Buckey O'Neill: Sheriff, Mayor, Rough Rider, American Hero

 By Joseph Gannon

 The Minstrel boy to the war is gone,
in the ranks of death you will find him.
His father's sword he hath girded on,
and his wild harp slung behind him.

It would be hard to find a life that more perfectly illustrates the grit, determination, and pure courage of the Irish in America in the 19th century than that of William O. "Buckey" O'Neill (left). Described as being nearly six feet tall, with dark brown hair, a neatly trimmed mustache and infectious grin, he cut a dashing figure and was considered quite handsome by most women. When the Turner Network television produced a miniseries on the Rough Riders, O'Neill was played by Sam Elliott, an actor that Buckey might well have picked himself, had he been around.

Although O'Neill had often given his birthplace as either Washington D.C. or St. Louis he may have done this because of the prejudice the Irish born still faced in the country. When he enlisted in the Rough Riders, perhaps with the premonition that this would be the last time he would be asked, he listed his place of birth as Ireland.

United States Army Military History Institute
Captain John O'Neill, Irish Brigade veteran.

William had martial bloodlines - his father, Captain John Owen O'Neill, had raised a company in the 116th PA in 1862. The 116th was assigned to the Meagher's Irish Brigade in the fall of 1862 and fought with them through most of the rest of the war. Capt. O'Neill was not with them to the end, however. On Dec. 13th 1862, at the Battle of Fredericksburg, perhaps the most horrendous defeat ever suffered by the Army of the Potomac, John O'Neill was wounded five times, with one of the bullets passing through his lung. St. Clair Mulholland, in his history of the 116th, reports that on being asked where he was hit, O'Neill replied, "I'm wounded all over.". O'Neill's career as a combat soldier was over, though he did later join the 22nd Regiment of the Veteran Reserve Corp, which did noncombat service. So it is likely that William's upbringing included tales of men at war and John also saw to it that William was skilled in the handling of all types of firearms.

Nothing in William's early life would have indicated that he would have need of those skills. He studied law and graduated from National University, entering the bar in the District of Columbia, where his father was then provost marshall. But this life was not exciting enough for William, and in 1879 he left for the west, ending up in Arizona. It might be easier to list the things that he didn't do in Arizona through the years than those he did. He was a court reporter, probate judge, superintendent of schools; he worked on theTombstone Epitaph, was an editor on the Hoof and Horn, a livestock newspaper which he started, he was a Sheriff, and finally, in 1897, the Mayor of Prescott. He gained his nickname in Prescott by his love of the card game faro which was sometimes called, "buck the tiger."

It was as Sheriff of Prescott that Buckey earned lasting fame throughout the west. Teddy Roosevelt wrote that O'Neill was, "a by-word of terror to every wrong-doer, white or red, .... with unmoved face he would stake and lose every dollar he had in the world." His most famous exploit as Sheriff was the tracking down and capture of three men who had robbed an Atlantic and Pacific train in Canyon del Diablo, northwest of Prescott. His fame was such that he was able to overcome the enmity of Arizona's Governor McCord to win his election as Mayor in 1897.

Buckey O'Neill was famous in Arizona Territory as a gambler, lawyer, newspaperman, miner, sheriff, and politician. Had he survived the war many believe he would have been the first governor of Arizona. This fast-moving narrative takes him from the streets of Tombstone all the way to Cuba, where he won Theodore Roosevelt's admiration as the wildest and bravest of the Rough Riders. 15 photos. Read Dale Walker's Rough Rider : Buckey O'Neill of Arizona

When the war with Spain came in 1898, like his father before him, Buckey raised a company of volunteers and became their Captain. They were mustered in as company A, 1st US Volunteer Cavalry, a regiment better known to history as, "The Rough Riders." Though the Rough Riders commanding officer was Col. Leonard Wood, it is Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt who is most often identified with them.

Roosevelt gives an insight into O'Neill's character in his description of the Rough Riders' arrival in Daiquiri, Cuba. When a boatload of black troops capsized and two of them sank below the ocean water, O'Neill plunged into the water in full uniform in a vain attempt to save their lives. This, of course, was at a time when most Americans would never have thought of risking their lives to save a black man.

