by George G. King
was declared by Congress on April 25, 1898.
This is a collection of letters written home by George King, an American soldier who served in the Puerto Rican campaign during the Spanish-American War. At the outbreak of the War, King volunteered in the Sixth Regiment of Infantry formed in Concord, Massachusetts.
My home was in Concord, Massachusetts. It immediately became known that the Sixth Regiment, an infantry regiment which included the Concord Company, was to be called. There were a few vacancies in the Company, and I volunteered for one of them.
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 men--Ralph Waldo Emerson and Judge Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar--who had rendered similar service upon the departure of the Concord Company in 1861.
Three times in the month of April, and by a curious coincidence at intervals of exactly eighty-six years to a day, the Concord Company had departed from the Common for military service,--in 1689 to expel Governor Andros, in 1775 to take part in the first battle of the Revolution, and in 1861 for the defense of the Union.
We joined the rest of the regiment at Framingham.
Framingham was a familiar place for many of us. It was the site of the annual "muster" and we had spent many June weeks there. We found all of the accustomed conditions. The common wall tents with board floors large enough to accommodate seven men were already in place, the cook houses in operation. We resumed the usual routine.
However, there was a new atmosphere of expectancy. Other units were in camp, and in process of preparation for actual service. We had not yet been mustered into the National army. Our purpose at Framingham was in part to undergo the physical examinations and in part to receive additional equipment. The physical examinations, which we anticipated with a considerable amount of apprehension, were of two kinds. We became familiar with the process through the experiences of other companies in camp. The first test was an eye test. The general physical examination followed; it was hasty and superficial, but a certain amount of stress was laid on the matter of weight. This was in accordance with the stereotyped regulations of the regular army.
We were examined in squads of eight and were required to strip for examination. Being among the taller men, I was in the first squad; the average height was nearly six feet and our individual weight according to army standards should have been at least 168. We stripped and presented ourselves before the surgeon. We averaged not over 150. He looked at us comprehensively, shook his head, and laughed. We were an emaciated lot.
A general discussion followed--it usually did in the old militia days,--and all but two of us talked our way into the service although we were all distinctly under army requirements. I thought that the requirements were extreme, particularly for service in the tropics; two of the men most obviously under weight were the only two men in the company whose names never appeared on the sick book.
We had already begun to write letters, and always continued to write them. Letters were our only contacts with home. We wrote in all varieties of circumstances, and on any kind of paper we could get.
Camp Dewey, Framingham, Mass.
May 11, 1898.
No doubt before you get this you will have heard that we were all accepted, barring --, --, possibly --, and one or two others.
Tomorrow I go down on my knees, not in thankfulness but in the more practical occupation of washing my shirt. The handkerchiefs are very acceptable, and will relieve me of some bother, though it is likely that I may send them back when I come finally to pack up for the South.
We are certain to go somewhere soon. Before we go we expect to have thirty hours furlough (and $5 advance pay). If we don't, I shall come home on a pass, over night or Sunday. But I want my red sweater, and rather not wait till I can get out. So please send by mail or express, or by somebody coming over. It's pretty cold for May.
Visitors are plenty, too plenty for a military camp. It's a poor place for ladies,--must be, from the nature of things.
On May 12, 1898, we were mustered into the United States Army. There was some grim joking to the effect that we "were in for it now;" but no change in our routine.
Camp Dewey, Framingham, Mass.
May 15, 1898.
The boots came today,--through Mr. Emmott,--and are just the thing. In spite of the rain there has been a big crowd of Concord people over today,--Charlie Prescott and his wife, Mrs. Cook, the Emmotts, and a good many of the relatives of the Irish boys. I wish they would stay away. This prolonged good-by is getting painful.
We feel though that it won't last much longer. We are being issued our remaining equipment today, in a hurry, and it seems to be the general impression that we shall go in a very few days.
We went on our army rations last evening. They are wholesome but not over-abundant. We have two cooks in the company, and each man receives 4 hardtack, a piece of meat, a potato and a little coffee. Each man has his own tin dishes and has to wash them himself,--which detracts from one's appetite somewhat. That reminds me that I want you to mail me a small dish towel.
The change of food affects most of us a little, as it naturally would. I don't expect to be quite so vivacious for two or three days, until I can become accustomed to the diet.
Concord was only fourteen miles away. Fortunately this was before the day of automobiles. Of course we were delighted by the visits, but we thought that we were being taken too seriously. We were still a very long way from the enemy.
Our new equipment was an individual cooking outfit to be carried in the haversacks,--a tin cup, two tin plates, one convertible into a frying pan by virtue of a folding handle, a knife, a fork, and a spoon.
Camp Dewey, Framingham, Mass.
May 19, 1898
I supposed that by this time we would be well on our way to Virginia, but after a day of entire uncertainty, we are still here. The order to report at Washington came a day or two ago, and it was supposed that detailed orders in regard to transportation would come in time to enable us to get away today. We packed up everything in our knapsacks and got ready to the last particular. This afternoon we drilled with packed knapsacks, canteens, and haversacks, and expected every moment to be headed for the gate. But we are still here and no nearer a definite idea of what is to happen.
