by Drew Desmond, Secretary, Prescott Western Heritage Foundation
When news arrived of the explosion and sinking of the USS Maine, William “Buckey” O’Neill was Mayor of Prescott. Buckey, like most Americans, was infuriated by the disaster and hungry to join the fight.
While discussing the situation with Alexander Brodie and James McClintock, both veteran officers and prominent citizens, an idea occurred to them to raise up a volunteer cavalry from the Arizona territory. Buckey wanted to raise a regiment of hardcore Arizona frontiersmen. He would call them “The Rough Riders,” and they would become the origin and core of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry.
Buckey wired President McKinley for authorization to muster 1,000 Arizona “rough riding” soldiers. McKinley wired back authorizing a number he thought was more realistic for the sparsely populated territory, 250 men. O’Neill was named captain of Troop A of the 1st Volunteer Cavalry and immediately resigned his position as Prescott’s Mayor. The three had little trouble recruiting the allotment of men.
Off to War
Throughout the spring of 1898, the volunteers trained at Fort Whipple. Then on May 4, 1898, the troops shipped out. For the City of Prescott, the departure day was a well-attended, bittersweet affair. “The entire town seemed to be on the streets, in the Plaza and at the depot to see the brave boys off,” the local paper reported.
It would be the first time that Arizona sent its citizens outside the territory to fight for its country. Arizona was the first in the U.S. to muster in its men and the first to have its volunteers leave for the conflict.
During the send-off ceremony, the troops were not only presented with a battle flag, but a young mountain lion named “Josephine” also was presented as a mascot. Over $500 was raised in a matter of hours to outfit the volunteers with supplies, including hams, mutton, pigs feet, pickles, three barrels of bottled beer and other items far too numerous to mention.
A Farewell to be Remembered
“As the train was about to depart, the volunteers expressed themselves as being overwhelmed with the rousing farewell demonstration accorded them by its people and said they would be forever remembered wherever the fate of war might carry them,” said the paper.
The train’s engineer “pulled out very slowly until the train had passed through the cut in the yards, while a perfect sea of handkerchiefs and parasols were waved in the air and a chorus of shouts went up from hundreds of voices,” the paper wrote.
First, they would go to San Antonio, Texas, where their number swelled to 1,250 and they met their new Lt. Commander Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt wholly embraced the idea of “rough riding” horsemen going to war and instructed all his men to behave as such. After a stop in Florida, they went to Cuba to fight with great distinction and glory still well remembered to this day.
But the name and concept of “Rough Riders?” …that’s pure Prescott.
Sources: Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner 5/11/1898, Prescott Courier 4/11/1975.