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One day in Texas after a long hike through broiling heat and alkali dust, we came at last to our camping-place. Weary officers and men went about their appointed tasks of setting up tentage, attending to the water-supply and sanitation and generally making the place livable. After a brief meal from rattling mess-kits, most of us lay down to get the kinks out of our muscles. One company on a little hill in plain view of the rest of the brigade, was resting quietly under its pup‑tents. Suddenly a Texas twister, one of those little mysterious whirlwinds, came tearing along out of the silent, clear afternoon. It pounced upon the most conspicuous tents, grabbed the canvas and personal covering off the big First Sergeant, lifted them high in the air, and left him lying in the open like a plucked chicken. A thousand pairs of eyes fastened on him. He slowly awoke, squirmed a little and squinted at his coverings swishing about in the heavens. "Well," he said, "Who in the devil started that?" — and rushed threateningly toward the nearest group of soldiers.
p103 The American people, after a sleep of a quarter of a century, woke up one morning in 1898 to find that a twister out of the blue had pitched the battleship Maine to the bottom of Havana Harbor, and tossed us into war. Amazed, we asked, "Who started that?" Amazed and confused we rushed threateningly this way and that. And why the surprise when for three years we'd been shaking angry fists at the Spaniard — when we'd been lying in the path of twisters from a land of twisters. And how completely we'd been lying.
All the while we were provoking Spain to wrath, we were using sugared cut‑throat words to our own people. Well-meaning idealists, thinking to calm our citizens, were really running them into misery. Two years before the twister struck us, Mr. Livingstone in the Congress of our nation, rose and stated: "I do not take much stock in an early war with Spain or England." The same day on the same floor Uncle Joe Cannon said, "I want to say that I do not believe we will have war the coming year, nor the year after. I doubt if there will be any during this century or perhaps the early years of the next century." At the same time in Europe, Czar Nicholas II of Russia showed how arbitration would settle anything; and books and articles were published p104 proving that modern mechanisms would make war result in suicide — in short that war was impossible. Under this dangerous racket of propaganda the only attention paid to our land forces, was to pick at them and tear off little pieces. Any attempt to keep us from slaughtering and distressing our youth needlessly as we'd done in the past, was laughed out of court. When the twister struck us, the army was just the same size it had been twenty‑two years before. Little groups of soldiers were scattered all over the west and on our borders. The overhead of these little posts had become drab routine. The War Department was clogged with thirty years' mold. Its personnel was just sufficient to carry on a peanut-stand administration and supply. There was no thought for expansion or operating the army as a whole. There were no plans, no staffs, no proper maps of Cuba, no set‑up for any respectable force. The army had not been brought together since the Civil War — a third of a century before. No officer in the service had commanded more than a regiment, about 700 men, and few had seen that many together. The soldiers had had no chance to act as a unit, as an organization, as a going concern. Supplies of all sorts were lacking — food, equipment, guns and ammunition, everything. We had not learned a single lesson from a hundred years of horrible p105 disasters of our own making. We showed to the world the greatest unreadiness we'd had since we'd been a nation.
We still persisted in the idea that an able bodied man was a soldier. The President in this belief called out one hundred twenty-five thousand volunteers when there wasn't ammunition enough in the country to let them fight one battle. The people seemed to feel we were going out with brass bands playing to bag the Spaniard. One day in conference, the President turned to the Secretary of War and asked, "How soon can you put an army into Cuba?" Said the Secretary, "I can put 40,000 men there in ten days." Later we found out we couldn't put half that number there in two months.
General Miles, the head of the army, suggested the training of fifty thousand soldiers rather than put in jeopardy a great quantity of untrained men. But the President rejected that expert advice and called out seventy-five thousand more volunteers to be exposed to death in camp. The people were crying "On to Havana!" as they have yelled, On to Richmond, Mexico and Canada. What matter utter extravagance and human life?
The government now had two hundred thousand men on its hands. Where would they put them? O yes, the question of camps. Tampa, New Orleans p106 and Mobile were decided upon. It was found that all but Tampa were unsuitable. After much investigation and delay, Camp Alger in Virginia, and Camp Thomas in Tennessee were selected. They afterwards proved to be far too small. Meanwhile the volunteers were flocking in much as they had done in the Civil War — in a sad state of neglect. Unequipped, untaught, unfed, uncared for, un‑everything, they were all struggling to the front. The little crippled War Department was beset with every kind of request it could not fill. Congressmen who had taken delight in blocking legislation for preparedness were the loudest in crying for guns and vessels to protect their districts. Where were any implements for the crises? Without having any, the President ordered General Miles to take to Havana seventy thousand troops — (troops, mind you — real troops) — when such an irregular mass could have fired little more than one shot, if they had been troops. Then he ordered General Shafter at Tampa to the north coast of Cuba, but it was found there were no transports. Then he ordered twelve thousand troops to Key West, but the place was found unsuitable.
A month and a half passed. Why weren't we getting on? General Miles went to Tampa to see. There he found what you'd expect. Troops were slowly p107 assembling. Why not? One regular regiment had to come clear from Alaska. Supplies were failing. Loading of transports was helter-skelter. Miles reported that the principal part of the regular army was there, but that of the fourteen regiments of volunteers nearly forty per cent were undrilled and in one regiment over three hundred men had never fired a gun. And these were the pick of the untrained men.