Mrs. Wheeler's tooth-brush cases and brushes were distributed this morning. I have been very busy looking after the company property. (The quartermaster went home to get married.) Altogether I have looked after 1480 pieces of property in the last three days. It has kept me busy, but that is better than lying in the shade of a tent, waiting for orders that don't come.
Everything goes well. Camp habits grow; there are fewer clean shaves and more dirty faces. We have long been reconciled to army rations.
Yesterday we had a surprise in the shape of a freezer of excellent strawberry ice cream. Ford was away. A friend of his brought in the freezer, and not finding Ford, gave it to a few of the select. Ice cream is always good, but here it tasted like something ambrosial.
Everybody is well. X was laid up for a day from over-work, but he is alright now. Everybody is getting used to the life, and there are fewer stomach aches.
Write as soon as we move, to I Company, 6th Mass. Infantry, Falls Church, Virginia.
Thenceforth I used "stomach ache" generically--and sometimes euphemistically--for any ailment below the belt. A "knapsack" was an obsolete contrivance dating from the Civil War, but ultimately replaced by the familiar "collar roll."
Mrs. William Wheeler gave each man a tooth brush in a compact celluloid case. It was an exceptionally useful and sensible present.
For the time being, I was assigned to do the work of the company quartermaster sergeant. This and various other tasks were probably assigned to me because I had had wide experience in the militia. When the war began I was a member of the Cadets, a Boston battalion which was not called for service; I obtained a furlough from the Cadets in order to go into the National service with the company from my native town.
Camp Alger, Falls Church, Va.
May 23, 1898
This is my first chance to write from our new and elegant residence on the soil of Virginia. I shall have a chance later on to write a longer letter describing our trip; it is certain that I sha'n't forget it, even if I wait a long while before writing. It was such a trip as I never expect to see again,--one long ovation from South Framingham to Washington. All through western Massachusetts, at Springfield, and Pittsfield, crowds met us and piled in souvenirs, food, and cigars. In return they grabbed all our buttons, and gave us an occasion to try sewing.
At Baltimore we marched in review, and got more cheers and grub. I never saw a prettier city or brighter, better looking people.
The trip was a hard pull on some of the boys. The Pittsfield celebration was an hour after midnight. Albany was reached at four, and with these and the smaller stations there was no chance to sleep that night. The next night we slept in the Southern R. R. cars after crossing Washington at eleven o'clock. I,--because I was wideawake,--fed out our supper to the other fellows,--carefully picking my way up the aisle to avoid stepping on those who were sleeping on the floor for want of seats. Yesterday morning,--after a three mile march through Virginia mud,--we went into camp in more Virginia mud, pitched tents, dug ditches, and spread our straw beds. The camp seems to be a good one, as ground generally goes, well drained, high enough, and fairly watered. We drink nothing but distilled water.
Last evening rumors got around of trouble to be made us during the night by a Pennsylvania regiment camped here,--a regiment of coal-miners, that has a pretty hard reputation.
They are jealous of us here because we are better drilled and better equipped. In the evening the rumors got more prevalent, and at eleven special guards were asked to volunteer. They gave our tent a first chance. We all wanted to go, but finally Johnny Anderson and Phil Davis, who had been transferred to us, were picked out. (So was I.) No scrapping resulted after all, but we had the fun of waiting for it. This morning -- who was out last night, and was due today for guard duty, overslept mount, and I went out in his place. I am just off now, and going downtown with Roy Whitcomb. Don't believe any stories of discomfort. Some of the boys are homesick and see the blue side of things, but they'll get over it. Everybody is well, and will be cheerful as soon as they get their sleep again. More in a day or two.
I omitted to mention that we were also given little bottles of liquor. No one got enough to do any harm, and it undoubtedly improved our rear platform speeches.
At Baltimore, notwithstanding the cordiality, we first encountered a hint of the Southern attitude. The regiment had a negro company officered by negroes.
At the train we were given fruit and pastry in individual boxes prepared by the Baltimore girls, who had written their names and addresses on the enclosed paper napkins. This circumstance laid the foundation for a flood of correspondence, with tragic results as you shall see.
I never saw a more desolate place than Dunn Loring, where we detrained. A drizzly rain was falling. We could see nothing but two or three dilapidated buildings huddled against a forest of scrub pine, into which disappeared a winding, rutty road,--all as grey and cheerless as the sky. Two lanky, bewhiskered natives, with their lanky dogs at their knees, sat on a log and watched us indifferently. For hours and indeed for days we had been feted and applauded and admired; this was a dismal contrast.
It seems foolish that a fight between two regiments in camp was really apprehended, but there were no military police, and no general guard; each unit shifted for itself.
Camp Alger, Falls Church, Va.
May 26, 1898
Letters came this morning. I want to answer your questions in regard to the camp,--particularly in regard to its sanitary conditions.
When we got here, Sunday morning, it was raining, and the ground that had been allotted to us was very muddy. All the soil down here is full of red clay, and in a rain it becomes very sticky on top, but drying up and hardening very fast when the sun comes out. The camp ground was in the muddiest condition when we got here,--luckily perhaps for us, because when it is dry and hard it is almost impossible to drive tent pegs or dig draining trenches. But the boys were all tired from their long car ride and walk, and in their disconsolate frame of mind the red mud on the slope where our tents were to be pitched was anything but inviting. Besides that, the water available for drinking purposes has to be brought more than a mile; for a day or two it was brought by hand, but now a wagon goes for it, and we have all we want. So now that the sun is out and the camp dry, and water is plenty and good, no one who is not homesick criticizes the selection of the camp ground. I think myself that it was particularly well chosen; tracts of land equal to the accommodating of 12,000 men are not plenty.
There has been very little sickness in camp, considering the acclimating and the change from civil to army routine. One man in one of the Ohio regiments died of a fever supposed to be diphtheria, which he brought from home. It has not gone any further. The 7th Ohio was exposed to measles in Columbus, and there are a few mild cases in the regiment, over a mile from us and about as likely to infect us as Sudbury is to infect Concord. In our regiment there have naturally been some colds, some indigestion, and a boil or two, but not a thing serious. My only complaint is that it makes me sleepy to an extent that sleeping from 9 till 5:30 don't seem to satisfy. Luckily our beds are made all the time. This is the truth; you can give any anxious mother the benefit of it.
Evidently stories had reached home that we were badly off. Well: it was not exactly like the Copley-Plaza, and complaints if made were not without reason. Rather suddenly, we were getting our first taste of hard living.
Camp Alger, Falls Church, Va.
June 1, 1898
I haven't much news to write,--because there isn't any,--but I don't suppose you can hear any too often that I am still getting fat and robust. I haven't had my turn of sickness yet, and sha'n't mind passing it; everybody seems fated to about a day of the dumps, part homesickness and part getting used to the change. We manage to tide each individual over his blues, and so far there haven't been any hard cases.
Today -- is up with indigestion. Don't tell anybody; he may not write home, and I shouldn't want it to get there through me. He isn't sick, and it would start an uneasiness out of all proportion. We took him up to the Hospital because it is a cool place to lie down,--better than our tent, which is a little muggy to lie down in a day like today. Outdoors there is always a cool breeze, but inside one feels the heat. The Hospital is on a hill, and always comfortable. X doesn't stand it very well. He has a headache every little while, and I guess he is pretty homesick. The Memorial Day telegram that the roll was being called was a touch of realism that was a little too much.
I am still busy. Within the last three days I have made out three payrolls and two muster-rolls, beside some odd orders and accounts. Harvey Wheeler was here last night, and William Wheeler and his wife are coming in a day or two. That reminds me that Mrs. Wheeler's purchases have turned out eminently useful.
The boys are getting boxes of grub from home. Don't try to send me anything. I have a well trained army stomach now, and I don't want to revive its recollections of more effeminate diet. But you might send me a new tooth brush.
These bookkeeping activities were a part of my new job as company clerk. The other part of the work was reading the Army Regulations. Orders had been issued for instructions one hour daily. The company adjourned to some shady spot in the nearby woods, where it was my painful duty to read and expound the regulations. Of course nobody listened, but as a rebuke to tiresome talkers Dennis Sheehan later coined the phrase: "Oh, go up in the woods!"
Camp Alger, Falls Church, Va.
June 7, 1898
We are all beginning to feel pretty certain that our regiment at least is to move somewhere--probably South--as soon as recruited. Yesterday day I was told by a friend of mine who had been over at the telegraph office that while he was waiting there he had got a glimpse of a telegram to a major in the 8th Ohio, which read to the effect that this Army Corps was to be moved to Porto Rico as soon as possible, and that Mark Hanna was authority for the statement. I have no doubt but that this telegram was seen by him there. Then a man in Co. A who is in some way related to Adjt. Gen. Corbin claims to have had the same information from the War Department. And this morning Butler Ames, our adjutant, told the first sergeants that within ten days probably we would go to a new camp at Fernandina, Fla., to be moved eventually to Porto Rico. He said that if we didn't go there it would be because we were going to the Philippines, which was a very remote possibility, but that in any event we would move as soon as possible after being recruited. So putting it all together, I begin to feel that our days here are numbered.
We sha'n't be much grieved. This is a stupid place, and is getting too crowded to be pleasant. Besides every time we move breaks the monotony of drilling. Then above all most of us want to go as far as anybody does.
Captain Cook starts home today to get the 128 men that our battalion must have. He will be gone a week. We are pretty curious to see who comes. They'll all be pretty sick, with homesickness and stomach ache. We had ten days' training at Framingham, and most of us have had our hours of discomfort. They will come fresh from the comforts of home, and have it all to stand at once.
I realize when I think it over how we have gradually hardened. Today we had canned salt beef for breakfast, as a luxury to take the place of the beans, which had been burnt and didn't seem to suit some of the fellows. But a little over two weeks ago we had a traveling ration of the same kind of beef, and many of the fellows turned up their noses at it in disgust. When we left Framingham there was a good deal of complaining because of the want of mattresses; the night before last we all slept on the hard ground or an equally hard board floor, and nobody seemed to have insomnia.
