History in Black and White Buffalo Cavalry and the USS Peoria team up to win Congressional Medals of Honor By Carl M. Adams

Cuba, 1898 – For “Valor” above and beyond the call of duty, four African-American soldiers, under a hail of gunfire, volunteered to rescue thirteen wounded men from certain death during the Spanish-American War. The West Point officer who led them and the hundreds of other soldiers and sailors who witnessed the death-defying rescue in full view of the enemy agreed, unanimously it was bravery most gallant.

The Medal of Honor, America’s highest military award, is rare. Four Medals of Honor awarded in one action was truly a singular event. The awards brought national attention to these men and the services of the “Buffalo Soldiers” as a whole.

Sergeant William H. Thompkins, Corporal George Henry Wanton, a former sailor and one of the most decorated Black soldiers in American history, with Privates Dennis Bell and Fitz Lee of the Tenth U.S. Cavalry even received the personal gratitude of Cuban General Emilio Nuñez in their attempt to save his wounded men.

The Buffalo Soldiers, turned sailors and then Marines would have all agreed the rescue could not have been even attempted without the rapid, accurate suppressing fire of the U.S. Navy’s newest ‘high-tech’ gunboat, the USS Peoria.

Cuban Independence rebels were already fighting against Spanish Colonial rule when in February, 1898 the Battleship USS Maine accidentally exploded and sank in Havana harbor. Suspicion and false accusations raised the battle cry “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!” A growing American “war party” pressured a reluctant President McKinley into a declaration of war by April, 1898.

The African-American 10th Cavalry far to the northwest on the Indian frontier was ordered to Tampa, Florida to support Brigadier General Nuñez’s 375 man force of Cuban exiles and some American volunteers. Meanwhile, in the Phila delphia shipyards, a pilot boat under construction was christened the USS Peoria and fitted with two newly invented twin mount Hotchkiss rapid fire three pound gun turrets with mechanically assisted reloading systems. The Peoria was destined to become one of America’s first all steel gunboats.

The main US Army and Navy thrust was against Santiago at the eastern tip of Cuba, while General Nuñez hoped to quietly land his 328 insurgent fighters behind them to the west. However, by June the Spaniards had had two months to prepare beach defenses; they were entrenched, camouflaged, ready and waiting.

General Nuñez attempted a landing near the San Juan River, but the fury of Spanish resistance forced the landing boats to turn back. So the small flotilla of two transport ships, the Florida and Fanita, escorted by the Peoria sailed east for a day looking for an easier landing beach.

On June 30, the Cuban-American force landed near the Tayabacao River. Soon the fury of war fires opened up and developed into an all day battle to save the force from annihilation. The Peoria brought the new guns to bear and delivered “…very rapid and accurate fire…having a telling effect on the well entrenched defenders…,” according to the U.S. Navy citation. Outnumbered and out gunned, the General decided to withdraw the force under cover of darkness. Ship-to-shore landing boats in this period were usually wood, painted white, making them easy targets.

“…(T)he defenders again drive off the invaders, sinking two of the small boats and inflicting some casualties. The attackers withdrew after nightfall; but with too few boats for everyone and the heavy enemy fire adding urgency to the departure, they left at least one man dead and several wounded ashore, (two Americans and eleven Cubans, including Gen. Nuñez’ son). Friends of the wounded took some of the small boats back to shore, only to be driven off by the foe…Four times they tried, but…the Cubans could not bring back their injured comrades. The difficulties and dangers attending the rescue, proved too great for their courage…” wrote Lieutenant Carter P. Johnson, the U.S. infantry commander.

The stakes were high. The two American ‘volunteers’ were non-military civilian advisors. If captured, they would be subject to interrogation, possibly torture and summary execution as spies and an international embarrassment to the U.S. Department of State. Their rescue was an absolute must, or die in the attempt!

Lt. Johnson was fully aware of the reputation of the Buffalo Soldiers’ conduct under fire during the western Indian Wars. He turned to West Point Lt. George P. Ahern and Sgt. Thompkins of the Twenty-fifth Black infantry to ask for volunteers from the fifty cavalrymen. The Tenth Black cavalry had been assigned only as logistic support to manage the sixty-five-mule pack train of rations and ammunition. Now they were being asked to undertake an apparent suicidal rescue mission.

Several of the cavalrymen volunteered to go, but boat space would allow only five men: Lt. Ahern, the NCO’s Thompkins and Wanton and two privates, Bell and Lee. Even though they were rowing ashore in the middle of night, under a full moon, the five silhouettes could see and be seen. Once in range of the Spanish infantry the beehive of tiny lead missiles zipped around them. They rowed toward the previously wrecked boats with orders to bring back only the wounded. “…(O)nly the constant firing of the Peoria’s guns kept the Spaniards at bay and prevented the capture of the wounded.”

Incredibly, to all witnesses, with the officer at the helm and holding the boat “the four horsemen” charged repeatedly through the volleys of death and carried or assisted thirteen men to safety without further casualties. Once back on the ship, General Nuñez discovered sadly that his son was not among the living. On realizing this loss, Corporal Wanton offered to go back through the fire to recover the body; but the General decided to let his son be buried in his beloved homeland.

It had happened during the Indian Wars and the Civil War that company grade officers had recommended minority troops for awards only to be stopped by superiors who were either prejudiced or unconvinced. Not this time. With endorsements from the infantry and the cavalry, the Navy and the Army, as well as General Nuñez, the commendations sailed through the bureaucracy at unprecedented speed to the U.S. Senate.

Virtually unanimous, all four Buffalo Soldiers received the Medal of Honor in less than a year. America wanted heroes for this controversial war. Most Americans read of the names and unit designations without realizing these were men from segregated units. None of that mattered, only Lt. Johnson’s official report, “…the rescue was pronounced by all who witnessed it, as a brave and gallant deed, and deserving of reward.” – The nation’s highest, awarded to the four horsemen turned Marines, the Buffalo ‘soldiers of the sea.’

For more on the USS Peoria, see “Sailing into History, the USS Peoria,” @ April 2001, Carl M. Adams, Peoria Metropolitan Magazine.

For more on the “Four Cavalrymen in Cuba,” see BLACK VALOR: Buffalo Soldiers and the Medal of Honor 1870-1898; chapter 10; @ Frank N. Schubert; 1997; Scholarly Resources Inc.; Wilmington, Delaware. Available at the Peoria Public Library.

NOTE: In the fall of 1974, then Marine 1st Lt. Carl Adams sailed on the fourth USS Peoria in the South China Sea on Operation Bannayan (Friendship) a joint training mission with British and Philippine Marines and Navy. In 1995 former Captain Adams was named by Proclamation of the Peoria County Board as Director USS Peoria Project under the Peoria Historical Society to research all historic information on the four ships.

Article originally published in the Traveler March 2002