Spanish-American War: Letters of a Volunteer

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George Glenn King’s book, Letters of a Volunteer, captured my attention due to the connection and interest with my Puerto Rican history. I recognize and have visited many of the towns King describes in his book. My lineage consists of three major cultures.

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I am Taino Indian, Iberian, and African, the three cultures that make up the one identity of Puerto Rico. King’s book is comprised of many letters he would send to his family during the war. He describes in detail his experience of the Spanish-American war. With all the conflict the Spanish-American war brought, King’s writing provides a small window into the life of a soldier during that era. The 19th century was an important time in American history.

Many colonies were protesting to gain their own independence from the countries that controlled them. Cuba was the first to rebel against Spanish rule, which initiated the Ten Years’ War in 1868.  The uprising in Cuba was led by farmers and wealthy Cubans. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a sugar mill owner, made the Declaration of Cuban Independence and began the war of 68. Cubans opposed Spain’s slave trade. They wanted tax reform, representation in Parliament, and judicial equality with Spaniards. Not long after the Ten Years’ War, conflict broke out again, and Spain sent General Butcher Weyler to Cuba. His way of prohibiting the Cubans from defying the Spaniards, was to set up concentration camps. Because of the poor conditions in these camps, Cubans died rapidly due to infection and diseases. At the end of the Cuban war of Independence, America became involved into what is now known as the Spanish-American war. There are many reasons for why America got involved in the altercation between Cuba and Spain.

Yellow journalism was used to exaggerate current events in order to exploit the truth and alter Americans ideas of the war. William Randolph Hearst, and Joseph Pulitzer, owners of important newspapers in America, contributed many misleading articles to the load. They used powerful and graphic stories to fabricate the brutality of General Weyler in Cuba. They were also known for publishing letters ridiculing President McKinley, and sensationalizing the sinking of USS Maine. Another reason for America’s involvement was from their large investment in sugar in Cuba. The United States sent forces to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Spain. Different from other wars America has been in that was motivated by freedom or internal conflict, the Spanish-American war was purely for expanding United States territory to the Caribbean and the Philippines, and stripping Spain of their colonies. The Spanish-American war, was pretty brief only lasting around four months and was comprised of three major battles. The first, being the battle of Manila Bay in the Philippines, ended Spanish colonialism in the Philippines. A majority of the war was fought in Cuba in order to help the native people and avenge the deaths that occured on the USS Maine.

The battle of San Juan Hill was fought by the first volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders. They were composed of college students, cowboys, and Native Americans. The heaviest fighting in San Juan Hill was done by soldiers known as the Buffalo Soldiers. The battle of Santiago de Cuba ended the Spanish rule. During the Spanish-American war, the United States also invaded Puerto Rico. A small island only 108 miles long and 40 miles wide, it was one of Spain’s most prized possessions in the Caribbean. This invasion occured due to the request of prominent leaders in Puerto Rico to President McKinley and the Senate. They also provided invaluable information regarding the Spanish military on the island. The United States Navy were strategically stationed off the coast of San Juan. Spain engaged in a fierce firefight with the United States Navy. After a short four months, the United States defeats Spain and a Treaty of Paris is signed declaring the America as the protectorates of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippeans.

Cuba then is awarded independence. According to some historians, the Spanish-American War has had an on-going, as well as a long-lasting, effect on those countries that were somehow involved. For example, both Puerto Rico and the United States, as well as Cuba, Guam, the Philippines, and Hawaii, were all directly impacted by this war. In the book Extraordinary Americans,’ by Susan Sinnott (1991), Ms. Sinnott points out in the chapter entitled Remember the Maine: The Spanish American War and Its Aftermath’ that The Spanish American War was short but the results were far-reaching. The Spanish lost their holdings in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The United States was left, if not in control of the colonial empire, then at least in a much more responsible position than before. The end of the war pushed the United States into the world arenait was now a major international power.” (House of Puerto Rico, Lopez). This elaborates more on the effects and result of the war. On July 25, General Nelson Miles led an invasion of Puerto Rico, landing troops in Guánica on the southern coast. George G. King was a volunteer of the sixth regiment, a infantry regiment which included the Concord company which was stationed in Guánica. King published a book in 1928 with collection of his letters written home during the Spanish-American War. He states his letters are, constitute a faithful chronicle of the precarious experience of a volunteer soldier in that forgotten episode (Letters of a Volunteer, King).

