Horace Wayman Bivins

For Distinguished Excellence in Rifle Marksmanship

Shooter achieved distinction in 1894

Fort Custer, MT


Horace W. Bivins, the first person to earn the Distinguished Pistol Shot Badge and the first to become Double Distinguished, had a military career that was so varied and full of adventure that an early newspaper account wasn't exaggerating much when it said an account of his life ‘‘reads like fiction from the imagination of a pulp magazine writer.'' Bivins (it rhymes with ‘‘givens''), who eventually reached the rank of captain, fought Apache Indians in Arizona and insurgent natives in the Philippines. Sent to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, Bivins and other soldiers in the all-black 10th Cavalry once came to the rescue of a hard-pressed Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. Years after retiring from the Army, Bivins volunteered for service again during World War I, when he was made a supply captain at Fort Dix, N.J. He was also said to have been the only man ever to win three Army marksmanship gold medals in one year, earning that distinction in 1894 while serving at Fort Keogh in Miles City. William ‘‘Buffalo Bill'' Cody tried to recruit the expert marksman for his traveling Wild West show, and The Billings Gazette reported in 1935 that, when Teddy Roosevelt made his final visit to Billings during World War I, ‘‘he made particular inquiries'' about Capt. Bivins. In addition to all those official exploits, Bivins was widely known in his adopted town for his gardening skills and for amassing a natural-history collection that included rare birds, lizards, snakes and artifacts from the Philippines. It was a long way to such acclaim from his beginnings in Pungoteague, Accomack County, Va., on May 8, 1866. Some sources, even a book to which Bivins contributed several chapters, say he was born in 1862, but all later newspaper accounts, written from interviews with Bivins, say the year was 1866. It doesn't help much that the Accomack County census said Bivins was 5 years old in 1870, the eighth of nine children born to Severn and Elizabeth Bivins. That same census gives their last name as Bevans, one of several variant spellings of the family name. His father was a farmer, but one who ‘‘spent much of his time in religious and educational work,'' according to ‘‘Under Fire With the 10th U.S. Cavalry,'' the book Bivins co-authored. The census said of his mother only that she ‘‘keeps house.'' Young Bivins worked on the farm until he was 18, when he entered Hampton School as a work student and received his first military training. ‘‘Having a very great desire for adventure and to see the wild West,'' as he put it in ‘‘Under Fire,'' he enlisted in the Army on Nov. 7, 1887. After undergoing some training in Missouri, Bivins was assigned to Troop E of the 10th Cavalry, which he joined at Fort Grant, Arizona Territory, in June 1888. Over the next four years, he told The Gazette in 1935, ‘‘my troop took a prominent part in the campaigns against Geronimo, Apache Kid, and other Indian chieftains of the southwest.'' It was during his four years in Arizona that Bivins took up shooting. The first time he ever shot a rifle, during target practice, he placed No. 2 in a troop of 60 men and was soon made a sharpshooter. In April 1892, Bivins' regiment was ordered to Fort Custer in Montana. They passed through Billings on the way to Custer Junction and then had to march through a foot of fresh snow to Fort Custer on May 5. During the next six years in Montana, Bivins and his fellow ‘‘buffalo soldiers,'' as the Indians called the black troopers, also served at Fort Assiniboine near Havre. Newspaper accounts said their time in Montana was not particularly hazardous. Once they were called out to quell a strike on the Northern Pacific Railroad, and they had some minor troubles with Cree and Cheyenne Indians. Bivins kept up his shooting record in Montana, representing his troop in 1892, '93 and '94 at departmental competition. In 1894 he carried off the first Army gold medal in carbine competition at Fort Sheridan, Ill., where he also won two other gold medals. In 1896, Buffalo Bill Cody reportedly offered Bivins a position in the Wild West show, shooting against Annie Oakley. Cody was said to have sought a furlough for Bivins and offered him $100 a month, but The Gazette reported that Bivins ‘‘was in line to become an ordnance officer and preferred the army routine to circus life.'' When war with Spain was declared in April 1898, Bivins' regiment was ordered south. They left Fort Assiniboine on April 18, heading first to Wisconsin and then south by train. ‘‘We received great ovations