LIMA — Peter McCown was among about 200 people — “mostly members of the Progressive Party,” according to the Lima Daily News — waiting at the Pennsylvania Railroad depot on Oct. 21, 1912, for the train carrying their standard bearer, former President Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt, who was seeking a return to the White House in 1912, did not stop to stump in Lima that day. Wounded “by a maniac” in Milwaukee nine days earlier, although he famously delivered a lengthy speech despite the bullet lodged in his chest, Roosevelt was headed for his home in Oyster Bay, New York, to recuperate.
“Capt. Peter McCown, who went up San Juan Hill in Cuba with Col. Roosevelt during the battle of Santiago, was at the station and sent a note to the colonel by one of the colored porters aboard the train,” the News noted.
McCown, who received the nation’s second-highest military award for bravery while fighting alongside Roosevelt during the battle of Santiago, also rode with the “buffalo soldiers” on the western Plains and served in Philippines during a long career in the Army. For four decades after he retired from the Army in 1910, Lima’s newspaper s unfailingly referred to him as “Capt. McCown,” and Capt. McCown, just as unfailing, volunteered his services whenever it looked like war.
On May 8, 1942, during World War II, as he approached his 80th birthday, McCown received the Distinguished Service Cross he’d earned for that long-ago battle in Cuba. He took the opportunity to visit the Army recruiter in the Lima Post Office to enlist. “He was turned down quickly because of his age …,” the News reported, adding that “he is a very active man and very much would like to get into action again.”
McCown was born in Detroit on Nov. 16, 1864, to Kentucky natives Henry McCown and Anna Taylor McCown. His father, a cabinetmaker, made coffins for the Union Army during the Civil War. The McCown family, which also included two other sons and two daughters, moved to Lima around 1865.
On May 1, 1929, a 67-year-old McCown reminisced about boyhood visits to the circus. On one occasion in 1875, he wrote in a letter to the News, “Several of us boys beat our way over to Delphos on the Pennsylvania railroad. Carried water for the elephants to get in the big tent, and then walked back to Lima.” Several years later, McCown remembered, he and another boy skipped school and made their way to Wapakoneta to see the circus. “I distinctly remember a colored bareback rider, the only one I ever saw,” he wrote.
On Dec. 4, 1885, McCown enlisted in the Army as part of “the famous colored regiment, the 10th U.S. Cavalry,” according to the News. “Stationed at many points throughout the West, McCown survived many skirmishes with the Indians before being transferred to Cuba and later to the Philippine Islands. While in the West, McCown had the privilege of seeing Geronimo after he had surrendered to the government,” the News noted in a story on April 9, 1940, adding that “among the officers under whom the veteran served was General John J. Pershing, at that time a lieutenant stationed with the territorial fighters.” Pershing would lead U.S. forces during World War I.
Working for Pershing was a domestic servant named Mary B. Jones. McCown and Jones married May 27, 1897, in Fort Custer, Montana. They would remain together for more than 50 years.
In April 1898 the United States went to war with Spain. McCown and the 10th Cavalry were with Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, on July 1, 1898, before the seaport of Santiago, Cuba, attempting to force a Spanish fleet out of the harbor.
McCown would later remember the chaotic battle. “Our formation was scattered,” McCown told the News on Jan. 6, 1919, the day Roosevelt died. “Men from different regiments (were) strung along the hill for quite a distance. We had been firing back and forth at the Spaniards for about half an hour, in the thick of the fight, when formation and order was forgotten in the frenzy of battle. Suddenly the firing ceased and many a brave soldier had fallen in those few minutes.”
On April 19, 1899, McCown was granted the Certificate of Merit “for conspicuous gallantry in Santiago, Cuba, July 1, 1898, while serving with Troop H, 10th United States Cavalry.” In October 1931, McCown was presented with the Distinguished Service Medal to replace the certificate he received for his actions at the Battle of Santiago. The medal, in turn, was replaced by the Distinguished Service Cross in 1942.
Following the short Spanish-American War, McCown was sent to the Philippines, which the U.S. wrested from Spain and where an insurrection had broken out early in 1899. “When McKinley was shot (Sept. 14, 1901) I had just returned from the Philippine Islands and went to Washington,” McCown told the News. “President Roosevelt then re-commissioned me first lieutenant and I was ordered back to the islands. It was during my visit to the White House then that Roosevelt said to me, ‘I cannot shut the door of hope on you because you are a colored man. You are now a commissioned officer and I hope that you officers will take this opportunity and help your race to make good!’”
McCown would have an abiding affection for Roosevelt. “I fought for him in Cuba,” he told the News when Roosevelt died in 1919, and I was going to vote for him in 1920, because I believe he would have been nominated for the presidential chair.”
In 1910, McCown, who by then had attained the rank of captain, was recalled from the Philippines and sent to Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont. “Finding the climate ‘chilly’ after many years of semitropical environment, McCown retired and returned to Lima,” the News reported. McCown and his wife moved into a home at 1236 Oakland Parkway.
McCown may have settled in, but he hadn’t settled down. He remained active in the Spanish-American War veterans group, the Masons and Republican politics. And, whenever it looked as if the United States might be involved in an armed conflict, he hurried to volunteer.
“Captain Peter McCown, retired, who saw service with the Tenth United States Cavalry in Indian wars, who fought up San Juan Hill with Roosevelt and later served in the Philippines, yesterday told the war department that he is ready to re-enter the service,” Lima’s Republican-Gazette reported May 12, 1914, during troubles along the Mexican border.
During U.S. involvement in World War I, he was appointed as a special officer. When “21 colored lads” left for Toledo on the Ohio Electric as Army volunteers, McCown was there to see them off. McCown “gave a brief talk to the boys, and asked them to do their duty in every sense of the word,” the News wrote on Nov. 7, 1917.
And, when Secret Service officers and local police “swooped down” on a dance at McBeth Park and ordered 21 “colored boys” who couldn’t produce their Selective Service classification cards to produce them at police headquarters the next day, McCown was there and “patriotically advised them to comply with the wishes of the officers.”
On July 27, 1950, McCown, in failing health entered St. Rita’s Hospital. He died there on Aug. 15, 1970. The News reported his death under the headline “Capt. McCown, Hero of Santiago, Dies at 85.” His wife, Mary, died in 1951.
“War is war and Capt. McCown performed his duty with valor,” the News wrote on Aug. 17, 1970. “Lima will miss him, but Lima is proud to have had him in her midst. His country has lost a good soldier, and his city has lost a good citizen.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected]