SAN ANTONIO – Editor’s note: This story was published in 2022.
As part of his summer undergraduate research fellowship at St. Mary’s University, Patrick Coan said he stumbled upon the story of a Civil War hero he’d never heard of growing up in East Texas.
“I was fascinated,” said Coan after reading about Milton Holland, a freed slave who would become the first Black Texan to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Each time he discovered a new fact or aspect of Holland’s life, Coan said his reaction was the same -- “Wow!”
Holland was born in either Austin or East Texas, Coan said.
Coan said he found Holland’s parents, Bird and Matilda, especially intriguing.
“His father, being an enslaver, also went on to be his liberator,” Coan said.
Not only that, Coan said Holland’s enslaver father “seemed to deeply care about his son’s well-being.”
He sent Holland to the Albany Enterprise Academy in Ohio, one of the country’s first institutions of higher learning for Black people.
As for Holland’s mother, Coan said she was kept “nominally enslaved” because free Black people were no longer allowed in Texas.
Coan said he believes Holland’s father “was doing what he thought was best for her because Bird Holland loved her.”
But by freeing his son, Coan said Holland’s father probably knew he would never see him again.
Holland was fair-skinned, yet Coan said, “He didn’t try to pass as white. He accepted his African heritage.”
When the Civil War began, Holland became a shoemaker in the quartermaster corps for the Union Army until African-Americans were allowed to enlist in 1863.
After that, Coan said Holland gathered a group of African-American volunteers in Ohio, who later mustered into the Fifth Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, commanded by Gen. Benjamin Butler.
Then in the midst of the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights in 1864, when all the white officers were killed or wounded, Coan said, “Milton Holland actually took command of the forces and led a courageous charge against the Confederates.”
Coan said Holland’s actions saved the day by allowing white troops to come up and win those battles.
Coan said Holland and 14 others in his Black regiment were awarded the nation’s highest military honor soon after President Abraham Lincoln had created the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Holland became the first Black Texan to earn the medal, presented to him in 1865.
“There definitely were some segregationists. They were looking at this, like, ‘We’re honoring an African-American soldier?’” Coan said.
Coan said that Holland went on to start the first Black-owned insurance company in Washington, D.C., but Holland never returned to Texas.
Coan said he hopes to make more people aware of Milton Holland’s story.
“I immediately was hooked, wanting to know more,” he said.
“I just hope that my research really starts a historical dialogue about Milton Holland and about his accomplishments,” Coan said. “I hope he’s remembered as the Texas leader and hero that he was.”