Sunday night and Monday brought down a good many victims. Saturday night I had a box sent me by the girls of Lexington, with a note saying that as they had no company themselves they wanted to turn to and help the Concord boys. Their box was a dandy, home-made candy, cake, bread, meat, sardines, cheese, about everything you can think of, but everything well chosen and wholesome. So the orgie began Saturday night. Sunday morning we squared away to eat up the barrels from Concord. Right in the middle of it we were told that the third battalion of the Sixth was detailed for exterior guard for twenty-four hours beginning at 4:30 P.M. Sunday. This meant a broken night and what little sleep we could get on the ground. The result was that by Monday noon there were about twenty stomach aches. None of them were alarming except -- who seems very likely to give out. I shouldn't want this repeated, but I can't see how he is going to stand it. He has had several attacks of indigestion, all severe, and knew before he came that he had a valvular heart trouble. For the robust, the life is invigorating, but for the frail it is something of a trial. I seem to be one of the robust. I was sleepy for a day or two, getting used to the hours, but now even getting up at 5:30 doesn't worry me.
The information available to the man in the ranks was very meager, and we grasped at straws, but on this occasion I was substantially correct.
Each Company was short thirty-two men of its full war strength. When war was declared, there were some professions of regret that the Company wasn't larger, and of ardent hope that there might be another chance later. Now the chance had come, and we were waiting with considerable curiosity to see if our various neighbors would redeem their declarations of eagerness to go. Some did; some did not.
Camp Alger, Falls Church, Va.
June 9, 1898
I wish that if I have any money that has come in over what has to be paid out, you would send it. It isn't imperative, but there is lots of chance to buy strawberries and milk; I am not much on sutler's pie. I should like some postage stamps too; they are very useful. It's late tonight, late for us who go to bed at nine. A heavy storm has just passed over, and we have spent most of the evening watching our ditches. They were all right,--luckily. Nothing has happened but the review,--watch the Herald for a cut of the colors and guard.
More in a day or two.
I was especially interested in the pictures of the colors and guard because I was on the regimental color guard. Apart from any distinction attaching to the detail, it was of practical value because it relieved me from ordinary guard duty.
Camp Alger, Falls Church, Va.
June 11, 1898
Your letter has just this minute come. It is very gratifying to me to find that in the general decrease in the amount of mail that we receive here, I suffer no more than the others. You know I help handle all the regimental mail now,--or perhaps you don't know. The Chaplain runs our post office department here, and has a man named Moore, a corporal in the Fitchburg Company who is a postal clerk, to do the real work. About a week ago I went over to help, and since then Moore and I have had a tent all to ourselves for an office. We distribute two regimental mails a day, sell stamps and frank soldier's letters. A week ago the average mail was perhaps 350 letters and parcels; now it has decreased fully one-half.
Thursday we received $16 state pay, and to meet the demand for means of sending money home, I suggested arranging to take the boy's money to Washington and get orders. The Chaplain told me to go ahead as I thought best. I went up yesterday with three hundred dollars, and brought back the orders in the evening. I had time to go to the Capitol and spend an hour or two with Billy Garland. He took me around the inside, and showed me Mark Hanna, Ben Tillman, and all the other big guns. Today we are collecting money again, but I don't expect to go up. I took the chance to eat a big dinner, and to buy a cheap set of light gauze underclothing at a closing out sale. Two shirts and two pairs of drawers cost me 96 cents; this is so cheap that I can afford to renew often if I want to.
I haven't started any money home yet. I am going to send twenty to twenty-five dollars when the U. S. pay comes, Monday or Tuesday. I don't need it all at once, and I do not feel safe with so much in my somewhat worn pockets. I am going to send another package of souvenirs and such things in a day or two; they seem to be valued in Concord.
In spite of our somewhat peremptory demand for candy, I don't want you to send me anything to eat. I don't know whether I've told you about our boxes Saturday,--I think I have, but it is a hard place to write letters with any system.* * *
But although I have access to all the civilized grub that I want, I should very much like to have you send me down about four handkerchiefs and some more of those cheap socks. Then I should like about half a dozen hooks and eyes, medium size, black, and my brown cadet trousers, if they can be mailed.
Tell papa not to consider any trip down here. It is far from being an easy place to travel to, and when he got here his chance to see me would be very limited. Then he might not be able to look at camp methods of living with the soldier's eye of faith. You see we have gotten used to it gradually, but to have it sprung on you all of a sudden might be a little jarring. Then above all there is nothing so hard as to see people only to have it emphasized that it is to be only for a moment. I think every visit from a Concord person has induced half a dozen attacks of homesickness.
Most of the boys are in good spirits,--all over their homesickness and stomach ache. I am still feeling very well indeed,--I tried to find a set of scales yesterday, but couldn't. But I know from my clothes that I am getting bigger. I had a shave yesterday,--the first in three weeks. I lost my goatee, but I couldn't part with my mustache.
We can't spend any more money for pies or lemonade. The authorities have ordered them all off the grounds.
I saw an interesting letter yesterday. It was written by a Union soldier in 1861, on these very grounds, when he was in camp here. The description of his situation didn't vary much from one I might give.
It looks as if Porto Rico is to be our eventual destination, with a stop at Fernandina, Fla., on the way. We may go in two or three weeks--I rather incline to think that we will, if equipped in that time. We have about exhausted this camp as a drill ground. I don't think any further change of climate will affect us.
