A Colored Hero in the Navy

History records the Negro as the first man to fall in three wars of America–Crispus Attacks in the Boston massacre, March 5, 1770; an unknown Negro in Baltimore when the Federal troops were mobbed in that city en route to the front, and Elijah B. Tunnell, of Accomac county, Virginia, who fell simultaneously with or a second before Ensign Bagley, of the torpedo boat Winslow, in the harbor of Cardenas May 11, 1898, in the Spanish-American war.

Elijah B. Tunnell was employed as cabin cook on the Winslow. The boat, under a severe fire from masked batteries of the Spanish on shore, was disabled. The Wilmington came to her rescue, the enemy meanwhile still pouring on a heavy fire. It was difficult to get the “line” fastened so that the Winslow could be towed off out of range of the Spanish guns. Realizing the danger the boat and crew were in, and anxious to be of service, Tunnell left his regular work and went on deck to assist in “making fast” the two boats, and while thus engaged a shell came, which, bursting over the group of workers, killed him and three others. It has been stated in newspaper reports of this incident that it was an ill-aimed shell of one of the American boats that killed Tunnell and Bagley. Tunnell was taken on board the Wilmington with both legs blown off, and fearfully mutilated. Turning to those about him he asked, “Did we win in the fight boys?” The reply was, “Yes.”

He said, “Then I die happy.” While others fell at the post of duty it may be said of this brave Negro that he fell while doing more than his duty. He might have kept out of harm’s way if he had desired, but seeing the situation he rushed forward to relieve it as best he could, and died a “volunteer” in service, doing what others ought to have done. All honor to the memory of Elijah B. Tunnell, who, if not the first, certainly simultaneous with the first, martyr of the Spanish-American war. While our white fellow-citizens justly herald the fame of Ensign Bagley, who was known to the author from his youth, let our colored patriots proclaim the heroism of Tunnell of Accomac. While not ranking as an official in the navy, yet he was brave, he was faithful and we may inscribe over his grave that “he died doing what he could for his country.”

War between the United States and Spain began April 21, 1898. Actual hostilities ended August 12, 1898, by the signing of the protocol by the Secretary of State of the United States for the United States and M. Cambon, the French Ambassador at Washington, acting for Spain.

The war lasted 114 days. The Americans were victorious in every regular engagement. In the three-days battle around Santiago, the Americans lost 22 officers and 208 men killed, and 81 officers and 1,203 men wounded, and 79 missing. The Spanish loss as best estimated was near 1,600 officers and men killed and wounded.

Santiago was surrendered July 17, 1898, with something over 22,000 troops.

General Shatter estimates in his report the American forces as numbering 16,072 with 815 officers.

Johnson, Edward A. History of Negro Soldiers in the Spanish-American War, and other items of Interest. 1899.

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