Corporal, United States Army
Of Honor, Indian Campaigns
Rank and organization: Corporal, Company B, 24th U.S. Infantry.
Place and date: Arizona, 11 May 1889.
Entered service at: Columbus Barracks, Ohio.
Born: 16 February 1858, Carters Bridge, Virginia
Date of issue: 19 February 1890.
Citation: Gallantry in the fight between Paymaster
Wham's escort and robbers. Mays walked and crawled 2 miles to a ranch for
Mays and Sergeant Benjamin Brown, of the 24th Infantry, were awarded the Medal of Honor in 1890 for “gallantry and meritorious conduct” while defending an Army pay wagon against masked bandits near Tucson.
In a fierce battle with the robbers, several soldiers were seriously wounded. Mays, shot in both legs, walked and crawled two miles to a nearby ranch to sound the alarm. (Mays’ and Brown’s regiment was one of several famous Black “Buffalo Soldier” regiments formed after the Civil War and sent West during the Indian Wars.)
The robbers got away with $29,000 in gold (worth nearly half a million dollars today) that was never recovered.
Mays’ and Brown’s gallantry caught the attention of his superiors, who said the men “behaved in the most courageous and heroic manner.”
Born a slave in Virginia in 1858, Mays left the Army in 1893 and worked as a laborer in Arizona and New Mexico. In 1922, he appealed for and was denied a federal pension.
Mays was eventually committed to the hospital, which at the time housed not only the mentally ill but also tubercular patients and indigents with nowhere else to go. Mays died at the hospital 1925. Because of a fire in 1935, the hospital has no record of his actual burial site.
For decades after his death, Mays’ grave was marked only by a modest bricklike marker etched with a number. Mays might have been forgotten had it not been for the efforts of hospital staff and a small group of Arizona veterans who identified Mays as one of the state’s recipients of the nation’s highest military honor.
In 2001, Mays finally received a Medal of Honor headstone from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for his bravery 110 years earlier.
The headstone was unveiled just a few days before Memorial Day in 2001 at a formal ceremony with members of the American Buffalo Soldiers in attendance.
The battle occurred on May 11, 1889 in Southeast Arizona between Fort Grant and Fort Thomas, when a band of robbers ambushed US Army Paymaster Major Joseph W. Wham and eleven Buffalo Soldiers escorting $28,345.10 of military payroll.
The soldiers distinguished themselves in defense of the payroll. Sergeant Brown and Corporal Mays received the nation’s highest military honor for their heroic actions during the battle. Sergeant Benjamin Brown was shot five times during the fight and was finally disabled by a bullet wound to his forearm. With Sergeant Brown disabled, Corporal Isaiah Mays took command and continued to resist until almost all of his soldiers were disabled with severe wounds.
Within thirty minutes from the time the fight began, the fight became totally one sided, with almost all of the soldiers out of action due to wounds, while the robbery suspects were firing on them from three heavily fortified sides. Corporal Isaiah Mays, near the end of the battle and while wounded in both legs, walked and crawled two miles to Cottonwood Ranch for assistance.
The payroll money was never recovered; however, several local men suspected in the holdup were brought to trial. Since the robbers wore no masks or disguises during the robbery, their convictions should have been a foregone conclusion, but the attitude of the local white jurors toward the testimony of the Buffalo Soldiers only attests to the difficulties and prejudices faced by the Buffalo Soldiers during that period. All the suspects were acquitted, even though the Buffalo Soldiers testified against their assailants by name.
The Committee on Military Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives, after examining the evidence, stated that "the fact that the President ... has seen fit to award certificates of merit and medals of honor to the members of Major Wham's escort . . . is the highest evidence of the fact that they displayed unusual courage and skill in defense of the Government's property." Furthermore, the committee concluded, "all the evidence . . . shows conclusively that all was done by Major Wham and the Buffalo Soldier escort that men could do to protect the Government's property…."
On February 15, 1890 Sergeant Benjamin Brown and Corporal Isaiah Mays were awarded the Medal of Honor, and eight Privates received Certificates of Merit.
Thirty three years after receiving his medal of Honor, in 1923, Isaiah Mays applied to the United States Government for a pension and was denied as not qualified.
Shortly thereafter, Mays, then indigent, was committed to the Arizona State Hospital, which at the time treated not only the mentally ill but also tuberculosis patients and indigents. Mays died in the hospital in 1925 at age 67. His body was wrapped in a sheet and unceremoniously buried in a pauper's grave within the Arizona State Hospital Cemetery. For decades after his death, Mays’ grave was marked only by a bricklike marker etched with a number.
In 1935, a fire broke out at the hospital and critical patient records were destroyed, including records which contained the exact burial location of all hospital cemetery interments, including Isaiah Mays.
Mays might have been forgotten had it not been for the efforts of hospital staff and a small group of Arizona veterans who identified Mays as one of the state’s recipients of the nation’s highest military honor.
For decades, the Arizona State Hospital Cemetery, containing Corporal Mays' grave, remained a weed ridden, trash filled vacant lot located in an isolated spot on State Hospital property near 24th Street and Van Buren in downtown Phoenix.
In 2001, the lot was finally cleaned up and
Isaiah Mays finally received a Medal of Honor headstone from the U.S. Department
of Veterans Affairs for his bravery 110 years earlier.
March 5, 2009 - Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kongable issued a Court Order authorizing Old Guard Riders Inc. and the Missing In America Project to exhume Corporal Isaiah Mays from the property of the Arizona State Hospital. Representatives from OGR and MIAP made a personal visit to the Arizona State Hospital to hand deliver the court order to Hospital Director John Cooper. Mr. Cooper was unable to receive the delegation. The court order will be delivered by certified mail.
Additional certified copies of the court order have been faxed or overnight expressed to all other necessary parties, including Arlington National Cemetery.
March 6, 2009 - Fred Salanti forwarded a copy of the court order to exhume Corporal Mays to Arlington. Upon receipt of the court order, Arlington will now forward a "Confirmation Letter" verifying Corporal Mays interment schedule within Arlington.
In the weeks ahead, Corporal Isaiah Mays' remains will be exhumed from the former Arizona State Hospital Cemetery. His remains will be cremated and placed in an urn appropriately engraved for a Medal of Honor recipient.
On the morning of May 21, 2009, the Old Guard Rider Funeral Escort Team, members of the Arizona Buffalo Soldiers MC and other riders will leave Apache Junction Mortuary, Apache Junction, Arizona. We will follow the itinerary detailed below. On May 24th, the Arizona escort will arrive in Topeka, Kansas, where we will meet the MIAP Funeral Escort Team and other riders escorting the remains of two Silver Star recipients destined for Arlington National Cemetery.
Burial will take place at Arlington National Cemetery on 29 May 2009 at 1500 hours.
Posted: 11 March 2009 Updated; 30 May 2009