Photo by Zulmaury Saavedra on Unsplash

After A Century, Black Victims Of Army’s Largest Mass Execution Are Finally Exonerated

Phil Garber
7 min readFeb 29, 2024

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In August 1917, five months after the U.S. entered World War I, racism and Jim Crow were rampant in Houston, Texas, and soon, a series of bloody events would lead to the largest mass execution of soldiers in the nation’s history.

It was a time of overt hostility from the all-white Houston Police Department toward both the local black community and black soldiers stationed at Camp Logan. Racial segregation in Houston was one of the worst in the nation, restrictions on Black soldiers and residents, and slurs hurled by white workmen at the construction site contributed to an already tense environment.

The all-Black, so-called, “Buffalo Soldiers” of the 3rd BN, 24th Infantry Regiment had deployed from New Mexico to Texas in 1917 for guard duty during construction at Camp Logan, a post built as the U.S. entered World War I. The regiment originally consisted of Black cavalry units formed in 1866. Made up of former slaves who had fought in the Union army during the Civil War, they were sent west to slaughter Native Americans, who called them “Buffalo Soldiers.” The 24th was one of four all-Black regiments in the Regular Army.

Three members of the regiment were Cpl. Jesse Ball Moore, 27, of West Feliciana Parish in Riddle, La.; Private First Class Thomas Coleman Hawkins, 23, of Greystone, N.C.; and Cpl. Charles W. Baltimore, 23, of Pennsylvania. On Dec.11,1917, Moore, Hawkins and Baltimore were among 13 African American soldiers who were secretly hung at dawn in what was the largest mass execution in Army history. The men requested a firing squad, considered a more honorable form of execution for military men. Their requests were denied. Six more were later executed.

After the executions, then-acting judge advocate Gen. Brig. Gen Samuel T. Ansell expressed his anger, writing, “The men were executed immediately upon the termination of the trial and before their records would be forwarded to Washington or examined by anybody, and without, so far as I can see, anyone of them having time or opportunity to seek clemency from the source of clemency, if he had been so advised.”

A white soldier from Company C, 19th Infantry, witnessed 13 of the executions and later wrote.

“The doomed men were taken off the trucks, not one making the slightest attempt to resist. They were shivering a little, but I think this was due more to the cold rather than fear. The unlucky 13 were lined up. The conductors took their places and the men for the last time heard the command, ‘March.’ Thirteen ropes dangled from the crossbeam of the scaffold, a chair in front of every rope, six on one side, seven on the other. As the ropes were being fastened about the mens’ necks, big [Pvt. Frank] Johnson’s voice suddenly broke into a hymn, ‘Lord, I’m comin’ home.’ And the others joined him. The eyes of even the hardest of us were wet.”

Another 63 black soldiers were sentenced to life in prison after they were court martialed and convicted by an all-white jury of mutiny and riot in what is known as the 1917 Houston Riots, also known as the Camp Logan Mutiny.

The Crisis Magazine reported in November 1917 that, “The primary cause of the Houston riot was the habitual brutality of the white police officers of Houston in their treatment of colored people.”

Hawkins wrote to his parents shortly before he was hung.

“Dear Mother and Father, When this letter reaches you I will be beyond the veil of sorrow. I will be in heaven with the angels…I am sentenced to be hanged for the trouble that happened in Houston, Texas. Altho (sic) I am not guilty of the crime that I am accused of, but mother, it is God’s will that I go now and in this way….”
The hangings were carried out without appeal and to avoid interference, the time and place were only announced after the men were dead. A New York Times reporter witnessed the executions and wrote that “the negroes, dressed in their regular uniforms, displayed neither bravado nor fear. They rode to the execution singing a hymn, but the singing was as that of soldiers on the march.”

A total of 156 black soldiers were charged in connection with the riot and 110 soldiers were convicted. In November 2023, more than a century after the lynchings and after years of lobbying by descendants, the Army set aside all 110 convictions in one of the least reported and most tragic incidents involving African American soldiers.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth announced on Nov. 13, 2023, that “After a thorough review, the [Army Board for Correction of Military Records] has found that these soldiers were wrongly treated because of their race and were not given fair trials. By setting aside their convictions and granting honorable discharges, the Army is acknowledging past mistakes and setting the record straight.”

The Army also set up a mechanism to deliver survivor benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Petitions for posthumous presidential pardons were filed by descendants with the Justice Department in October 2016, near the end of President Barack Obama’s second term. Obama did not act and the petitions were sent to the trump White House but trump rejected pardons.

