Valor Friday

| January 21, 2022

Corporal William Othello Wilson

I came across today’s subject by chance while working on another article. I thought his story was amazing and hope you do too.

One thing that you’ll see when studying American military history as I do is that award citations have become more verbose and detailed over time. What passed for an awards package seems to have increased exponentially. For example, compare William Othello Wilson’s Medal of Honor citation to literally any other MoH citation in the last hundred plus years.

Private William O. Wilson’s award citation is an abundantly succinct, brutally efficient description of individual heroism, if sparse on details or any alliteration whatsoever. His citation, in full, reads (punctuation original);

Bravery.

I won’t say I’m not eminently impressed that at one point in time an Army officer’s word was given such gravity that when he sent up word that one of his men was involved in “bravery” that it was heeded. Nowadays, any claim of bravery by a soldier in battle is vetted in much the same way the Vatican investigates a case for sainthood. It’s a process that takes painfully long years, requires at least two eyewitnesses, and will be looked at skeptically by at least a half dozen flag officers who each poke holes in any citation, believing the tales of heroics therein are far too fantastic to be believed.

So let’s explore just what passed for “bravery” in 1890 on the American Great Plains.

William Othello Wilson was born 16 September in the 1860s in Chewsville, Maryland. If you’ve never heard of the town, you’ll be forgiven. It’s still a small, very rural town in Washington County. The most recent census shows just about 300 people live in the town today in an area of .8 square miles. Wilson’s exact year of birth is disputed. Historians have noted that 1867 seems like a likely year of birth, but other sources list it as 1869.

Somehow Wilson made his way to Minnesota by 1889. He mustered into US Army service there in St Paul in 1889. His enlistment papers note he was 21 years, 4 months old and 5’7 ½” tall.

Minnesota in those days was still the frontier. For years, the Native Lakota (Sioux) peoples had been pushed further and further out of their territory by the white American settlers. The US Government, for its part, routinely violated the terms of the treaties they forced the Natives into. The combination of factors led to understandable resentment and outright war between the Natives and the settlers, who were protected by the US Army.

It was into what was known as the Ghost Dance War between the US Army and Lakotas that Wilson joined the Army. He was assigned to the 9th Cavalry Regiment, one of the segregated Buffalo Soldiers regiments. Officially listed as the “Negro Cavalry”, they had earned their nom de guerre from the Natives they were fighting against. Buffalo Soldier became synonymous with the black regiments on the Western Frontier.

The Ghost Dance War (itself part of the much larger Indian Campaigns of the 19th Century) was an Army response to a religious movement spreading through Lakota and other Native cultures at the time. In 1889, Wovoka, a Paiute Native religious leader, claimed to have received a message from God. He prophesied that performance of Ghost Dance rituals would return their ancestors’ ghosts to the world to live in harmony with all Native peoples. Adherents also believed that a series of apocalyptic natural disasters would soon bring the end to all white people while protecting the Natives.

This religious movement spread quickly, particularly in the area of the Minnesota plains and in the newly admitted states of North and South Dakota. This led to calls for more Army involvement in the region.

This war culminated on 28 December 1890. The 8th Cavalry had been ordered to disarm and then escort Lakota Chief Spotted Elk and about 350 of his people to Camp Cheyenne. Instead of surrendering his people as he had agreed to, Spotted Elk instead led his people on a march to the Pine Creek Reservation.

Elements of the 7th Cavalry Regiment discovered them on 28 December. Wanting to disarm them immediately, the officer in charge was dissuaded by his interpreter’s insistence that it would lead to violence. They instead led them to nearby Wounded Knee and disarm them the next day. Upon the arrival of the full 7th Cavalry, they surrounded the Natives (numbering about 230 men and 120 women and children) and set up four M1875 Hotchkiss mountain guns. Roughly 500 Army soldiers were involved in the incident.