King’s intent with the letters was to document his daily experience as a soldier, and to keep connected with the home he left behind. King writes in 1898, The week between enrollment and departure was lively with excitement, discussion, and enthusiasm. Then came the actual falling into ranks for entrainment to State camp. The company formed in line near the Wright Tavern, facing the Monument. We were surrounded by a throng of relatives, neighbors, and friends. These were speeches by the distinguished sons of the two great menRalph Waldo Emerson and Judge Ebenezer Rockwood Hoarwho had rendered similar service upon the departure of the Concord Company in 1861 (Letters of a Volunteer, King). Most soldiers find that writing and receiving letters are vital to their morale. When reading King’s letters, he was imparting information about the war, which offers a powerful and highly personable insight into the Spanish-American war in Puerto Rico. An example of this disclosure of the war is when King wrote, We don’t know what the news is from the front, but we don’t expect to get to Cuba in time to help take Santiago. I rather think we will go to Puerto Rico eventually. This is of course based on rumors, but on the kind of rumors that have been confirmed so far in substance every time. That would suit me first rate, but as I have said, I haven’t any marked preference. The climatic dangers are all big bugaboos, and once on hostile soil we can feel that we are doing our share. That’s all we want.         

Historians have often dismissed wartime correspondence as uninformative and overly sanitized. Censorship and self-censorship, it has been claimed, prevented soldiers from saying anything in their letters home that would allow civilians to comprehend, however imperfectly, the horror of war. There is some merit in this argument, but not enough to dismiss wartime correspondence as historically insignificant (International Encyclopedia, Hanna). There are several letters from King events which follows written historical events. For example, King writes, From our station we could see the top of Morro castle, and watch the warships steam up and down the harbor mouth, but not a hostile shot has been fired within our sight or sound. All sorts of rumors have come aboard, but our communication with shore has been very restricted,  and we know nothing. One day it was understood that the bombardment of Morro was to begin; the fleet formed, and we received orders to land west of the city. We were fallen in on deck, waiting for the fleet to move, when after much signalling among the ships, the news came aboard that Santiago had fallen, and the fleet sailed off to the east (Letters of a Volunteer, King). This information adds up with many other sources and documents about this battle. King seems acutely aware of yellow journalism, and how the newspapers disseminate false information. He states, We hear that five hundred of us have been killed. Of course none of you believe any such foolish rumor as that. Don’t believe any newspaper accounts of battles, because they can’t get them. You will never get a reliable account of an action except by mail, and if I run afoul of any I will write you all about it (Letters of a Volunteer, King). The American soldiers also lack information regarding the war. King writes, I heard that the whole of company I was going on guard, that Schley had reduced Havana, that Spain had thrown up the sponge, that San Juan had surrendered, and that Dewey had sunk three German vessels at Manila. We are pretty well out of the world (Letters of a Volunteer, King). 

King makes several entries regarding the different epidemics affecting the soldiers. In fact, more soldiers died from disease during the Spanish-American war than sustaining death or injury due to fighting. The inhabitants shouted Viva Americanos’ till our ears rang. It wasn’t very gratifying; they were partly afraid of us, and partly after our good American money. Still, there is a large element, particularly noticeable in the villages and among the poor, who long for American rule. The stories they tell of Spanish atrocity are awful (Letters of a Volunteer, King). This reflects how his letters are written from an American perspective and doesn’t include the perspective of others involved in the war. The letters may have a temporal intention, but they also serve to inform the future.      