In the days, weeks and months prior to the riot, the blacks soldiers faced the strictest segregation, racial insults, and brutality from the police. Adding to the atmosphere of fear and anger, the soldiers of the Third Battalion also had learned that on July 2–3, 1917, white vigilantes in East St. Louis, Ill., had burned hundreds of Black-owned homes and beat, shot and lynched an estimated 100 Blacks. More than 10,000 black people marched silently down Fifth Avenue in New York City to protest the lynchings and racial oppression that were rampant in the country.

The website, EastTexasHistory.org, reported that on the morning of the riot, Aug. 23, 1917, Officer Lee Sparks, known for his hatred for minorities, and his partner, Rufus Daniels, burst into the private home of a Black woman, Sara Travers, searching for a man accused of playing dice in an alleyway. The woman resisted the officers and they dragged her into the street in her nightgown.

Private Alonzo Edwards saw the incident and approached the officers who quickly pistol-whipped and arrested him. Later that afternoon Corporal Baltimore, a military policeman from the same unit, approached the police about Edwards’ arrest. Enraged that a Black man dared question his actions, Sparks drew his pistol and fired at least three shots at Baltimore. The unarmed soldier fled and police caught him in a nearby house, where they beat him nearly senseless before arresting him. Baltimore was later released but a rumor spread that he had been shot and killed by the officer.

More than 100 African American soldiers soon coalesced and marched through the city to challenge police about brutality and racism. As the soldiers were gathering, Major Kneeland Snow, the newly installed battalion commander and his officers began collecting loose rifles and ammunition around the camp with the hope of quelling any violence.

A soldier screamed out that a white mob was approaching. The soldiers were confronted by armed white citizens and police. Capt. Joseph Mattes, a white member of the Illinois Guard, was accidentally killed after the mob thought he was a police officer. The company’s leader, First Sergeant Vida Henry, 41, was so distraught with the death of Mattes that he took his own life. When the chaos had died down, 15 whites including four police officers and four blacks were dead.

A death notice showed a photo of Mattes, a 42-year-old, Chicago resident, with the caption “slain by negroes.”

Henry’s death notice said he was a career soldier who enlisted when he was just 17 years old. Henry was living in Green, Kent., with his grandfather and older brother.

After the riot was quelled, martial law was implemented and on Sept. 25, the battalion was redeployed to New Mexico.

The court martialed soldiers were all represented by Maj. Harry S. Grier, who taught law at the U.S. Military Academy but was not a lawyer and had no trial experience. The prosecution was represented by a team of experienced trial lawyers who had more than a month to prepare their case.

No white Houstonian was ever prosecuted for the events.

President Woodrow Wilson, an openly racist defender of white supremacy, publicly upheld the mass lynching, Wilson mourned the deaths of white “innocent bystanders,” “peaceable disposed citizens of the City of Houston.”

Wilson claimed that the soldiers’ three trials were “properly constituted,” that “extraordinary precautions” had been taken to “insure the fairness of the trials,” and that the rights of the defendants had been “surrounded at every point” by the “safeguards” of “a humane administration of the law.”

In addition to being the scene of the Camp Logan Mutiny, Camp Logan gained further notoriety in 1918 when it was the location of the first widespread local outbreak of the 1918 flu pandemic. By Sept. 24, more than 600 cases had been reported by the Army surgeons at the camp. The medical officers decided to send the sick to homes and hospitals in the community to try to protect those soldiers still healthy at the camp. The result was further deadly spread of the flu.

By Oct. 3, doctors reported 48 soldiers from the camp had died from the flu and it had begun to rapidly spread through the city. By Oct. 9, the newspapers reported 33 flu-related deaths in the city and that the Mayor, District Clerk, and 20 police officers had contracted the virus. Flu cases in the city were soon reported to be in the thousands and steps were being taken to put quarantines in place. Public schools, restaurants, and gatherings were shut down including the Barnum & Bailey Circus and local churches.

The 24th Infantry Regiment was active from 1869 until 1951, and was reactivated in 1995. From its activation until 1898, the 24th Infantry served throughout the Western United States. Its missions included garrisoning frontier posts, fighting Native Americans, protecting roadways against bandits, guarding the border between the United States and Mexico.

Military campaigns included the Indian Wars; Spanish–American War; Philippine–American War; World War II; Korean War; Operation Iraqi Freedom; Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan; Operation Inherent Resolve, Iraq and Syria.

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Phil Garber

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer