Meet William H Thompkins, a remarkable individual who exemplified courage and selflessness during the Spanish-American War. Born in Paterson, New Jersey, Thompkins served as a member of the Buffalo Soldiers, the African American 10th Cavalry. His actions during a daring rescue mission earned him the prestigious Medal of Honor and cemented his place in history. This article delves into Thompkins’s life and heroic exploits, shedding light on his remarkable journey during the Spanish-American War.

Early Life and Military Service

Born on October 3, 1872, Thompkins grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and later enlisted in the U.S. Army in his birthplace, Paterson. He became a member of Troop M of the 10th Cavalry, known as the Buffalo Soldiers, an esteemed unit renowned for their bravery and resilience.

During the Spanish-American War, the U.S. military collaborated with Cuban revolutionaries to combat Spanish forces in Cuba. The mission was to smuggle guns, supplies, and Cuban soldiers to aid the revolutionaries in their quest for independence. Thompkins found himself in the midst of this conflict, serving with valor and determination alongside his fellow soldiers.

The Perilous Expedition and Heroic Rescue

In June 1898, an ambitious expedition was organized to provide support to Cuban revolutionaries. This included the gunboat USS Peoria, the steamship Fanita, and the U.S. Army Transport Florida, which set sail from Key West, Florida.

However, they encountered numerous challenges as the expedition approached the Cuban coast near Tayabacoa on June 30. The shoreline and outpost initially appeared abandoned, giving the impression that the landing would proceed smoothly. A small landing party consisting of American and Cuban troops aboard the USS Peoria was dispatched to conduct reconnaissance on the supposed abandoned outpost.

USS Peoria, a converted steel gunboat, moored at the Boston Navy Yard, Charlestown, Massachusetts, on 19 February 1901. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

To their shock and dismay, as the whaleboats landed on the sandy shore, they were suddenly ambushed by a well-entrenched Spanish force. Dozens of Spanish soldiers, along with artillery, unleashed a relentless storm of rifle and artillery fire upon the unsuspecting landing party. The attack was swift and devastating.

The boats carrying the American and Cuban troops were destroyed in the chaos, leaving the surviving soldiers stranded and wounded on the hostile Cuban shoreline. The situation became dire as the Spanish forces continued their relentless assault, making it nearly impossible for the stranded troops to escape or receive immediate assistance.

Over several hours, the Spanish defense repulsed four attempts by American forces to rescue their stranded comrades. The ferocity of the Spanish soldiers and their well-fortified positions made it incredibly dangerous and challenging. Despite the failed rescue attempts, the determination to save their fellow soldiers did not waver.