I omitted one incident of my Washington trip. There was a sergeant--not Moore--who wanted to go to Washington to see his girl and urged me to take him as guard. So we went together and together bought the money orders. Thereupon he announced himself,--to the effect that he as a sergeant outranked me as a private, and that he would not go back with me. He appeared in camp the next day, passing the sentries on a pass he had borrowed from a quartermaster sergeant, and was ordered to his tent under arrest. Then came the trial,--charge A. W. O. L.; plea illness. The defendant took time to bring in witnesses and produced a whole bevy of Washington girls, all of whom affirmed that he had been the sickest man they ever saw. Of course there was an acquittal.
Camp Alger, Falls Church, Va.
June 15, 1898.
There still seems to be no news from the second call men. Like everything else in the army, their appearance seems to be delayed way beyond the schedule time. The extra men for the other regiments have been going by in disconsolate-looking groups for a day or two. We all go down to look at them,--hardly to welcome them. "Doc Turpin," who is the funny man of Company L, yelled at one group yesterday, "You better go back now; they haven't seen you." This is about the gist of the greetings they get.
We don't get any news about going South, either. Col. Woodward told one of the boys that we were going to move our camp to the battlefield of Bull Run, thirty miles from here. I don't believe it. I think our next move will be to some point in the extreme south, and I don't think that will happen for several weeks. It is going to be a long pull.
I hope my check got through all right. I am not going to send any more, because I am going to buy a $10 folding Kodak. I have already ordered it, and expect it today or tomorrow. Lots of pictures will be a good thing to have. The camera is about ten inches long, four inches wide, and an inch and a half thick,--when folded up. It carries twelve plates and takes a picture 2 1/2 x 3 1/2. I shall send the rolls of film home by mail,--undeveloped,--for Louise or somebody to look after.
The officers have let up on the drilling a good deal lately; I guess they are a little tired themselves. We have a new excitement in the competition between the companies to secure the colonel's orderly. Each day at guard-mounting the adjutant picks out the best dressed, most soldierly-looking private to be orderly at headquarters for a day. He has the whole guard to choose from, of course. Company F had it five days in succession, but yesterday we got it. It was the first time we had gone to the trouble of picking out a special suit and new leggings. Phil Davis was the man. Today we lost it again.
The mail is decreasing fast, but mine seems to hold its own. We are getting more used to this kind of life, and many of us have stopped the indiscriminate letter-writing that used to occupy our spare time with. X used to write and receive six or seven letters a day. I can't imagine what he found to say; every day is exactly like every other down here, weather, events, everything. I am at last entirely accustomed to getting only seven hours sleep, and feel wide awake all day. There is still an occasional stomach ache, but most of the acclimating is over with. There are a few sore arms resulting from vaccination. They examined us all and vaccinated those who needed it. I was glad I didn't seem to need it.
Company L was the colored Company. The colored boys had--and made--a lot of fun.
On the whole the camera was a success. I still have it, but I didn't carry it all the way. At Arecibo I was loading a train and had laid my haversack aside. When I slung it on again, the camera--containing a roll of exposed film--was gone. Three months later, when I was back at work in Boston, one of the line officers, dropping in for a social call, showed me some photographs of the regiment in Porto Rico. One, in particular, was a beauty. It was of the regiment in line before the cathedral in the plaza at Utuado, and was taken from the top of a nearby pillar. The regiment was in line before the cathedral only once; there was only one available pillar; and I had been the only person on the pillar. So I inquired if I could by any chance obtain a duplicate set of the pictures. I was told where they came from, called on the man, and got my camera back.
Camp Alger, Falls Church, Va.
June 17, 1898.
The evidences multiply that we are going in a few days, probably by Tuesday or Wednesday, to Fernandina. I get this from the quartermaster. I have a new job, in the Q. M. department, that will probably mean a steady detail. I shall give up my mail job for the better one.
Your mail scheme is a good one, but perhaps couldn't be carried out if we move. Then I doubt if there is anyone you could reach. Everybody from Concord is well looked after by his friends. If we don't move I will figure up who has been neglected, but as we probably will, I don't think it's worth while to bother.
We are having a holiday today, the seventeenth of June, and there are ball games and sports going on. We expect recruits hourly, but as yet none for this regiment have shown up. They come in all the time for the other regiments,--a hard looking lot. We are satisfied that a good many of the "second call" men are not coming.
We had our own ways of stimulating the mail. For instance, I struck up a very lively correspondence with the girl whose name and address were in my luncheon box at Baltimore,--we will call her Florence Pauley. According to the photograph she sent me,--presumably her likeness,--she was personally charming; but she was grieving her life away for pity of soldiers in general and (as she said) for me in particular.
One hot Sunday afternoon at Alger, Jimmy Hagerty asked me how I was going to kill the time. "Writing my Florence, I guess," I said languidly.
"Whose your Florence? I got a Florence, too," replied Jimmy.
"Where does yours live?"
"Where does yours live?"
"What's yours name?"
"What's yours name?"
So, inasmuch as Florence was so sympathetic about our individual health and welfare, and evidently impartial in her solicitude, we severally wrote her in kind,--that it was true that we--Jimmy or I, as the case might be,--were in great anguish of mind, because--in his case Jimmy Hagerty's tent-mate George King,--and in my case my tent-mate Jimmy Hagerty--was very low with fever and entirely out of his head.
I never heard from Florence again.
Camp Alger, Falls Church, Va.
