If you stop along Lake Morton, near the intersection with Massachusetts Avenue, you’ll see a historic marker erected “by the city library” in 1948 honoring the encampment of the Second Massachusetts Infantry during the Spanish American War in 1898. It notes that one soldier, a private, died in the camp and was given a “funeral that a marshal of France might have deserved…”
It’s a nice little reminder of a moment in time. But the 2nd Mass was hardly alone in calling Lakeland home for a time while awaiting deployment to Cuba. In fact, a much more decorated unit hunkered down uneasily somewhere within our city confines: the 10th Cavalry, one of the all-black “buffalo soldier” units from the Indian wars.
The 10th, story detailed here, went on to serve with great distinction during the decisive battles of the Cuban campaign in the war, fighting side-by-side with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
As the Rough Riders advanced up San Juan Hill they found themselves attacked from all sides and in great danger of being cut to pieces. The black troops of the 9th and 10th Cavalry were some distance away when the word reached them. They went to help on the run. Leaving a trail of dead and wounded left behind, the troopers of the 10th Cavalry advanced under heavy fire, according to a New York reporter, “firing as they marched, their aim was splendid. Their coolness was superb and their courage aroused the admiration of their comrades.”
It was this action that led a grateful Rough Rider corporal to proclaim, “If it hadn’t been for the black cavalry, the Rough Riders would have been exterminated.”
Members of the 10th won five Medals of Honor for their service in Cuba: Edward L. Baker, Jr. sergeant major; Dennis Bell, corporal; Fitz Lee, private; William H. Thompkins, private; George H. Wanton, private.
Ever heard of any of them? Ever heard of the Rough Riders? I thought as much. Many other soldiers of the 10th were killed in action.
The history I linked to indicated that the men of the 10th were treated inhospitably by the gentle white residents of Lakeland at the time. (Two of them may have even shot a man who insulted and threatened them, but the sourcing on that story is thin. Note to Ledger: how about finding a paper from the time and investigating.)
Maybe it’s time our city rectified that. I think the 10th Cavalry deserves at least as much recognition as Private Wesley Brass’ regal funeral.