At daybreak on the 29th, the Natives were ordered to disarm. It’s not entirely clear how the fighting started, but it would turn into what is now known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. By many accounts, one of the Ghost Dance faithful began doing the ghost dance, telling the Native warriors that their “ghost shirts” would be “bulletproof”.

There’s more than one source that relates a deaf Lakota named Black Coyote refused the order to disarm. Not knowing how to communicate with the deaf man, he was seized from behind by Union soldiers, causing his gun to go off. As this happened, the ghost dancing man threw some dust, signaling at least five young warriors to throw off their blankets and fire previously concealed firearms.

What commenced was a pitched battle between the trapped and partially disarmed Lakota and the cavalry troopers who were ready for a fight. Before the day would be done, virtually all of the Natives would be wiped out. Even women and children as they fled.

According to US Army Commanding General Nelson A. Miles, who personally toured the battlefield three days later, a “scuffle occurred between one deaf warrior who had [a] rifle in his hand and two soldiers. The rifle was discharged and a battle occurred, not only the warriors but the sick Chief Spotted Elk, and a large number of women and children who tried to escape by running and scattering over the prairie were hunted down and killed.”

That’s a succinct way of saying everyone was mowed down.

Word of the battle/massacre spread fast. By now a corporal, Wilson and his 9th Cavalry were scouting up a tributary of the Missouri River about 50 miles north of the Indian Agency at Pine Ridge. When the runner brought word of the massacre he also brought orders to return to the agency with all due speed.

The cavalrymen rode hard and through the night to return to the safety of their fort. In the early morning of 30 December, F, I, and K Troops arrived safely. Members of D Troop remained behind and were guarding the regiment’s supply wagons, which were slower.

They’d made it to Cheyenne Creek, only about two miles away from the agency, when they were surrounded by 50 Lakota warriors. The cavalry troopers protected themselves by circling their wagons, but one soldier was killed almost immediately.

When the Indian scouts refused to leave the safety of the wagon train to get a message to Pine Ridge, Corporal William Wilson volunteered for the suicide mission.

It could be inferred that Wilson was adept at riding horse by having risen to corporal in less than two years in the Army. It can be definitively stated that he was a superb rider because when he burst through the circled wagons he made it through the wall of warriors waiting for him.

As Wilson rode forward, the Natives gave chase. After a time, Wilson’s skill and swift horse let him outrun his pursuers. He made it to Pine Ridge with his vital message. The rest of the 9th Cavalry immediately rode out to aid their stranded comrades.

It was this valor in action that resulted in Wilson receiving the Medal of Honor for, as his understated citation reads, “Bravery.” A more detailed accounting was published a few months later;

December 30, 1890. Private (then Corporal) William O. Wilson, Troop I, 9th Cavalry: For gallantry in carrying a message for assistance through country occupied by the enemy, when the wagon train under escort of Captain Loud was attacked by hostile Sioux Indians, near the Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota.

While Wounded Knee would come to be considered the end of the Indian Wars, hostilities continued in the region for some time. Also on 30 December Company K of the 7th Cavalry had been sent 15 miles north of Pine Ridge onto the reservation to force Lakota to return to their respective areas. Unsurprisingly, they weren’t amenable to the 7th Cavalry’s demands. Company K would need to be rescued by the 9th Cavalry.

Through the rest of the winter and until March 1891, the 9th Cavalry remained at Pine Ridge Reservation as guards.

Just weeks before they were set to depart Pine Ridge, Wilson took an unauthorized absence to Nebraska. Accused of desertion, he was demoted to private. His defense had been he was under the influence of alcohol and the hard winter’s encampment had caused undue stress. He spent a week in the guardhouse at Fort Robinson in Nebraska. He was sprung from the stockade by members of his troop, who had ridden down in a blizzard to rescue him.

Desertion was very common in the Army at the time, and not generally prosecuted unless one actually returned to your unit. As with Wilson, upon return, you’d be demoted or lose privileges. On some operations during this time on the western frontier, desertion rates were as high as 40% of the men.

