Bucky O'Neill Monument

Illuminations: Captain William “Buckey” O’Neill

"Who would not die for a new star on the flag?"

The history of Irish-Americans serving in the U.S. military began with the birth of this nation and continues to this day. In addition, Irish immigrants and first generation Irish have been recipients of the Medal of Honor more than any other ethnic group.

One of the many first generation Irish who served this country was Captain William Owen “Buckey” O’Neill. O’Neill was born in St. Louis, Missouri on February 2, 1860. He was the eldest of four children born to John Owen O’Neil and Mary (McMenimin) O’Neill. His father was an Irish immigrant who arrived in the United States during the 1850s.

When the American Civil War began, the elder O’Neill joined the 116th Pennsylvania Volunteers (Irish Brigade). On December 13, 1862, during the Battle of Fredericksburg, John O’Neill was severely wounded.

There is some controversy surrounding William’s birthplace. On several occasions during his life William listed his birthplace as Ireland. His Irish birth is questionable since his parents had been in the United States since 1850 and were living in St. Louis in 1860.

In 1862, William along with his mother and brothers moved to Washington, D.C.  He was educated at Gonzaga College High School, Georgetown Law School, and graduated from the National Law School in Washington, D.C.

Buckey O'Neill

At the age of 19, William responded to an item in the Washington Star calling for men to move to the Arizona Territory. He packed up and moved west to the Arizona Territory, arriving in Phoenix, riding a burro, in September 1879.

Upon his arrival in town he was hired as a printer at the Phoenix Herald. By late 1880, O’Neill became bored with this position and sought to experience the “real west” in the rowdy boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona. There, O’Neill took the opportunity to experience the local saloons, before taking a reporting job with the Tombstone Epitaph.

It was in Tombstone where William acquired the nickname “Buckey.” The card game Faro was popular in the Old West and William gambled often at the game. From Faro came the phrase, “bucking the tiger” or playing against the odds. William was well known for doing this. As a result, he was known by the nickname, “Buckey.”

His time in Tombstone was during the days when Wyatt Earp and his brothers provided law enforcement for the town, and the Epitaph was a pro-Earp newspaper.  It may well have been Buckey who reported on the shootout we know today as the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.”

In early 1882, Buckey was back in Phoenix, working as a deputy to Marshal Henry Garfias. Several weeks later, O’Neill moved to Prescott, Arizona, his home for the next fifteen years. There he rapidly progressed in his journalistic career. Starting as a court reporter, he soon founded his own newspaper, Hoof and Horn, a paper for the livestock industry.

He became the editor of the Arizona Miner weekly newspaper in 1884 to February 1885. He also became captain of the Prescott Grays in 1886, the local unit of the Arizona Militia.

On April 27, 1886, he married Pauline Schindler. They had a son, but he died shortly after his birth. In 1888, while serving as a Yavapai County, Arizona judge, he was elected county sheriff. After his term was up, O’Neill was elected unanimously as mayor of Prescott.

In 1898, war broke out between the United States and Spain. Buckey joined the military and enlisted in the “Rough Riders.” The ”Rough Riders” was a nickname given to the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, one of three regiments raised in 1898 for the Spanish-American War and the only one to see combat.

In 1898, war broke out between the United States and Spain. Buckey joined the military and enlisted in the “Rough Riders.” The ”Rough Riders” was a nickname given to the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, one of three regiments raised in 1898 for the Spanish-American War and the only one to see combat.

The first regimental commander was Colonel Leonard Wood. His second in command was former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and future U.S. President, Lt. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.

The original recruitment plan called for the regiment to be composed of frontiersmen from the Indian Territory, the New Mexico Territory, the Arizona Territory, and the Oklahoma Territory. However, after Roosevelt joined the ranks, it also attracted a unique mixture of Ivy League athletes, Texas Rangers, African Americans and Native Americans. Buckey was appointed Captain of Troop A. Despite being a cavalry regiment, they ended up fighting in Cuba as infantry, since their horses were not sent there with them.

Photograph of Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.
Lt. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Rough Riders

The Battle of Juan Hill
On July 1, 1898, at about 10:00 AM, the Rough Riders were stationed below Kettle Hill, near Santiago, Cuba. The Spanish Army was on top of the hill and poured heavy rifle fire down on the Americans. Although this battle occurred on Kettle Hill it is commonly known as the Battle of San Juan Hill. It was during the battle that Captain Buckey O’Neill was killed in action.

Theodore Roosevelt described the Captain’s death as follows: “As O’Neill moved to and fro, his men begged him to lie down, and one of the sergeants said, ‘Captain, a bullet is sure to hit you.’

O’Neill took a cigarette out of his mouth and blowing out a cloud of smoke, laughed and said, ‘Sergeant, the Spanish bullet isn’t made that will kill me.’ Later as he turned on his heel a bullet struck him in the mouth and came out at the back of his head; so that even before he fell his wild and gallant soul had gone out into the darkness.”

Before the fighting was over, Buckey’s men buried him on the slope of nearby San Juan Hill. After the war, his family requested help from the War Department to find and recover his body. The body was exhumed and returned to the United States. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia.

The epitaph on Buckey’s gravestone reads, “Who would not die for a new star on the flag?” (Buckey was a longtime advocate of statehood for Arizona). That star was received on February 12, 1912, when Arizona became a state. It is speculated that, had he not been killed, Buckey likely would have become Arizona’s first governor.

On July 3, 1907, a monument depicting Buckey on horseback was dedicated in the courthouse square of Prescott, Arizona. Designed by sculptor Solon Borglum, it is dedicated to Buckey and the other Rough Riders. Seven thousand people gathered to witness the unveiling.

Theodore Roosevelt said of Buckey, “He was a wild, reckless fellow, soft spoken, and of dauntless courage and boundless ambition; he was stanchly loyal to his friends, and cared for his men in every way.”

Please remember to commemorate U.S. veterans of all nationalities on Veterans Day, November 11.  They deserve our gratitude, honor and respect.  Recognize them with a “Thank you for your service.”

Find this column and others from the November 2023 issue here!

Picture of J. Michael Finn

J. Michael Finn

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also past Chairman and Life Member of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected]

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