A Biographical Sketch of Master Sergeant Milton Holland

By Connie Perdreau

It was a crucial moment in time on that day in June of 1863, when young Milton Holland, an 18-year-old black boy from Albany, Ohio, joined the Union Army. It was crucial because the Civil War was still raging on after so many lives on both sides had already been lost, crucial because the North had finally decided to accept blacks among their military ranks, and crucial because it marked the beginning of a life of heroic proportions which continued long after the war was over. Who indeed was Milton Holland, and why did he figure so prominently in the history of Athens County and the annals of African-American history?

Let’s begin at the beginning. Milton Murray Holland, a true reflection of the status of blacks at that time, was born a fair-skinned slave at or near Carthage, Panola County, Texas, on Aug. 1, 1844. He and his two brothers were purchased by a politically powerful and wealthy resident, Bird Holland, who had served as the secretary of state of Texas. For altruistic reasons which we may only conjecture, in the 1850s, Bird Holland send the three brothers north to Albany, Ohio, to receive their education at the Albany Manual Labor Academy, a private academy established in 1847 whose educational philosophy is contained in the following statement made on April 28, 1849 in the Saturday Visiter. “By combining Manual Labor with study, we intend to rebuke the withering spirit of caste, and as far as our influence extends, make all forms of useful industry respectable, and furnish community with practical men and women instead of mere theorists.”

The Academy forthrightly stated its egalitarian policy toward education in the following words: “Learning, although in its true nature democratic, has hitherto been limited to the few; but we desire to aid in extending its benefits to the many.” In Frederick Douglass’ Paper of April 29, 1853, it was noted that the institution sold shares of $25 each “to all persons of good moral character (not slave-holders) … ” and “that students of both sexes and all colors are admitted to equal privileges.”

This philosophy and these democratic practices in admissions were truly radical measures at this time in that very few institutions admitted either black or female students. The Academy further stated that, “The colored man, with a few honorable exceptions, has been denied the means of mental elevation, but we cheerfully accord to him all the rights of a common humanity, and intend assiduously to labor for his elevation.”

And so we find among the 185 students listed in the Annual Catalogue of the Albany Manual Labor University, 1855-56, no fewer than 19 black students, including three from Houston, Texas, with the names of Holland: namely William, Johnson and Milton. With tuition ranging from $2.50 to $4 per term depending on the course of study, $2.50 per term for room, and $1.50 per week for board, one wonders how the brothers were able to afford their schooling. Did their benefactor, emancipator and possible father provide for their well-being?

In a letter dated Jan. 11, 1853, which described the school to a minister in New York, W.S. Lewis on behalf of the Union Congregational Church of Albany noted the close relationship between the church and the school, describing them as “purely anti-slavery and anti-sectarian, being substantially on the same basis of the Oberlin Church.” In describing the black population, Lewis wrote that “… we have had quite an accession of colored people from several different slave states and students, children of slave holders from Louisiana and Texas.” As the Holland brothers were the only students from Texas, we can only surmise that the reference is to their paternity. It is also possible that the Holland brothers, like so many at the school, performed two hours of manual labor each day in order to defray expenses. Although we cannot determine the answers to these questions, we do know that later, as the Civil War began, Bird Holland, still in Texas, served in the Confederate Army and was killed at the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads.1

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Holland was only 16 years old, but when the first call for volunteer soldiers was made, he was “among the first boys of his school to throw down his books and respond to the call of his country.”2 He tried to enlist in the Union Army immediately in April 1861, was rejected due to his race. It is ironic that it was not until 1862 that Secretary of War Stanton allowed black Americans to enlist in the military, albeit in separate units commanded by white officers and at less pay than white soldiers of equal rank. They also were not allowed to rise above the non-commissioned officer level.

Feeling the frustration of wanting to fight for freedom but being unable to enlist, a group of black men, with one or more Hollands possibly among them, formed a voluntary “colored military company” known as the Attucks’ guard, so named because of Crispus Attucks, the first person (who also happened to be black) to be killed in the Revolutionary War. On May 1, 1861, this unit, headed by Captain Julius Hawkins, attaché of the U.S. District Court of Cincinnati, informed Ohio Governor William Dennison that “every man was ready to fight the Union’s cause.”3

On May 15, 1861, the Attucks’ Guards marched in Albany to the residence of Rev. J. Cable, where they were presented with a handmade flag by the black women of Albany and were acknowledged with an address by Rev. Thomas J. Furguson, who later headed the first all-black school in Albany, the Albany Enterprise Academy, after the Albany Manual Labor University changed hands and restricted admissions to white students only. Despite their good intentions, the Attucks Guards services were refused.4

Milton, undaunted, sought to serve his country in other ways. He therefore sought employment in the quartermaster’s department and was an aide-de-camp of Colonel Nelson H. Van Vorhes, an officer in the 3d, 18th and 92d Ohio infantry regiments. Holland was finally able to fulfill his dream of enlisting in the Fifth Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry, Company C, Union troops in Athens on 22 June 1863. According to the records of the company descriptive book, Holland was physically described as being 18 years of age, five feet eight inches tall, with a yellow complexion, brown eyes and black hair. He listed his occupation as shoemaker, a trade he undoubtedly learned at the Albany Manual Labor Academy, and possibly practiced while he served under Colonel Van Vorhes. Additional remarks include the fact that he was free before  April 19, 1861, the date of the outbreak of the Civil War, and that he enlisted for a term of three years. He mustered in at Camp Delaware, Ohio, on July 23, 1863.

