The Maryland Museum of Military History at the Fifth Regiment Armory is dedicating a room to Augustus Walley, a 19th-century Buffalo Soldier from Maryland who received the Medal of Honor. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)

When Augustus Walley was born in 1856, the United States considered him property.

A quarter-century later, he risked his life in service to that same nation. On a hot August day in 1881, Private Walley’s bravery and selflessness in battle kept one of his fellow soldiers alive, an act for which he would be granted the United States’ highest military honor.

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As one of the fabled Buffalo Soldiers, members of all-black regiments formed in the years after the Civil War, the Maryland-born Walley was part of a segregated Army. Though they fought in the same battles as their white counterparts, their options were limited, their status unequal, their advancement hard-won. They were fighting for civil rights before people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were born, and they laid the groundwork for much of what their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren would later achieve.

“He entered the Army at a time when African Americans were not typically valued,” said Joseph Balkoski, command historian for the Maryland National Guard and head of the Maryland Museum of Military History, housed in seven exhibit rooms at Baltimore’s 5th Regiment Armory. “He helped establish that the African Americans could be very dedicated soldiers, and that was a very important step to take. Because later on, during World War I and World War II, that precedent was significant.

“He was a real pioneer.”

On Tuesday at the museum, Walley’s pioneering bravery and dedication to duty will be honored with the unveiling of a display including a reproduction uniform. In addition, one of the museum’s rooms, the one housing artifacts and exhibits stretching from roughly the years after the Civil War to World War I, will be named in Walley’s honor.

Medal of Honor winner Augustus Walley.
Medal of Honor winner Augustus Walley.

“Here’s a guy who literally came from being a slave to being recognized with our country’s highest honor,” said Col. Charles S. Kohler, public affairs officer for the Maryland National Guard. “People need to embrace that, need to understand that history.”

Augustus Walley was born in 1856 in Reisterstown. Freed at age 9, he worked as a laborer for the next 13 years.

After enlisting in the 9th U.S. Cavalry in November 1878, his first tour of duty took him to the American frontier, where the Army was battling Native American tribes fighting to retain the land they had inhabited for generations.

“It’s a story that is not really well known,” Balkoski said of the Indian Wars, which predated the Civil War by more than 100 years and would extend into the 20th century. “You don’t have many people who are authorities on the Indian Wars, so therefore it’s not written about much.

“But what has become really well known over the past two decades is the story of African-American military service, and the four regiments that were raised after the Civil War,” he said. “And their service in the West was really extraordinary.”

Walley earned his Medal of Honor during an August 1881 engagement with Apaches in the Cuchillo Negro Mountains (known today as the Sierra Cuchillo), in what is now southwestern New Mexico. Sent after a band of Apaches had attacked a nearby ranch, Walley was among a troop called upon to provide cover for a group of trapped soldiers. Although many were able to escape, one was too badly injured and remained behind.

“Walley grasped the situation,” reads a plaque hanging inside the armory, “and in the greatest tradition of the cavalry mounted his horse and galloped to the fallen soldier, rescuing him and withdrawing under enemy fire to the rest of his unit.”

His commanding officer, Lt. George R. Burnett, recommended Walley for the Medal of Honor. He received it on Oct. 1, 1890 — one of three Buffalo Soldiers from Maryland to be so honored (the others are Thomas Boyne, of Prince George’s County, and William O. Wilson, of Hagerstown) .

In his later years, family lore had it that Walley rarely spoke about his wartime service, said his great-niece, Betty Stokes, whose grandfather was Walley’s half-brother.

“He never talked about the war, my aunt says,” explained Stokes, 82, a retired elementary school teacher living in Baltimore’s Ashburton community. “In her words, he was just a plain nice man.”

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Betty Stokes, the great niece of Augustus Walley
Betty Stokes, the great niece of Augustus Walley (Phil Grout / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

But had Walley been one to reminisce, he would have had plenty to brag about. And his exploits didn’t end with the incident that won him a Medal of Honor.

Discharged from the 9th Cavalry in November 1883, he re-enlisted the next day in the 10th Cavalry, another Buffalo Soldier regiment. While fighting in Cuba during the 1898 Spanish-American War, he helped rescue a squadron commander, Maj. James Bell, under similar circumstances. Nominated for a second Medal of Honor, he was awarded instead a “certificate for gallantry in the preservation of human life” from his regimental commander.

That doesn’t sit well with Stokes, who thinks her great-uncle deserved that second Medal of Honor, and is lobbying for him to earn that honor posthumously. Although his war record says he wasn’t awarded a second medal because he already had one, she pointed out that other soldiers have been so doubly honored.

“He was recommended for that second medal, and I feel that he does deserve it,” Stokes said. “Any time you save a major's life under enemy fire, I think you deserve something more than a certificate."

Retiring from the Army in 1907, Walley settled in Butte, Mont., where he worked as a farrier, shoeing horses. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Walley volunteered and, though too old for combat at 61, was sent to Camp Beauregard, La., to train draftees.

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He retired from the Army for good in 1919 with the rank of first sergeant, having logged 31 years of military service. He returned to Baltimore and lived on Etting Street, just a few blocks from the armory, which was built in 1901.

Augustus Walley died on April 9, 1938, at age 82, and is buried in the cemetery at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Reisterstown.

Stokes, who will be at Tuesday’s 10 a.m. dedication ceremony with her sister and two daughters, is understandably proud of her great-uncle. And she’s happy to see his accomplishments, as well as those of all the Buffalo Soldiers, preserved for future generations.

“It was very hard on them," she said of their struggle for equality with their white counterparts. "They endured it, They were proud."

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