After being born enslaved in Pulaski County, Kentucky, Brent Woods was freed at the age of eight. He enlisted in the U.S. Army on October 10, 1873, in Louisville, Kentucky. Woods lied about his age at enlistment, saying he was 23. He was assigned to the Ninth U.S. Cavalry B Troop.
Fort Cummings, originally constructed in 1863, is located 20 miles northeast of modern-day Deming, New Mexico. Woods and his fellow members of B Troop, Ninth Cavalry, were stationed there by 1881. Due to its proximity to Cooke’s Spring, a major freshwater source on the Butterfield-Overland Stage Route and southern overland routes to California, the site was selected.
A detachment of 17 troopers from B Troop, including Woods, led by Lieutenant George W. Smith, left Fort Cummings on August 17, 1881, in pursuit of Nana, a Chiricahua Apache chief and warrior. Around 20 cowboys joined B Troop, led by rancher George Daly, who claimed Nana and his fighters had attacked his ranch. The troopers and cowboys followed Nana’s trail toward Gavilan Canyon.
On August 19, 1881, while making their way towards the canyon, Lieutenant Smith became concerned about a potential attack and stopped the group. Despite his warning, Daly and the cowboys proceeded into the canyon. The Buffalo Soldiers soon followed to provide protection. Suddenly, Apache warriors emerged from hidden spots and fatally wounded both Lieutenant Smith and Daly. While the cowboys ran off, leaving the Buffalo Soldiers to face the ambush alone, James Brown, Thomas Golding, and Monroe Overstreet were also tragically killed in action following Lieutenant Smith’s demise.
It was Sergeant Brent Woods, the highest ranking Buffalo Soldier in Gavilan Canyon, who took command. The Buffalo Soldiers climbed the canyon cliffs and attacked the Apaches. The Apaches began to retreat as the Buffalo Soldiers reached higher positions. However, it wasn’t until another group of Buffalo Soldiers arrived that the battle tilted in their favor. Nana and his group fled.
Private Henry Trout, a member of B Troop, said Woods “at once assumed command of the detachment and through his energy and skill defeated the Indians and saved the detachment from an entire massacre.” Woods won the Medal of Honor 13 years later, on July 12, 1894. “Saved the lives of his comrades and the citizens of the detachment.”
When Woods retired from the Army, he returned to Kentucky. On March 31, 1906, he died and was buried at the First Baptist Church of Somerset in an unmarked grave. Woods’ remains were exhumed by the U.S. Army on June 20, 1984, and he was reinterred in Section A, Grave Number 930 at Mill Springs National Cemetery in Nancy, Kentucky.
Woods is commemorated in bronze at the New Mexico Veterans’ Memorial in Albuquerque.
Brent Woods is buried in the Mill Springs National Cemetery in Nancy, Ky.