Milton Holland: Enslaved Texan Who Earned the Nation's Highest Military Honor

The Texas Story Project.

Born an enslaved person who was owned by his own father, Milton Murray Holland became the first Black Texan to win the Medal of Honor and became so prestigious as a businessman and government employee that his name earned mention in a short list with the likes of Frederick Douglass.

Milton Holland was born in Austin, Texas on August 1, 1844 to Bird Holland, his father and enslaver, and Matilda Unk, his mother an enslaved woman owned by his father. Bird Holland was born in Texas and Matilda Unk was born in Kentucky. Bird Holland ranked as a prestigious Texan. He was unanimously selected as Assistant Secretary of State for Texas on August 12, 1850 by the Texas Senate. Bird Holland served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 1853–1855 as well. He represented Sour Lake in Jefferson County and was a member of the Education Committee, Enrolled Bills Committee, and Finance Committee. Bird Holland ironically died fighting for the Confederacy, which sought to protect slavery, at the Battle of Sabine Crossroads in April 1864. Milton Holland also had two brothers, William H. Holland and James T. Holland, and two sisters, Kate Holland and Eliza Holland. Another sibling, Inf Holland, died within the same year of their birth. William H. Holland later served in the 15th legislature for Texas during Reconstruction and sponsored the bill that created Prairie View Normal, the first college for Blacks in Texas. Prairie View Normal became present-day Prairie View A&M University.

In the 1850s, Bird Holland freed Milton Holland and sent him and his brothers to school in Ohio to be educated. They attended school at Albany Manual Labor Academy in Athens County, Ohio. At Albany Manual Labor Academy, Milton Holland learned how to make shoes and became an apprentice to an Albany boot and shoemaker. In the 1860 census, Holland is listed as a member of the Shots household in Albany, Ohio. It appears that John J. Shots was the Albany boot and shoemaker under whom Milton Holland served as an apprentice because Holland’s occupation is listed as shoe apprentice.

Once the Civil War began, Milton Holland wanted to enlist in the Union army. He tried to enlist on September 2, 1862 and was eighteen years old at the time. However, he was considered ineligible for enlistment because of his race. Since he could not enlist, Milton Holland signed on as a personal servant to state politician Nelson Van Vorhes, who served as a first lieutenant in the Third Ohio Infantry. In 1863, once Blacks were allowed to enlist in the Union army, Milton Holland successfully raised a company of African Americans in Athens County, and the group was mustered into the 5th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops. Milton Holland and the company he raised were mustered into service in June 1863 in Athens County, Ohio. He eventually attained the rank of sergeant-major, the highest rank open to Blacks at the time.

The engagement for which Milton Holland won the Medal of Honor was the Battle of New Market Heights. This battle occurred after the 5th Regiment went into action in Virginia along the front lines of Richmond and Petersburg in the autumn of 1864. On September 29, the Fifth Regiment assaulted New Market Heights which was part of the defenses of the Confederate capital—high stakes indeed. These defenses included a fort, extensive earthworks, and two lines of slashed tree branches. The troops of the 5th Regiment suffered heavy casualties during the battle, and four of the ten company commanders were wounded. As white leaders fell, Milton Holland stepped in. He rallied the officerless companies and charged the Confederate army. Thanks to their charge, a white military unit under intense pressure succeeded in returning to the Union line. Ultimately, his leadership at New Market Heights helped win the battle.

On April 6, 1865, Milton Holland was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of New Market Heights. The citation for his Medal of Honor states: “Took Command of Company C, after all the officers had been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it.” He was awarded the Medal of Honor after an official order from General Butler was issued on October 11, 1864. General Butler wrote that Sergeant-Major Milton Holland commanding Company C was left in command after all the company officers were killed and wounded, and led them gallantly. He affirmed that the commanding general would cause a special medal to be struck in honor of Milton Holland.  Because he joined the Union army in Ohio, Texas-born and reared Milton Holland appears on the Medal of Honor Recipients Ohio Civil War list. General Butler even recommended Milton Holland for a captain’s commission, but this request was denied by the War Department because of his race.

His career rise likewise demonstrates his talent and ethic. After the Civil War, Milton Holland returned to Ohio. Upon his return, Milton Holland promptly married Virginia Dickey on October 24, 1865 in Franklin, Ohio and resumed his job as a shoemaker. In 1869, Milton Holland and his wife moved to Washington D.C. In 1870, Holland’s friend, John Mercer Langston helped him obtain a clerkship in the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington D.C. with a salary of $1,200. While working full-time, Milton Holland studied law at Howard University, graduating with a law degree in 1872. Milton Holland was one of 17 graduates and the only Texan who graduated from Howard University in 1872. He eventually became one of the first Black attorneys in the nation to be admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1887, Milton Holland left civil service for business. After this, Milton Holland became active in the areas of banking and insurance. He became President of the Capital Savings Bank and Secretary and General Manager of Industrial Building and Savings Company, two Black-owned financial institutions. In the 1890s, Milton Holland also founded the Alpha Insurance Company in Washington D.C. This company was one of the first Black-owned insurance companies in the United States. 

Milton Holland was also a very active member of the Republican party who spoke on behalf of African Americans. His farm on the outskirts of Washington D.C. in Silver Springs, Maryland became a gathering place for Black society. In 1883, Milton Holland helped organize the 21st anniversary of the emancipation of enslaved people in Washington D.C. He figures among notable men slated to speak about African Americans in Washington D.C, as listed in The People’s Friend newspaper published on May 31, 1891. This short list included Frederick Douglass, John R. Lynch, Robert H. Terrell, and James H. Smith. 

In 1910, Milton Holland was living with Virginia Holland, his wife, May Rowes, his adopted daughter, James T. Rowes, his son-in-law, and his grandson, Milton Rowes. On May 14, 1910, Milton Holland collapsed with a heart attack at his office and was brought home. A physician was summoned and administered treatment. However, Milton Holland experienced another episode and died the next morning at age sixty-five. In his last will and testament, Milton Holland left a life insurance policy for his wife which amounted to $3,560 and a life insurance policy for his adopted daughter totaling $1,500. 

Milton Holland, the first African American Texan to win the Medal of Honor, was buried with our nation’s military heroes at Arlington National Cemetery.


Patrick Coan is studying history at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas.

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