In 1893, while on another trip to Nebraska, this time to represent his regiment in a shooting competition, Wilson never returned. He kept his Springfield carbine and Colt sidearm, which the Army made no attempt to get back.

Wilson returned to Maryland, where he remained for the rest of his life. He married, had seven children, worked variously as an upholsterer, cook, carpenter, teacher, and calligrapher, and died in 1928 at age 61.

Wilson’s award, interesting to me as it was for its brevity, is also noteworthy for a couple of other reasons. Wilson is the only black soldier to have received the Medal of Honor after a charge of desertion (hence the award being given to “Private (then Corporal) William O Wilson”). He was also the last black soldier to receive the Medal of Honor for action on American soil.

In 2003, Wilson’s last surviving daughter, Anna V Jones (b.1912-d.2008), donated her father’s medal to the Maryland African American Museum.

Category: Army, Historical, Medal of Honor, Valor, We Remember

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Roh-Dog

A little fire in the belly be a good thing.
Rest Well, Dear Corporal.

ninja

Mason,

Reading the story about William Othello Wilson triggered my memory about what I read reference the MoH and the Wounded Knee incident.

Am having mixed emotions for both sides.

Those Soldiers during that time frame who were awarded the MoH went beyond the call of duty when conducting the mission given to them.

And now we have this.

Is this not similiar to what is happening with Bobby Lee’s Army i.e. Statues being removed, Military Bases being renamed?

Or Teddy Roosevelt’s statue being moved?

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/23/us/politics/tribes-medal-honor-wounded-knee.html

ninja

“Tribes Want Medals Awarded for Wounded Knee Massacre Rescinded”

ninja

“Lawmakers Call On Biden To Revoke Wounded Knee Medals of Honor”

Roh-Dog

Hahahahaha! YCMTSU:

“We ask you to act swiftly to revoke these undue honors—a step that will help right this historical wrong and begin to heal the lasting wounds of many Native American descendants today,” the letter, signed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), [et al]…“The Medals of Honor awarded to U.S. Army personnel for their participation in the Wounded Knee Massacre were wrongly bestowed. The actions of these soldiers were not heroic, and allowing them to continue to bear the highest military honor glorifies what should be treated as a shameful episode in our nation’s history,” the lawmakers added.

Meanwhile, fast forward to current year and ZERO individuals have been reprimanded for the 10 civilians killed by a misapplication of a Hellfire Missile in AFG.

Clown World.

ninja

As shared, am having mixed emotions on this.

Where do we draw the line?

If this goes thru, am speculating William Othello Wilson’s MoH will be revoked as well.

ninja

Wilson is listed with the other MoH Awardees:

https://armyatwoundedknee.com/gallantry-in-action/

Roh-Dog

What is there to be mixed about? Were they brave?
This rush to interpolate history is an affront to rationality. Judging the actions of them using our ‘contemporary moral high ground’ begets a rotten spiral of purity that will lead to the nastiest creatures determining the fates of the present inhabitants.

This is the lesson of history: revision begets bloodshed, always.

Only Army Mom

Roh-Dog, I agree with your statement about judging historical actions within their context. AndButHowever – I cringe when I think of Wounded Knee, and the Indian Wars in general. Another AndButHowever goes here, for the same reason, historical context.

I can sit in my 21st Century comfort and judge the actions of my ancestors and say, “we know better now”. I will not sit in my 21st Century comfort and feel responible for the actions of those I did not know during a time in which I was not alive.

One more thought – those who seek to redress historical wrong do so because that is easier than addressing the present, much less hold themselves accountable in the present.

ninja

Roh-Doh asked “What is there to be mixed about?”

My previous comment:

“Am having mixed emotions for both sides.”

“Those Soldiers during that time frame who were awarded the MoH went beyond the call of duty when conducting the mission given to them.”

“And now we have this.”

