Saluting a 19th-century hero: Tribute: The family of a Medal of Honor recipient who died 70 years ago recently discovered his unmarked grave. Yesterday, he was finally honored.

May 31, 1998|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

The only thing the descendants of Army Cpl. William Othello Wilson -- Hagerstown native, black buffalo soldier and Medal of Honor recipient -- ever wanted was to find his grave.

Yesterday, 70 years after his death, they watched proudly as Wilson was honored with a hero's funeral in his hometown.

Wilson's story is one of perseverance and an example of how the thread of history ties everyone together.

What began as a family story passed down the generations evolved into a wife's desire to realize her dead husband's greatest dream -- a dream that came to fruition because of another man's determination to help a family he'd come to admire.

It included four generations of Wilson's descendants, who joined friends and Hagerstown residents at Rose Hill Cemetery for Wilson's funeral -- including his 86-year-old daughter.

"I'm more than proud," said the daughter, Anna V. Jones, a retired elevator operator from Hagerstown. "My father would have loved this."

Members of the 3rd Infantry Old Guard -- which protects the president and guards the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington, Va. -- fired a 21-gun salute to honor the man who Dec. 30, 1890, risked his life to carry a message requesting reinforcements for a wagon supply train under attack.

Wilson's story began when he joined the service in 1889, when he was 21, and served as a member of I Troop, 9th Calvary, in South Dakota during the Indian wars. After the Civil War, black soldiers were sent to the West to ensure peaceful settlement of U.S. territories threatened by Indians and Mexican bandits.

It is believed the troops were called buffalo soldiers by the Plains Indians because their hair and fighting spirit reminded the Indians of buffaloes. Despite poor food and inadequate supplies, 18 buffalo soldiers received the Medal of Honor between 1870 and 1890.

When the enemy descended upon Capt. John S. Loud and his men 108 years ago, two Indian scouts working with the buffalo soldiers refused to take a dispatch to the nearest troops, certain they would be killed. Wilson quickly stepped forward and said, "I can do it," and volunteered to take a message to the battalion commander during fighting in South Dakota.

Riding furiously on horseback over the muddy terrain, Wilson returned within an hour with reinforcements. For gallantry in action, he was awarded the Medal of Honor on Sept. 17, 1891, having saved the lives of at least 25 men in the wagon supply train.

No gravestone

After the war, Wilson returned to Hagerstown and married. When his wife died, he raised seven children and was a carpenter, upholsterer and cook. After he was injured on a roofing job in 1928, he suffered blood poisoning and died at age 60.

A funeral was held, but no gravestone was placed. Family members who knew where he was buried died. Hagerstown grew and changed.

Wilson's daughter, Anna Jones, said relatives were overwhelmed with grief and, as time passed, they forgot where the grave was. She was 14 when he died; her sister, Elsie Comer, now 92, ill and in a nursing home, was 21. Anna Jones' son, James D. Jones, developed an interest in his grandfather.

The son, a retailer, vowed to start the search for his grandfather's grave after he retired in 1989, but he died that year at age 57 after a massive heart attack. Years later, his wife, Mary, could not stop thinking about her husband's wish and started the search.

"We had talked about it a lot, and it was extremely important to him," said Mary Jones, 66. "He was just so proud of his grandfather."

Traveling from Princeton, N.J., in February 1997, she knew only that other family members had been buried in a Hagerstown cemetery designated for blacks.

A referral to a historian at the Washington County library led to a chance meeting with Donald Brown, a retired businessman who became fascinated with the mystery.

"I'm just nosey," Brown said yesterday. "But after getting to know them, I came to really respect the quality of the family."

Weeks of research led him in April 1997 to Rose Hill Cemetery in April 1997. Using the cemetery's records, he spent several days digging to find numbered concrete markers that indicated gravesites. After seven days, Brown found the buried concrete marker for grave 1170, the resting place of Wilson.

"I said 'Hello, William,' " Brown recalled yesterday.

Things quickly developed as others learned Wilson's story. In October, a committee was formed to commemorate Wilson's service and acknowledge him as Washington County's only Medal of Honor recipient. More than 3,400 have been awarded.

Honoring black soldiers

Yesterday, next to the bronze plaque now marking Wilson's grave, wreaths of flowers joined a saddle, a cavalryman's hat, a Native American lance adorned with furs and feathers, and a poster-size photo of Wilson in uniform.

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