June 23, 1898
I am going to take time enough to write you just a little, although time is awfully scarce article these days. I am very busy getting the quartermaster's accounts into business-like, compact shape in view of the possibility of moving. I have two clerks, working all day from about quarter past seven till supper. The system is wonderfully devised and very interesting. Incidentally there is a great deal of quasi-legal work in connection with interpreting the army regulations, and I have lots of fun this way.
I did manage to take a bath today,--the best I've had since I left home. We are waiting orders today; that is, we are to be in readiness to move, although we hardly expect to get started for a week. It cut us a good deal to see the Ninth go first, but we won't be far behind them. I guess it is to be Santiago sure enough, and then Porto Rico.
The Sheehans and the Collins came down today; all said "how very well you are looking." Well, I am, and feeling well, too. I still weigh 154 and keep my record for health. X is in the hospital with mumps, and we have a few stomach aches, as usual, but the general health improves.
In a day or two we are going to send a box of unnecessaries home. Mine will be in the bottom, in my rubber blanket, or whatever else is marked for me. The other fellows' things will be called for. A few dirty clothes that I used to stand on when I got out of the brook,--and don't think my towels are all as dirty,--a few souvenirs, among them a flag that come on the Lexington box. I want to keep it.
The Ninth was the Boston regiment. It had a terrible experience in the Santiago campaign and lost heavily from fever.
Camp Alger, Falls Church, Va.
June 26, 1898
We are still waiting definite news of when we are to go. It looks now as if we were to have nearly another week here. Tomorrow the regiment goes on a two days' practice march to the Potomac, 12 miles. They carry their entire outfit,--blanket, shelter tent, change of underclothes, canteen, haversack, gun,--sixty or seventy pounds. I don't have to go,--too busy at the quartermaster's. There will be plenty of walking for me in more tropical countries.
Ralph has applied for a seven days' furlough to attend his brother's wedding, and may reach Concord ahead of this letter. He is going to ask you to get me some good light drawers, as good and as light as you can get. I want to leave here with as nearly a completely new outfit as I can. I have ordered a new suit, new hat, drawers, shirts, and blue shirt, all for $7.50 which is deducted from my clothing allowance. I think that a good outfit now is of immensely more importance than the money when I get through. You can mail the drawers or send them by Ralph. I don't expect that the quartermaster will be able to get the drawers,--that is why I am sending home.
You have asked a good many times about my house-keeping arrangements. We wash our faces and hands in water that is drawn from one of the driven wells and kept in the company barrel. We take baths--two or three times a week,--in what the darkies call a branch, which is one size smaller than what they call a "crick," which is several sizes smaller than a good respectable New England sink drain. This is a slight exaggeration. The brook is wide enough, and big enough, but in this drought it gets pretty low, and we have to walk a long way to find clean water. Still, with such good wells to help out, we manage to keep immaculate. I have just had a bath,--not ten minutes ago,--and am writing on the bank of the brook. It is as cool here as fall at home, although in the regiment the thermometer is at 102. That is the delightful thing about this climate,--wherever it is shady there is breeze, and the air however hot it may be is always dry and fresh.
My clothes get a cold bath once in awhile, and a boiling once in a great while. But washing powder is very effective, and though I used to miss ironing, they are always clean. We have iron pails, and improvise scrubbing boards from planks by cutting parallel grooves like this-vvvvvv--. Our grub steadily improves. I stick absolutely to army rations now, although our canned goods aren't yet gone.
If you send a letter to me here,--or anywhere,--you better enclose some postage stamps. I should like enough money to buy a few more films. I want to carry five rolls when I go, and I have only three.
That practice march was the sum, substance and total of the regiment's service training. Otherwise it was "fours right" and "fours left" and once in a long while a deploying on the parade ground, but nothing more.
I think I exaggerated a little on the number of baths.
Camp Alger, Falls Church,
Va. June 30, 1898
I've just a minute before the morning's mail goes. We are in a tearing hurry now, balancing books for our quarterly return July 1. There are tremendous discrepancies that resulted from the confusion of the first few weeks, and my resources as a bookkeeper are pretty severely tested. On top of it all, Sweetser has been appointed acting Brigade Quartermaster, and has all the business of that office beside ours. He is arranging transportation for three regiments to Santiago, and carrying along supervision of supplies besides.
Our new recruits are a good lot. X is among them,--a pretty frail looking boy, too. Y was in regimental hospital last night with indigestion--nothing serious. I didn't go on the march, but those who did carne off well. It was a good deal of a strain. Poor – put in a night in the hospital with a touch of sun stroke. The heat was not so intense yesterday, but ran up to 114 a day or two ago.
The heat was terrific. One of our staff officers, who had a colored servant, used to lie on his cot, naked except for a sheet, and have the servant sprinkle the sheet with cold water; but down in the company streets we had no such expedients, and we were still wearing woolen clothing.
Camp Alger, Falls Church, Va.
July 5, 1898
You are probably in much the same doubt as we are in regard to our movements. Sunday night, after the news of Lawton's reverse reached Washington, we got oral orders from Brig. Gen. Garretson to move Monday to Newport News.
But with Monday came the news that the Americans had recovered all they had lost, and the order to move was never enforced. Today it is understood that the Eighth Ohio goes at once to New York to board the St. Paul, and that in a few days we are to go to Newport News and embark on the Duchess. This is a fair sample of the interminable rumors that are discussed here day in and day out. I have settled down into a position of calm resignation,--I am going to wait until I see the transport. I set my hopes on going yesterday,--which was very reasonable considering how very direct and unequivocal the orders were. Now that we didn't go then, I have begun to doubt our ever going.