After the battle of Las Guasimas on June 24th, Roosevelt and O'Neill came on the body

Future president Teddy Roosevelt in his Rough Rider uniform.

of one of the Rough Riders killed earlier that day; his body had already been severely mangled by the vultures. Looking at the body, O'Neill recognized it as one of his men; turning to Roosevelt, he asked, "Colonel, isn't it Whitman who says of the vultures that "they pluck the eyes of princes and tear the flesh of kings ?" In less than a week, Roosevelt recalled, they would be shielding O'Neill body from the birds of prey.

On July 1, 1898, just before the famous assault of the Rough Riders up Kettle Hill (not San Juan), O'Neill was walking up and down his company line smoking a cigarette - Roosevelt called him inveterately addicted to the habit - as they received rifle fire from the Spanish; his men begged him to take cover. But Buckey had a theory that an officer ought never to take cover, that his disdain for enemy fire had a calming effect on the men. A sergeant called out to him, "Captain, a bullet is sure to hit you!" In 1864, at Spotsylvania Court House, VA, Union General John Sedgwick had been in a similar spot and said, "They couldn't hit an elephant from this distance." In 1898, Capt. Buckey O'Neill laughed and said, "Sergeant, the Spanish bullet isn't made that will kill me!" O'Neill and Sedgwick were both wrong.

Sergeant Greenwood, of Co. A, remembered looking at O'Neill a moment later and thinking, "I'd follow that man anywhere." Suddenly Greenwood heard a thump, and O'Neill slowly buckled and fell to the ground without a sound. That Spanish bullet which Buckey O'Neill was sure had not been manufactured yet had hit him in the mouth and come out the back of his head. By the time Greenwood reached him he was probably already dead; heads were bowed up and down the line as the news was passed to his shocked company. Greenwood recalled having tears in his eyes for his commmanding officer; no doubt many more up and down the line had the same. Roosevelt called it, "the most serious loss I and the regiment could have suffered."

Historian and Spur-award winning author Dale Walker tells the complete, colorful story of America's most memorable fighting force, the volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders. From its members--a peculiar mix of Western frontiersmen, like Buckey O'Neill, and idealistic young Easterners, and their slapdash training in Texas and Florida, to its battles at Las Guasimas and San Juan Hill under the command of Theodore Roosevelt, who kept riding, some say, into the White House. Read: The Boys of '98: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders

Within minutes the Rough Riders had to put their grieving for Capt. O'Neill behind them as they stormed up Kettle Hill. But they didn't forget him, as many of them called out, "One for Buckey O'Neill," as they fired on the Spanish while taking the hill. The turning of grief into hatred probably helped them win that fight, as it had millions of soldiers in similar situations throughout history. Buckey O'Neill helped his men through one last fight, even in death.

Nine years later, the town of Prescott, AZ, unveiled an equestrian statue of Buckey O'Neill, sculpted by Solon Borglum, also known for his equestrian statue of Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon in Atlanta. Solon was the brother of Mt. Rushmore sculptor Gutzon. It was a testament to the respect of the people of Arizona for O'Neill that even many of his political enemies of the past worked at making the monument to him a reality. Chief Justice H.D. Ross, an old political opponent of O'Neill's said, "Had Buckey returned from Cuba, he could have had any political office that Arizona could offer."

Buckey O'Neill lies in Arlington Cemetery among the nation's most illustrious war dead now, right next to his father. On his headstone is the inscription: "Who Would Not Die for a New Star on the Flag?" That star, for Arizona, came to pass on Feb. 12, 1912. Had Buckey lived, his stone might very likely have said, 1st Governor of the State of Arizona, as well.

In his book on the Rough Riders, Roosevelt has unstinting praise for O'Neill, calling him, among other things, "the iron-nerved, iron-willed fighter from Arizona, .... A staunchly loyal and generous friend. .... he, alone among his comrades, was a visionary, an articulate emotionalist." Roosevelt continued, ".... he was less apt to tell tales of his hard and stormy past than he was to speak of the mysteries which lie behind courage, and fear, and love."

In these comments may lie the real genius of this man, Buckey O'Neill. Unlike so many of the west's heros, he was not just a man of action but a man of ideas; a man who could track down an outlaw and kill him if need be, but who might be found gazing at the stars that night contemplating things that would never have entered the minds of most western lawmen. He was not a man who spoke of the things that he had done or was going to do; he was a man who simply DID them. Few have packed as much living into 38 years, nor accomplished as much in their lives as did William O. "Buckey" O'Neill. Among the Irish, among all Americans, in fact, it could truly be said of him, quoting the Irish song Down by the Glenside, "We may have great men .... but we'll never have better!"


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