Paterson natives and Buffalo soldiers William Thompkins and George Wanton waded through gun and artillery fire and each received a Congressional Medal of Honor.
The two African-American soldiers were part of the US Army’s 10th Cavalry and were sent to Cuba in 1898 aboard a chartered merchant ship bound for the Spanish-American War.
Press coverage that summer gave little hint of their fight and none of the subsequent heroism that earned them their medals. But in June 1899, newspaper reports about the honor swept the country.
Their mission was so risky that Lt. CP Johnson, her commanding officer, later wrote that he was very reluctant to risk men from his 50-man contingent. However, he admittedly ran out of options.
“Four expeditions, consisting of the Cubans and the immediate friends of the wounded, had failed because of the extreme danger,” Johnson wrote.
Before ending with US officials conquering Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, the Spanish-American War began to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule. The war that began in 1898 featured a refreshed and modernized American Navy full of ships with sturdy steel hulls. However, they found themselves among a number of chartered transport vessels, such as the one Thompkins and Wanton had on board in June.
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The two were with a hand-picked unit that worked directly with Cuban revolutionaries to fight Spanish forces. According to a contemporary account by Theophilus Gould Steward, a U.S. Army chaplain and Buffalo Soldier, their mission was under Lt. Johnson launched a support mission aimed at resupplying Cuban fighters on the country’s south coast with arms, ammunition and other supplies. It didn’t go as planned.
The proposed landing spot “was well guarded by Spaniards who fired on the landing party,” Steward wrote. So Johnson and his command chose a location near the mouth of the Tayabacoa River.
The expedition’s gunboat, the USS Peoria, made the first incursion, leaving behind the steamship Fanita and the US Army Transport Florida, a chartered boat, Steward wrote. On the afternoon of June 30, the gunship attacked a blockhouse on the shore long enough to land a small force of Cuban and American volunteers from whaleboats. However, an estimated 100 Spanish soldiers were lying in wait.
While some Cuban and American soldiers were able to safely retreat to their boats, others. Between 13 and 16 men, according to the few detailed reports, remained stranded. A Cuban soldier was killed. Seven others in the attacking force were wounded and forced into hiding, Steward wrote.
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Although Thompkins and Wanton were born in Paterson, there is no indication that they knew each other prior to enlisting in the US Army.
Thompkins, four years younger than Wanton, grew up in Newark. Wanton, meanwhile, remained in Paterson before enlisting in the US Navy in 1884 at the age of 16. While serving in the Navy only until 1888, Wanton left his job as a coachman and his home on 16th Avenue the following year for enlistment in the US Army’s 10th Cavalry.
Thompkins also enlisted in the army in 1889. However, he did so from the recruiting station in Cleveland, Ohio, US Army records show.
When the Spanish-American War began, both were Buffalo soldiers of the 10th Cavalry. Wanton was with Troop M. Thompkins was with Troop G. They nevertheless found themselves together on June 30, 1898, aboard a transport ship near Tunas de Zaza, Cuba.
Four attempts to rescue the stranded soldiers that day were repelled as the Peoria’s firepower could not match. But as dusk fell, five men aboard the Florida volunteered for a fifth attempt under cover of darkness. They were George Ahern from New York, Dennis Bell from Washington, DC, Fitz Lee from Virginia, Thompkins and Wanton. The latter four, all African American, would receive a Congressional Medal of Honor for voluntarily “walking ashore in the face of the enemy and assisting in the rescue of their comrades.” Ahern, her superior, who was born in Manhattan to Irish immigrants, was eventually cited for bravery in action.
It wasn’t until two days later, on July 2, that Johnson’s force was able to land and deliver the goods to General Máximo Gómez, Seward wrote.
After the end of the war, Wanton returned to Paterson. He briefly lived with his mother before re-enlisting in 1902, The News (Paterson, NJ) reported. Another stint as a civilian was followed by a decade in the 10th Cavalry, which he spent anywhere from Vermont to Mexico. According to a report by the National Parks Service, he attended the ceremonies for the Unknown Soldier in 1921 before permanently retiring from the military four years later.
Wanton was discharged as master sergeant in 1925 and returned to Paterson in 1926 to live at 112 16th Avenue, The News reported. Thompkins had by then been buried in San Francisco National Cemetery, having died on September 24, 1916. Wanton died at Walter Reed Hospital on November 24, 1940 and was subsequently buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Two years later, his Medal of Honor was awarded by the Passaic County Historical Society. It was temporarily on public display at Lambert Castle.
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