By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily Record
This week, in continuation of honoring Black History Month and recognizing notable black citizens who trailblazed a part of both their own history and our history here in southeastern New Mexico, we will recognize a deserving Buffalo Soldier, Sgt. Brent Woods.
Several years ago, my husband and I took a trip to Somerset, Kentucky, to visit relatives. Our cousins, knowing that we are history buffs, wanted to take us to a Civil War cemetery nearby. We were excited to go and more excited about what we found when we got there.
The name of the cemetery is Mill Springs National Cemetery near Nancy, Kentucky. There, in the center of the cemetery, we saw a huge monument in honor of the most highly decorated soldier in that cemetery.
To our surprise and delight, that soldier’s name is Brent Woods, a sergeant in the Indian campaigns after the Civil War, who was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.
Woods was a mulatto (the offspring of one white and one black parent), born into slavery in Pulaski County, Kentucky, in 1855. He was freed at the age of 8 and joined the U.S. Calvary 10 years later in 1873. Woods was assigned to Company B of the 9th Calvary and was stationed in the West to fight in the Indian campaigns from 1866 to 1891.
During a battle led by warrior Nana of the Chiricahu Apaches on Aug. 19, 1881, in Gavilon Canyon, New Mexico, the men of Company B found themselves without a commanding officer when the first in command was killed and the second in command could not be found. Woods rallied the men of his company after taking a group of cowboy civilians — who had joined them the day before — to safety. Woods then led the charge against the Apaches, making his way to the top of a ridge where he fought, despite a wounded arm, until the Indians retreated.
A cowboy who was saved by Woods in the battle said, “If it had not been for him, none of us would’ve come out of the canyon.” (Note: I cannot find exactly where this battle was fought in Gavilon Canyon, but I am assuming this troop was part of the Buffalo Soldiers stationed at Fort Stanton.)
Thirteen years later on July 21, 1894, Woods received the Medal of Honor. The delay is attributed to his race. Woods died on March 31, 1906, and was buried without notice in an unmarked grave in the black section of the First Baptist Church Cemetery in Somerset, Kentucky. He was survived by his wife, Pearl Baker.
Woods’ achievements were virtually unrecognized until 1982 when Loraine Smith, a city employment official in Somerset, began a campaign to mark his grave. On June 20, 1984, Woods’ body was moved to Mill Springs National Cemetery near Nancy, Kentucky. An official military burial ceremony took place on Oct. 28, 1984, with the help of U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers, whose district included Somerset, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The ceremony was attended by then-Secretary of the U.S. Army, John Otho Marsh Jr.
Woods is Pulaski County’s only Medal of Honor recipient.
How exciting it was for us to find such a notable citizen, there in the cemetery in Kentucky, who had achieved his honors right here in our backdoor of New Mexico!
The story of how the Buffalo Soldiers got their name begins after the Civil War when Gen. Ulysses S. Grant organized regiments of the black calvary who had fought in the war to outposts in the West. Black troops, who had been cooks, farmers, carpenters and blacksmiths, came from all parts of the country. The Army paid them $13 a month plus rations, and sent them to the most desolate and dangerous frontier outposts, where they served under the harshest conditions with the oldest equipment.
They fought Indian tribes that few soldiers wished to encounter — the Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, Ute and Sioux.
It was the Indians who gave the black troops the name Buffalo Soldiers, because their hair resembled the shaggy coats of the buffalo. The buffalo was sacred to the Indians and the Buffalo Soldiers accepted the name as a badge of honor. The buffalo then became a prominent part of the regimental crest.
Serving their country under harsh conditions, these Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Calvary are camped on Diamond Creek in New Mexico (Photos courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico).
The Buffalo Soldiers helped bring law and order to regions where ranchers fought with farmers, where Indian tribes warred with each other and with settlers, and where bandits threatened to overrun small towns. On rare occasions, settlers acknowledged their great debt to these black troops.
Over the years, that strange name, Buffalo Soldiers, became a prized title of those black troops who left a legacy of courageous service in the U.S. military.
Credits go in part to “Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes in the Old West,” written by Lillian Schlissel, “Kentucky’s Black Heritage: The Role of the Black People in the History of Kentucky from Pioneer Days to Present,” Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, 1971, Irvin H. Lee, and “Negro Medal of Honor Men,” by Peggy M. Brock.
Janice Dunahoo is a volunteer archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico.