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Wednesday, Dec 19, 2018
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Of War And Romance: Love Story Part Of History Exhibit

TAMPA - When Martha Leiman brought a cake to Army Sgt. Roland Wilson, encamped at Tampa Heights, Cupid tagged along. It was the spring of 1898, and by the time Wilson left for Cuba and the Spanish-American War, love was in full bloom. He called her his "dear little sweetheart" in one letter and, in another, told of the grisly Battle of San Juan Hill, when "three men was killed at my side." She passed along the news from Tampa and sent him love poems. He survived the war and they married in 1901. The two became prominent Hyde Park residents and owners of Tampa Box Co., which manufactured cedar cigar boxes. He died in 1952; she lived another two decades.
Their romance is part of the "War Stories" exhibit planned for the Tampa Bay History Center, scheduled to open in December. The $52 million building will tell the story of the Tampa Bay area from the original inhabitants 12,000 years ago through the Spanish exploration, U.S. acquisition, the arrival of Henry Plant's railroad and the cityscapes of today. "War Stories" will explore themes such as departing and returning, combat and down time, fear and civil defense, from the Seminole Wars through the Civil War, the World Wars and Cold War through Iraq. Battle gear, uniforms, letters, photographs, pipe stems and shells from early Fort Brooke and a cannonball from a Union shelling during the Civil War are among the artifacts that illustrate the stories. The center will feature letters between Roland and Martha, along with Roland's diary and his blue wool tunic with white infantry sergeant stripes and his lighter blue uniform pants. He was a diminutive man, probably 5-foot-2, says Rodney Kite-Powell, curator for the history center. "He was a character - must have been," says Mary Virginia Wilson, the widow of his grandson, Roland Wilson III. Mary Virginia didn't know him, but she did know her grandmother-in-law. "She was rough and tough," says Mary Virginia. "She was a big German lady, and very strong." She almost reached her goal of living to 100; she died at 99. Mary Virginia and her husband discovered the letters when they lived in the family home, the historical Leiman-Wilson house in Hyde Park. Roland III died seven years ago, and Mary Virginia moved from the home, finding more items when she was packing. She donated them to the history center in February. "It's really a great way for us to talk about the war," Kite-Powell says. In a letter dated July 17, 1898, the day Spanish troops in Santiago surrendered, Wilson describes some of the action as the Americans overtook the forts on the heights surrounding the city. "On July 1st, we had a very hard fight near this place and killed, wounded and captured every Spaniard in the forts. They were entrenched and had stone forts, etc. We had lots of men killed but won the fight without a retreat." He hoped that Santiago would surrender that day. "I am very glad to know it is about all over for I know just how bullets whistle." In a July 26 letter to Roland, Martha wrote, "I hope you are still enjoying good health, and hope will not get that dreadful yellow fever. ... This town has been quite excited, owing to the reports in the newspaper, stating that there was yellow fever here. Today everything is just the same as ever, all matters concerning the same have been quieted." Though Mary Virginia describes Martha as "rough and tough," the woman showed a tender heart for her true love. She penned a poem to him while he was away. "What a world of joy was mine/ On that April day so fine./ When I met this man so true/ In the soldier dress of blue," it reads in part. "Yes, I love my only beau./ And it pleases me to know/ That the giving of a cake/ could his heart a captive make."

Reporter Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 259-7609 or [email protected]

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