By Bill Loomis / Special to The Detroit News
The Spanish-American War was the shortest war in U.S. history, a mere 10 months from declaration to surrender in 1898. It pitted the up-and-coming international power, the United States, against a faded Spanish empire, which after nearly 400 years saw its colonies break free until it was down to Cuba, the Philippines, and the tiny island of Guam.
Under President William McKinley the U.S. believed it held a moral duty to help Cuba and free it from the cruel Spanish colonizer. Fighting between Cuban insurgents and the Spanish army had gone on for decades. Spain’s increasing brutality toward Cubans was fueling fires of outrage in U.S. newspapers as they reported tens of thousands of Cubans starving and dying of disease, only 90 miles from the U.S. coast. Something had to be done.
Men across Michigan were among the first to volunteer and head to war. In Detroit, like other cities across the U.S., mass meetings were held to demand action. Patriotism was in overdrive. At a March 20, 1898, rally in Detroit, the speaker’s platform was covered in a tent and canopy made from a giant American flag with American and Cuba Libre (Free Cuba) flags lining the sides of the auditorium. Rousing marches from local brass bands and thunderous applause encouraged fiery speeches from clergy, business leaders and politicians.
Michigan Gov. Hazen Pingree proposed the U.S. buy Cuba from the Spanish. (He suggested $500 million.) Detroit Mayor William C. Maybury took the podium to what was described by the Detroit Free Press as deafening cheers.
“My friends … this war in Cuba is war for those who dare not fight the fathers, husbands and brothers but rather burn the homes of defenseless women and children, poison the wells from which they draw water, and burn the fields that give them their nourishment. We should be the first of this country to say that kind of war has gone far enough and must end! (Prolonged cheers.) When we look at [Spanish] orders for starvation and annihilation, I say it should be stopped now and forever.”
“Those on the platform arose and in an instant every man, woman, and child was on his or her feet waving tiny banners or hats and canes in the air. The enthusiasm reached fever heat as the band ran from ‘Yankee Doodle’ to ‘Dixie’ the crowd went wild.”
The Maine is sunk and war declared
Spain continually accused the U.S. and Cuban insurgents living in New York of inciting bloodshed. In mid-January 1898 a violent riot in Havana prompted McKinley to send the USS Maine, one of the fleet’s new battleships, to Cuba to provide an escape to Americans living there. However, Spain saw it as a provocative act.
On the night of Feb. 15, the Maine famously exploded and 266 U.S. sailors lost their lives. It was and is unclear to this day exactly what caused the ship to explode; at the time a Spanish mine or torpedo was suspected but today experts tend to believe an engine blew up. No matter the cause, it was enough for the Americans and war was made official on April 21, 1898. It would be fought in two places 10,000 miles from each other: the Philippines and Cuba, once called the “Pearl of the Antilles.”
Michigan converted its National Guard regiments, first established for the Civil War, into volunteer regiments: the Michigan 31st, 32nd, 33rd, 34th and 35th. The 33rd and 34th were the only ones to see action. Each regiment was divided into three battalions, and then subdivided into companies A through M, each containing about 80 men.
Enormous crowds described as reaching 100,000 people mobbed downtown Detroit for the send-off. People were held back by horse-mounted police as young volunteers in new uniforms marched down Randolph to Jefferson, and then up Woodward. About 700 Detroiters were mustered into the 34th Regiment, Companies A through H. Families and friends called out to the volunteers as they marched by and marching bands played “The Girl I Left Behind Me.”
“It was a sight never to be forgotten,” described the Detroit Free Press on April 27, 1898. “From business windows [we] looked down on a surging sea of people to which there flowed as between living banks a steady current of blue, the men of the Michigan National Guard. … Rarely in the memory of recent generations has there appeared such an inspiring spectacle as was presented by these soldiers and the crowd that bid them God-speed. Cheer upon cheer arose from the multitudes until the air was thunderous with shouting, and the music of the bands was drowned in universal applause.”
If nothing else is remembered about the Spanish American War it is the battle cry, “Remember the Maine!” On that day in 1898 the banner “Remember the Maine!” was everywhere in Detroit. There was a second part to the phrase that is now forgotten: “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!”
Michigan recruits at Camp Eaton
Days after war was declared the U.S. Army and Gov. Pingree selected Island Lake near Brighton for its regimental camp, dubbed Camp Eaton; when full, Camp Eaton held more than 4,000 raw recruits.
All arrived by trains from different regions and cities of Michigan, from the Upper Peninsula to Detroit, each train festooned with a “Remember the Maine” banner. One battalion of the 31st regiment sported new blankets with bouquets of flowers pinned to them by the ladies of their town. The new soldiers lived eight to a tent, drilled daily and learned sentry duty; reveille came at 5:30 a.m. and taps sounded at 10:30 p.m. Visitors, especially fretting mothers and fathers, came to check on their sons; many demanded to retrieve them or insisted that their son get better accommodations, which were respectfully ignored.
The new soldiers were paid $1.25 per month with 75 cents for “sustenance.” For entertainment, boxing matches were held as well as band concerts provided by Detroit’s 32nd infantry. The recruits were allowed to visit Brighton on Saturday night until 25 were arrested for drunkenness by the Brighton police and leaders ended that activity.
Governor Pingree was a true friend of these young soldiers both politically and personally, buying better boots and uniforms for his boys. He was a regular visitor on his white horse and followed them even as they shipped to other parts of the U.S.
The army’s plan was to send the new recruits to southern camps, such as Chickamauga Park, Ga., or Tampa Bay, Fla., to acclimate the northern recruits before sending them into the tropical Cuban hillsides.
On their last day before shipping out, 1st Sergeant William Cooper from the 31st Regiment, Company A, of Ann Arbor, recorded his experiences for the local paper, the Ann Arbor Argus Democrat:
“May 15th came and with it thousands of friends of the regiment. They came by train loads, by vehicles of every description, some came on wheels, some walked and all brought their lunch baskets with them, and soon the beautiful grounds were dotted with family groups who were lunching together there perhaps for the last time. … Sweethearts came for a last kiss and a look that meant everything. The day wore away and the crowd dispersed.”
At midnight their serious work began as Cooper and the others quietly boarded the trains for Chickamauga Park. He recalled only one figure remained to bid them goodbye, an old Civil War veteran who shook every young man’s hand in Company A as he wiped away tears. As Cooper observed ominously, “He had been through it all himself for four years, and he — well, he knew.”
The trains of Michigan soldiers chugged through Ohio greeted by cheers, flag-waving children, and marching bands at nearly every station, as they were the first regiment to pass through the state. Cooper reported:
“In Cincinnati our reception was tumultuous. Thousands of people crowded around our trains and during the time that we remained there, between 5 and 6 p.m., the bells and whistles of hundreds of factories, locomotives and steamboats kept up a continual din. It was a deafening welcome.”
The 31st camped at Camp Thomas, Chicamauga Park, where they encountered a serious problem with typhoid fever. They would be sent to Cuba after the fighting to help maintain order on the island. The 32nd Regiment went to Tampa, Fla., and the 35th remained in Island Lake until Sept. 14, when they were sent to Camp Meade in Pennsylvania.
The 33rd and 34th regiments were shipped to Camp Alger, near Falls Church, Va., then on to Tampa where they boarded transport ships the Harvard and Paris, to be sent to Cuba to fight.
The invasion of Cuba
The U.S. forces in Cuba were commanded by William Rufus Shafter, a Michigan man from Galesburg near Kalamazoo. He was a Medal of Honor hero of the Civil War, and after the war he served on the Western frontier during the Indian wars.
In May 1898 he was given the rank of Major General and command over the Fifth Army Corps, containing most of the Army’s regular troops and the volunteer companies like the famous First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, nicknamed by the press as the Rough Riders.
He had some personal handicaps coming into the Cuban campaign. He was not a young man at 63, and he struggled with the tropical climate. His painful gout prevented him from putting his feet in a stirrup, so he oversaw battle action from a ship off the coast; at times soldiers accused him of being a coward. Shafter also weighed more than 300 pounds so looked ridiculous on a horse. Detroiter Brigadier General Henry Duffield, who had command of the Michigan volunteers in Cuba, was interviewed after the war and said an ordinary saddle could not handle Shafter’s bulk, and when he absolutely had to ride he rode with legs sticking out on a small but very stocky horse.
On May 23, Shafter was given orders to move his army from Tampa to Cuba with a force of 17,000. After conferring with Cuban allies, Shafter selected a beach and small village called Daiquiri 14 miles east of Santiago, which was the ultimate prize to capture. The landing was scheduled for June 22. He was supported by Rear Admiral William T. Sampson and the U.S. Navy with battleships that would shell the hills surrounding the beach prior to landing. Above Daquiri was an old Spanish blockhouse defended by Spanish gun placements and bunkered troops.
The Americans, including non-military entities, arrived at Daiquiri with 154 ships. Newspaper and wire service reporters, such as novelist Steven Crane, author of the Civil War classic “Red Badge of Courage,” recorded the events from their own ships.
