Edited by Anne L. Foster
One hundred years ago, on July 1, William Owen "Buckey" O'Neill was killed at Kettle Hill, Cuba. Efforts to commemorate his memory and those of his comrades-in-arms, the Arizona Rough Riders, began soon after and finally resulted in the statue that stands on the Courthouse Plaza. While the Rough Rider Monument is a powerful statement of Prescott's loss, it is this grief-stricken memorial written by Buckey's widow, Pauline, that is the most moving declaration of the personal sacrifices of war.
First published in the San Francisco Examiner, a month after her husband's death, Pauline M. O'Neill's tribute, is reprinted here in conjunction with the planned rededication of the Monument scheduled for July 3, 1998.
This Is My Tribute to My Dead Hero, Who Fell on Santiago's Bloody Field
by Pauline O'Neill, Widow of the Famous "Buckey"
PRESCOTT (Ariz.), August 2, - When the Maine was blown up and the whole nation was discussing the question of the war that might follow, Mr. O'Neill felt that his country would demand his services. A meeting was held here in the Court-House on the evening following the receipt of the news. Mr. O'Neill again declared that he was ready and willing to shed his heart's last drop for his flag, his country. He was then, as always, entirely devoid of fear. When the audience applauded his words, my heart sank, for I knew that in case of war his honor would demand that he keep the promise so solemnly made to his fellowmen.
Mr. O'Neill was always cheerful and happy at home, looking on the bright side of life on every occasion. He never wavered when he thought that duty called him to perform any task. Single-handed and alone, as Sheriff, he captured the hardest desperadoes. He was so gentle and kindhearted that he fainted at a hanging, because he saw the wife and children of the murderer who were left behind to be the by-word of an indignant populace. The wife was ill, and the children were so small and innocent that their future lot seemed an awful one to him.
To me, he was always kind and loving - as much a lover in the last days as when he first courted me, twelve years ago. I held the first place in his heart always, for there were no living children who claimed a part of his love. To his adopted child he has been more than a father, being a jolly comrade to the little fellow. He always wrote of the little child as the "Wild Man From Borneo."
Perhaps we were too happy and that is why God saw fit to call him first.
Wives, mothers, sweethearts and sisters of our gallant boys, write to your loved ones; write to them daily if possible; fill your letters with the small home incidents that go to make up life. Make the epistles cheerful. Keep the agony of your writing in your own hearts, even though they break, for our soldiers have enough to contend with outside of the sorrow and agony of the loved ones left behind.
Every day since our marriage, whenever we were separated, I wrote a letter to my beloved, and he always wrote to me one each day. Thus we were ever in touch with each other - no matter how far apart we were. His letters were some-times short after he left, on May 4th, for San Antonio, for his duties as Captain kept him busy from sunrise until midnight, but he always reported, as it were, with a few lines to let me know that he was well.
You ask me if I gave him up willingly to fight for our flag? No, a thousand times, no. Do we give up our heart's blood, or our children, or our loved ones willingly? We women of this world? Can we say "Go," when we feel there is no coming back in this world? Is it to be expected that we shall say, like the Spartan mother, "Return with your shield, or on it?" You men who clamored for war, did you know what it would mean to the women of our country, when strife and blood should sweep o'er this land; when the shouts of victory would but ineffectually drown the moans of the women who mourned for the lives of those that were given to make that victory possible?
When the news [came] that Santiago de Cuba had fallen, after four days' battle, with a death list of 2,000 men, did you think for a moment how many homes were that day desolate, and how many of us were sitting with tear-dimmed eyes and folded hands trying so hard to bear up under the burden of sorrow, while you celebrate[d] your glorious victory?
With these stern realities, can we make this sacrifice willingly? We would be less human and more divine if we could cheerfully say, "Yes," to a sacrifice that breaks our hearts and makes dreary and sorrowful the rest of our days.
Until he received his commission, I would not believe that he was in earnest. He joked and laughed about going, and I thought that the idea that he was needed had left him. On the 28th of April, he returned from Phoenix with his Captaincy in his pocket, and the following day he was mustered in - the first volunteer in the whole United States to offer his services and his life, if need be, to his country. From that day on my heart began to break, although I made no sign. I went to the train on May 4th, to see the gallant Rough Riders leave. My eyes were tearless, while my heart was wrung in agony - at the last good-bye he said: "My dear, the war will not last long, and I will return in ninety days."
But my heart kept repeating, "Forever, forever!"
From that day on the silver threads have crept into my hair, while my face has become hollow and old from worry and grief.
Yet, despite my feelings, I have always endeavored to be cheerful in all of my letters, only occasionally letting my feelings reveal themselves. He, too, though he felt lonely and homesick, disguised his words. In one of his last letters he even planned to have me visit him at Havana next winter.
The last letter I received was written the day after the first fight, June 26th. It was short, and only written to let me know that he was still unharmed. He had to make the letter brief, because he wanted to help bury the dead.
When the news of the next battle came, I was out of town, in a neighboring city on business. Fortunately, the telegram did not reach me until I stepped off of the train, when kind hands and loving hearts led me home. The agony was so great that I could not weep for days. Later reports say that he fell, killed instantly as he was leading his men to victory. A second before he went to his death he said to one of the boys that the Spanish bullet was not made that could kill him.
And so it all ended. Of what use is the medal of honor that he was to have for trying to rescue the two soldiers, of what use the praise and the laurels, the undying glory of being a nation's hero, the thanks of a grateful country - of what use to me, who has lost the most precious being of my life?
Yet I am not alone, for thousands weep with me, and refuse to be comforted, while thousands of others are still waiting and praying that the dread news will not come to them.
To you, grief-stricken ones, I say: "Let us pray that God will help us bear this heavy cross, and that He will some day show us why it was good that it should be so."
To you who will celebrate our nation's success, when your spirits are raised in triumph and your songs of thanksgiving are the loudest, remember that we, who sit and weep in our closed and darkened homes, have given our best gifts to our country and our flag.
Patriotism, how many hearts are broken in thy cause?
Anne Foster is Assistant Archivist at the Sharlot Hall Museum and is the author of "The Right Kind of Girl," a biography of Pauline O'Neill which appears in "Rough Writings", a collection of articles about the Rough Riders, and is available at the Museum's store.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (po1115pa). Reuse only by permission.
This line drawing appeared with the original text of Pauline O'Neill's article in the "San Francisco Examiner" in 1898.