Buffalo Soldier Moses Williams receives Medal of Honor on November 12, 1896.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 12/29/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10793

On November 12, 1896, Buffalo Soldier Moses Williams (1845-1899) receives the Medal of Honor 15 years after his heroic action in a battle with the Warm Springs Apaches in New Mexico on August 16, 1881. Williams was a veteran of the Civil War, having served in the United States Colored Troops. In 1866, with the formation of four peacetime black regiments, he was able to become a regular army soldier. Williams joined the black Ninth Cavalry, and in 1886 became one of the first black ordnance sergeants. At the time he receives the Medal of Honor he is serving as ordnance sergeant at Fort Stevens, Oregon, which he will do until his retirement to Vancouver, Washington, in 1898. Sergeant Williams will die in Vancouver in 1899 and will be buried in the Vancouver Barracks Cemetery.

Joining the Black Cavalry

On July 28, 1866, the United States Congress passed the Army Reorganization Act that created four regiments of black soldiers: two infantry regiments, the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth, and two cavalry regiments, the Ninth and Tenth. These regiments offered blacks economic and social advancement not otherwise obtainable in post-Civil War society. They also provided an opportunity to continue service for black soldiers who had served in the Civil War as volunteers or in United States Colored Troops units.

One of these soldiers was Moses Williams from Vicksburg, Mississippi. Moses enlisted in October 1864 in the Third Cavalry Regiment, which fought in a number of engagements. Moses Williams had reached the rank of corporal by the time the Third was mustered out on January 26, 1966, and he returned to Vicksburg. When the black cavalry was formed in 1866 he went to Carrolton, Louisiana, the headquarters of the Ninth Cavalry, and joined. Once formed, the Ninth Cavalry went to San Antonio for training. Following their training, the Ninth was assigned to west-Texas posts.

Moses Williams and other cavalrymen who could not read or write took evening classes to become literate. Williams also studied mathematics, which would later enable him to become an ordnance sergeant. He learned quickly and with hard work was promoted to first sergeant in 1868. The Ninth Cavalry protected the stage route between San Antonio and El Paso, Texas. In 1875 the Ninth was sent to New Mexico and Williams made first sergeant of Company I.

Valor in the Indian Wars

The Ninth Cavalry was dispatched to New Mexico to subdue the Warm Springs Apaches. Black units such as the Ninth played a major role on the Western frontier. Although the etymology is uncertain, the term "buffalo soldier" was applied to them. Indians are said to have used the term out of respect and comparing their curly hair to that of Bison. The Warm Springs Apaches were rebelling against the concentration policy and white greed. They attacked settlers and fought the army, with battles going on from 1875 to 1881.

In August 1881, Company I was camped at Canada Alamosa, New Mexico. On August 16, 1881, the company learned that a settler family nearby had been murdered. A detachment of 15 troopers and several Mexican soldiers immediately saddled up and rode to the ranch. Additional I Company troops followed a short time later. At the ranch the bodies of a woman and three children were discovered. The trail of the Warm Spring Apaches was easily detected and followed into the Cuchillo Negro Mountain foothills. Led by the elderly and highly skilled warrior Nana, or Kas-tziden (ca.1800-ca.1896), the Warm Spring Apache forces had taken up positions behind boulders and in crevices above the trail. At the foothills the cavalrymen rode into a trap and lost a number of horses and had troop casualties. The I Company detachment tried flanking to dislodge the attackers. First Sergeant Moses Williams led a group on the right flank pursuing the attack force as Mexican soldiers on the left also gave chase.

There was a running battle as the cavalry chased the Warm Spring Apache forces. The cavalrymen were unable to overcome them, so a retreat was ordered. Four troopers did not hear the retreat order and found themselves in danger of being surrounded and killed. Sergeant Williams, his lieutenant, and another cavalryman rushed in to save them. Two of the troopers were wounded and carried out while Williams and two others laid down a barrage of fire to protect their escape. The battles continued to nightfall when Nana and his men escaped. Williams's bravery, coolness under attack, and his devotion to duty were recorded in his Medal of Honor citation.

Coming to the Pacific Northwest

In 1886, Sergeant Williams successfully passed an examination by a board of officers and became one of the first black ordnance sergeants. With the new position he was responsible for the arms and ammunition of a post and their upkeep and repair. The ordnance sergeant had to make regular inventories and reports submitted to higher headquarters. Ordnance Sergeant Williams's first duty station was Fort Buford, North Dakota. He served as the fort ordnance sergeant until the post closed in 1895.

In March 1895, Ordnance Sergeant Williams was assigned to Fort StevensĀ in Oregon. A detachment of 20 men was at the closed coastal defense post at the mouth of the Columbia River maintaining the installation. Sergeant Williams was in charge of the maintenance of the coastal defense guns. While stationed here he was involved in the installation of additional coastal defense guns.

On November 12, 1896, during his tour at Fort Stevens, he received the Medal of Honor for his actions 15 years earlier.

He retired on May 12, 1898, to a cabin outside Vancouver, Washington. On August 23, 1899, he died there of heart failure. A search of his belongings turned up the Medal of Honor.

He was buried in the Vancouver Barracks Post Cemetery. He is one of four Medal of Honor recipients buried there, along with Sergeant James Madison Hill (1845-1919), Major William Wallace McCammon (1838-1903), and Private Herman Pfisterer (1866-1905). A monument to these four Medal of Honor recipients, located at Vancouver Barracks, was dedicated by Secretary of State Colin Powell (b. 1937) in 1991.


Sources: Donald K. and Helen L. Ross, Washington State Men of Valor (Burley, Washington: Coffee Break Press, 1980); William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967); Irvin H. Lee, Negro Medal of Honor Men (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1967); "Colored Veteran Dead," Morning Olympian, August 25, 1899, p. 1; "Moses Williams, Army," The Oregonian, August 27, 1899, p. A-9.

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