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.
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