Yesterday was a queer Fourth. We woke up with expectations of leaving, and were so occupied with that possibility that little was thought of celebrating. Then at noon the news of a victory at Santiago was officially confirmed, and the boys hunted up a few blank cartridges to celebrate. But the news of victory meant that the chances of our going away were a good deal decreased, and the celebration was far from whole hearted.
Last night I slept on a bed and mattress for the first time in months. I live in a tent that is used entirely by the q. m. sergeant and myself, and yesterday Andrews, one of the color sergeants, offered me the use of his folding bed. I tell you it was a luxury. I turned in about eleven, after a little evening lunch of sardines, planning to have several hours of perfect comfort.
It didn't take me long to go to sleep. When I woke up again it was still dark, and raining hard. Hackett was snoring away in his camp hammock, which was slung between two short posts braced by guys hitched to pegs in the ground. Our tent has never been ditched, and whatever rain came down hill would run through and loosen up the ground. It rained harder and harder; then there was a slump over in the other side of the tent, and Hackett found himself lying in a puddle a couple of inches deep. The pegs pulled out when the ground got wet. He was more than half asleep, and in his bare feet, and soaking wet, and mad way through, and the whole situation nearly killed me. I haven't laughed so hard for some years. He had to stumble round in the dark and find a hammer and a hammock pin, and finally we got peaceably to sleep again. But I had another laugh this morning when I saw his fresh, clean, new hammock with a big mud spot right underneath him.
We have a band; they are very much in evidence just now. Their practice is done in a tent next mine, and I can hardly hear myself think. I don't know what will become of them when we get to the front, but as far as I can see ahead they will be one of the important parts of the regiment. Especial efforts were made to get musicians among the new men, and apparently a few were smoked out, although I am assured by the Chaplain that there is almost no real orchestration,--or something like that,--which I interpret to mean that right between me and the Chaplain they are bum.
Capt. Cook reports everybody well and in good spirits, which is gratifying, I can tell you. He seems to have looked round a good deal and seen almost everybody.
The band had a repertoire of three numbers,--"Banks of the Wabash," "Coal Black Lady," and "I'll Make That Black Girl Mine," in medley, three times or more a day.
It did valiant service, however, lifting us over the last hard miles into Ponce. Route marching looks easier, but there is no stimulant for weary legs like a military band.
En route to Charleston, S. C.
July 5, 1898
We have started South,--as no doubt you have learned long before this. I am writing this on the train, just over the No. Carolina line. I hope that the rickety road bed and still more rickety cars won't make my writing absolutely illegible. Louise's, Minnie's, and papa's letters reached me just in time,--when we were standing at Dunn Loring waiting for the train.
Yesterday was a busy day. We didn't know,--for sure,--that we were going till about noon. Then we had to pick over our outfits, roll them up, pack our baggage and food, and march to the depot. Of course the Q. M. was the busiest man in the regiment. In spite of all he had to do he was about the most level-headed. His strength gave out in the middle of the afternoon, but he stuck to it until everything and everybody were aboard the trains, and the last I saw of him he was still running things manfully. As a rule, everybody was too rattled to pack a handbag,--to say nothing of packing three trains. I should say everybody in authority--the men were cool enough.
I did a hard afternoon's work loading the headquarters car. Then I joined the company, and am with them now.
Our train is old but comfortable. The fact that it's dirty doesn't bother us much. The commissary has learned from past experience how to feed us, and that with our fast decreasing fastidiousness makes our meals entirely satisfactory. Canned food is a god-send.
We didn't have a single sick man to leave behind. Everybody is in excellent health and spirits,--strong physically, well acclimated, and accustomed to army methods.
We shall be in Charleston two or three days probably. There we shall join troops from Chickamauga and be transported with them to Santiago. That seems to be the plan. We don't care much about the details. We aren't Readville soldiers any longer, and that's all we care.
If it is true,--as I hear,--that I am relied on to tell the truth about the boys, you can say that I never saw them better, nor ever saw a healthier, more robust company. Homesickness,--as a malady,--is a thing of the past.
Personally I haven't a thing to apprehend. I have everything I need, and not a thing else. I am carrying a woolen blanket, a rubber blanket, a canvas shelter tent (or rather my half of one), a change of fine underclothing, three or four pairs of stockings, one towel, a comb, a tooth-brush, my dishes, a little paper and a pencil, my camera, 48 films, and my brown trousers. It may weigh, altogether, 45 pounds, not a bit heavy to carry, and not a bit lacking of what I want.
I shall write again at Charleston,--after that, whenever I can. I have no doubt that the government will be as efficient in providing mail facilities as it is in providing everything else.
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 Porto 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.
The train was an improvement on earlier trains, in that we had plenty of room to sit down--of course we traveled in day coaches, and the journey required two nights and a day. We still wore woolen, but many of us had discarded our coats. Our overcoats had been turned in.
During the Civil War, a State camp was at Readville, and there were soldiers who never went further. The phrase had lived over thirty years.