“Is this not similiar to what is happening with Bobby Lee’s Army i.e. Statues being removed, Military Bases being renamed?”

“Or Teddy Roosevelt’s statue being moved?”

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/23/us/politics/tribes-medal-honor-wounded-knee.html

Wilson and others who received the MoH were given a mission.. their Leadership determined they went above and beyond the call of duty that they were awarded the MoH. Different time. Different Culture. Different Though Process.

Fast forward on the perspectives of the Tribes wanting those MoHs rescinded. When one looks at the entire picture in the 21st Century as to what took place, one can understand why they want the MoH rescinded.

ninja

Just as OAM wrote, I cringe when I think of the Indian Wars….but am not responsible on what happened in the 19th Century.

I see both sides. Those 19th Century Soldiers were given a mission, which their Leadership determined that they went above and beyond the call of duty that resulted with those Soldiers being awarded the MoH.

I can understand why those 21st Century Tribes want the MoHs rescinded.

That is why I ask “Where do we draw the line?”

What is next? Our Founding Father’s portraits being taken down…our currency being changed..Memorials being taken down…all because they were Slave Owners, which was the “Normal” in the 18th/19th Century?

ninja

What is next? The Jefferson Memorial being taken down? Mount Vernon being shut down? Monticello being shut down? Our currency being changed? The White House being renamed or shut down?

How many other previos MoHs or US Military Awards may become scrutinized…and rescinded?

Fyrfighter

Yes, to all the above, if the left gets their way.. The tribes should be embarrassed to have Fauxcahontas speaking for them.

Slow Joe

This is the lesson of history: revision begets bloodshed, always.

Absolutely.
We should let the past rest.
I refuse to hate all the Germans alive today because of what their grandparents did to half of the Jewish population of that time.

Last edited 3 months ago by Slow Joe
Anonymous

Well, they didn’t get any– fair’s fair, you know.

KoB

Testify ninja! I stand with my Brothers of the Lakota Nation in how they were treated. I can also recognize the bravery of Corporal Wilson, riding thru 50 Warriors in his mission. “Do your duty in all things…you can never do more…you should never do less.” Cpl Wilson’s MoH was NOT related to the Wounded Knee massacre, he WAS NOT there. On contrast to the hundreds of MoHs “awarded” during the War to Prevent Southern Independence for simply picking up and orphaned Battle Flag. Fort Rob is a good spot to get the history of both sides.

Per Bob Lee; “The consolidation of the states into one vast empire, sure to be despotic at home and aggressive abroad, will be the certain precursor of ruin which has overwhelmed all that preceded it.” And here we are.

Another great story Mason. Thanks!

ninja

KoB:

Thank You for understanding why I stated that I have mixed emotions about this….Research indicates that Wilson is included with the other recepients of the MoH that may go before the Chopping Block.

Where do we draw the line…and when will it end? Teddy Roosevelt’s statue has been relocated. There is still a discussion of getting rid of Stone Mountain…and possibly changing Mount Rushmore.

My heart goes out to the Lakota Nation. Again, I cringe when researching what took place during the Indian Wars.

That is why I asked “What’s Next”?

KoB

Not hard to understand for us students of history, ninja. ‘specially those of us who had living relatives that had FIRST person memories of our history. When you look at the ones that perfected the art of making war on women and children in the US (Sherman/Sheridan), the ones that ran the military, made the policy, and gave the orders to decimate the tribes. And don’t get me started on broken treaties. Artie Custer got exactly what he deserved; his men? Not so much.

What’s next? We take back our Country. History is history, warts and all.

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

If Heap Big Pile-O-Shit Fauxahantas is involved, why don’t we apply the same standards to HER that she wants to apply to the MoH recipients?
Let’s rescind her claims of “Native American Indian blood” (based on TODAY’S standards vs family stories), kick her out of Havahd and the Senate, and have her pay back all that $$$$ that she ILLEGALLY gains due to lies and falsehoods.

Sause, goose, gander………..