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Mystery of the medal solved

December 06, 1997

Mystery of the medal solved

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

Drive up Jonathan Street in Hagerstown, and you'll come to a nondescript sign near the Coca-Cola building, where the road splits into Pennsylvania Avenue and Forest Drive at Charles Street.

The triangular sign is mounted atop a pole that's about 9 feet high. It looks like a street sign. If you're not searching for it, you could easily miss it.

The marker, known as the "Medal of Honor Triangle," was erected on Armed Forces Day in 1988. But the man the memorial honors, William O. Wilson, has been all but forgotten.

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The heroism that earned him the nation's highest military honor had drifted into the back pages of history and his burial site remained a mystery.

But Boonsboro resident Don Brown, after weeks of poring over court records and historical documents, helped Wilson's family track his resting place at Rose Hill Cemetery.

Mary Jones, who came to Hagerstown seeking information about her grandfather-in-law, recalled her elation when Brown told her he discovered the site.

"It was the best thing that could have happened," she said.

Now, slowly, his story once again is being told in Washington County.

Born in Chewsville, Wilson enlisted as a member of the 9th Cavalry, one of the fighting units known as the Buffalo Soldiers that battled the American Indians in the West in the late 1800s. Wilson volunteered to make a dangerous ride behind enemy lines in December 1890.

His mission alerted three companies of soldiers, who returned in time to save a wagon train.

Wilson eventually returned to Hagerstown, where he lived in a house on North Street not far from where the memorial now stands.

"That's why we picked that site as a good one," said Dieter H. Protsch, a member of the Washington County Joint Veterans Council. "We found this was just an ideal place for it because you've got different roads coming in."

Following the Civil War, Congress created black fighting units, allowing blacks to join the regular Army for the first time, according to Isaac Prentice, parliamentarian of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Association.

By the time Wilson served, there were two cavalry units and two infantry units, Prentice said.

Indians called the men "buffalo soldiers" because their dark, curly hair reminded them of buffalo hair, he said. They also respected their fighting prowess, Prentice added.

During the Indian campaigns from 1861 to 1898, 18 blacks received the Medal of Honor, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

"They had something to prove. It was the first time blacks were allowed in the regular army," Prentice said.

Stan Brown Jr., vice president of Brothers United Who Dare to Care, said his Jonathan Street-area group had only a vague notion of who Wilson was until recently.

"We were kind of fuzzy about the details," he said. "It's very exciting for us to know that someone of a local background received the congressional Medal of Honor."

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