However, there was some confusion about which state the fifth colored infantry would serve under. Massachusetts was the first Union state to accept and recruit black soldiers, and had enlisted the aid of John Mercer Langston, later to become the first black congressman from Virginia, in forming the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, to be composed mainly of Ohio men. Governor David Tod of Ohio had been in communication with Langston earlier in 1862 when Langston initially approached him about blacks serving in the military. Tod informed him that “this is a white man’s government; that white men are able to defend and protect it and to enlist a negro soldier would be to drive every white man out of the service,” at which point Langston politely responded, “Governor, when you need us, send for us.”5 In a letter to Joseph Mason of Albany (dated June 3, 1863), Governor Tod said that he was “only assisting Governor Andrews of Massachusetts to raise his Colored Brigade.” However, Governor Tod, seeing the success of the  Massachusetts recruitment, asked Secretary of War Stanton for permission to raise a colored regiment in Ohio, and on 22 June 1863, Governor Tod issued a statement to the people of Ohio in which he said, “An effort is being made to raise a Regiment of colored men in our state. A camp of rendezvous has been established at Delaware and everything is now in readiness to receive the troops.6

Despite having received misinformation about monthly pay and allowances, the Fifth Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops was formed with 400 strong from every part of the state. Recruits from southern Ohio comprised fully 80 percent of the regiment, with those from Hamilton and Athens County providing the largest number.7 The leader of the Athens County company was one Milton M. Holland. Nevertheless, the arrival of the Athens County contingent to Camp Delaware is not a simple tale to tell. Since Massachusetts was the first state to accept blacks in the military and Ohio had not as yet consented to form a “colored regiment,” Holland gathered forces to join the rank of that state which would accept their aid. Holland and his men were temporarily situated in an official camp on the fairgrounds of Athens County before their departure. When a white emissary of Langston arrived to inform them that they could indeed join the ranks of the Ohio regiment, Holland refused to meet with him, perhaps feeling that he could not trust the emissary or perhaps doubtful about the intentions of his own home state that had previously refused to have anything to do with their efforts. In any case, John Mercer Langston himself went to the Athens County Fairgrounds to convince Holland of the sincerity of the Ohio formation of colored troops. Before going to the fairgrounds, Langston met with E.H. Moore, a local banker, to ascertain just what the situation was before walking into the camp. Holland was described in the following terms:

He was a young colored Texan sent North and located as a student at that time in Albany …. He was by nature a soldier. He smelt battle from afar, and was ready at the shortest warning to engage in deadly conflict. At the time he was really a lad of about nineteen years of age, with all the fire of such youthful, daring nature as he possessed in blood and by inheritance. He was a young person of remarkable native intelligence, good name, bearing himself constantly, even among his men, so as to win the largest respect and confidence. The promise of manly life and endeavor were apparent in his case on the most casual observation and contact.8

The communication was highly successful. After an hour and a half, Holland and the 149 men he had recruited signed the rolls to go to Camp Delaware the next morning.9

After four months time in which Holland was the drillmaster (possibly because of his leadership qualities and because of his previous association with Van Vorhes in the military), the regiment left Camp Delaware in November 1863, and went on to Norfolk, Virginia, where they gained assignment to the African Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Edward S. Wild. Holland traveled with the regiment as first sergeant as they made several raids into North Carolina and then moved to Yorktown. While still in Norfolk, Holland wrote the following letter, dated Jan. 19, 1864, to the Messenger, Athens’ local newspaper, whose editorship had been taken over by Van Vorhes during the latter years of the war. In it, Holland noted the following:

The regiment is organized, and has been in active service for three months….The regiment though young, has been in one engagement. The men stood nobly and faced the cowardly foe when they were hid in the swamp firing upon them. They stood like men, and when ordered to charge, went in with a yell, and came out victorious, losing four killed and several wounded, the rebel loss is large, as compared with ours. I must say of the 5th, that after twenty days of hard scouting, without overcoats or blankets, they returned home to camp, which the soldiers term their home, making twenty-five to thirty miles per day. Several of the white cavalry told me that no soldiers have ever done as hard marching through swamps and marshes as cheerfully as we did, and that if they had to follow us for any length of time it would kill their horses. During that raid, thousands of slaves belonging to rebel masters were liberated….Friends at home be cheerful…there is a brighter day coming for the colored man, and he must sacrifice home comforts if necessary to speed the coming of that glorious day. I will close my letter in the language of the immortal Henry—“Give me liberty, or give me death!”10

