On June 24, 1898, a group of Indian Territory men took part in one of the first battles of the Spanish-American War on a hot tropical day in Cuba. The United States had entered into the war in aid of Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain. President William McKinley commissioned an all-volunteer cavalry unit to send to Cuba. The plan was for this unit to be filled with men from the western territories – Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Indian Territory.

In Muskogee, federal Judge John R. Thomas, Sr. was in charge of recruiting two troops. As a veteran, he took an active interest in this role, and under his guidance saw Troop L and Troop M formed with young men from Indian Territory. They took their oath at the Katy Depot then boarded the train at Muskogee bound for a training camp in San Antonio, Texas. Judge Thomas’s son, Lt. John R. Thomas, Jr., was among these troops.

Once in San Antonio, the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry – its official name – quickly became known as Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Roosevelt had resigned his position as assistant Secretary of the Navy to serve as lieutenant colonel in this regiment.

At the Battle of Las Guasimas, 500 Americans faced a force of 2,000 Spaniards. Skeptics had questioned how these Rough Riders would perform under battle conditions. Also at the battle was the Tenth Calvary, an all-black unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers. The regular cavalry also had a unit present at Las Guasimas.

These three regiments advanced blindly through the thick, steaming Cuban jungle toward the Spanish-held position. The Rough Riders were the first to engage the enemy. Surprised to find themselves closer to the Spanish position than they realized, they took a volley of enemy fire. The first regulars hurried into the battle and were quickly joined by the Tenth Cavalry, advancing on a run.

When his captain was shot, Lieutenant Thomas stepped into his place and fought for an hour before he was wounded. He fell to the ground and then rolled until he reached the gun of a fallen comrade. He continued firing as long as his ammunition held out. Then, delirious from heat, thirst and loss of blood, Thomas was carried three miles by stretcher to the field hospital.

To the credit of their uniform and their flag, the American forces did not give an inch. The Spanish troops were routed and the Rough Riders and Buffalo Soldiers had proven themselves a fighting force to be reckoned with. They had gained the admiration and respect of the soldiers in the First U.S. Regular Cavalry. They would help secure a decisive victory a few days later at the Battle of San Juan Hill.

It was the end of the fight for John Thomas, however. His wound proved severe enough to get him shipped home for recuperation. John’s family had been represented in every war the United States had ever fought and this youngest Thomas had continued the tradition. He was so steeped in service to country that he continued in the military after he recovered from his wound. His Rough Rider gear and uniform can be viewed at the Thomas-Foreman Home in Muskogee.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.

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