The 9th and 10th Cavalry shipped out of Montana from Missoula and wound up down in Cuba with the 24th and 25th “colored” regiments. It’s a good bet they didn’t wind up in the Philippines at first because the U.S. Army was still trying to keep whites and blacks as segregated as possible. On the bright side, that meant Montana’s Buffalo Soldiers never had to endure the misery that was Camp Robert B. Smith in Helena.
The Battle of Tayacoba
There were 100 Spanish soldiers at nearby Fort Tunas but the Americans didn’t know this. They’d fired the Peoria’s guns, but there’d been no sign of resistance so they landed thirty men on the shore. Advancing further inland, the men came under attack and rushed back to their boats, which had been sunk by cannon fire from the Spanish in the trees.
He made it nonetheless and told the crew of the ship they’d have to try a rescue. Even with the Peoria firing her guns, four rescue parties were repulsed. It seemed hopeless until four men from the 10th Cavalry were chosen to row to shore under cover of darkness. Those four men were Corporal Dennis Bell, Private Fitz Lee, Private William H. Thompkins, and Private George H. Wanton and each was given the Medal of Honor on June 23, 1899.
The Battle of San Juan Hill
First Lieutenant Jules G. Ord went up to his commander, Brigadier General Hamilton S. Hawkins, and requested to lead the charge. Hawkins said nothing, at which point Ord continued to press, finally saying he’d lead the charge if only Hawkins wouldn’t refuse. Hawkins finally said “I will not give permission and I will not refuse it.”
That was all Ord needed to hear. Together with Captain John Bigelow, Ord led the Buffalo Soldiers up the slopes of San Juan Hill, something that emboldened the other units to do the same, and General Hawkins too, for he ordered the men to advance at that point. The black soldiers from Montana rushed forth, led by their white officers, perhaps with thoughts of the ‘Fighting 54th Massachussettes” from the Civil War in their thoughts.
At the same time the 10th Cavalry had advanced up the hill, Teddy Roosevelt was advancing up nearby Kettle Hill, on the eastern portion of the battlefield. When General Wheeler saw this dual advance he ordered a full assault on the dug-in entrenchments of the Spanish, with Major John J. Pershing leading part of the advance with the right wing of the 10th Cavalry.
On San Juan Hill Lieutenant Ord was leading the first of the 10th up the Heights. Seeing their advance, many of the Spanish dropped arms and began to run. Others didn’t however, and Ord was shot in the throat and killed instantly. The men continued, however, and the Americans reached the top and won the battle. Teddy Roosevelt would become famous, although his Rough Riders never would have taken Kettle Hill without the aid of Montana’s Buffalo Soldiers.
The spot where Lieutenant Jules Ord went down with a bullet in the throat was a death zone. Half of the 10th Cavalry’s officers and a fifth of its soldiers were wounded there. Captain John Bigelow was one, but he didn’t die from the four gunshots he’d taken. Instead of a coffin they gave him the Purple Heart and the Silver Star and in August 1899 they offered him a promotion to lieutenant colonel of a volunteer regiment. He turned it down, jeopardizing his career, to stay with the 10th Cavalry Division.