Part of the reason I was such an obnoxiously-lazy slacker about updating the site in the past few weeks is because my party animal Dad was in town living in my one-bedroom apartment with me for roughly two weeks, and in a blurry fortnight of shutting down bars, pounding Bloody Marys at 7am, and debating the finer points of Star Trek canon we also watched so many badass 1950s and 60s Old West cowboy movies I’m fairly confident that through the powers of Badass Osmosis (Badassmosis) I’ve gained the ability to Johnny Ringo a pair of six-shooters around on my fingertips while riding a horse backwards up a flight of stairs and then take on a saloon full of Kansas Redlegs even though I’ve got a fifth of Jack coursing through my veins. Watching the new Magnificent Seven movie at a cool-as-hell movie theater that sells booze last night did nothing to dissuade me of this notion.
So, to that end, here’s the story of one of the most hardcore heroes of the Wild West – a steel-jawed Buffalo Soldier who served twenty years in the United States Army, taking on all enemies from Arizona to the Philippines with a Winchester .44-40, a Colt Peacemaker, an awesome wide-brimmed hat, and a fully-operational weapons-grade mustache. This is the story of Lieutenant William McBryar – Wild West gunslinger, Indian-fighting cavalryman, Medal of Honor recipient, and one of the first commissioned officers in the history of the United States Army. The real-life version of what you’d get if you combined Sergeant Apone with Django Unchained, scored his life with “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” by Johnny Cash and cast him into a John Wayne movie.
Before I get seriously going here, I should call out up front that
Denzel’s character in the new Magnificent Seven movie isn’t based on McBryar –
he’s actually (fairly loosely) based on real-life U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves…
although in the original version of the movie – the one titled The Seven Samurai –
it’s a totally different character portrayed by Toshiro Mifune,
making this a bizarre confluence of paraphernalia from across the
badass space-time continuum.
William McBryar was born in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, on February 14, 1861 – two months before the Confederate Army shelled Fort Sumter, kicking off the American Civil War. He was a just an infant during the war, growing up his formative years in the difficult, explosive world of the Reconstruction South. He attended college in Tennessee, was an excellent student, and spoke fluent Spanish and Latin, but still had trouble finding steady work in his hometown. By 1887 he was living in New York City, and it was around this time that the 25 year-old figured it was time to try for a new life out west. He enlisted in the United States Army, requesting to be sent to the frontier. They shipped him out to Arizona to join the 10th United States Cavalry– one of the original Buffalo Soldier regiments.
I’ve talked about Buffalo Soldiers before on this site, but the men who made up the 9th and 10th Cavalry (and the 24th and 25th Infantry) were some of the toughest, most experienced, most seasoned Indian fighters in the United States Military. These four regiments were comprised entirely of black soldiers with white officers, and (possibly because of this) were typically given some of the most dangerous postings in the West. When Trooper McBryar reported for duty, the Tenth Cav had just finished participating in an epic multi-state adventure to hunt down badass Apache leader Geronimo, where they’d braved the harshness of the wilderness and gone toe-to-toe with some of the fiercest horsemen and warriors in the history of North America. Seriously, check out Apache history some time if you get a chance – this is a group of unmatched horsemen and fighters. A couple cavalrymen from this time reported that some Apache warriors could hang off the side of their horse mid-gallop (without a saddle!) and fire a dang bow and arrow from underneath the dang horse while it was charging. That’s some Lars Anderson shiz right there.
This was an elite regiment of battle-hardened soldiers, and Trooper McBryar was about to make a name for himself as one of the most celebrated and ferocious men to ever serve in the unit.
McBryar’s first expedition was a mission to hunt down the Apache Kid, a former Apache Scout who was now on the run from the U.S. government after he killed a couple cavalrymen in a gunfight that (we now know) he didn’t even start. Still, the Apache Kid was dangerous, deadly, and traveling with a group of men that were not to be screwed around with. McBryar was in K Troop of the Tenth, and while his unit wasn’t the one that brought the Apache Kid in, McBryar spent the next several months riding with mountain patrols into the rocky Arizona wilderness, never knowing what kind of trouble he was going to run in to. He got into gunfights with Apaches and outlaws, tracked down cattle thieves, settled local disputes, and hunted down pretty much anyone else in the lawless wilds of the West that needed to be arrested – all the while braving everything from cougar attacks to dehydration and sunstroke in the sweltering, oppressive Arizona heat. He put 400 miles under his horse’s hooves, caught his fair share of outlaws, and suffered a serious injury when a horse fell on him once (I have no idea how this happened and no further details about this injury, and I have so far been unable to mentally picture this happening in a non-hilarious fashion). Throughout his four years in Arizona, he received the score of “Excellent” on all of his ratings, and was promoted up to Sergeant.
The action that earned McBryar his Medal of Honor took place in March of 1890, when word came in to Fort Thomas that a band of five Apache had ambushed and killed a Mormon traveler and robbed his wagon. When K Troop’s commander heard someone was screwing with the Mormons again he hopped up in the middle of his dinner, grabbed his gun belt, told McBryar to assemble eight other guys, and the ten-man squad of hard-riding soldiers galloped off to bring these outlaws to justice.
Riding hard through the Arizona wilderness, K Troop covered 290 miles in just five days. Tracking the outlaws through steep canyons and across rivers, the men of K Troop finally caught up to the Apache in a rocky, narrow canyon along the Gila River Valley. Taking accurate sniper fire from Winchester rifles, the cavalrymen ducked for whatever cover they could find and immediately tried to return fire. Barking orders like a badass Sergeant should, McBryar arranged his men to turn back the excellently-planned ambush, and the Apache were steadily driven back, taking cover in a cave along the steep rocky cliffs. Moving through a hail of gunfire from both directions, the tough-as-nails Sergeant moved forward, ducking from rock to rock and firing back with his rifle as he approached the entrance of the cave.
