Memories of the Spanish-American War have all but faded into history — which isn’t surprising. It wasn’t much of a war; it only lasted 113 days and the Spanish lost four overseas possessions after ruling them more than 300 years.
Idaho sent troops, and so did all six of its American neighbors — Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Utah and Nevada. Nearly all served in the Philippines and Cuba. Canada was sympathetic to the U.S. side though some Canadian shipping ran American blockades of Spanish ports.
What did the state militias do in the war?
One thing they didn’t do was race up San Juan Hill in Cuba with Teddy Roosevelt.
That deadly honor went to the Rough Riders — part of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry regiment recruited by Roosevelt and composed of cowboys, miners, law-enforcement officials, college athletes and others. With them were the African-American Buffalo Soldiers of the 8th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry, accompanied by a heroic unit armed with four .30-caliber 10-barrell Gatling guns giving devastating fire support.
A young 1st Lieutenant named John J. “Black Jack” Pershing — who later became a five-star general — witnessed the action:
“The entire command moved forward as coolly as though the buzzing of bullets was the humming of bees. White regiments, black regiments, regulars and Rough Riders (volunteers), representing the young manhood of the North and the South, fought shoulder to shoulder, unmindful of race or color, unmindful of whether commanded by ex-Confederate or not, and mindful of only their common duty as Americans.”
In both Cuba and the Philippines, there was civil unrest to force the Spanish out.
Watching from the sidelines, Americans and President McKinley preferred diplomacy and peace to war with Spain, though sympathizing with locals denied independence.
American newspaper moguls including Hearst and Pulitzer fueled the gathering storm with sensational headlines, and public sympathy started shifting to driving the Spanish out.
Then on Feb. 15, 1898, an explosion on the battleship USS Maine anchored in Havana Harbor to defend American citizens and interests in Cuba killed 260 sailors and sank the ship. The Spanish were quickly blamed.
Modern scholarship believes that charge was false, and that the sinking was due to an onboard explosion caused by a coal fire that ignited the magazines.
Headlines screamed “Remember the Maine!” Diplomatic negotiations went nowhere and on April 21, Spain severed diplomatic relations with the United States. The U.S. Navy quickly set up blockades, and days later Congress declared war on Spain.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Pacific, Commodore George Dewey’s squadron of warships steamed into Manila Bay, wiping out the Spanish fleet within hours as American ground forces captured Manila.
Then the Americans made a diplomatic blunder that soon would cost lives. After capturing Manila, the Americans made the Filipinos furious by not allowing their forces to enter the city and share the glory — setting the stage for the deadly Philippine Insurrection that immediately followed.
That was the caldron facing American forces — including thousands from Idaho and its neighbors.
The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1898 ending the war with Spain. But the real fighting that would smolder for years was the Philippine Insurrection. The Filipinos were hoping for independence, but instead were annexed after the U.S. paid Spain $20 million.
Also known as the Philippine-American War, the Philippine Insurrection was a deadly conflict involving guerilla warfare, martial law, heavy casualties, and atrocities committed by both sides.
Independence waited until 1946.
American casualties were 4,234, with 6,165 killed — Idaho losing 34.
Filipinos suffered 16,000 killed, but civilian deaths were worse. From 250,000 to one million died mostly from famine and disease — 200,000 from cholera alone.
When the war with Spain broke out, Congress rallied the country to gather troops. Three cavalry regiments were authorized — the First, Second and Third U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiments. Col. Theodore Roosevelt commanded the First Regiment; Judge Jay L. Torrey of Wyoming the Second Regiment, and the Third commanded by Col. Melvyn Grimsby and that would be known as “Grimsby’s Cowboys.”
Grimsby was ordered to organize his regiment into 12 troops, with five coming from South Dakota, four from Montana, two from North Dakota and one from Nebraska. They recruited nearly 1,000 men within three weeks.
The New York Herald described Grimsby’s Cowboys as “perhaps not as pretty as Roosevelt’s … (but) they are big, bronzed fellows, every one born a horseman and a dead shot, every one used to exposure and hardened.”
They never got to prove any of it.
While Teddy’s famous Rough Riders were riding into glory in Cuba, Grimsby’s Cowboys were anguishing in their training camp at Camp Thomas at Chickamauga, Ga., where they found poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding and no weapons, uniforms, saddles or bridles.
One report said, “About 20 of Grimsby’s cowboys died of typhoid fever, dysentery, spinal meningitis, an accidental gunshot wound and other causes while at Camp Thomas or later from diseases contracted at the camp.”
They never saw a shot fired in anger.
No glory for the 1st Nevada Volunteer Infantry either. After enlisting in July, 13 officers and 277 enlisted men were mustered out before the end of October. One enlisted man deserted.
The 1,020-man 2nd Oregon Volunteer Infantry Regiment got their wish — they were sent to the Philippines and were the first Oregon state militia unit to fight on foreign soil.
They were quickly embroiled in fierce combat north of Manila in the same area as Idaho troops. Sixteen Oregonians were killed or died of wounds and 48 from other causes. Eighty-eight were wounded.
