be fed, required less maintenance, and were far more durable in battle. Moss encouraged the use bicycles for courier and reconnaissance duties and advocated their use to move troops, supplies, and ammunition, which had been restricted to slow foot marches or wagon trains. This “bicycle corps” would have to be tested if it was to meet with Army approval.
His first challenge was to put his ideas on paper and to send them through the bureaucratic command channels for approval. It was most fortunate that Moss’s request to form the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps and test the capability of the bicycle landed on the desk of the one man in the Army who would approve it, Major General Miles. The 25th Infantry was not the only unit testing the application of military cycling at the time (the Connecticut National Guard and 15th and 23d Infantry Regiments experimented with bicycles), but its test would be the most challenging and memorable.
Miles liked the plan and quickly approved it to the surprise and delight of Moss. Subsequently, Moss selected eight soldiers from the 25th to serve in the first series tests. The original bicycle corps consisted of Sergeant Dalbert P. Green, Corporal John G. Williams, Privates John Findley, Elwood Forman, William Haynes, Frank L. Johnson, William Proctor, and Musician William W. Brown. Findley became the chief bicycle mechanic due in part to his experience of working for several years in the repair shop of the Imperial Bicycle Works of Chicago. He also assisted Moss in teaching the soldiers how to ride, maintain, and repair their bicycles.
While preliminary planning was going on, Moss contacted the premier bicycle company of the time and sent them his specifications for a military bicycle. A.G. Spalding & Brothers, a sporting goods company from Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, was more than eager for its bicycle to undergo a rigorous military test, and donated the bicycles to the government. The Spalding bicycles were state of the art for the time. Their steel frames and rims (with Goodrich rubber tires) made them strong but also heavy and cumbersome, with each weighing about twenty-five pounds.
The bicycle corps began training in July 1896 with grueling exercises and road marches with weapons and equipment, cross-country movement, and simulated combat operations. One such exercise required the soldiers, with their bicycles to scale a nine-foot obstacle. At the command “jump fence,” the soldiers scaled the obstacle by standing on the bicycle seat, climbing to the top, and then pulling the bicycle up and over. For fording a river, bicycles were picked up and carried on the backs and shoulders of the soldiers as they waded across. Training went well, but endurance of the bicycle and soldier, and how would they perform on long marches over difficult terrain, were the real concerns.