Friday, September 24, 2010

Sepia Saturday: Buffalo Soldier

This portrait shows Isaiah H. Mays, an American hero
who was nearly forgotten, buried anonymously
in a graveyard of the Arizona State Hospital. 

 Library of Congress photo collection

Isaiah was born into slavery on February 16, 1858 in Carters Bridge, Virginia. According to the 1870 Federal Census, Isaiah was the son of John and Sallie Mays of St. Ann's Parish in Albemarle County, Virginia. Isaiah was one of many children, including Albert Mays (b. about 1850); Millie Mays Harris (b. about 1852) Rebecca Mays (b. about 1855); Phillip Mays (b. mid-1860), and Walker Mays (b. about 1865). There may have been older siblings as well, but as the 1860 Slave Schedule lists only an inventory of slaves belonging to particular slave-holders, it's hard to know for certain.  

He enlisted in the Army as a "Buffalo Soldier" when he was in his late twenties. He apparently was living in Ohio at that time, as that was his enlistment site.

His duties in Company B, 24th U.S. Infantry, took him out west to fight in the Indian Wars and to provide some semblance of order to the mainly white settlers. He was a loyal, diligent soldier.

One of his assignments was to assist Major Joseph Washington Wham, an Army paymaster who took charge of  nearly $29,00 in gold and silver intended as pay for the Cavalry troops in Arizona Territory. Mayes' job was to help protect the shipment.  During transit, the troops were attacked by masked bandits near Tucson, Arizona. Corporal Mayes and Sergeant Benjamin Brown took heroic action in a fierce battle to protect the shipment and their colleagues. Eight soldiers were seriously wounded. (Click on Major Wham's name for more info on the robbery and HERE for more detail on the robbery.)
Photographic "Carte de Visite" courtesy of 
Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library

Mays was shot in both legs, but manage to walk and crawl two miles to a nearby ranch to sound the alarm. Eight bandits were arrested but the money was never recovered.

The incident inspired this image by Frederic Remington.

For their valor, Corporal Mayes and Sergeant Brown were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1890.
Interestingly, though Buffalo Soldiers testified against the robbers, all of whom were whites, not a single robber was convicted. There may have been a reluctance on the part of the all-white jury to accept the testimony of a black over the word of a white defendant. 

Mayes was discharged in 1893 and worked as a laborer and farm hand in New Mexico and Arizona. In 1920, he was living by himself in Bonita, Graham County, Arizona. He was a single man who rented his residence and worked on a livestock farm. He applied for a federal pension in 1922, citing his military service and record. His application was denied.

He was eventually committed to a public hospital that housed the mentally ill, tuberculosis patients, and indigents with nowhere else to go.

He died at the hospital on May 2, 1925. His grave stone was a modest marker etched only with a number. In 1935, a fire at the hospital destroyed records of burials, making it hard to find his remains.

Luckily, some of the hospital staff and a small group of Arizona veterans identified Mays as a Medal of Honor recipient and fought to give him recognition.

In 2001, Mays' gravesite at the hospital was marked by a Veteran's Affairs headstone identifying him as a Medal of Honor winner.

Source: Arizona Republic 

In March 2009, under the care and supervision  an organization called Old Guard Riders, Corporal Mays' remains were disinterred and moved to Arlington National Cemetery. 

He was honored in a special ceremony in May of that year. To see photographs of that ceremony, click HERE to go to the Arlington National Cemetery site.

For more SEPIA SATURDAY treasures,
click HERE.


Living In Williamsburg Virginia said...

Excellent post. We love this kind of history and this took alot of time and research.

Darryl and Ruth : )

Alan Burnett said...

What a fascinating piece. So full of interest and history. Thanks sp much for contributing it to Sepia Saturday.

Christine H. said...

What a wonderful story with fabulous pictures. I'm so glad he eventually got the grave stone he deserved.

P.S. Meri, I couldn't get the link from this week's Sepia Saturday to work for your blog, so I got here via last week's. You might want to check it.

Joan said...

I'm so glad he was recognised in the end. You did well with all this fascinating reseach, and Isaiah is honoured again.

Nancy said...

This was an interesting post. He lived during an especially challenging time period. I'm glad he finally received a better grave marker and a place in Arlington.

Barbara said...

What a heartbreaking story. I'm glad he got his grave stone but it was hardly enough.

Buffalo Soldier 9 said...

Keep telling that history:

Read the novel, Rescue at Pine Ridge, where Buffalo Bill Cody meets a Buffalo Soldier. A great story of Black military history...the first generation of Buffalo Soldiers. Five stars Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the youtube trailer commercial...and visit the website

How do you keep a people down? ‘Never' let them 'know' their history.

The 7th Cavalry got their butts in a sling again after the Little Big Horn Massacre, fourteen years later, the day after the Wounded Knee Massacre. If it wasn't for the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, there would of been a second massacre of the 7th Cavalry.

I know you’ll enjoy the novel. I wrote the story that embodied the Native Americans, Outlaws and African-American/Black soldiers, from the south to the north, in the days of the Native American Wars with the approaching United States of America. This story is about, brutality, compassion, reprisal, bravery, heroism and gallantry. The story shows the truism to the fullest of a PG-14 perspective...with a DVD release to show the fullest reality of war. Read the novel, Rescue at Pine Ridge, the story of the rescue of the famed 7th Cavalry by the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers.

Also the novel was taken from my mini-series movie of the same title, “RaPR” to keep my story alive. Hollywood has had a lot of strikes and doesn’t like telling our stories…its been “his-story” of history all along…until now. The movie so far has attached, Bill Duke directing, Hill Harper, Glynn Turman and a host of other major actors in which we are in talks with…see at;

When you get a chance, also please visit our Alpha Wolf Production website at; and see our other productions, like Stagecoach Mary, the first Black Woman to deliver mail for Wells Fargo in Montana, in the 1890's, “spread the word”.


Marilyn said...

What a wonderful piece of history about this remarkable man; this certainly is an interesting Sepia Saturday post. There must be so many who deserved recognition but never got it. The story of slaves and their scattered families is a sad one. I do hope Isaiah was well cared during the last of his life.


the indignities of prejudice!! some things have changed, but only to some degree... fascinating post though. may he rest in peace!!

L. D. Burgus said...

What a wonderful post. I am so glad the stone was made for him.

Your Genetic Genealogist said...

Denied?!?!? How is that possible after winning the Medal of Honor?!?! Unbelievable! I am so glad that you are remembering him and that he has received posthumous recognition. Thanks for the touching post!

tony said...

Isaiah Is An Impressive looking guy.And,an even more impressive History.I'm glad his memory was eventually seen +honoured. Yes..a facinating journey.

lettuce said...

fascinating history, thankyou!