all along the line,'' as well as flags, cigars and ‘‘many other pleasantries,'' Bivins wrote in ‘‘Under Fire With the 10th U.S. Cavalry.'' As they moved farther south, the welcome grew considerably more muted. ‘‘The signs over the waiting room doors at the Southern depots were a revelation to us,'' Bivins wrote. ‘‘Some read thus: ‘White waiting room.' On the door of a lunch room we read: ‘Niggers are not allowed inside.' We were traveling in palace cars and the people were much surprised that we did not occupy the ‘Jim Crow' cars, the curse of the South.'' Before embarking for Cuba, they drilled at a camp in Tennessee. ‘‘And there were in our lines many Indian fighters who were anxious to get a whack at the Spaniards,'' Bivins said. They soon got their chance, arriving in Cuba in mid-June. They were involved in a lot of hard fighting and marching, often side by side with the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, known as the Rough Riders. At the battle of Las Guasimas, Bivins said, the Rough Riders were ambushed in a narrow valley, under attack from the front and rear. Elements of the 10th Cavalry, ‘‘adopting the method used in fighting Indians,'' advanced on the Spaniards through tall grass and so surprised them with a volley that the Spaniards rushed out of their ambush and abandoned their attack on the Rough Riders. Bivins told a Billings Gazette reporter in the 1930s, ‘‘I don't think it an exaggeration to say that but for the timely aid of the 10th Cavalry, the Rough Riders would have been annihilated.'' Bivins' most notable service in Cuba, for which he was awarded a Silver Star, came during the famous battle of San Juan Hill. A sergeant by then, Bivins was assigned to a Hotchkiss gun battery. The Hotchkiss was a small artillery piece with a rifled barrel. With the other members of his detachment killed or wounded, Bivins single-handedly fired 72 shells from one of the Hotchkiss guns, which recoiled six to eight feet after each shot. His performance was all the more remarkable in that early in the battle he had been knocked out briefly by a slug that passed through an iron-plated hub of a gun carriage and hit him in the temple. Bivins had no doubt that he and his fellow soldiers were doing the right thing in Cuba. In a letter he wrote from there to a friend, Bivins said, ‘‘Tyranny, tyranny is what Spain has kept imposing upon the Cubans for the last century. Spain will lose. Spanish tyranny can no longer be tolerated by the civilized world .... Oh, God! At last we ha ve taken up the sword to enforce the divine rights of a people who have long been unjustly treated.'' After some more service stateside and then a brief return to Cuba, Bivins' regiment was sent to the Philippines in April 1901 to ‘‘pacify'' insurrectionist natives in the wild, swampy northeastern part of the main island. The regiment was busier clearing trails than in fighting natives, and after about a year they were shipped home and dispatched to Fort Missoula. Bivins made frequent t rips to Billings, The Gazette later reported, because he was fond of the climate and of a certain Claudia Browning, whom he had met during his years at Fort Custer. Browning was a native of Deadwood, S.D., whose parents had come to Billings in 1883. Bivins married Claudia in March 1904, and they set up home at Fort Missoula, where they remained until he was ordered back to the Philippines in the summer of 1906. Things were even quieter during his second stay there, so Bivins spent most of the next 19 months searching for and collecting Philippine birds, shells, fossils and other curios and artifacts. His collection eventually included two monkey-eating eagles, which he later donated to museums in Minneapolis and San Francisco. ‘‘So excellent was the collection that Mr. Bivins brought back to America with him, that Mr. I.D. O'Donnell of this city purchased the greater part of it for the Parmly Billings Memorial Library,'' The Gazette reported in 1935. Bivins returned to the United States for a four-month furloug h late in 1907, and he returned to the Philippines early in 1908, expecting to stay there until he was eligible to retire. But War Department paper shufflers somehow got him transferred to the Presidio near San Francisco later that year, and Bivins ended up being transferred from fort to fort all over the country. He was an ordnance sergeant by then and was sent to various posts ‘‘to straighten up the affairs of that department.'' He finally retired from active service on July 13, 1913. With double-time credit for foreign service in Cuba and the Philippines, he was given credit for 30 years in the regular Army. After his retirement, he settled