By ALAN JACKSON
Alfred Martin Ray was born to a slave (Jennie Rhea) along with a twin brother (John) on Doctor Joseph S. Rhea’s Farm in Jonesborough on *16 May 1856. Having been raised a slave until being freed after the War Between the States, he led a typical slave’s life, but it’s believed he received some formal education from the household. After the war ended and freedom came, he stayed here and tried to make a living, but something more was calling when he ran into an Army recruiter in Jonesborough.
Alfred enlisted in the United States Army on 17 May 1872 and was assigned to the famous and hardened Indian fighters of the Wild West. As a Buffalo Soldier with the United States 10th Cavalry Regiment stationed at Fort Concho, Texas, he fought in the Indian Wars, guarded stagecoach routes, helped install telegraph lines and protected our borders and towns from Mexican bandits. Alfred, while improving his reading and writing abilities, moved up the ranks to Sergeant.
The year 1885 finds Alfred stationed at Fort Grant, Arizona and later in 1890 at Fort Assiniboine, Montana. Early in 1898, he and the entire 10th Calvary were moved to Florida to take part in the Spanish-American War. They were met there by three other U.S. Army black units: the 9th Cavalry, the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments. These four units were designated “The Immune Regiments” due to the U.S. Government believing black soldiers would be immune to tropical diseases. Movement orders soon came and in June they sailed for Cuba.
Upon arriving Cuba and disembarking at Daiquiri, after a couple of other failed landing attempts, action started quickly and the 10th lost two troopers. While departing the ship, they fell overboard and after several attempts to save them, they drown, becoming the first of many more casualties to come for the 10th. Alfred, being the Regimental Color Sergeant for “F” Troop, saw action at the Battle of Las Guasimas on 24 June, but the biggest and bloodiest engagement came a week later on 1 July near the town of Santiago.
Alfred, along with his troop, were standing waist deep in the San Juan River awaiting orders to move on the San Juan Heights. The heights are made up of two hills, San Juan and Kettle. Kettle was so named by the Rough Riders who found an old rusted out kettle at its base. Both hills were well fortified with Spanish troops, machine guns and artillery with German advisors. Once the order was given, “Forward Skirmishers, Guide Left March,” they advanced to join the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry “The Rough Riders” and at a range of 100 yards a Gatling Gun detachment started giving them cover fire, “F” Troop gave a great war cry and the charge up Kettle Hill and the Battle of the San Juan Heights for them began.
As they ascended the heights, Teddy Roosevelt and the “Rough Riders” intermixed with those of the 3rd, 6th, 9th and 10th Cavalry. With many of the 10th’s white officers either killed or wounded, Sergeant Ray, along with the other noncommissioned officers, rallied the troops and continued to lead the attack. Sergeant Ray in the lead, carried the American Flag up the hill through a hail of rifle, machine gun and artillery fire to be the first American to plant our flag on the San Juan Heights. For his heroic courage and gallantry in action, he received a battlefield promotion to First Lieutenant, making him the first Buffalo Soldier to come up through the ranks to achieve officer status. Alfred’s official commission came on 18 August 1898 after arriving back to Fort Assiniboine. After being mustered out on 8 March 1899, he joined Company L, 49th Infantry Regiment as a Second Lieutenant and continued to serve our nation in the Philippine-American War / Insurrection and retired from active service on 7 April 1903, after 31 years of almost continuous combat.
Alfred moved back to Jonesborough, purchased property and built a house with his savings on the corner of Woodrow and Second Avenue. He married Etta Smith of Jonesborough and they had four children (Alfred Jr and Margaret Ophelia), two died at or near birth. Alfred died on 11 July 1917 at 11:30 a.m. in Jonesborough and is interred at College Hill Cemetery along with three fellow Buffalo Soldiers. His Tennessee Historical Marker sets on the corner of Depot Street and Second Avenue.
Alfred, Thank You and Job Well Done, Trooper! As a Rough Rider said after the battle of San Juan Heights, “you men from the 10th can drink from my canteen anytime.” It has been an honor getting to know you and here’s a big salute to you, a great American, Tennessean and a true hero of Jonesborough. Nothing Is Ever Truly Forgotten…We remember!!!
1 Spanish American War Centennial website. www.spanamwar.com; 10th Cavalry Unit History and Troop Rosters
2 History of Washington County TN 1988. Watauga Association of Genealogists, Walsworth Press 1988, L.C. #88-51330
3 The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture website, www.tennesseeencyclopedia.net Spanish-American War
4 Tennessee Historical Marker. Depot Street and Second Avenue, Jonesborough TN
5 James Brooks. Johnson City Press. Article “Buffalo Soldier spent much of his life in Jonesborough” 17 May 2004
6 On the Trail of the Buffalo Soldier II: New and Revised Biographies of African Americans in the U.S. Army, 1866-1917. Irene & Frank N. Schubert, The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 27 September 2004. ISBN: 0842050795
7 Alfred Greenlee. Oral history. 23 May & 12 June 2008
* Seven different dates for birth:
1 circa 1849 (TN Historical marker)
2 16 May 1856 (On the Trail of the Buffalo Soldier II)
3 1867 (Gravestone)
4 Also, 1860 to 1910 censuses and military enlistment shows dates of birth as 1846,
1848, 1852 and 1866