Legacy of Milton Holland remembered with historical marker dedication
This Veterans Day was a particularly exciting one for local Civil War history buffs. On a cold afternoon at the Athens Fairgrounds on Nov. 11, a historical marker was dedicated in honor of former slave and Civil War infantryman Milton Holland.
After having left a life in slavery in Texas, Holland moved to Albany, Ohio, to study the trade of shoemaking. At the young age of 18, Holland formed and led Company C of Athens County men for the 5th United States Colored Infantry. He gained the rank of regimental sergeant major and is best known for the performance of his regiment in the Battle of New Market Heights, for which he received a Congressional Medal of Honor, as well as a battlefield promotion to captain. Unfortunately and unjustly, this title was stripped from Holland due to his race.
After nearly 150 years, Milton Holland's efforts and bravery were well remembered at the dedication ceremony, thanks to the hard work of the Marker Coordinating Committee.
Douglas McCabe, the emcee for the event and curator of manuscripts for Ohio University Libraries, opened the ceremony by giving a brief history of Holland's life to the OHIO students and community members in attendance. He then introduced Branden Meyer, a representative speaking on behalf of Ohio's U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers who is in the process of composing a bill in favor of returning the title of captain to Holland.
"It was an outrage that he was stripped of his hard-earned title because of his race," said Meyer.
The keynote speech, which highlighted many of the battles Company C faced head-on, was given by Bennie McRae, a nationally known expert on African-American military history.
The ceremony continued with brief remarks from Brian Schoen, associate professor of history at OHIO's College of Arts and Sciences, and Ada Adams, a representative of the Athens Foundation. Schoen read a declaration from Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
"Historians are fond, for good reason, of debating the motives of Civil War soldiers—highlighting a variety of possibilities: money, fame, ideology, peer pressure," Schoen noted. "In the limited wartime written record that Holland left, he provides some insights of his motives. A January 1864 letter indicates that despite the lower-than-average wages, Holland risked his life for 'the freedom of our brothers in bondage' and the 'defense of our national color, the Stars and Stripes.'"
"Unlike most of his white counterparts, Holland's armed role in the war began as an effort not just to defend the nation but to end slavery. In an act of personal patriotism and sacrifice extraordinary in the annals of history, he and some 200,000 African-American soldiers donned the Union blues in hopes of ushering in transformative change and eventually pushing the nation closer toward the ideals that it had professed at its founding: freedom and equality of opportunity," Schoen added. Read more of Schoen's remarks at http://www.ohio-forum.com/?p=5144.
"It is an honor to pay tribute to a man who brought honor and dignity to Athens County," said Adams
Following these remarks were historical reenactments of Milton Holland, Fredrick Douglas and John Mercer Langston, former Howard University Law School dean and black Virginia congressman.
"I was most looking forward to hearing Fredrick Douglas speak," said Jane Denbow, an audience member and wife of the event co-chairman, Carl Denbow. "He is really well-known and very good."
Anthony Gibbs portrayed Holland, Michael Crutcher portrayed Douglas, and Clark Morgan acted as Langston. Each represented the views of their historical figures with brief, but eloquent remarks. These were followed by a recitation of the poem "The Colored Soldiers," which was read by 5th USCI reenactor Fred Smith.
The Langston and Douglas reenactors unveiled the marker while Carl Denbow read the text. The ceremony closed with a historic gun salute by traditionally dressed Union reenactors.
"The marker is now a great little piece of Athens history," said Camille Smith, an Ohio University sophomore. "I am glad I decided to come."