BUFFALO SOLDIER MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENTS
The Medal of Honor, the highest award that can be given to a member of the U.S. military, is presented by the president. It is awarded to an individual who, while serving his country, “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” The Medal of Honor was authorized in 1862. It was awarded to 417 men who served in the frontier Indian Campaigns between 1865 and 1899. Eighteen were awarded to Black American soldiers: 8 were presented to members of the 9th Cavalry, 4 to members of the 10th Cavalry, and 6 to members of the 24th Infantry (Schubert 1997). Five members of the 10th Cavalry received the award during the Spanish American War.
The following Buffalo Soldiers earned the nation’s highest military award while stationed in the Arizona Territory.
Sergeant Major William McBryar
William McBryar was the only enlisted member of the 10th Cavalry to receive the Medal of Honor prior to the Spanish-American War. He was the second African-American from North Carolina to be so honored. Born in Elizabethtown, he enlisted in the army in New York in 1887. Older than most recruits, he was better educated, having completed three years of college. He joined Company K at Fort Grant, Arizona, following the 1886 capture of Geronimo; his outfit spent much of 1887 pursuing an Apache guerilla named Kid. The following year McBryar suffered abdominal injuries when a horse fell on him.
A good soldier and skilled cavalryman, McBryar was promoted to sergeant and first sergeant. In 1890 McBryar was involved in a 200-mile pursuit of five fugitive Apaches. When the hostile Indians took shelter in a cave, McBryar fired his rifle at rocks along the edge of the cave sending bullet fragments and splintered rock flying at the trapped men who, as a consequence, surrendered. McBryar was awarded the Medal of Honor for “coolness, bravery, and good marksmanship.”
McBryar remained in the army, serving during the Spanish-American War with the 25th Infantry in Cuba, where he commanded a platoon, his company lacking commissioned officers. He was commended for leadership in what was a pivotal battle in the campaign. McBryar received a commission in 1898 and was sent to Fort Thomas, Kentucky, as a lieutenant in the 8th Volunteer Infantry. When his unit was mustered out in 1899, McBryar reenlisted as a private and went to fight in the Philippines, becoming a quartermaster and first lieutenant.
For years McBryar tried to become a regular commissioned officer and was supported by his white commanders who considered him competent and intelligent. However, in 1901 after fourteen years of service, McBryar’s unit was mustered out and he found himself at the bottom of the ladder once again. He rejoined the Buffalo Soldiers as a private in 1905, but due to rheumatism, was discharged a year later, and moved to Greensboro. McBryar tried civilian careers including farmer, military school instructor, and watchman at Arlington Cemetery. During World War I, he again tried to reenter the Army. He died in 1941 and was buried at Arlington.
The Wham Robbery
For more than a century, some $28,000.00 in gold and silver coins has been missing after the little known Wham Paymaster Robbery occurred near Pima, AZ. Though eight suspects were caught and tried for the crime, they walked away free men. The tale of the robbery and the mystery that surrounds remains unsolved today.
In the early morning hours of May 11, 1889, U.S. Army Paymaster, Major Joseph Washington Wham was preparing for a trek from Fort Grant to Fort Thomas to pay the soldiers’ salaries. About 15 miles west of Pima in the Gila River Valley, just after midday, the caravan came to a stop as a large boulder was blocking the road. When the wagons were unable to get around it, the soldiers lay down their weapons in order to dislodge the large rock. However, before they made any progress, a cry came from a ledge some 60 feet above on the adjacent hill, “Look out, you black sons of bitches!” and bullets began to hail down upon the soldiers. Three of the 12 mules pulling the wagons were killed and the other animals panicked, rearing and pulling both vehicles off the road.
In the meantime, the soldiers scrambled for the guns and took cover. As the bullets continued to reign down upon them from three heavily fortified sides, Sergeant Benjamin Brown was shot, but continued to return fire with his revolver. In the meantime, Private James Young ran through heavy gunfire and carried Brown more than 100 yards to safety. Corporal Isaiah Mays then took command, ordering the entourage to retreat to a creek bed about 300 yards away, despite Major Wham’s protests. The battle continued to rage on for about a half an hour as the soldiers valiantly tried to protect the payload.
Two of the Buffalo Soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their part in the gun battle with the bandits. Although shot in the abdomen, Sergeant Benjamin Brown continued the fight until he was wounded in both arms. Corporal Isaiah Mays also received the Medal of Honor, as near the end of the gun battle, though shot in the legs, he “walked and crawled two miles to Cottonwood Ranch and gave the alarm.” Brown and Mays were the only black infantrymen to receive the Medal of Honor for bravery in the frontier Indian Wars.
Other Buffalo Soldiers cited for bravery in the incident received the Certificate of Merit. These included Hamilton Lewis, Squire Williams, George Arrington, James Wheeler, Benjamin Burge, Thomas Hams, James Young, and Julius Harrison of the 10th Cavalry and 24th Infantry.
Sergeant Benjamin Brown
Sergeant Benjamin Brown (Born 1859 – September 5, 1910) was a recipient of America’s highest military decoration— for his actions during the “Wham Robbery,” 1889. The crack of gunfire split the midday quiet in a remote corner of southeastern Arizona, not far from the tiny Mormon settlement of Pima. From behind fortifications overlooking the Fort Grant – Fort Thomas road, at a place known locally as “Bloody Run,” a band of highwaymen ambushed army paymaster Major Joseph Washington Wham and his buffalo soldier escort. Following a hard-fought battle, the bandits made off with more than $28,000. The money was never recovered. Eight of the twelve-man escort were wounded in the spirited defense of the army payroll, Sergeant Benjamin Brown refusing to give up his defense though shot in the abdomen and then wounded in both arms. Brown died in 1910 and was buried at the United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Corporal Isaiah Mays
Corporal Isaiah Mays (February 16, 1858 – May 2, 1925) was a Buffalo Soldier in the United States Army and a recipient of America’s highest military decoration—the Medal of Honor—for his actions during the Wham Paymaster Robbery in Arizona Territory. Mays was born into slavery in Virginia. He joined the Army from Columbus Barracks, Ohio, and by May 11, 1889 was serving as a corporal in Company B of the 24th Infantry Regiment. On that day, he was among the troops attacked during the Wham Paymaster Robbery. The next year, on February 19, 1890, Mays was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the engagement. After leaving the army in 1893, Mays worked as a laborer in Arizona and New Mexico. He applied for a federal pension in 1922, but was denied. He died at the hospital in 1925, at age sixty-seven, and was buried in the adjoining cemetery. His grave was marked with only a small stone block, etched with a number. In 2001, the marker was replaced with an official United States Department of Army headstone.
Click on the link below for a short depiction of the Wham Robbery