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Tribute a long time coming for Buffalo Soldier

May 30, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

by Richard T. Meagher / staff photographer

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Anna Jones

When William O. Wilson of Hagerstown died more than 70 years ago, it seemed that any recognition of the valor that earned him the nation's highest military honor died with him.

For years no one even knew where he was buried.

But Saturday morning, more than 150 people gathered beneath the hot sun at Rose Hill Cemetery for a belated tribute to Wilson, the only Washington County resident ever to earn the Medal of Honor.

"It's a very joyous day. It's a day I've looked forward to for many years," said Hagerstown resident Anna V. Jones, 86, one of Wilson's two surviving children.

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Wilson, a Chewsville native, was a corporal in the Buffalo Soldiers, a famed black fighting unit that received acclaim for its battles during the Indian campaigns of the 1890s and in other service.

In December 1890, while fighting against Native Americans at Wounded Knee, S.D., Wilson volunteered for a dangerous ride behind enemy lines to get extra troops to support the wagon train he was in.

He received the Medal of Honor in 1891 after he struggled to save his military career following accusations of forgery and stealing a rifle.

Two years later he deserted and returned to Washington County, eventually settling in Hagerstown on North Street.

Wilson is distinguished as the last person to earn a Medal of Honor for actions taken on American soil. Research has also shown Wilson stands alone among county residents to receive the honor, said John Frye, curator of the Washington County Free Library's Western Maryland Room.

"As far as we know, this is it, which makes it fantastic," Frye said.

But Wilson never made much of his historic accomplishment, perhaps because he was humble, said Jones, who was 15 when her father died.

"He probably didn't want anybody to make a big to-do over him," said Harold S. Cole, president of the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Association, who traveled from Van Nuys, Calif., to attend the ceremony.

Cole said it is difficult to believe that a Medal of Honor recipient - there have only been 3,408 in the nation's history - was buried in the cemetery and no one knew until recently.

"That's amazing," he said.

And no one probably would have ever known if it wasn't for the efforts of his family and others to find out where he was buried. Research with Frye, local land records and funeral officials led them to a section of Rose Hill Cemetery that was reserved for blacks, but had many grave markers that were since covered by earth.

In April 1997, Boonsboro resident Don Brown, who was assisting the family, found Wilson's numbered grave marker by randomly poking a metal rod into the ground.

"Anna Jones told me many times that God intended this to happen. Apparently so," Brown said.

After the grave was located, efforts began to make sure Wilson was given a proper Memorial Day ceremony, complete with military honors, said Stanley Brown, vice president of Brothers United Who Dare to Care, a Jonathan Street-area community group that helped organize the service.

"I think it allows us to give an appropriate conclusion to a man who displayed a very gallant effort in the Indian Wars," Brown said.

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