Moses Williams

From Illiteracy to Immortality

Moses Williams entered the world on October 10th, 1845 in Carrolton, Louisiana. Like the thousands of other African Americans in the south at the time, he would grow up illiterate. Shortly after the Civil War in 1866, Congress established the six segregated African-American regiments that would become known as the Buffalo Soldiers. That same year, 21 year old Moses Williams enlisted in the Army by signing an “X” on his enlistment papers since he was unable to read or write. Five years later at the end of his first enlistment, he re-enlisted and this time his official documents show a penned signature as “Moses Williams.” Williams took advantage of the opportunity given to him by the Army and learned how to read, write and do mathematics.

Moses Williams was originally assigned to the 9th Cavalry, Company F. Initially stationed in Louisiana, Williams and his fellow troopers would also serve in Texas and then in New Mexico. By 1876 he was transferred and assigned to Company I (Eye). In 1881, Williams and his fellow troopers of Company I (Eye) were ordered to pursue and capture renegade Apaches in New Mexico. On August 16th, Company I (Eye) engaged a band of spirited Apaches in the foothills of the Cuchillo Negro Mountains. During the ferocious battle, Williams led multiple flanking attacks and personally rallied his fellow troopers to reorganize and continue fighting. Upon the company’s withdrawal under intense fire, Williams and his Lieutenant exposed themselves to draw enemy fire which enabled the company to rescue three other troopers who had been cut-off by the Apache renegades.

Williams would go on and enjoy a storied Army career as he achieved the coveted and distinguished position of Ordnance Sergeant by 1885 at Fort Niobrara in Nebraska. While stationed there, he learned that two other troopers who were involved in the Cuchillo Negro Mountains battle had been awarded the Medal of Honor. Williams decided to petition the Army for the honor as well. His former commanding officer concurred in his decision to petition the Army for the honor and provided a detailed letter of recommendation of his valiant actions that day. In 1896, six years after Williams petitioned the Army, and 15 years after the battle, the Army immortalized him by awarding the Medal of Honor for his valiant and selfless actions that fateful day in New Mexico. The citation for William’s Medal of Honor reads as follows: “Rallied a detachment, skillfully conducted a running fight of 3 or 4 hours, and by his coolness, bravery, and unflinching devotion to duty in standing by his commanding officer in an exposed position under a heavy fire from a large party of Indians saved the lives of at least 3 of his comrades.”  

“Although hundreds of African Americans sought a better life by joining the United States Military Services, the Indian Wars and the treatment of Native Americans was not a very proud moment is the history of America.”  John L. Edwards, III, Chattanooga News Chronicle. Sergeant Moses Williams would continue his military career until 1898 when he retired after 32 years of honorable service to the country. Only one year after his retirement though, Moses Williams died on August 23rd, 1899 at age 52. He was buried at the Vancouver Barracks Post Cemetery at Fort Vancouver, Washington (now known as Fort Vancouver Military Cemetery). In 1991, a monument to Moses Williams and three other Medal of Honor recipients was dedicated by General Colin Powell on the Vancouver National Historic Reserve.