Isaiah Mays

Black and white photograph of African American man in suite of late 1800s wearing Medal of Honor
Corporal Isaiah Mays wearing his Medal of Honor in the late 1800s

Library of Congress

Quick Facts
Buffalo Soldier and Medal of Honor Recipient
Place of Birth:
Carter's Bridge, Virginia
Date of Birth:
February 16, 1858
Place of Death:
Phoenix, Arizona
Date of Death:
May 2, 1925
Place of Burial:
Arlington, Virginia
Cemetery Name:
Arlington National Cemetery

Isaiah Mays was born enslaved on February 16, 1858, in Carter’s Bridge Virginia. In 1865, after the Civil War ended, Mays and his family moved to Ohio. When he was 23, Mays enlisted in the Twenty-Fourth Infantry at the Columbus Barracks. By 1889, he had achieved the rank of corporal in the Twenty-Fourth’s Company B.

On May 11 of that year, Mays and other members of Company B escorted Major Joseph W. Wham from Fort Grant to Fort Thomas in the Arizona Territory to deliver $28,345.10 in gold coins for the military payroll. Major Wham had been delivering payroll in this fashion for 12 years. The Buffalo Soldiers traveling with him had a combined 85 years of military service. Nevertheless, en route, the two-wagon convoy was attacked in what came to be known as the Wham Paymaster Robbery.

The first wagon had Wham, his assistant, and Private Hamilton Lewis of the Twenty-Fourth, who drove the mule team. It also held the gold coins weighing 250 pounds in an oak strongbox. Behind Wham’s wagon, the escort wagon carried eight members of the Twenty-Fourth Infantry along with two members of the Tenth Cavalry riding beside on horseback. As the group traveled the road toward Fort Thomas and Wham’s wagon crested the hill, Lewis noticed a large boulder pushed into the middle of the road. As the men of the Twenty-Fourth tried to move the boulder out of the road, a shot came from a fortified position 50 feet above. A volley of about 20 guns followed, according to Wham’s after-action report. For about 30 minutes the soldiers exchanged gunfire with the ambushers.

As casualties among the soldiers continued to mount, Corporal Mays took it upon himself to go for help. He knew that if help didn’t arrive that he and his comrades would not survive the assault. Mays crawled and ran more than two miles to the nearest ranch for help. By the time more soldiers arrived the bandits had taken the gold and fled. While most of the soldiers were wounded no members of the escort died during this confrontation.

In Wham’s report, he stressed the bravery and valor of the Black soldiers who were with him that day. He wrote, “I never witnessed better courage or better fighting than shown by these soldiers, on May 11, 1889.” A U.S. Marshal who investigated the robbery concurred. In his report, he wrote, “I am satisfied a braver or better defense could not have been made under like circumstances, and to have remained longer would have proven a useless sacrifice of life without a vestige of hope to succeed.”

Wham recommended Mays for the Medal of Honor in September 1889, which he was awarded on February 19, 1890. His citation read, “Gallantry in the fight between Paymaster Wham’s escort and robbers. Mays walked and crawled 2 miles to a ranch for help.”

Shortly after the robbery, several suspects were arrested. Although during their trial, some members of the escort including Major Wham and Corporal Mays testified and identified some of bandits, the jury found the defendants not guilty. No one was ever held accountable for the robbery, and the $28,345.10 was never recovered.

Corporal Mays served in the army until 1893 when he was given his discharge so he could return home to take care of his elderly parents. His discharge came with the condition that he pay his own travel costs. However, there is no evidence that Mays ever went to care for his parents. After his discharge he worked as a laborer in San Carlos, Arizona, close to Fort Grant. In 1922, he applied for a military pension; it was denied because he had not completed his enlistment when he was discharged in 1893. Mays died on May 2, 1925, in Phoenix, Arizona, at age 65. He was buried at Arizona State Hospital Cemetery in Phoenix.

For 76 years, Mays’s Arizona grave was marked only by a brick with a number etched on it. In 2001, an official Medal of Honor headstone was put in the marker’s place. And in 2009, the military reinterred Mays’s remains at Arlington National Cemetery, in Section 1, Grave 630-B.

Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument

Last updated: March 29, 2024