Coordination was poor; the transport ships were privately owned but leased by the Navy. Owners of the transports refused to endanger their ships by bringing them too close to an iron pier on the beach because the surf was too rough; so, the army took 40 long boats filled with armed soldiers and linked in long strings, then towed them to the shore by steam-powered motor launches.
Boats capsized. Some overloaded with artillery sank. As the long boats bounced in the surf, Sampson began the bombardment of the bluffs and blockhouse above the beach.
The landing took two days. Horses and mules meant to accompany the invasion could not be lowered into the long boats so were simply pushed off the transports to do the best they could to swim to shore. Terrified, they swam blindly in all directions. Buglers on the beach saw the disaster so blew a series of calls such as “Boots and Saddles,” “Stables,” and even “Charge.” Many animals recognized the calls, turned about, and swam desperately to the beach. Despite this many drowned.
However, the landing was considered a success. The Associated Press reported from its own yacht:
“The navy and army cooperated splendidly as the big warships closed in on the shore to pave the way for the approach of the transports … three cheers went up for the navy from 10,000 throats on the troopships and three cheers arose from ship after ship as the troopships moved in. … It was war and it was magnificent.”
Fighting Spaniards … and beach crabs
Fortunately for the Americans, the Spanish did not return fire; to shore up the defenses around Santiago they withdrew from the beach. The Spanish flag was brought down by members of the Rough Riders and soldiers cheered as the Stars and Stripes could be seen.
The companies of the 33rd and 34th Michigan Volunteers arrived five days later and continued to unload until the July 29, led by Detroiter Brigadier General Henry M. Duffield. They immediately dug in along the shore as Duffield hiked inland to meet with Shafter for his orders. The Michigan men set up their tents for the night before heading inland toward Santiago up the notorious trails of thick mud. They learned right away that they were fighting more than the Spanish. At night they came under attack:
One soldier, Clarence Cummings from Detroit, fighting with the Michigan 33rd, Company M, wrote: “The crabs are two feet across and the brutes climb all over a fellow at night. They are harmless but nevertheless truly annoying. It is the constant moving of the crabs at night that gives one the idea that Spaniards are skulking in the bush about to fire.”
Others woke to find crabs in their hair, beards, and even pinching their nose.
The next day they began trudging up trails so narrow two men could not walk together. Thick jungle left them nowhere else to walk and prevented scouts from spotting Spanish troops or snipers. Hourly downpours created brown rivulets flowing down the hillsides as troops slogged through ankle deep sticky mud. Spanish sharpshooters kept them tense.
One soldier reported to the Detroit Free Press, “Lots of teeth were chattering with something besides cold. … The captain declared he’d wallop blazes out of anyone who didn’t hold his jaws together. … We were marching across a ford and I was laughing at a young fellow kissing his girl’s tin-type, when about a thousand bullets came singing among us at once. Lord, you ought to have seen the ducking and dodging! Dozens of men fell down and dozens of others wanted to run away. … Then I saw one of our corporals lost the tip of his finger and began blubbering over it.”
Alongside the Michigan troops were the African American regiments sometimes called the “Buffalo Soldiers.” They were tough regulars of the U.S. 24th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry. A lot of black soldiers fought in the Spanish American War because of their experience fighting Indians in the West and their reputation for courage and endurance. There was also the stereotypical belief that due to their African heritage they would be best suited for the tropical jungles of Cuba.
The regulars didn’t like fighting with the volunteers, not only because of their inexperience, but also because of the rifle issued to volunteers. Called the “trapdoor,” it was a much modified breach loading musket based on a muzzle loading Civil War original. The overwhelming objection to this rifle was that it used a black powder cartridge instead of the more modern smokeless powder. The black powder cartridge left a tell-tale cloud of smoke, easily spotted by Spanish sharpshooters. Also, the smoke cloud required the shooter to wait until the smoke cleared before he could aim and fire again.
The Battle of Aguadores
Duffield returned to his troops with his orders from Shafter. As he described on Sept. 24, 1898, in his final report, he would lead the Michigan 33rd to the bridge at Aguadores, about five miles west of Daiquiri along the railroad by the sea. They would attract the attention of the Spanish to protect the left flank of the main attacking army.
The men were tired and cranky; their food rations didn’t reach them until 1:30 a.m. At 3:30 a.m. 700 men were rousted to board an old ore train which took them to a point one mile east of the Aguadores trestle bridge that spanned the San Juan River. The Spanish held an old fort and stone-lined rifle entrenchments. The plan said they would reach the bridge by daybreak but due to problems with the train they did not assemble until 9:30 a.m.