 History is rarely objective and can be influenced by human opinion. Letters are key to providing a personal experience in historical events. One room is a kitchen, with a native stove. These stoves are made of masonry. They are built against the wall, like benches, and just about as high. At intervals of a foot or so, there are little ovens opening in front and on top, with iron gratings on top. They are all connected by a flue. The ovens themselves are perhaps 6 inches square. The smoke comes out into the room and rises to a big vent hole in the masonry wall of the house. In these ovens I build charcoal fires and cook my rice, and my eggs, and my milk toast, using my army frying pan and dipper (Letters of a Volunteer, King). These details of personal experience provide context that most of society or any journalist would not be able to document in their newspaper. Letters written by American military men during the Spanish-American War were bountiful; but in the case of Puerto Rico, there are only few surviving examples. Their content reflected the overwhelming fighting spirit that characterized the pro-war propaganda of the US press: “Peace never makes men great…. It is war, conflict, terrible war, terrific war, that makes men. Peace decays, repose destroys, ease kills. Better a thousand times your boy or lover should die with a bayonet thrust than that his energies and talent should go into decay for want of exercise. This war may be his opportunity” (qtd. in McCaffrey 24).

King presented his personal views, not only voicing his own opinion of the handling of the Puerto Rican Campaign but also, most importantly, communicating the earliest recorded positions of dissent against a war that Americans fought under humanitarian claims (South Atlantic Review, Ocasio). King was a soldier who fought in the Spanish-American war. He becomes a sergeant in the war, and documents his life as a soldier. He describes the training he receives, the lean diet and physical hardships of fighting in Puerto Rico. He states, The life we had been living was a terrible strain. I had been going as much on my nerve as anything else. When a chance came, I slept and squared up; but when it didn’t come I lived on my nerve. Just how long I could have done it I don’t know; luckily better quarters and news of peace came while I was still well within my strength. I slept all day for about two days and felt cheered up. Luckily there hadn’t any fever settled on me. I never was much on fever. But some of the fellows,all undergoing the same unnatural strain ever since we stepped aboard the Yale,hadn’t strength to stand it and among them the climatic ailments are making fearful havoc (Letters of a Volunteer, King). There is no reason to believe the letters King wrote were altered at a later date. The letters reflect his lived experience of the war.

One experience he writes, Our march from Ponce was an eventful one. I wrote you from Adjuntas. We stayed there a day,the wettest, muddiest, dirtiest day I ever lived. In the morning we started for the north again. Our wagons were left behind, with the Sixth Illinois and our third battalion to guard them. The rest of us, followed by the pack-mules, marched 18 miles to this town. The march was through fords, up mountains, and through passes so narrow that two men could scarcely walk abreast, with almost vertical cliffs on one side and almost vertical precipices on the other. I never conceived of such magnificent scenery. It was a hard march, but the regiment stood it wonderfully. I can’t believe, now, that we walked half of 18 miles, but the authorities are positive (Letters of a Volunteer, King). King does not give any indication of what his prior occupation or social standing prior to joining the army. King wrote these letters to his family, but it is unknown if the family shared it with others in their community. It’s difficult to discern if the letters actually altered history. Historians and literary critics have traditionally examined printed data, mainly newspapers’ coverage, produced during the Spanish-American War. This essay makes use of another type of war-related document: personal letters produced by a soldier during the military raid of Puerto Rico. In Letters of a Volunteer in the Spanish-American War (published in book form in 1929), George G. King documented Puerto Rico’s invasion, officially known as the Puerto Rican Campaign. King’s letters are of great importance as tools for a revisionist reading of Puerto Rico’s military takeover during the convoluted events surrounding the Spanish-American War (South Atlantic Review, Ocasio).

This article by Ocasio acknowledges how important King’s book, Letters of a Volunteer, yielded a greater insight into the Spanish-American war in Puerto Rico. King’s reality of the Spanish-American war opens up a whole new perspective to how we analyze and learn about that war. I have been to Castillo San Cristí?bal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the sites that were fired upon by American war ships during the Spanish-American war. I was a child at the time of my visit and unaware of the historical significance of what I was seeing. Researching King’s book, Letters of a Volunteer, has allowed me to understand and appreciate Puerto Rico as I continue to explore my heritage. Through greater understanding, I am better prepared to share my passion for the people and island of Puerto Rico.

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