The young Milton Holland seemed to truly believe in the veracity of these words as his military career went onward and the Fifth Regiment, US Colored Troops,  became engaged in the thick of the action. Under the command of General Benjamin F. Butler, there was a series of raids and battles in the areas of Virginia and North Carolina. As the first Sergeant of Company C, Holland led an attack on the rebel strongholds at Bottoms Bridge (just outside of Richmond) and Petersburg, capturing the signal station and signal officers of the Confederacy. Thus, Company C began to distinguish itself from the rest of the regiment known as the Black Brigade, for excellence in the soldierly qualities of discipline and courage, were ranked as the most reliable men in the regiment and, according to Holland, “classed among the best grade of white troop.”11 This same regiment had at first been rejected by another white general, General Smith, who had felt they were incapable of giving adequate service to the Union. He quickly changed his mind after seeing the troops in action.

In a second letter to the Messenger, dated July 24, 1864, Holland stated the following:

… Never have we seen a day, however disagreeable the weather might be, that we would not go to the assistance of our brothers in bondage, and sever the chain that bound them … it is not the style of Black Warriors to allow themselves to be trifled with ….

Holland, sensitive and aware of historical events, pondered the following as he led the advance up the James River in May 1864 at daybreak:

Many things attracted our attention along the banks of the James … one I might mention particularly, was the ruins of Jamestown, the spot where the curse of slavery was first introduced into the United States. A serpent that has inserted his poisonous fangs into the body of this government, causing it to wither in its bloom.12

On Sept. 29, 1864, Company C saw perhaps its finest hour of glory in the war when they led the charge at New Market Heights near Richmond. According to sources of the time, “this charge was really the key that unlocked the door to  Richmond, and paved the way for its capitulation.”13 It was face to face, hand to hand combat. After all the regular (white) officers were either killed or wounded, four black sergeants took command of their companies, Milton Holland being one of them. All reports showed that the four “led gallantly and meritoriously through the day.”14 Although wounded during the battle, Holland did not leave the field. Holland’s regiment received the highest praise from General Grant, who personally rode over the battlefield. Because of their roles in taking over and leading the regiment to victory, Holland, along with the other three black sergeants, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, forwarded through President Lincoln, on April 6, 1865. The citation read, “Took command of Company C, after all the officers had been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it.”15 During the Civil War, only 26 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded, and two were won by black American men in Ohio, Milton Holland and Powhatan Beatty of Cincinnati, who also served in the same regiment.16 The names Petersburg and New Market Heights were inscribed on the Regiment’s colors.

The Fifth Regiment continued fighting for the Union with a notable victory at Fort Fisher, North Carolina (January 1865) and action in various skirmishes that took place in North Carolina. On April 14, 1865, the regiment passed in review before General William Sherman in Raleigh. On Sept. 21, 1865, the Fifth Colored Regiment was mustered out of federal service.17 On Sept. 30, the Regiment arrived at Camp Chase in Columbus, where they received their final payment and discharge.

It is of interest to note that First Sergeant Milton Holland was never able to be promoted to a higher rank because of racial prejudice, even though he was called on to perform duties far beyond his rank and grade, having been on more than one occasion in command of his company. Had the situation been egalitarian, Holland would have been named captain of his company. In fact, Governor Tod was willing to commission Holland as a captain if he would go before the board as a white man and be reassigned to another regiment. Holland refused to deny his racial identity and declined the offer from the Governor.18

What, you may well wonder, happened to Athens County’s only Congressional Medal of Honor recipient after the Civil War? On October 24, 1865, immediately following his discharge, Milton married Virginia Dickey, in Columbus, where they made their first home. Holland resumed his trade as a shoemaker, the vocation he had acquired while at the Albany Manual Labor Academy. According to Holland’s pension records, he resided in Columbus from October 1865 until April 1866, then for some unknown reason, moved back to Albany from April until October 1866, and returned to Columbus from October 1866 until June 1869.