The greatest joy of a soldier is to eat. At many stops, particularly at Columbia, South Carolina, we got watermelons as we had never had them before.
I gave up headquarters details and went back into ranks and the color guard. I had a foolish notion that when we went into action the colors--as in the pictures--would be carried in front.
Charleston, S. C.
July 7, 1898
We are at Charleston, waiting in the train for orders to embark on the Columbia. We begin to feel quite like an army; there are troops here from Wisconsin, Kansas, and Kentucky. I don't think it will be long before you hear from me again,--it can't be that the government will neglect to arrange for mail transportation. No one was weakened by the trip; we are all strong and in good spirits.
I was wrong; our ship was the Yale.
I think that this was a short letter because I was having a busy day.
We arrived--as I later learned--at midnight. In the morning the glad news came that we were to be paid for the month of June. The paymaster quickly disposed of us and the question of disposing of the money then became paramount. We hinted to the Lieutenant Colonel--who was a sympathetic soul--that after the long car ride we ought to stretch our legs, to which he agreed on the sole condition that we stay in sight of the cars.
So off we went. South Carolina was a so-called dispensary state, but we were advised that by joining a club we could get some beer. Various clubs were proposed, all on the basis of a ten cent admission fee, but out of loyalty to our home town, we chose the Concordia, and its membership book--if preserved--would contain a fairly good company roster.
In course of time, some of us went back to look at the train; it was still on the same siding, and with two or three companions I went up town to a music hall.
Early in the evening we went back to look at the train again. It had gone. We knew it had gone no further than the docks, and we went down on a street car, but too late--unfortunately--to escape notice.
We went to sleep on the plank floor of a dock, but I was soon sharply awakened. There had been a summary levy on the regiment for fifty or sixty men to load commissary supplies on a lighter for transfer to the troop ships; and our superiors thought that we who had relaxed during the afternoon in a music hall,--doing no harder work than a little dancing,--would be well fitted for the job.
In the midnight darkness we went to another pier and reported to a regular army captain. The rest of the detail were sleepily coming in from the other companies. On a nearby team track there were cars loaded with boxed and crated provisions; the lighter--an old, dismantled sailing vessel,--was tied up at the wharf.
A long plank had been placed as a runway from the deck to the lower hold; most of the men were ordered to carry the provisions from the cars to the deck of the lighter; a few more men took the boxes and "shot" them down the runway; and others stored them in the lower hold as they came down. But there was one post of particular distinction; somebody had to stand at the lower end of the long plank and catch the boxes; and the officer selected me.
The men on the deck observed that if the boxes came down fast and in quick succession they would get some amusement out of my receiving operations; and it was so. Mike Kelly never took them faster behind the bat, and the many missiles that I missed went bouncing back through the hold.
Ultimately the captain took pity on me and transferred me to the porter department. I made a trip or two to the freight cars, but I was diverted by a convenient cotton bale and lay down for a little nap. I had had no such comfort for weeks; when I awoke it was broad daylight, and the lighter with the entire detail on board was disappearing down the harbor past Fort Sumpter.
I knew that no roster had been made of the detail, and that I would not be missed. So I idled back to the company.
Off Cuba, July 11, 1898.
I hope that this can be mailed by the officers of the Yale when they get back for another load. We are coasting along the southern shore and shall arrive at the fleet anchorage off Santiago at about noon. The trip has been a dirty one, because we were so crowded, but the sea has been very smooth and there has been almost no sea-sickness. At Charleston, the Yale could not cross the bar and we were carried out in tugs and sea-going ferries. Then we lay to, and went up in long boats to the side. The sea was running pretty high at first, and the companion way could not be used,--they had to go up the side on a rope. This method didn't prove popular, and when the sea quieted they ran the lighters alongside and put a plank across. The ride down to the big boat, and the lying to, were too much for a good many stomachs, but the Yale is too steady to jar anybody much in such seas as we've had since. We have been through several very severe tropical thunder-storms, but they haven't kicked up any sea.
The first land we sighted was San Salvador,--doesn't it seem strange to be saying that?--then others of the Bahamas, and this morning the east end of Cuba was not a mile away. It is a wild, broken country, although the sailors say that the part we have seen so far is much less mountainous than the country around Santiago. It rises in terraces to a height of three or four hundred feet above the sea,--and here and there the cliffs are cut with sharp, deep ravines. Everything is green. The foliage seems to be a kind of shrubbery. Aside from a few fires, we have seen no signs of human life. The climate in this part of the world is different from anything I ever saw. The sky is never wholly overcast, nor ever wholly clear. Every few hours there is a pelting shower,--then hot sunshine. It never seems to rain at night. Most of us have slept on deck and not felt any dampness.
As a matter of fact there has been little choice in the matter of places to sleep. We have the steerage, and the deck. The steerage is poorly ventilated. In either place we sleep on the flooring, but that doesn't interfere with our sleeping well. The boat is not as clean as a regular man of war, and there has not been much chance to wash. Still, everybody seems well and in good spirits. Of course there are a few exceptions to both. X has the measles, and is to be sent back. Most of the fellows are well hardened and take good care of themselves.
The climatic dangers decrease as they get nearer. I don't believe it will be half as hot as it was in Virginia. The mail facilities will probable be ample. Whatever they turn out to be, I will write when I can.
To Be Continued
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