When McBryar got near the cave, he could see that there was no easy way to take the position without losing a lot of men. The Apache had an excellent defensive position… possibly one they’d already reinforced. Charging in was suicide. However, at the same time, the Apache were still putting out accurate rifle fire on the rest of K Troop, who were strung out along the ravine in dangerously exposed positions.
So McBryar did one of the most badass cowboy things I’ve ever heard of. He didn’t charge in there like an idiot – he decided he was going to Math the pants off of these guys.
He took a good position, drew out his Winchester, and aimed it at the roof of the cave, just inside the entrance. When the large .44-40 caliber round left his rifle, it struck a rock at just the right angle that it sent a white-hot, razor-sharp shower of rock and bullet fragments ricocheting straight into the enemy firing position.
He continued to do this, hitting the same spot over and over, until finally the Apache threw their weapons down.
In the battle, the five outlaws suffered two dead and one wounded. K Troop didn’t suffer a single injury.
The commander of the Tenth Cavalry was General Benjamin Grierson, a hardened United States cavalryman who led the famous cavalry raid that was instrumental in the Union capture of Vicksburg during the Civil War. When Grierson heard the story of how this battle was won, he described it as “one of the most brilliant affairs of its kind that has occurred in recent years… an excellent example of what promptness and indefatigable exertion may accomplish in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles.”
Sergeant William McBryar became the first man in the Tenth United States Cavalry to ever receive the Medal of Honor.
The 25th Infantry in Montana, c. 1890
Amazingly, McBryar was just getting started with his career. After four years in the blistering Arizona heat he was transferred to Fort Custer Montana, where he got off the train in the middle of a sub-zero blizzard. Transferred to the 25th Infantry Regiment (another unit of Buffalo Soldiers), McBryar was promoted to Quartermaster Sergeant, helped keep order during some old west railroad strikes, and eventually shipped off for Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War.
McBryar survived a life-threatening bout with malaria, but not even a mass-murdering tropical disease was going to keep this warrior from fighting on the front lines alongside his men in an epic struggle against the enemy, and he rallied in time to command his men at the Battle of El Caney. While Teddy Roosevelt other buffalo soldiers like Edward L. Baker were fighting for San Juan Hill, McBryar and the 25th Infantry were ordered to take a well-defended fort positioned along the key Spanish outpost at Guantanamo Bay. Many of the 25th officers were sick, so McBryar was given command of H Company’s Second Platoon and ordered to assault a fortified Spanish block house, where a large number of the enemy had dug in at the top of an imposing hill. Well, sure boss, no problem. McBryar led his men up to within 500 yards, hit the deck, and opened up on the enemy. Once he had them pinned down from the front, he then led a smaller group around the blockhouse’s flank, driving them up to within 50 yards (!) of the Spaniards and opening fire once again.
They waved the white flag as soon as they saw they’d been outmaneuvered. McBryar’s position was taking so much crossfire from other Spanish controlled blockhouses that he had to ask another company to move up and accept the surrender while he repositioned his men to return fire.
Guantanamo, as you probably know, is still a United States military facility to this day.
For his service and heroism in over ten years of service to the United States Military, Sergeant William McBryar was promoted to Lieutenant of the newly-formed Eighth Volunteer Infantry. He was one of the first black officers in the U.S. Volunteers, which was a huge deal in the 1890s – a time when Jim Crow laws were segregating everything from schools to drinking fountains (“separate but equal”) and juryrigging the polls in such a way that some states managed to disenfranchise nearly 90% of their black population from being able to vote. When McBryar was inducted into the Fort Leavenworth Hall of Fame in 2009, Command Sergeant Major Philip Johndrow is quoted as saying, "The day an African American puts on the same uniform as everybody else, they know that they have joined the most democratic institution in our nation, where they will rise or fall based on their own merit… all of this was made possible by the persistence and sacrifice of Soldiers like Sergeant Major McBryar."
The Eighth Volunteers were mustered out in 1899, and McBryar re-joined the 25th Infantry, enlisting as a Private again. Naturally, this didn’t last, and when he shipped off for the Philippines he was already a Battalion Sergeant Major. He spent a few years patrolling the harsh, ambush-heavy, unforgiving jungles of Manila Bay during the Philippines War before returning stateside and spending a few years at Fort Leavenworth. He was medically discharged at age 44 with Rheumatism, a 20 year veteran of the Army. He tried to re-enlist to fight in World War One, but at age 51 the Army decided he was too old to fight. Honestly, I bet this dude was one of those Eastwood types who only got more terrifying and badass with age.
Lieutenant William McBryar got married, worked as a watchman at Arlington National Cemetary, taught a course at St. Paul’s College in Virginia, and passed away of illness in March 1941 at the age of 80. He’d been born two months before the Civil War, passed away nine months before World War II, and done his country proud in every military engagement that took place inbetween.
Congressional Medal of Honor Society
Arlington National Cemetery
NCOs Inducted to Fort Leavenworth Hall of Fame
Hanna, Charles W. African American Recipients of the Medal of Honor. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2002.
Leckie, William H. and Shirley A. Leckey. The Buffalo Soldiers. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.
Schubert, Frank N. Black Valor. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.