His life changed radically, when through the good offices of the personal friend he made while on the fairgrounds of Athens, one Honorable John Mercer Langston, Congressman from Virginia, he was offered a clerkship at a salary of $1,200 a year (a fairly high salary for the time) in the U.S. Treasury Department in  Washington, D.C., on the recommendation of ex-President R.B. Hayes and General B.F. Butler, whom he so valiantly served under during the war. While doing his job in the U.S. Treasury Department, Holland studied law at Howard University and graduated in 1872, at which time he was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Throughout his years in the nation’s capital, Holland was extremely active in Republican politics, rendering “effective service for his party in nearly every state and national campaign….” Moreover, politics brought him back to Athens on several occasions, once to receive a “fine and beautiful goldheaded cane…meant as a testimonial of the appreciation of Mr. Holland’s many Republican friends of his political services in this part of the state and another time to give a speech on the Ohio University campus in October 1884.19 In the meantime, Milton Holland’s older brother, William H., who had served in the Civil War in a Tennessee regiment and subsequently attended Oberlin College, returned to Texas State Legislature. William Holland is noted as the father of the bill creating Prairie View Normal, a school for black students, and the Texas Institute for Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Colored Youth where he was the superintendent for 11 years.20 There is no doubt that these two politically active brothers remained in communication throughout the years even though they lived in distant states. Milton Holland left the civil service in 1887 and opened a law office in Washington where he had a good practice, particularly in real estate endeavors.

Holland was active in other fields besides his law practice, becoming president of the Capital Savings Bank and secretary and general manager of the Industrial Building and Savings Company, two black-owned and operated business  enterprises. He was described at the time in the following terms: “He is positive and business-like in his methods, quick and accurate in his mastery of details, untiring in his energy and fearless in his courage.”21

Because of his service to the Republican party, Senator John Sherman offered him the position of Chief of Division in the Second Auditor’s Office at a salary of $2000 per year, in which capacity he oversaw the accounts of the War Department and the West Point Military Academy. Holland, continuing in his spirit of doing what others had not done before, became a founder and first president of the Alpha Life Insurance Company, one of the first black-owned Insurance companies in the nation, incorporated in 1892.

On a personal level, Holland, his wife and daughter, lived in, according to a report of the time:

… [A] large, beautiful frame structure, modeled after the plan of a French villa, with Mansard roof and spacious lawns surrounding the entire home. It is situated on Howard University Hill, commanding a fine view of the beautiful park surrounding National Soldier’s Home….His home is nicely furnished, and the library is well filled with a choice selection of the best works of the best authors. His estimable wife and daughter preside over their home with a charm of manners that make it the social rendezvous of their many friends … .22

What happened to this daughter is unknown, for Holland declared in a statement to the Bureau of Pensions in 1906 that he had no living children.

In another ironic twist of racial history, Holland had a great deal of trouble in proving his honorable military service and obtaining his military pension from the federal government, but finally succeeded in receiving a $12 per month payment which was later passed on to his widow. In applying for his pension, Holland cited deafness and impaired vision as disabilities.

In 1902 Holland and his wife retired to Silver Spring, Maryland, where they resided until his death at the age of 65 on May 15, 1910. According to his death certificate, the primary cause for his demise was listed as “neuralgia of heart.” He was buried on May 18 in Harmony, Maryland. His wife of many years passed away on Sept. 18, 1915.

Although it has been more than 75 years since Holland died, Athens County nor black America nor the Union itself will soon forget the contributions made by one of our most valiant Civil War heroes.

The author gratefully acknowledges the research contributions of her husband, Michel, without whose aid this article could not have been written.

Published with permission of The Athens County Historical Society & Museum.  Originally published  as “Milton Holland” in Civil War Veterans of Athens County, Ohio: Biographical Sketches compiled by Mary L. Bowman, Volume 1, 61-65. Athens, Ohio: Athens County Historical Society and Museum, 1989. 


1 Frank R. Levstik, “From Slaver to Freedom” In Civil War Times Illustrated, vol. XI, no. 79 November 1972), 10.

2 The Freeman, Dec. 7, 1889.

3 Lowell Dwight Black, “The Negro Volunteer Militia Units of the Ohio national Guards, 1870-1954,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Ohio State University, 1976) 66.

4 Douglass’ Monthly, June 1861.

5 Frank R. Levstik, “The Fifth Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, 1863-1865,” in Northwest Ohio Quarterly, vol. XLII, no. 4 (Fall 1970), 86.

6 Ohio Executive Documents, 56th Session (1863), pt. 1, 274.

7 Levstik, 87.

8 John Mercer Langston, From the Plantation to the Capitol (Hartford 1894), 213-214.

9 Ibid.

10 Messenger, Feb. 4, 1864.

11 Messenger, July 24, 1864.

12 Ibid.

13 The Freeman, Dec. 7, 1889.

14 Levstik, 94.

15 Robert Ewell Greene, Black Defenders of America, 1775-1973, 72.

16 W.P. Dabney, Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens, 345.

17 Ibid, 94-95.

18 The Athens Messenger, Sept. 4, 1879.

19 Ibid.

20 Frank R. Levstik, “William H. Holland: Black Soldier, Politician, and Educator” in Negro History Bulletin (May 1973), 111.

21 The Freeman, Dec. 7, 1889.

22 Ibid.