One soldier from Owosso, Corporal Seth Beers of Company G, 33rd Michigan, described the action:
“We started … in heavy marching order, 100 rounds ammunition, three days ration. … The road is right along the beach and just about a mile this side of the fort we stopped and the adjutant called out ‘Is there a signal man here?’… He took me to General Duffield and then I had to send a message to the battleships. [Signalmen used flags to communicate with ships through a code similar to Morse code. They referred to the method as Wig-wag.]
“There was a high water tank on the track a quarter mile from the fort where the general had his headquarters and I got orders to get on top of that tank and signal to the ships to commence firing. I climbed up there and had just nicely got started when the Spaniards got sight of me and the bullets commenced to sing around my head. They didn’t do a very good job knocking me down with rifles so they turned a three inch rapid fire gun on me and the tank. You should have seen the general and his staff crawl behind rocks. …
“Captain Wilcox wanted to know why I didn’t get down. … I told him I had no orders to do so. He made me get down. … I never expected to get out of it without getting at least one of the bullets in my hide, but I did.”
Disease is merciless
Much more devastating than Spanish bullets was disease. Of the 2,910 Americans who died in the war, 2,565 died from disease compared with 345 who died in combat. Disease stalked the troops while in Cuba but also in the U.S. troop camps. Hundreds caught malaria in Chickamauga and Tampa. At Island Lake Camp, typhoid was a serious problem, but in Cuba it was Yellow Fever.
Many soldiers were brought back to Detroit to convalesce. By September 1898 trains were bringing severely sick soldiers to Michigan Central Depot. Crowds of relatives made the transfer of men difficult as the sick were carried to wagons and transported to hospitals such as Harper, St. Mary’s, Grace, and even Children’s Hospital.
“Many pathetic scenes were witnessed when relatives met their sick soldier boys,” wrote the Detroit Free Press on Sept. 17, 1898.
Duffield succumbed to Yellow Fever and was taken out of Cuba to a hospital in Florida. He survived and arrived back in Detroit but enfeebled and 40 pounds lighter.
By July 17 the Americans and Cuban allies occupied Santiago. This led to the Treaty of Paris and terms which allowed temporary American control of Cuba, and ended Spain’s colonial authority over Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. The defeat to Spain meant the final collapse of the once mighty Spanish empire; the flag of Spain had flown over Cuba for 372 years.
U.S. forces continued to fight in the Philippines but met very stiff resistance. About 11,000 troops spent five years in the Philippines fighting resistance fighters and lost another 4,200 soldiers in those battles.
Although it was war, both sides demonstrated humanity toward the other: Spain’s Admiral Cervera treated the wounds of captured U.S. sailors; hospitals were protected, and there were many acts of generosity and friendliness shown by the American troops to the surrendered Spanish army who awaited transport back to Spain. Prompted by this, 11,000 Spanish soldiers united in expressing a farewell address to General Shafter and gave their congratulations and thanks to the U.S. army:
“You have complied exactly with all the laws and usages of war recognized by the most civilized nations of the world. … You have given honorable burial to dead of the vanquished, you have cured their wounds with great humanity … and lastly to us whose condition was terrible you have given freely of food and your stock of medicines, and you have honored us with distinction and courtesy.”
About the Belle Isle memorial
The beautiful memorial to Spanish-American War veterans located on Detroit’s Belle Isle near Picnic Way and Central Way was installed in 1932 by Wayne County and was refurbished in 1999. It is white granite with a bronze soldier and sailor on either side. The sculptor was Allen George Newman, who was born in New York City in 1875 and died in 1940.
He specialized in outdoor military sculptures and is best known for “The Hiker,” a bronze model on Staten Island in New York, depicting a U.S. Cavalry soldier from the Spanish-American War. It is one of the United States’ most reproduced statues. A local copy of The Hiker is located in Ypsilanti at the Junction of Cross and Washtenaw. It was presented by the men of the 31st Michigan Regiment to commemorate their reunion on May 17, 1940.
About the movie clips
The Spanish-American War was the first U.S. war in which the motion picture camera played a role. These movie clips are part of a presentation at the U.S. Library of Congress that features 68 motion pictures produced between 1898 and 1901 of the Spanish-American War and the subsequent Philippine Revolution. These films were made by the Edison Manufacturing Company and the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company and consist of actual scenes filmed in the U.S., Cuba, and the Philippines, as well as re-enactments of battles and other war-time events.
To see the entire collection go here.
Bill Loomis is the author of the book “Detroit’s Delectable Past,” available throughout the Metro Detroit area, and the forthcoming book “Detroit Food” to be released in January, 2014.