Finally most of the regular army and a few volunteers set sail, after a mad unmanaged scramble to get trains, and to go abroad. Supplies were hustled into holds helter-skelter. Most of the volunteers had to be left behind because they were not equipped or trained. But the little seventeen thousand were off. Were they? The navy thought they had sighted the Spanish fleet. The troops out at sea were turned back to the mainland. The presence of the Spanish fleet proved to be a myth. Again they set sail, crowded like galley-slaves into small vessels, with little water, on pine cots, among neighing horses and foul odors. The food made them sick. The embalmed beef by hurried contracts became notorious. The boats moved •seven miles an hour, then four miles, and often not at all. After much suffering they arrived at Daiquiri near Santiago harbor. There the civilian transports refused to land and kept far p108 out. Men were hurt and drowned in getting to shore. Fifty horses swam out to sea and were lost. Fortunately the Spaniards fled inland. If they hadn't, their superior weapons would have torn our foolhardy little force to pieces. One hundred ninety‑six thousand, eight hundred twenty Spanish troops were in Cuba, but we didn't know it. Nor did we know that they were as badly led and cared for as troops could be. By the godsend of their complete lack of resistance, the little seventeen thousand got ashore in five days.
Then came the scrambling action of Las through the brush. The Army was used to this sort of bushwhacking against the Indians. And the Rough Riders, though they'd just received their new Krags the day before the fight, did good work. But the Spaniards fled — and that helped. Then came a delay of a week. Supplies were hard to get from the boats. Troops milled around with little food and ammunition. The artillery wasn't brought forward. What a chance for the Spaniard then! A determined charge of a quarter of his force and the United States troops would have been helpless. But since the Spaniard didn't do anything right, we were saved again. Half the regular army and three volunteer regiments went on to San Juan and El Caney. Although assaulting El Caney was a military blunder, p109 the little force went charging along with useless losses. One volunteer regiment funked the fight. And another, though acting well, had to be sent out of it because its ancient black powder weapons made it an easy target for the smokeless Mauser rifle of the enemy. More useless casualties. The artillery had nothing but black powder too. Every time it belched, it threw up clouds of smoke that could be seen for miles. Still more casualties. The Spaniards had put up barbed wire around their little forts. And we had no wire-cutters. It was a long day's work of slow progress. The Spaniard, like all poor troops, could shoot well as long as his vitals were covered up. But we finally took the two strongholds, with over twelve per cent losses. We had won because the enemy was grossly mismanaged and inefficient. We were badly managed, but we had streaks of efficiency. Therein lay the difference — our salvation. When the siege of Santiago was undertaken, General Shafter's lines were so thin that even poor troops with a little zeal could have punctured them. But the Spaniards for some unknown reason seemed to be more fearful than we were.
Even so it would have been a stand‑off, had it not been for the great victory of our navy in destroying Cervera's fleet. And of course it would destroy the Spanish ships. It had had seven years' building before p110 the war. Under the supervision of Presidents Cleveland and Arthur, we had developed the famous White Squadron. What would the soldier have done without the navy? What would he have done without the complete sloppiness of the Spaniard? One authority shows that the war would have lasted four or five years with more useless slaughter of our own men than we had seen even in the Civil War.
Even so, in only one hundred nine days of war, the volunteers alone lost two hundred eighty-nine killed — but — listen to the but — three thousand eight hundred forty-eight by sickness. Thirteen times as many by disease as by battle. And most of these deaths occurred in our country — before the poor volunteer had had a chance to lift a finger of help.
When the twister caught us, we had the great sum of one hundred seventy-nine army medical officers for a mass of men that swelled to two hundred sixteen thousand in four months. In our sleep there had been no thought that the camp is more deadly than the bullet, that any doctor can't be a sanitary man in the field — that field sanitation is a specialty like eye, ear, nose and throat or abdominal surgery. Doctors can't get that training in a few months. In over-crowded camps in the United States many an otherwise fine medical man made a fizzle of sanitation. Others who did know sanitation were not p111 backed up by the untrained volunteer officers. So our best youth died like flies and by flies. And the suffering of those who did not die was appalling torture. Filth was too often in the open. An untrained regiment would be strewn with sickness, while a trained one right beside it would have no sickness at all.
By our sleep beforehand and our unjust haste after we were waked up by the twister, we had done worse things. We had forced the little seventeen thousand into Cuba at the height of the fever season. Right after the surrender of Santiago, seventy-five per cent of Shafter's command, the majority of our entire trained forces were on the sick list. Had the Spaniard held out a little longer, he'd have had only a handful or none at all to fight. But he didn't hold out. And we had another miraculous escape. But the death toll went up. And over in the Pacific it went up higher. In the Philippine Insurrection that followed the Spanish-American War, we lost in two years over seven thousand men.
Sleep is a very soothing thing, isn't it? Quite necessary as a part-time job. But when we sleep all the time, our friends know that we are sick. When such a sickness overtakes a nation, how quickly it spreads into death. How suddenly it kills innocent persons, when the twister comes out of the blue and leaves us naked.
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Page updated: 18 Sep 20