They returned home in August 1898 via Japan and received a hero’s welcome in San Francisco and another by an enthusiastic Portland crowd at Multnomah Field. Then they were mustered out.
Utah sent some 800 troops to serve in the Philippines and Cuba. Most were national guardsmen who resigned and signed up with federal units to circumvent laws prohibiting guard units from serving overseas.
Those Utah troops were assigned to the Utah Light Artillery, and Utah Cavalry. Two Afro-American regiments stationed in Utah — the 24th Infantry and the 9th Cavalry — fought heroically in Cuba.
The Utah units who were battling in the Philippines headed home on June 24, 1899, after fighting in more than 100 engagements. Fifteen men were killed by enemy action or disease. Another 14 were wounded.
In May 1898, the First Washington Volunteer Infantry Regiment trained at Camp Rogers south of Tacoma. Gov. John P. Rogers (1897-1901) appointed U.S. Army 1st Lt. John H. Wholly, professor of military science at the University of Washington, as the regimental commander and quickly promoted him to colonel.
When the 1,126 men of the First Washington arrived in the Philippines, the Spanish were already on their way home. For the next six months, the Washington volunteers helped garrison Manila and battle Filipino insurgents. Then they came home to a three-day celebration in their honor in Seattle.
Col. Wholley and 239 other Washington troops stayed in the Philippines to pursue private interest or join other units.
The Washington regiment had lost 129 killed and wounded, including 14 downed by disease and accident.
Following behind the 1st Idaho Volunteer Infantry Regiment and the 18th U.S. Infantry Regiment, the Wyoming troops entered the fray but never saw action. They raised the U.S. flag over Luneta Barracks in Manila, previously occupied by the 73rd Regiment of Spanish Infantry, and spent most of their time organizing a regimental band and a baseball team, while enjoying Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Everything changed in February, when they suffered casualties while out on dangerous patrols against the Filipino insurgents.
By the end of July, the Wyoming troops were aboard a troopship headed stateside.
The 1st Wyoming lost 90 men — three killed in action, 12 dying from disease, and another 75 discharged due to disabling wounds, illnesses and injuries.
Throughout the Philippine Campaign, more Americans died from disease and illness caused by poor sanitation and diet, inadequate medical care, and from numerous tropical diseases, than were killed by the enemy.
Four years after U.S. Commodore George Dewey sailed his warships into Manila on May 1, 1898, and wiped out the Spanish fleet, forcing a quick surrender, the United States fully took over the Philippines.
Idaho and its neighbors helped make it happen.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The future president…
Teddy Roosevelt’s most heroic moment in the Spanish-American War was charging up San Juan Hill with his Rough Riders — the war’s most decisive battle. (Next July 1 will be the 120th anniversary.) Spain surrendered sixteen days later after defeating the Spanish Navy at Santiago and Manila. It was really San Juan Heights, and there were two hills — San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill. Teddy was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for his bravery.
Before the war…
Two years before the Spanish-American War, President Grover Cleveland proclaimed U.S. neutrality in the Cuban Insurrection. Widespread violence erupted when the Cubans were forced to relocate to central locations under Spanish military jurisdiction and the entire island was placed under martial law. American sympathy was with the Cubans, and Congress overwhelmingly passed the joint John T. Morgan/Donald Cameron resolution recognizing Cuban belligerency and called for Cuban independence.
On July 25, 1898 U.S. forces invaded Puerto Rico to push the Spanish out. There was little resistance and only seven deaths, securing the island by mid-August. (U.S. commander was General Nelson A. Miles who captured Nez Perce Chief Joseph in 1877.) Five months later, the 1898 Treaty of Paris approved the cession of Puerto Rico to the U.S.
On June 20, 1898, the cruiser USS Charleston sailed into Guam, accompanied by three transport ships, one of them — the Australia — with two companies of Oregon volunteers aboard. They captured the Spanish-held island without a fight, demanded immediate surrender from the Spanish governor who didn’t know there was a war on, took the Spaniards as prisoners-of-war and then paroled them, chatted with a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle, restocked the Charleston’s coal supply, raised the American flag, played the Star Spangled Banner, appointed local merchant Francisco Portusach temporary governor, said goodbye to the natives and sailed off to Manila to join Commodore Dewey’s fleet.
Aboard the Morgan City to Manila…
“As the weather grew warmer the men longed for a bath, but the little shower baths proved inadequate. Then there was no salt water soap to be had for washing clothes, and as a result the men became infected with myriads of “soldiers’ friends” (lice) from which there was no relief. However, they accepted the situation philosophically, even cheerfully, and one man in particular created an immense amount of amusement. He would select two big gray-backs designated as Miles and Blanco, put an army at the back of each, and then enjoy a bird’s eye view of the battle, for they would actually attack each other with all the hatred of Yankees and Spaniards.”
— Lt. George E. Steunenberg, brother of Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg, later assassinated
“When a peace treaty was signed in Paris in December, Spain lost its last colonies in the New World. The United States took the Philippines, Puerto Rico and the Pacific island of Guam, and achieved worldwide recognition as a great power. Cuba gained independence and Theodore Roosevelt earned a hero’s reputation.”
— History Today
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