Next to Theodore Roosevelt, Buckey O’Neill was the most famous Rough Rider.
Buckey O’Neill: Not-So-Rough Riding
No doubt about it, when Theodore Roosevelt assembled the voluntary cavalry corps nicknamed the Rough Riders, a wide assortment of men couldn’t wait to sign up. One of them, westerner William Owen O’Neill (1860-1898) had almost as varied a life-path as his soon-to-be pal TR.
He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of a Union Civil War soldier seriously wounded at Fredericksburg. The family moved to Washington, DC, where Buckey (still called William) graduated from the National Law School. By nineteen, he had found his way to Tombstone, Arizona and became a gambler. He earned his nickname, “Buckey” from his habit of “bucking the tiger” or “bucking the odds” in faro and other gambling games. The nickname stuck.
O’Neill began his adult career as a journalist on the Tombstone Epitaph. Having become amiably acquainted with the Earp Brothers, he was on hand to cover the now-legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (printed without byline). Shortly afterwards, he moved to Prescott, AZ, where he married and made his permanent home.
In Prescott, he became a court reporter, and went on to edit the Prescott Mining Journal. Then he established his own newspaper, The Hoof and Horn, primarily for the ranchers and cattlemen who populated the area. He also joined the Prescott Grays, a unit of the Arizona militia, and became its Captain.
Shortly afterward, he became the three-term sheriff of Prescott, and later was unanimously elected Mayor. He dabbled in mining and business enterprises and was on his way to becoming a wealthy man.
TR & Buckey O’Neill: The Common Bonds
Except for the gambling, Buckey had much in common with TR, and the two of them, once acquainted, discovered mutual affinities cum varied interests.
At the time of the Spanish-American War, Theodore was not quite forty; Bucky was thirty-eight. Theodore had already written several books, and had achieved acclaim. O’Neill had made a modest name for himself as a journalist and publisher. They both understood the power of words.
Then of course, Buckey O’Neill was a thorough “westerner” – despite where he had been born. His roots took hold in the west. He could ride and shoot and chase bad guys with the best of them. So could TR. In his on-and-off ranching days in the Dakotas, he had also (in his own way) become one of them, riding and shooting and chasing bad guys.
Then there was the political aspect of their lives. Buckey had a degree in law that he never used as a profession. TR had toyed with the law, even spending a few months at Columbia Law School. But he had been a state legislator, and run for (and lost) the NYC mayoral election. O’Neill had been elected sheriff and mayor. He tried for a Congressional seat and was defeated. The essences of politics are still the same.
And they both loved the strenuous life. TR worked hard as a child-to-man, training his asthmatic and frail body into a strong, muscular physique; Buckey was known to be the best shot in the county. They both had reputations for leadership and courage.
It would have been impossible for them to have been anything other than boon companions.
Assembling the Volunteers
The regular U.S. Army was minuscule in 1898. Its generals were old, flabby, 35-year leftovers from the Civil War (both sides), and it was a War that many people (including President McKinley) were half-hearted about. But Cuba, oppressed by its cruel Spanish overlords, wanted its freedom. Some people entertained hope that once free, Cuba would annex itself to the U.S. and become a state. O’Neill was one of those, commenting, “Who would not die for a new star on the flag?”
When the word went out that Theodore Roosevelt was forming the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, O’Neill organized 300 local miners and cowboys to sign up and ride to San Antonio, TX where the new regiment was amassing. The Prescott boys would become Company A; Mayor O’Neill would be its captain.
Training for the regiment in San Antonio was a piece of cake for the Prescott contingent. All of them were superb horsemen, marksmen and men of physical valor. That the horses never made it to Cuba did not matter. The Rough Riders would literally be the Rough Infantrymen. They came to participate, and by thunder that is what they would do.
The End of Buckey
The War with Spain itself lasted barely six months, and was a lopsided rout of a dying empire. When the battleship Maine (sent to protect American citizens) sank in Havana Harbor in early 1898, it was believed to be a deliberate act of sabotage. (That it was truly an accident would not be determined for nearly a century.)
The Rough Riders (minus their horses) managed their way to the front of the fighting, with Captain O’Neill taking part in the advance on Santiago, and engaged in the early stages of the Battle of San Juan Hill. Legend has it that he smoked a cigarette, recklessly moving among his men as they advanced. When one soldier cautioned him to take cover, Buckey said, “A Spanish bullet hasn’t been made that can kill me.” He was wrong. Within moments, a Spanish ball passed through his skull, and he died instantly.
According to Theodore Roosevelt, “The most serious loss that I or the regiment could have suffered befell us just before we charged.”
Captain William Owen O’Neill is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. But his truest, and perhaps most important memorial is in Prescott, AZ, in the middle of the county Courthouse square.
It is a large and appropriately rough-hewn bronze sculpture of Buckey O’Neill astride his horse. The artist was Solon Borglum, the brother of Gustav Borglum, who chiseled Theodore Roosevelt’s image (among others) on Mount Rushmore.
Roosevelt, Theodore- The Rough Riders – Desert Publications (Reprint) 1992
Traxel, David – 1898, The Birth of the American Century – Alfred A. Knopf, 1998