in Billings, where he was known mainly for his flourishing gardens. Helen Adams, writing a sketch of Bivins that is preserved in the Parmly Billings Library Montana Room, said, ‘‘Things just grew for him. The most notable of his garden produce was the successful raising of sweet potatoes.'' Horace and Claudia Bivins had two sons and a daughter and lived for many years on South 25th Street. Claudia was an active member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, vice president of the Montana Federation of Negro Women, a member of the Society of Eastern Montana Pioneers and secretary of the Billings Federation of Women's Clubs. In 1918, after the United States had entered World War I, Bivins was recalled by the War Department and assigned to the ordnance department in Newport News, Va. In June of that year, the African republic of Liberia, founded in 1821 as a settlement for freed U.S. slaves, offered Bivins a commission to train 115,000 men who were going to fight against the Germans in West Africa. He declined and in September was made a captain of infantry, serving first as a supply officer at a detention camp at Fort Dix, N.J., then as head of a labor battalion in the same camp. He retired from the Army for good in 1919. He had by then 32 years of credit with the Army and, coincidentally, had won 32 Army medals. He studied taxidermy after the war and followed that trade for many years. A 1935 article described him as ‘‘industrious, sober and studious.'' It also described him as being 6 feet tall, with broad, square-set soldiers. In the book, ‘‘On the Trail of the Buffalo Soldier: Biographies of African Americans in the U.S. Army, 1886-1917,'' which was based largely on government and military records, Bivins was said to have stood 5-foot-9. That book also quotes a 10th Cavalry history that said Bivins had an excellent character and a story in the Indianapolis Freeman, a newspaper, that described Bivins as ‘‘a sober, sensible, industrious Negro.'' One intriguing thread of Bivins' life story suggests that he may have done more in the Philippines than collect artifacts. Jess and Daniel Bevien, of the San Francisco Bay area, think Bivins' had a Filipina ‘‘wife'' during his years in that country and that he was their grandfather. Daniel Bevien said their father, Julian, was born in the Philippines and changed his name from Beban to Bevien sometime in the late 1940s. ‘‘Pops did that out of the blue,'' Daniel said. Although there was no way of proving it, he said, ‘‘We're pretty sure he (Bivins) is our grandfather .... My father didn't really know.'' It wouldn't be very surprising if it were true, he said: ‘‘The buffalo soldiers came through the Philippines and left a lot of American kids there.'' Daniel said he did enough research to convince him that Bivins was in the Philippines at the right time to have fathered Julian, but for him the best evidence came when he was touring a museum at the Presidio some years ago and saw a photograph of Horace Bivins. ‘‘I looked at it, and I said, ‘Oh, that looks like Pops,' ‘' he said. Jess Bevien, Julian's oldest son, said in an e-mail message that his father never saw his father, ‘‘only heard stories told to him by some of his father' s compadres. My dad talked to us extensively about his life as a young man, boxer, soldier in the Philippines.'' However that may be, Bivins' American family continued to live in Billings until after World War II, and Bivins was sought out now and again by reporters eager to retell his exciting story. Toward the end of the war, in a Jan. 21, 1945, article in The Gazette, Bivins told a reporter how pleased he was to have re-entered the Army during World War I. ‘‘And I wish I was young enough for this one,'' he added. The same article said Bivins' wife, Claudia, had died in 1943, and one of his sons, Paul, was then stationed in the Pacific. On Sept. 25, 1949, The Gazette wrote about Bivins again, this time to say he had recently left to live in Philadelphia, where he planned to work on a new, revised edition of ‘‘Under Fire With the Tenth U.S. Cavalry.'' Four days later, the Billings Herald reported that another reason for the move was that Bivins was ‘‘considering matrimony.'' ‘‘With a sly grin,'' the story continued, ‘‘Captain Bivins revealed shortly before leaving for Philadelphia that he might marry his daughter-in-law's mother.'' The story said Bivins' son, Paul, was still living in Billings but was leaving shortly to join his father in Philadelphia. After that the paper trail fades out. It is unknown whether Bivins ever returned to Billings or whether he died in Philadelphia.

Respectfully submitted by Ed Kemmick of The Montana Standard